Soft Array: Exploring 'Universe' with 80 touch screens

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It might resemble a spaceship command centre straight out of the latest Star Trek movie, but Soft Array is actually an art installation showcasing the epitome of an interconnected devices experience, with no less than 80 Windows 8 touch devices set up over multiple structures with a programmable environment - so anyone can come and play around with it, build on it and hack it.

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Soft Array was created by design studio Arcade for Microsoft. Arcade and Microsoft invited a number of designers and developers to build apps for Soft Array's debut at SxSW Interactive, one of which was London based design agency, Weapon7. We spoke with Michael Naman, Head of Creative Technologyto find out more...

"Universe is an app that uses distributed processing to control mass particle flow across 80 Windows 8 devices - it was part of an installation featured in Microsoft's Windows Studio venue at SXSW Interactive. What you see on screen is a single planet with asteroids orbiting it and flying across the galaxy. There was a poll asking SXSW attendees what their preferred topic of interest is at the event, each topic is colour coded. The colour of the last vote made is represented in the planet and the asteroids orbiting it. Users can interact with the planets and influence their behaviour.

The chance to do something technically challenging and innovative with Windows 8 at SXSW was too irresistible to miss. It's been fantastic to bring our front-end knowledge of web technologies to native Windows 8 applications. We wanted to use Windows 8 to show connectivity in a totally new way, engage with people and see everyone get involved. For example, as well as using the networked devices, the app uses features like live tiles Share to draw users back into the experience.

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We needed to show how each device was able to seamlessly communicate with each other, as Windows 8 does from smartphone to tablet to computer. The way we did that was with distributed processing. Each time an asteroid left one screen it appeared on the other. The processing for each asteroid switched from machine to machine rather than coming from a single computer and linked up to multiple screens. You could see this connectivity visually as the asteroids flew across the galaxy.

It also needed to have a reason for being, which is why we asked people to vote which topics they were interested in at SXSW. The more dominant a colour, the more people there that were interested in that topic.

The designs for Universe came from three places:

  • Windows 8 itself, especially the colour scheme and live tiles
  • Constellations, both as they appear naturally, and as constellation maps
  • The structure (called the Soft Array) also had geometric shapes around it

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The user journey was exceptionally important. It needed to be something beautiful that people could appreciate from afar, and something that people could engage with directly. So we decided to use a bold, colourful approach to its design to attract people in to engage, and if they didn't want to do that they could still appreciate its aesthetics. Once they were at a touch device we knew people would want to move things about and make it their own in some way. So we made as many aspects as possible interactive, so it was something you could touch and play with. We made the planets moveable, users could also change their size and affect their gravitational pull. The direction which the planets launched out asteroids could also be manipulated to create completely different shapes and pathways on the installation.

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Why Windows? We ran the numbers, and the potential is incredible. We hadn't developed on the Windows 8 platform before, so our Head of Creative Technology, Michael Namen, and his team had to learn the coding language in a matter of days. We thought it would be complicated and clunky, but it turned out to be very straightforward. Visual Studio was actually very good to work in, having never used it before. Windows 8 is really quite intuitive, and when they say it's built for touch that basically means it does what you think it will do when you swipe etc. We were able to show high res imagery, and users were able to seamlessly come out of our app, explore Windows 8 and the other apps being showcased. We knew people might do this so our app automatically saw any device no longer on our app as 'space', which the asteroids could still pass through.

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We were given a number of Samsung Windows 8 development tablets from Arcade to create and test the app on. We only had two weeks to create and design the app from scratch, so testing was done as we went. We were surprised at how quickly you can build stuff, and how little there is to learn with regards to Windows 8 native development with web technologies.

The app was really well received at SwSW. People engaged with it as we had expected, either choosing to stand back and view it as a whole, or coming closer to play around. Because the asteroids could travel quite far we saw people moving from tablet to tablet trying to make them all follow a specific pathway, like a figure of 8 for example.

We're always looking to push ourselves and explore new technology; mobile app development is a part of what we do. Building a Windows 8 app let us explore the platform for ourselves, develop new skills, and bring an idea to life. Plus the interconnectivity was interesting to concept around. We're now actively pursuing it as an option for our clients.

- Read about the winners of the Soft Array competition, Clusta, and their Beatbox app

- Find out how Bevel Studios engaged people with their Four Seasons app for Soft Array

- Hear from competition entrants Laurie and Chloe who built an Augmented Poetry app for Soft Array

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