I have always been a fan of online shopping. When I was in college, I would order things when I was in class and have them delivered on the same day, so I would get them as soon as I got home. To me, it feels like I am shopping even though I am physically in a classroom. That feeling came with me to the United States. I order almost everything from Amazon, from items as small as toilet paper to things as big as a TV. Buying stuff online not only saves me time from actually going to stores but it also gives me a Christmas-like feeling because the goods arrive in boxes. Even though I know what is inside the boxes, I still feel excited when I am opening them.
What's more important than the “surprise feeling" is the actual reason why these boxes exist. They are essential to the age of online shopping because they are the objects that protect our products from the process of transportation, contain our wishes, and carry our needs. They endure the hits, the crashes, and the weight that's been stacked on them to make sure whatever inside remains safe and sound, even if that means getting torn, punctured or ripped. Without boxes, what we mail to one another would become damaged before it arrives at its destination. But just like most human-produced products, as soon as their mission is completed, their life ends. They get flattened and piled up against the corner of a garage, deep inside the storage room or even left on the sidewalk in a stormy raining day (which is also what happened to the boxes I received). I keep almost all of the boxes I get, (despite not knowing if I will use them in the future or not) because I feel like they are worth more than just being used one time. But as time goes by, I started realizing that the pile continued to get larger and larger – the boxes are just collecting dust in the corner of my storage area. I wanted to give them a new life using the power of art and make people rethink the importance of them.
My plan for this project has always been straightforward: make an interactive sculpture using the boxes I’ve collected and to serve the purpose of being the inspiration that changes people's point of view towards boxes. I didn't improve the physical appearance of the box; I wanted it to look like what we as consumers are used to, a regular cardboard box that we receive from online shops every day. I decided to use an Amazon “A1” box, which has dimensions of approximately 25cm*18cm*8.5cm and makes it accessible to adults as well as small children. Amazon is the biggest online retailer, which theoretically make their boxes the most common and familiar boxes on earth. This also makes it closer to most people's living experience, because it is the kind of box that most people would be familiar with. In other words, potentially the easiest type of box for people to connect with. It is also a representation of modern consumer culture. The small size of the A1 box is also a consideration for the interactiveness of the device.
My original thought was to create a musical instrument-like device, of which the musical noise will change in response to people’s input. The more people move the box, the more complex the sound will be. In this case, I needed a motion sensor and a speaker. I also needed a board/device to run code that triggered sounds using the data from the motion sensor. I wanted it to be a standalone device that makes noise on its own without any cables, so I needed something that runs on a battery. Fitting in the hardware was a difficult proposition. As mentioned above, the A1 box is approximately 25cm*18cm*8.5cm, which is a decent amount of space, but considering that people might treat it with a strong force, I had to relegate some space to padding materials, which takes up more than 60 percent of the space. Fortunately, I ended up using an iPhone SE as the brain for this project. It had almost everything ready to use in this compact package, and all I needed to do was to write an app that runs on it while it's in the box.
The final version of the code running on the iPhone SE
Prototype & User Testing
After deciding to use an iPhone SE as the primary interface, I started to learn how to write an app to achieve the result I wanted. I worked with Zach Lieberman, a digital new media artist, and creator of openFrameworks. He gave me a lot of advice during the process of creating the first version of the software. It is a pretty simple program that plays sound clips according to the data from the accelerometer of the phone.
When making the first prototype, I created a few clips of looping synthesizer-based music. Starting from a simple calming mid-range chord in a soft volume when there is no movement, more clips of broader range notes (including both low and high frequencies) are played when the movement of the phone increases. These clips will add on to each other and form a thick and anxious chord when the iPhone is under intense movement. The volume is also increased along with the complexity of the sound. The theory behind this prototype design is that the soothing sound stands for calm and relaxed breathing, and the complex chord is like the complaints that the box makes when it is abused.
However, when I was doing user testings with this version of the app, I discovered a few downsides of the design. Since I was using the built-in speakers on the iPhone, the lower and higher frequencies weren't reproduced correctly, making them inaudible. People often could only distinguish the change of volume, but not the complexity of the change in frequencies in the sound. What was worse was that they didn’t seem to relate the volume change to the box's complaints towards the way it was treated.
After gathering the feedback from the first version, I started thinking about changing the sounds. I realized that this is one of the most unnoticed objects I have chosen within all of my recent projects, which means it has to be more direct. I decided to make the sound feedback easier to understand -- using verbal reactions. The closer the responses are to human speech, the easier people will read them the way they were intended. I selected three cartoon-like voice sound clips saying "What," "No," and "Ouch." Each of the sounds is played when the movement exceeds a certain threshold. When it's been moved from a static status (for example, when someone picks it up from the table), it says "what." When the movement is intense enough to make the box felt uncomfortable, the box says “No.” Eventually, when there is a tough impact on the box or a strong shake, it will say "Ouch" to protest the situation. Just as I expected, people liked this version more. They said it made them think about boxes more than they had before. I've also received multiple notes of feedback saying that the project is cute because of the sounds, which made it more attractive to people.
From the feedback, I knew it would be interesting to show this project in a gallery space. I showed it in Fresh Media 2019, and I set it up in such a way that it doesn't look like an art piece. I stacked a few larger Amazon boxes as the base instead of using a traditional pedestal, and I arranged them as if they just arrived from shipping and have been randomly stacked on their sides. I then put the small box on top of the base, and applied a "Handle with care" sticker on the small box, hinting to people that they can "handle" the box to interact with it. Then I wrote a show label for it:
Boxes are essential to the age of online shopping. They are the ones that protect our goods from the process of transportation, contain our wishes, and carry our needs.
They endure the hits, the crashes, and the weight that's been stacked on them to make sure whatever inside remains safe and sound even if that means getting torn, punctured or ripped. Without boxes, what we mail would not stay intact when arriving their destination.
But just like most of the products produced by humans, as soon as their mission is completed, their lives end. They get flattened and piled up against the corner of a garage, deep inside the storage room or even left on the sidewalk in a stormy raining day.
They are strong existence that deserves attention. So why not listen to what they are saying?
Interact with the small box on top, please handle with care.
THE COURIER at Fresh Media 2019 Show
The two most apparent hints here are “listen to what they are saying” and “please handle with care.” The first one indicates that this is a piece that will make sounds, while the latter suggests that people pick up the box — with a slight twist. People in a gallery will usually follow the listed instructions, but in real life, even if we put “Handle with care” or “Fragile” on boxes, there is still a high chance of them being abused during transportation. People would have to imagine themselves as a delivery person and shake the box intensely or hit it hard to hear complaints other than “what.” As expected, people treated it with care until I explained the twist to them. Another interesting phenomenon that happened was that some people completely ignored the piece when they visited the gallery. The stack of boxes is so inconspicuous that people thought it was nothing but a part of the environment. People don’t connect the boxes to art because they are so common in our lives, which made them invisible when they are laying around. This is exciting because this is precisely the reason I started the whole project. Whether it is to change people’s point of view or to amuse people, the primary purpose of the project is to remind people that boxes are what make our convenient online shopping life possible.
People interacting with the box
Just like some of my projects earlier, I used an object as an entry point of a concept. Using a familiar object allowed me to include layers of meaning into the interaction. On the surface, it is simply about boxes being an existence which has the main job of transporting other stuff and be disposed of soon after their mission is accomplished. On the deeper side, this can extend to the way we treat all kinds of projects in our daily lives. Another great example is the single-use utensils. We use up so many single-use utensils in a day that they have become a part of the food take out culture. But people seldom think about the short lifespan of these objects and how much waste they create.
After interacting with my piece, people often have a lot of thoughts, some similar to other people’s and some very unique. I think that is an interesting part about making a thing for people to interact with, whether it is art or design. We as the creator never know what people would actually think about it until they tried it out.
iPhone SE, Amazon Boxes
Custom openFrameworks iOS app
Fresh Media 2019