Diri – the actuated helium balloon: a study of autonomous behaviour in interfaces

As the sophistication of ubiquitous computing technologies increases, with advances in processing power and decreases
in size users are being confronted with increasingly intelligent interfaces embedded in everyday devices. This raises
an interesting challenge to consider how people might perceive and respond to technologies that demonstrate such advanced functionality. In this paper we try to further unpack what autonomous behaviour in interfaces might actually mean for human-computer interaction and how it is experienced by people. People’s relationships to actuated objects have
always been exceptional in comparison to inanimate objects, it has been demonstrated that we find autonomous machines
‘fascinating’ and ‘engaging’. We feel quite comfortable in describing mechanical processes in terms of social behaviour and reasoning that such technology has an intention and motivations. There is much to explore about the design decisions that drive people to regard an autonomous, interactive system as a social agent and lead them to react in certain socialized ways.
BALLON_PIC1_Bildgröße ändern

To capture and comprehend perceptions of autonomy and embrace human social responses, we designed, developed and deployed actuated helium balloons with attached electronics that fly autonomously, supporting high-res cameras to take pictures or collect video footage. The purpose of these devices is simply to document the space (which might serve a variety of potential user functions). We were speculating around how perceptions of a camera interface change as soon as it is actuated. In an age made remarkable by the rise of unmanned aerial vehicles for military use, could flying objects also be designed to become our companions? See the video here:

We made an instructable on how to build a Diri:

School in the Cloud web platform

The School in the Cloud combines SOLEs and the Granny Cloud together through seven experimental facilities funded by the TED prize. In addition, countless teachers around the world are using SOLEs in various forms. Made by Many developed the first version of the website for the School in the Cloud project, which is expected to help the global effort. This was funded by Microsoft and TED. In October 2014 the platform was handed over to the Digital Intercation Group, Culture Lab who are managing the next stage of its development.

The development of the platform provides a number of significant opportunities for high impact research in and across the disciplines of Education, Computer Science and Human-Computer Interaction. Over the next five years, the School in the Cloud research team will harness these opportunities to produce world-leading research on topics including, computer-mediated and technology-enhanced learning, online communities of practice, online pedagogy, and provide digital novel tools to support the future of learning.

Automated detection of health and welfare problems in pigs



Subclinical & clinical disease are the main factors responsible for pig system inefficiency, resulting in reductions in productivity and pig welfare. Currently, disease detection is done through human observation or diagnostic surveillance, but continuous monitoring involves significant costs and effort.

Subclinical diseases manifest themselves as subtle changes in affected pigs, typically before clinical signs are observable. Subclinical disease will affect growth trajectories and result in atypical activity, including reductions in feeding and drinking behaviour, and reduced social interaction with other pigs.


The main objective of the project is to develop and validate technology to automatically monitor performance and behaviour in growing pigs. Individual pig and group movements will be automatically captured and analysed using low-cost camera installations and computer vision and learning techniques, thereby providing information about pig performance, behaviour and group dynamics.

This information will allow for rapid intervention by farmers, in order to improve health and welfare and increase farm efficiency.


The project brings together the following industry partners;

  • Zoetis, a global animal health company that deliver quality medicines and vaccines, complemented by diagnostic products and genetics tests.
  • Raft Solutions Ltd., the UK’s leading livestock veterinary practices that delivers market-integrated livestock innovations and research in sustainable food production.
  • Innovent Technology Ltd., the UK’s leading designer of agriculture software solutions, including herd performance monitoring and slaughter analysis.
  • Harbro Ltd., a leading animal feed manufacturer who provide on-farm nutritional services and technical support.
  • School of Agriculture, Food & Rural Development at Newcastle University, the UK’s leading centre for research into pig science.
  • School of Computing Science at Newcastle University, experts in computer vision and pattern recognition.

Web page

Duration: 1st October 2014 – 31st March 2018

Funding: Innovate UK and BBSRC (£1,212,780)

Researchers: Thomas Ploetz, Ilias Kyriazakis (School of Natural and Environmental Sciences), Stephen Matthews, Amy Miller (School of Natural and Environmental Sciences), Hillary Dalton (School of Natural and Environmental Sciences).

Collaborators: Ann-Marie Okocha (Zoetis), David Barclay (Innovent Technology Ltd), Kevin Stickney (Harbro Ltd.), Sophie Throup (RAFT Solutions Ltd.)

CuRAtOR: Challenging online feaR And OtheRing


Cultures of fear can be spread, either deliberately or otherwise, by a wide range of agents including the media, government, science, the arts, industry and politics. The ease of which fear can be generated means that today’s society remains inordinately fearful of improbable harms and dangers. A good deal of societal fear stems from mistrust of ‘the Other’: a term used to describe individuals or groups that are, quite simply, ‘not like us’. In this project, we explicitly explore this notion of ‘Othering’ as it occurs in situations where ‘the Other’ are seen as “anomalous,” “peculiar,” or “deviant” and hence negatively perceived, stigmatised, excluded, marginalised and discriminated against. There are significant unanswered questions regarding how acts of Othering translates into effects on real populations and in real contexts, and what role online digital media can have in propagating cultures of fear and mistrust. With online social media, no longer is fear delivered exclusively in a top down manner, (e.g. from government and the mainstream media). Instead it is now also delivered from the grassroots level and therefore insidiously present in the user-generated social data streams that we absorb from our encounters with the web, and, in particular, with platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

The focus of this project are the cultures of fear that are propagated through online Othering and how this leads to subsequent mistrust of groups or communities. Our research will generate an understanding of how the deliberate design of online media services and platforms can influence and oppose cultures of fear and result in cultures of empathy that can actively, and strategically, reduce or eliminate mistrust and negative consequences of Othering. We will actively collaborate with stakeholders to co-design new digital services that facilitate wide-scale empathy with specifically chosen often-Othered groups. This will include active collaboration with broadcast media organisations to develop a range of interactive, digital online experiences delivered alongside traditional media. We will also undertake online ethnographies and data collection, where prior or existing activities have portrayed a group in ways that actively provoke Othering as evidenced through discourse on social and traditional media; in this instance we will design and deliver a set of digital services to counter this in a deliberate manner.

Date: August 2014 – August 2017
Funder: ESRC (EMoTiCoN) £110,000 (Newcastle).
Researchers: John Vines.
Collaborators:  Shaun Lawson (Lincoln – PI), Julie Barnett (Bath), Karen Salt (Aberdeen), and Vanessa Pupavac (Nottingham).

The Trust Map

TheTrustMap-002Digital resources are powerful tools that can aid in the process of community building. In this project, we are exploring the ways in which trust (and legacies of mistrust) can lead to social exclusion and power imbalances within minority communities in the UK. While many of these issues have been examined separately, no previous research has examined in detail the relationships between trust, mistrust, power and the role digital technologies may play within communities in mitigating or reaffirming these issues.

This project examines the ways that trust (and mistrust) can lead to social exclusion and imbalances within minority communities in the UK, using both large-scale data analysis and community-based interaction. A significant amount of our work will be based in Haringey, North London, a site where there has been significant issues related to community trust and mistrust in recent memory and where there are significant challenges facing its residents and local authorities in the future related to the sustainability of state provided housing and its redevelopment. Through a combination of ethnographic fieldwork,  community workshops and cooperative design activities, we will develop a set of situated technologies to be used by community members and project partners to capturing local insight in relation to mapping community trust and perceived centres of power. The final product of these exchanges and the data collection is the design of a ‘Trust Map’—digital visualization prototype of trust at the scale of locality, community and nationally. By investigating the interplay between trust, power, and empathic behaviour between communities and social (in)equality, the project tests the potential of online resources for mitigating social injustice.

Date: July 2014 – July 2017
Funder: ESRC (EMoTiCoN) £22,000 (Newcastle).
Researchers: John Vines.
Collaborators: Karen Salt (Aberdeen – PI), Emma Flynn (Durham), and Jo Briggs (Northumbria).

Loneliness in the Digital Age


Loneliness is one of the most significant challenges facing Western society in the 21st century. Not only does research suggest that 1 in 10 people are lonely, our radically transforming society threatens to make the situation significantly worse. Increasingly large proportions of our lives are being lived in online environments, more people are now working from home, away from the social environment of the communal office, and workers are commonly expected to work away from home for protracted periods of time. The creation of a borderless Europe has also contributed to a more mobile workforce, where working away from home for periods of time is no longer unusual, especially for younger people. While much of the previous research on loneliness has focused upon chronic loneliness, it is this new breed of the ‘transient lonely’ that is more vulnerable to episodic periods of loneliness and it is the episodically lonely who are less likely to take steps to deal with bouts of loneliness.

LIDA seeks to map different experiences and responses to loneliness in both online and offline environments and, through the use of co-design and creative methodologies, explore the potential for creative interventions in online environments to help manage periods of loneliness by harnessing empathy for, and with, others. We intend to work with three temporarily separated groups, which are provisionally: (i) migrant workers moving to the UK for employment; ii) young offenders who are being reintegrated into their communities, and; iii) personnel who are stationed temporarily overseas). By engaging with members of these communities throughout as co-researchers and co-designers, this project will establish new ways of using digital technology to address these emerging social issues. We will also look to explore what commonalities these groups have in how they experience and manage moments of loneliness in their everyday lives, and examine individual differences in how the home, the workplace, and the objects and people surrounding our participants influence these.

Date: September 2014 – August 2017
Funder: ESRC (EMoTiCoN) £130,000 (Newcastle).
Researchers: John Vines.
Collaborators: Mike Wilson (Loughborough – PI), Julie Barnett (Bath), Manuela Barretto (Exeter) and Shaun Lawson (Lincoln).

Making 3D Printed Objects Interactive

m3dThis project explores an approach that allows designers and others to quickly and easily make 3D printed objects interactive, without the need for hardware or software expertise and with little modification to an object’s physical design.

With our approach, a designer simply attaches or embeds small three-axis wireless accelerometer modules into the moving parts of a 3D printed object. A simple graphical user interface is then used to configure the system to interpret the movements of these accelerometers as if they were common physical controls such as buttons or dials. The designer can then associate events generated by these controls with a range of interactive behaviour, including web browser and media player control.

The Making 3D Printed Objects Interactive Project is a collaboration with Thomas Nappey, Peter Wright, Patrick Olivier and Steve Hodges (Microsoft Research, Cambridge).

On The Precipice

This Creative Exchange project explored how situating digital fabrication within a souvenir-making activity can enrich audience experiences of cultural events and engage visitors in discussion and reflection upon their experiences. Giving the visitor the possibility to reflect on their experience also enabled the arts organisation to gather valuable insight into their audiences’ experience allowing them to better understand the experience they are providing.

BigM-for web2

In conversation with our partner organisations, ISIS Arts and Chris Newell (University of Hull), we developed a series of fabrication activities that offered visitors the opportunity to create their own personalised souvenirs based on their experience of the Big M, an inflatable, mobile exhibition venue housing a touring programme of immersive film installations titled On The Precipice. 


This project was AHRC funded through The Creative Exchange and was developed in collaboration with ISIS Arts and Chris Newell from the University of Hull. For further information please visit the Creative Exchange website.

Centre for Doctoral Training in Digital Civics

CDT-002Across the UK political spectrum there is a consensus that communities need to play a greater role in local government, both in the decisions made that affect people’s everyday lives, and in the design and delivery of services provided by local government to communities. With the enormous public uptake of digital technologies including broadband internet, mobile phones, laptop and tablet computers, there are opportunities to create more representative and sustainable forms of local democracy and service provision.

Digital Civics is the endeavour of developing research, theories, technologies, design approaches and evaluation methods for digital technologies that support local communities, local service provision, and local democracy. This area poses new challenges for researchers across a range of disciplines. It requires researchers that are not only experts in local government and the services they provide (such as education, public health and social care), but also researchers that can: (i) understand the limitations of existing technologies and approaches to design and use; (ii) innovate in the design, delivery and evaluation of services; (iii) produce underpinning technologies that meet the real-world requirements of local service provision and local democracy. The primary goal of our Centre for Doctoral Training is therefore to train the next generation of researchers that can meet these challenges.

The Centre has three distinctive features. Firstly, it brings together academics from five internationally leading centres of excellence already extensively engaged in Digital Civics research at Newcastle University.  Secondly, the research will be conducted in the context of real-world service provision and communities, through the engagement of three local councils who will act a host partners to the research. The centre also has a range of deeply committed commercial, public sector and third sector partners who will actively engage in the design and delivery of the research training. Thirdly, the training provided to students will be cross-disciplinary in nature and focused upon three challenging application domains for digital civics research: local democracy, education, and public health & social care. There will also be two underpinning technology training programmes: human-computer interaction and security, privacy & trust.

Press release: New centre will use digital technologies to transform local government services

Date: April 2014 – April 2022

Funding: EPSRC Doctoral Training Centre £4,707,329

Researchers: Patrick Olivier (PI), Peter Wright.

MyPlace: Mobility and PLace for the Age-friendly City Environment

MyPlace-001The aim of MyPlace is to develop and test through real-world research a digital platform and toolkit that will enable members of the public to engage with local councils and other organisations more effectively in the research, planning and design of the urban environment.

The specific domain of this project is people’s experiences of mobility and access to the urban environment, and how this changes with age and across the lifecourse. The project is a collaboration with City Councils in the North East Region, and Newcastle’s Age Friendly City initiative. Through VoiceNorth we will collaborate with members of the public in the project as co-researchers and co-designers, to collect a body of quantitative and qualitative data on older people’s experiences of mobility in the built environment, and to co-design digital tools, information and services to enhance that experience.

To achieve this we will design and develop a toolkit of digital sensors to capture evidence and experiences from older people’s journeys through and social interactions within the city centre. We will combine this evidence with social research data through interactive architectural visualisations which will support citizens and stakeholder in participatory design of the age friendly city.

We will also develop a participatory platform which will allow members of the general public to access, comment, and vote on design issues, and to add their own experiences of access and the built environment. This extended public engagement in the research and design activities will offer a new model of public engagement in civic decision making.

The toolkit and platform will be validated through the design of and deployment of digital interventions in the city. We will also document our findings for policy makers and other stakeholders regionally and nationally.

Date: March 2014 – March 2017

Funder: EPSRC (Design for Wellbeing) £1,301,006

Researchers: Peter Wright (PI), Patrick Olivier, Katie Brittain, Thomas Ploetz, Rose Gilroy, Helen Jarvis, Lynne Corner, Cathrine Degnen, Tim Townshend, John Vines, Rob Comber.

Collaborators: Rose Conroy-Dalton (Northumbria University), Mark Blythe (Northumbria University), James Charlton (Northumbria University).