Empainty: Paint Together, Process Together

A demo-session showing Empainty in action, and two users reacting to it and engaging in a discussion on how to proceed in order to obtain the creative-objectives they seek.

Left-User: If we get blue back, we can make a reserve of it on your brush. [laughs]
Right-User: Okay... I think we both need to start tapping... it's like, none of this scraping business will do.

An Overview

The Challenge

Often, the creative process is impeded by a fixed-mindset. Painters are discouraged by cultural definitions of what "good" art is, the skills "necessary," and so do not engage in the creative process or discussion of it.

The Solution

Empainty (a collaborative painting tool) encourages a growth-mindset in users as well as lowers barriers to entry for engagement with the creative process. It brings painters together in an activity that focuses on the creative process, rather than the outcome of the process. In this collaborative setting, painters are forced to confront their constraints and make deliberate creative decisions by making note of each others gestural styles, which involves challenging their own creative boundaries.

My Role

Interaction Designer, UX Researcher, Developer Support: Illustrator. Paper + pen. Arduino. Processing. Rapid Prototyping (cardboard, lasercut wood). Participant-observation. Interviews. Surveys.

The Design Process: Implementation & User-Testing

The Final Prototype: Empainty v2

Empainty in its final, laser-cut wood form, equipped with servo motors and Arduino Uno microprocessor. The picture above was taken after the pilotting session. The watercolor residue is indicative of collaborative dynamics over time. The colors on the palette follow a ROYGBV order: warmer colors to the left, colder colors to the right.

After a divergent ideation phase, we converged upon the idea and implementation of Empainty. Empainty reflects the warmth of an interpersonal, collaborative relationship in the painting process. If painting partners are taking note of one another's brushstrokes and mimick one another, they are considered to be warm toward one another, and therefore warm colors are made accessible. If the partners are instead different in their brushstrokes, they're considered to be cold toward one another, concealing the warm colors and revealing the colder ones.

The variable constraint of available colors at all times forces users to confront the limitation, whether it be in adapting to the constraint or by discussion with their partner. User-testing validated this assertion, as well as engagement with Empainty and the activity.

User-Testing & Product Success

Colors tell a nice story of what happened abstractly.

— A non-expert painter reflecting on the art piece

Through participant-observations, interviews, and surveys I was able to determine dispositions toward creativity, collaborative art-making, and constraints. Below are some select quotes from paired-painters after our pilot demo:

I saw my partner was working abstractly so I tried to fit into that aesthetic more.

I saw my partner make dots and thought ‘I can do that.’

— Expert and non-expert painters, respectively

I stopped caring about making a good painting.

I did not try to represent real objects. Our art evolved more organically.

— Painters who occasionally participate in artistic activities

From our observations of pilot demos and post-activity surveys, Empainty proved to be successful in engaging people with the creative process rather than focusing strictly on the outcome of the creative process. People expressed needing to push their creativity, engaging in dialogue with their partner, but also an interest in using Empainty again; this finding supports the success of our product in not deterring people from engaging with the creative process.

The residue after our pilot sessions provides insight into surprising moments from the painting activity, allowing painters to reflect on the development of their creative process and interpersonal relationships.

Iterative Designs

A blueprint for the final palette box design being lasercut into wood.
An evolution of the prototypes. The final prototype required additional fiddling with Xacto knives to account for thickness in materiality. The first, cardboard prototype exhibited a living hinge feature that was eliminated from the design due to its insufficient dexterity when made of wood (it broke!).

The Design Process: Early Ideas

Collabor-Paint: A Magical, Emotive Pen + Ink Bottle Pair

From the beginning, we set out to lower the barriers to entry to the creative and art-making process. Through exploratory field work, we determined that people feel most enabled when they are alongside a supportive individual (despite anxiety that also exists when trying to create alongside someone). From this finding, Empainty conceptually took form as a pen filled with ink that changes color in response to the user's emotion once dipped into a paired, empty ink bottle. The ink bottle, while empty, would contain sensors that would trigger the updating of ink color held within the pen, giving the interaction a bit of a magical feel. The ability to communicate ambiently to a potential partner, and how that would shape the creative process, was appealing to the team. The ability to swap tools allowed for extended functionality, allowing for remote communication.

A scene showcasing two painters working remotely from one another, but having access to each other's emotions via the pen and ink bottle artifacts (anger in red and melancholy in blue).
Two scenes showcasing interactions with our pen+bottle artifacts: (1) that the bottle changes visible color to indicate that the partner's emotion has changed, and (2) the ink within the pen changes when it makes contact with the ink bottle (despite the bottle being empty).

The complications that would come with redesigning a pen, a tool that has existed for centuries, seemed too ambitious for our deadline. Although we proposed a revolver-barrel design to allow for switching of colors, and even designed what this may look like, we felt a different design was necessary for actual implementation. Furthermore, mapping emotion to various sensors (galvanic skin response, heart rate, etc) is difficult and contentious (consider the Microsoft PaperClip telling you how you feel, when you completely disagree).

Detailed sketches of the sensors being used to capture the emotion of the artist, and the associated interactions with the objects.

Empainty v1: A Palette Box Channeling your Partner's Energy

Wanting to move the mechanics outside of the pen itself, we opted to switch mediums to painting, allowing our electronic components to be in a palette box. And in moving away from the idea of capturing emotions, we focused on wanting to capture energy within this otherwise inanimate object. So, we decided on a collaborative setting where painters would draw paint from a palette box representing their partner's intensity.

A storyboarded scene showcasing two painters sharing a canvas, using paint colors reflecting the intensity of their partner's gestures.
Sketches of the palette box showcase a living hinge mechanism, controlled by concealed servomotors within the box. The opening and closing of the lids is halted for a brief period of time when the user uses their water cup, indicative of a cognitive readiness to change color. The intensity of a painter would be captured through an accelerometer, afixed to the end of the brush.

The complications of this design were in constructing not one, but two palettes boxes, and also in defining what a gesture would map to on the animate palette box itself. Since this framework lacked a comparison between gestures, we ran into the issue of potentially a dead box. A dead/inanimate box could actually hinder a partner's creative process, directly counter to our motivations of this project. Furthermore, building our box from scratch, we had time and resources to construct only one efficiently.

Future Steps

In its current state, Empainty requires three computers to run (two of which receiving gesture-recognition data from each individual accelerometer on a brush, and a third hosting a server that collects, compares, and communicates that data to the palette box). Computationally, it would be ideal to have the computers eliminated, but we have doubts that an Arduino's microprocessor is capable of powering such code.

Usability-wise, the lids should close a bit slower. On a number of occasions, users found themselves started by the palette box. These reactions are acceptable; however, where it is unacceptable is when the lids close too quickly for users to respond, finding the lid closing down on their brush. This interaction is unideal, garnering distaste from users.

Additionally, gesture-recognition is calibrated to a right-handed demographic. Left-handed individuals need to be accounted for as well, as their gestures are considered to be mirrored due to data sent from the accelerometers.

Overall, a more robust set of prototypes would be crafted, given the success of our original idea. The brushes would be made wireless, the palette box with more elegant circuitry, and a battery-compartment.

A longitudinal study with Empainty would also be ideal, as I am curious about the transformation of the patina on the box. The materiality of the box was a deliberate decision for the purpose of archiving the longitudinal usage of the box. Whether the owner uses it to reflect more broadly about their creative process and habits is a question to investigate.