Finalist 2021

Locus Amoenus

John Power / Billy and Pota Sakkas / Brendan Armstrong / Stewart Haines

A real-time generative ambient audio-visual installation that fosters calm, focus, attention restoration, and public place making in a hospital lounge.

Locus Amoenus (Place of Delight) is an generative ambient audio-visual installation in a public lounge in the ground floor of the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC).

The installation was conceived to create ambient aesthetic signals that would foster calm, focus, and place making for the general public. The large screen component depicts a naturalistic landscape that is sometimes roving, sometimes resting, and perpetually animated.

This real-time audio-visual artwork represents the local weather (driven by actual real-time data) and the natural passage of diurnal light from a virtual sun that is synchronised to the geolocation of the hospital site.

Design Brief

The video wall and surround sound installation that comprises Locus Amoenus was incorporated into a Sanctuary Lounge area that adjoins the Super 8 cafe on the ground floor of the Victorian Comprehensive Cancer Centre (VCCC).

The brief was negotiated with the tenants of cafe and the VCCC managers, Plenary Group as part of the original fit out of the building. The installation was required to enhance the aesthetic character of the lounge area, and provide amenity for diverse use and occupation; for those who wished to meet, rest, and dwell in the space.

While the brief called for a video art work, I recommended that the video wall be used to render a real-time generative art work, as this would create endless variation on an overall aesthetic scheme. This approach was accepted by the clients and the project was than developed as a generative application from the outset of project.


This project was developed by:

Design Process

Locus Amoenus was developed within a PhD by project at RMIT University in the School of Media and Communication. To undertake this project, I needed to understand how generative methods used with situated media (permanently installed screens) in public space could be developed as a social amenity.

I explored the intersection between Calm Technology and Biophilic Patterns as a means of firstly taking the idea of attention and calm as a guiding principle, and secondly of experimenting with designed patterns in real-world contexts.

This theoretical approach fits within a humanist discourse of third wave Human Computer Interaction (HCI), and as such was further justified as contributing to what design theorist Malcolm McCullough describes as an "ambient commons" (McCullough, 2013). McCullough's notion of an ambient commons calls for a "right to attention" in public space in the age of ubiquitous screen media.

The project was developed with interdisciplinary research methods that included ethnographic encounter (using remote observation of 1,169 participants and 88 semi-structured interviews) conducted over two weeks at State Library Victoria. This process enabled refinement of the permanently installed version of the installation at the VCCC.

The work has been expertly finished and installed, and has been functioning in-situ in the VCCC producing some 25,000 hours of original generative content reflecting the real-time weather of the Parkville locale overlain on representations of natural ecologies of Victoria.

The brief was met and the work saw the enthusiastic reception of the clients and those who use and work in the space during the week; a diverse but very particular social setting that accommodates visitors with complex care needs and their loved ones, medical professionals, research scientists, hospital workers, hospitality workers, administrators, and staff.

The work has exceeded the brief in developing and documenting a design framework for staging generative ambient public screens.

Design Excellence

The design criteria used in the work combine Calm Design and Biophilic Patterns. Principles of Calm design have been developed by Amber Case (2015) after concepts of Calm Technology introduced by Weiser and Brown (1996).

Pattern languages were drawn from Biophilic Design (Cramer & Browning, 2008; Ryan et.al. 2014) and concepts of environmental aesthetics. The project uses real-time generative art methods to create an attractive animated landscape scene that has been shown to support a sense of orientation and can be engaged directly as subject of contemplation or can be left in the periphery of attention as gentle reassuring ambient signals.

Ethnographic research done as part of the project revealed how this ambient multisensory field settled into the attentional background for participants, and supported pleasant habituation, relaxed dwelling, and contributed to positive affect. Aesthetic encounter with the installation supported orientation and maintained a strong sense of locale, and over time was appropriated by users in imaginatively engaging a sense of place.

Ambient signals generated by the work served for participants as either a lively presence in the periphery or an aesthetically engaging field to contemplate. This ambient field supported calm, endogenous attention, and attention restoration.

Aesthetic engagement and place making are universal to flourishing human communities, and in contemporary urban settings, generative methods can be universally applied to the instrumental tasks of aesthetic making. This project connects these innovative potentials of making and being at a significant Victorian public site.

Generative ambient public screens are a barely explored platform upon which artists/designers can tune lively ambiences for supporting attention and place place making. This project has developed a new design framework for prosocial use of large public screens that can be operationalised by artists, designers, architects, and planners.

Design Innovation

Principles of Calm Technology have been developed (by Case, Weiser and Brown, and others) as a response to the torrent of distraction that screen ubiquity has introduced to our conscious environment. Calm Technology provides a framework for artist/designers to think about putting signals in the periphery of attention, and by the same token empower the periphery by helping users incorporate the environment into their attentional frame without becoming drained.

These principles allow us to comprehend the design features of ubiquitous computing that prioritises supporting the periphery in order to treat attention humanely. In this research, supporting the periphery means shifting the function of the public screen from a technology of attention seeking to a technology of attention restoring.

This project has extended the application of Calm Technology beyond a matter of developing efficiencies in private spaces for task-oriented labour and has shown how ambient interfaces can be used as a public amenity shared among strangers. Locus Amoenus fosters mutual mindful attention and attention restoration in public.

For these reasons, Locus demonstrates a real-world contribution of an edge case in third wave HCI, where “perceiver” or “dweller” might replace “user” as a term that sidesteps an active/passive binary of reception. Participants in the public encounter experienced being oriented, embodied, calm, emplaced, receptive, somatic, and focused.

The project and design methodologies developed in the process are premised upon what Design theorist Malcolm McCullough calls "the right to attention" in Public space. McCullough calls for a design sensibility that—in an age of distraction and a swarm of stimulating signals from screens—protects and fosters attention in public urban space as a public good.

This project breaks new ground in the use of public screens by deploying generative art methods to create a context-sensitive ambient screen installation that supports calm and endogenous (internal, volitional) attention.

Design Impact

This project represents significant innovation in the ways of conceiving of and using large digital screens in public space. The project contributes social amenity by not only by creating calm in the periphery that can be effortlessly appropriated by those who dwell in the space, but within this affordance, it promotes positive social cues for shared calm engagement in public space with strangers, analogous to way that people modify their comportment in a city park.

These affordances not only support attention and public place making, but inform a new sensibility towards how we can incorporate screens as a public amenity in highly urbanised shared spaces.

The economic impacts of this project are interpreted in terms of the attention economy. This project contributes knowledge in the methodological synthesis of generative art, Calm Design, and Biophilic design. This methodological contribution was arrived at through the interdisciplinary application of new media art practice, ethnographic methods and grounded theory.

Within the limits of this contribution, I have also located the creative project work as an edge-case of third wave HCI. From this methodological perspective, I have demonstrated instrumental approaches that others might apply to public digital screens towards an ambient commons.

The knowledge contribution represented by this project could be applied not only in designing public screens, but also provide ways of understanding their use and context.

For those who would expand on this research, this knowledge contribution is worthy of consideration from perspectives of aesthetic work, art, design, architecture, interior architecture, environmental psychology, environmental aesthetics, wellness research, interdisciplinary methods, ethnography, collaborative methods, social science, anthropology, and urban planning.

As a permanent public installation, the work is highly accessible and stands as a Victorian world first case study in the use of large public screens as an amenity supporting human flourishing.

Circular Design and Sustainability Features

This project engages with approaches to sustainability from the perspective of preserving attention in public space as a shared good. This approach is taken up in a time where human attention itself has become a commodity, and the proliferation of distractive influences are ubiquitous, particularly from networked digital screens.

Interdisciplinary approaches between art, design, architecture, psychology, and social science can and must play a role in contributing to improving quality of life and communal wellbeing in increasingly urbanised and mediatised cities.

Outcomes from this project and research hold promise as helpful applications for those in highly urbanised public space, the time-poor, the stressed, those with limited mobility, and the sick or infirm.

Where reservations about audio-visual analogues of nature are perhaps inevitable, it is worth noting that the two sites in this study—VCCC and SLV—strictly forbid living plants in the interior spaces and are in built-up inner-city locations; and of course both sites typically accommodate the highly urbanised citizen, the time-poor, the stressed, those with limited mobility, and the sick and infirm.

In these instances, GAPS introduced tuneable, sophisticated biophilic and atmospheric elements to otherwise austere inorganic static spaces where people dwell (sometimes involuntarily) for long periods.

This work can be linked to the values of circular design by demonstrating ways of using digital screen technology to support well being and prosocial engagement with shared spaces.

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