How public space can be a “connecting space”. The story of Laser Town.

How to connect communities through mobility? That was one of the first questions we asked ourselves in our group Sæt Bataat (Karl, Alex and Sisi) when we were challanged with coming up with a new solution in the mobility space. We arrived to this question when we were discussing our own experiences about moving around and during which Sisi (she is from Iceland) mentioned that she often takes a walk through Lasnamäe because she found it interesting. To that answer Karl and Alex were instantly confused… Why would anyone go for a walk in Lasnamäe? We instantly came to a conclusion that it is stigmatized and felt like this is something we want to tackle and decided to make our project about that. We wanted to make something that would unite people rather than divide. Obviously one of the biggest divisions between Lasnamäe and the rest of the city is language so we wanted to use something universal that didn’t need words to work.

To start off our journey our first task was to interview people, to understand what people think of their living environments and how they like to move around. We interviewd people from different districts like Mustamäe, Telliskivi, Kopli, Nõmme, Kadriorg and put our main emphasis on people from Lasnamäe.

Lady who works in a cafeteria in Lasnamäe

We quickly understood the Lasnamäe stereotype in a deeper level. Sadly people of Lasnamäe felt disconnected and left out in a lot of ways. For one to have fun and spend good time one has to go outside of Lasnamäe, usually to the city center. People lacked purpose for going outside in their home district. They said things like “Lasnamäe is grey”, “We would like to have more stuff to do here in Lasnamäe, for example a pool would be nice” or people said that they like going for walks but for that they went to the seaside in Pirita or to the parks of Kadriorg. A common theme from various interviews was nature, people liked the seaside and sunsets but they felt that Lasnamäe doesn’t offer it to them.

Autumn in Lasnamäe

Not going to lie… at this point we were a bit overwhelmed. A lot of the interviews were also political at times, some said that they barely make ends meet and others talked about the divide of estonians and russians. For a second we felt like maybe this is too big of a challenge and trying to solve it through mobility is too ambitious.

We explored other options like nature. Because of the pandemic nature is discussed a lot and we wanted to take advantage of it. Post-pandemic world would certainly be different from the pre-pandemic one and that’s something to keep in mind. Things like mental-health have been brought up because isoloation can be devastating on the mind. And that is also one of the reasons why people are now actually seeking for more ways to spend time outside. For a brief moment we were also focusing on youngsters as they are affected the most from the thing happening currently. We were discussing playgrounds and options to make outside more interactive and interesting for them. Some ideas included making interactive paths through nature or to areas which are unknown, a type of urban exploration. Though After working with these ideas for some time we didn’t feel it quite cathes the gist of the challange like we would want to.

We took a step back, tried to understand what are the core things we really want to focus on. From the previous ideations and discussions we came to a conclusion that we don’t want to create a thing where people move from A to B. We wanted to touch mobility in a completely different sense. We wanted to get people outside and keep them there (literally, don’t go inside please)! In all seriousness we felt that we shouldn’t discard our previous ideas of connecting people just because it got hard. We can’t just abandon the people we just interviewd. We wanted to face it but in a more playful manner. After some time we arrived at sound and emotion. We felt like sound is a perfect vehicle to carry emotion around and wanted to build on top of that. Some of the first ideas was that what if we just asked people from different districts while they are walking “How do you feel right now?” and they could describe it using sound. That way we could map peoples emotion and get some interesting sounds to go with it. We thought what if there there was an app for that as well and everyone could listen to each others emotions. And the app would combine all the sounds into a song, a beautiful masterpiece describing each districts emotion. Making everyone part of a bigger thing, making them part of their community. We called it emobility and we liked it.

It didn’t quite work though. We arrived at a lot of questions like “How do you actually make the sound?” “How is the song generated, what is the algorithm behind it?”. It go complicated from the users stand point as well. “When exactly would he tell us of his emotion and why would there be an app?” “Could it be in a physical location instead?” The overall idea was good but good like the famous estonian cheese “Hiirte Juust” it had holes in it and wee needed to fill those holes.

emobility

From there on we juggled around with two other ideas called bin-go and tamagotchi-street (tänavagotchi). Bin-go was an app where you are given sounds and you have to guess where they are coming from. All the sounds are inside a radius that the user chooses. The idea was to get people outside and make them explore around and use sound as the main protagonist of the game.

Bingo Storyboard

Tamagotchi-street was completely different. We weren’t satisfied with creating an app and that’s what bin-go was, just another app. We wanted to include everyone and wanted them to be able interact with out solution physically. After another round of ideation we thought “What if the street was alive?” and “Would people care to keep it alive?”. We gave the street a health bar and made the trash bins and some other things on the street interactive.

At this point we were uncertain. We had come up with ideas but they just weren’t cutting it. They were too complicated again and didn’t have any magic in them. We decided to ideate again. We made sure to keep the ideas simple and we refocused on our design principles which we had set for ourselves before.

  1. Encourage curiosity
  2. Create a sense of belonging
  3. Slow down
  4. Communication using universal language
  5. Inspire creativity

Keeping all that in mind we came up with 2 ideas we deemed fit. Which were “Abstract trees” and “Lasers”.

Abstract trees is and idea of a tree which makes a sound when you go under it and Lasers was the idea of, well… a laser that makes a sound when you touch it that would be on the sidewalks. We found these two to be perfectly combinable. The lasers can be attatched to anything, why not a tree in a place where people walk. And that is how Laser Town came to be.

Laser Town™

Laser Town is a concept that adds another layer to the everyday walk on our cities streets. The main component are the lasers which form a network throughout the city. One location has multiple lasers which all make a sound when you touch them. The sound is that of an instrument, one location might have a piano and another one a violin. All the locations would be connected as well. When you play the violin in Lasnamäe then you can hear the piano from Telliskivi. The Laser broadcasts music coming from other lasers.

The locations of the lasers would also be available in Google Maps. That gives an opportunity to choose a route that includes the lasers on its way and you would have information about the what type of an instrument each laser is. Maybe you get bored of playing the piano all day and you wander around to the violin instead.

Its bigger purpose is to make people feel connected to one another. We can interacted with someone from another district that we have never met and do it in a creative way. Take a moment to stop and create something fun instead. It nudges people to go outside in the first place and while outside it encourages people to slow down. You are not going get there faster but that’s fine. It is not about the destination, it is about the journey and what would be better than making a friend along the way.

Interaction designer