The thundercloud—what is it but an audiovisual show in thin air? Artist and designer Richard Clarkson takes this quite literally with Cloud, an interactive lamp and speaker system designed to mimic a thundercloud in both appearance and as entertainment.
Hung from the ceiling, the installation features cloud “fluff” made out of hypoallergenic polyester fiber. The clouds detect a user’s presence, then create a unique lightning and thunder show dictated by the user’s movement. In addition to a Bluetooth-enabled speaker system from which users can stream any music with a compatible device, the system adapts to the desired lighting color and brightness through color-changing lights, and has alternative modes, including night light and music-reactive modes.
Cloud grew out of Cloud Version One (2012), which required creating an interactive object using the Arduino platform. Whereas Cloud 1.0 had subtle reactive light and sound qualities, Clarkson tells The Creators Project that Cloud 2.0 is more robust and durable with a bigger speaker system, as well as clouds that are able to communicate with each other, creating what he calls “a networked sky.”
“The real challenge came as a result of the much higher level of coding required to incorporate all of these new features,” Clarkson says. “A challenge to learn, not just the basics of a foreign language, but the fluencies and nuances of it.”
“Acting as both an immersive lighting experience and a speaker with visual feedback, this hybrid lamp/speaker introduces a new discourse for what a light fixture could be,” he adds. “Advances in physical computing and interaction design hardware over recent years have created a new breed of smart-objects, which are gaining more and more traction in the design world. These smart-objects have the potential to be far more interactive and immersive than ever before.”
Instead of outsourcing Cloud’s code, Clarkson’s team adopted a more DIY hacker/maker mentality, developing the code in-house. By “hand-coding,” Clarkson aims to capture the essence of making, where ideas and processes are shared, tweaked and improved in relatively cheap and easy ways.
“The final piece in this story is one of branding and experience,” Clarkson explains. “Using subtle branding cues and a unique out-of-box experience, such as the silver lining of tissue paper that comes protecting every Cloud 2.0, it transcends from being a ‘project’ into a product, and from a product to a business.”
“In many ways the physical computing industry reflects the challenges currently faced by 3D printing,” he adds. “Questions of agency, ethics, direction and justification still need to be properly addressed by the design world. In this light, the role of the designer could begin to shift from idea generation and realization to that of stewardship and leadership.”
Whether people end up making their own interactive thunderclouds (and other environments) or purchase them, having something like Cloud in a room would be a great conversation starter. And beyond that, it might just help certain people get some much needed sleep, while forcing jumpy pets to run for cover.