Cat in the Shell: Virtual Feline Avatar Controls a High-Tech Building

Design collective Umbrellium have created a digital pet whose behavior is determined by a school's high-tech architectural surroundings.

by Kevin Holmes
Oct 7 2016, 1:30pm

Image courtesy of Umbrellium

Trumpington Community College in Cambridge, England is not unlike other modern high schools in that lots of its infrastructure is automated. It runs on a building management system (BMS) which controls and monitors sustainability systems like ventilation and lighting, with renewable energy. Where Trumpington differs from most, is that the building's networked systems are visualized as a giant virtual cat called Cinder.

Cinder was created by Umbrellium—a collective of architects, designers, and creative technologists—in collaboration with Parkside Federation Academies and is designed to make students and teachers aware of their impact on the immediate environment—and each other. Umbrellium call it a "mixed-reality architectural interface" and took inspiration for it from Japanese sci-fi anime Dennō Coil, which is set in an emerging augmented reality near-future, and the déjà vu glitch-cat from The Matrix.

Umbrellium's founding partner Usman Haque has previously told us that their work asks, "How do you get people to become players on a stage where they are the architects? Their contribution, their performance is what we’re trying to elicit. It’s something that’s about discovery, unpeeling things and wanting to try and make sense of something."

Image courtesy of Umbrellium

The digital pet, described as "part interactive mascot, part avatar for the building," responds in real time to the state of the environment and the students, who play and interact with Cinder using a large screen in the main hallway of the school. The building's solar energy generates her "food"—when she's had lots she's more active, but when her energy levels are low, like in winter when there's less sun, she's less motivated. She'll even appear on the students' laptops demanding attention and food—just like a real cat does when you put your computer on at home, except this one's inside your computer.

She will also change over time as she responds and reacts to the building, her environment, and the people who interact with her—she'll change size, color, and her personality will evolve. There are also Easter eggs that can be unlocked—like her wearing a baseball cap—depending on the interactions. The virtual cat will stay at the school for the next few years.

“We created Cinder to give the students and staff insight into and understanding of the building they work and play in,” explains Haque. “Cinder’s environment affects her daily life; for example, the food available to eat is influenced directly by the amount of solar energy harnessed by the building from the previous day. We wanted to find a creative way to help bring the building environment to life and give students a unique and engaging experience of the world around them."

Image courtesy of Umbrellium

Image courtesy of Umbrellium

Image courtesy of Umbrellium

Image courtesy of Umbrellium

Visit Umbrellium's website here to learn more about their work.


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