I recently transformed my non-functioning fireplace into an interactive sculpture. When one of 18 close friends share a photo or video to Instagram, it shares that light across the web into my living room, lighting what I call a “Social Hearth.”
The Social Hearth directly references fire. When “lit” 9 red and orange LEDs illuminate and flicker algorithmically. They are controlled by an Arduino coded to continually tweak and modify the sub-routine. Because looking at fire is like looking at water, I spent a great deal of time trying to emulate flickers, colors, and bursts in great detail. Ultimately, I concede that 9 LEDs simply don’t have the resolution to truly mimic nature. But they can suggest enough of the pattern to make the fireplace work as an essential semiotic gesture, and that might be more fun.
Duct tape and wood conceal the hearth’s wiring and arduino. They also allow visitors a chance to double-take the fireplace. Wait, what’s this here?
A cocktail of connections
If This Than That connects the hearth to Instagram. The bridge of electricity comes from a WeMo switch. In the future, I’d like the bridge to be smarter allowing patterns based on whom has lit the fire. The Berg Cloud would be ideal.
In this technical challenge, the Social Hearth allows me to explore on-going questions in the Internet of Things space. After developing my tweeting plant earlier this year, this more ambitious project allows the web to “publish” actions back into the thing-layer of my home. That’s an exciting trend we often connect with aesthetics of the future. Think Tron Legacy read-outs or Minority Report interactive displays.
Living with it
The Social Hearth has been in production for sometime. Soldering, modeling, programming, and animating the hearth took nearly 3 months of afterwork tinkering. But living with the Hearth is far more interesting. Now I have an entirely abstracted relationship to social media content production. When a friend shares something, the fireplaces is often the first place to tell me. It may distract me while reading or waking me while sleeping. Who is out partying at this hour?
If I want to find out who is lighting the fire, I can visit the fireplace’s Twitter log. This log is also helpful in assessing the Hearth’s use: how often is it lit, what times are most common, and who’s dominating?
Towards Social Hardware
As a line of inquiry, the Hearth explores a question posed by Bobby Grasberger: what would social hardware look like?
This is one possibility. Built into the domestic space, the Social Hearth abstracts the explicit notifications we are constantly interrupted and distracted by, directly re-presenting them as simply fuel for a private fire. The more friends socialize through content sharing, the more active the fireplace proves. It’s light from a friend – but it’s not a needy SMS message or Facebook “like.” You can choose to simply nap on under the rain. Let friends show you the world.