Interactive Installation: Ask Zoltar

The backstory

ASK ZOLTAR is a digital installation that was created as the final group project for the Creation & Computation class in OCAD University’s Masters in Digital Futures program.

The assignment was called “City As Amusement,” and required the class to use the City of Toronto as an inspiration or backdrop for a digital project. Along with fellow group members Elliott Fienberg, Jason Irizawa and Tatiana Jennings, I set to work brainstorming how the physical could be combined with digital technology to make a memorable installation.

From the outset, we agreed we wanted our installation to be focused on “fun,” so we began with doing research on amusement parks from around the world. Every idea was considered, ranging from antique arcade games to the latest roller coasters that integrated projection mapping and virtual reality. Tatiana fell in love with the idea of creating a Chinese fortune telling box that passersby could physically interact with, so we began to flesh out this line of thought. We especially liked the 1950’s era “Ask Swami” machines that sat on restaurant tables and offered customers their fortune in exchange for a quarter.

Once we’d agreed on a final concept, the team set to work, divvying up tasks that fit our skill sets. Jason was particularly fond of using etched acrylic as a medium, so he set to work designing the interface that would allow users to interact with our fortune telling machine. Elliott focused on writing the code that would allow a number of sensors to trigger certain events. Tatiana worked on writing a script and securing an actor to play our swami, and also arranged for a location and costumes to be ready for a shoot. As she directed the action, I filmed the video of the swami and edited the footage into bite-sized clips that would be triggered by the sensors. As the project came together, our swami was re-named “Zoltar” and his face was incorporated into posters that were affixed to the outside of the machine.

The end result was impressive – as people walked by the machine as it sat at the corner of Richmond and Duncan, a rumbling snore could be heard from a speaker hidden inside. As passersby stopped and moved closer, a proximity sensor tripped a video on a tablet affixed to the plexiglass interface. The video showed Zoltar, eyes closed and sleeping, until the user placed his or her hand on the machine. From there, a heat sensor would activate a second video, which showed Zoltar opening his eyes and blinking. The user was then asked to think of a question for Zoltar to answer, and then a countdown began to play on the tablet. Once the countdown ended, an Arduino hidden inside the machine sent a message to an XBee wireless sensor taped to a window one story up in the Graduate Gallery. The XBee then communicated with a laptop across the room, which began to play another video of Zoltar. This video was projected back onto the window across the room, which was visible to those standing on the street below. Once the video ended, a thermal printer hidden inside the machine began to print out one of a number of fortunes we had pre-written for Zoltar to deliver.

To hear how the class reacted to our installation, be sure to watch the video above.

Assignment: City as Amusement
Creation & Computation
Program: Masters in Digital Futures
Institution: OCAD University
Group Members: 
Elliott Fienberg, Jason Irizawa, Tatiana Jennings and Monica Virtue
Components: XBee wireless radios, proximity sensor, heat sensor, Arduino, video, projector, thermal printer

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