Looking at Trees, a sensory pod design

I recently collaborated with GeoCog member Dru McKeown (TOI STUDIO) on a project design for an immersive pod environment designed to help kids and adults learn to see trees in new ways. Here's the poster followed by the design narrative:

Can a tree compete with the digital screen in your pocket? We’ve answered this question through a modular pod system treehouse to help people experience the natural world both here in the garden and in the routines of their daily lives after they leave the garden. We’ve cast nature-deficiency as a social problem with a secret solution that lies at the heart of imaginative play. It’s a secret so powerful that it builds memories and radically shifts the way people see the world.

Before we discuss the solution, it might be helpful to explore how nature-deficiency affects your life. When was the last time that you looked intently at the bark of a tree? If you’re like most people, you might not remember the last time you looked at a tree. In the hectic grind of daily life we’ve forgotten the primal skill of wonder. We designed this pod system as tool to build deep wonder through sensory encounters because we believe that wonder is one of the fundamental building blocks of imaginative play. What world does not open up when you look more closely?

Adults and kids both forget to engage the natural world with curiosity and it stems from how we choose to control our attention. These pods hack into basic human attention patterns by reframing the world at kid-scale. This framing relieves kids of the weight of digital bombardment and frees them to experience agency in how they engage nature and it allows adults to experience respite through the luxury of play. Both adults and children experience this scale framing as an attention shift toward some aspect of nature.

Our design places focus on the tree as a tool for building wonder because trees are ubiquitous in our daily lives. If every tree you pass becomes a potential portal into another world, the trees themselves leverage the outreach of the botanical gardens beyond being a destination. Every tree has the potential to become a moment of memory recall of some emotionally imprinted experience of the garden. Every tree becomes a sensory tool that helps people build an enduring fascination with nature and every tree becomes a place for imaginative play.

The four pods in our system focus on different sensory experiences of a tree:

  1. The Wattle-Pod recalls a nest and invites visitors to experience the tree and canopy from the visual perspective of a bird by raising a periscope into the canopy.

  2. The Wood-Pod helps visitors experience the environment behind the bark by a design of annular rings, a vertical grain, and the textures of phloem and heartwood.

  3. The Dapple-Pod evokes the immersive sensation of forest-filtered sunlight by using a light filtering technique to illuminate the pod with light that shifts throughout the day.

  4. The Fabric-Pod creates a soundscape and a smellscape that focuses on the sound and motion of wind moving through the trees to evoke a moment of calm and comfort.

These pods help city dwellers (kids and adults) to develop a habit of wonder for the natural world. We’ve leveraged primary research in cognitive science to design this immersive sensory installation. Our published research (Dewey 2012; Dewey 2014) focuses on how people use attention patterns to make meaning in the natural world and we’re adapting these findings to the pod design. We’re curious about how emotion and perception shape people’s experience of place, and so we’re using this design as a form of cognitive engineering to help people see the world in new ways through the lens of play.

Dewey, Ryan. (2014). Hacking Remoteness Through Viewpoint and Cognition. In KERB 22, RMIT: Melbourne
Dewey, Ryan (2012). A Sense of Space: Conceptualization in Wayfinding & Navigation. Masters Thesis, Case Western Reserve University.