experimental biomimetic wayfinding system for the visually impaired
spring 2017 · 6 weeks · biomimetic design/accessible design
an experiment in biomimicry
how might we apply nature's principles to a human
Annotated Navigational Tiles (A.N.T.) compose an experimental, biomimetic, spacial navigation system for the visually impaired. My teammates and I developed this conceptual system in a cross-disciplinary class led by an architect and two entomologists specializing in ant studies at NC State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. The class questioned ecology and biology’s role in informing human design needs. Based on our self-defined research questions, we studied ant anatomy and behaviors. Typically, designers look to biomimicry with a relatively defined problem in mind. We took a different approach by first identifying biodiversity within the ant species and then seeking a suitable human problem to which we could apply our research.
Our team chose to focus specifically on researching the diversity found in ants’ cuticular structures. We hypothesized & tested our own theories about these structures' functionality. Eventually, we identified within the structures a system of natural patterning which we translated to our system of tactile, patterned tiles. The system serves as an artifact of conceptual biomimicry, deriving a solution from broad biological principles.
conducting research, ant cuticle taxonomy, location analysis, wireframing
identification of human challenge
pain point identificaiton
to the lab!
What qualities make ant unique organisms? What are their physical characteristics? Social characteristics?
We spent a few weeks examining ant anatomy and behavior with the help of two ant scientists at their lab in North Carolina's Museum of Natural Sciences. (the biology nerd in me absolutely loved this part of the project)
- observed anatomical structures at macro and microscopic scales
- compared anatomical structures among various ant species
- watched ants build tunnels in petri dishes.
- observed ants carry food twice their size across long stretches of sand.
- examined ant species' interactions with ants of their own species and others
We also surveyed existing literature on ants and their behaviors.
key insights & further questions
- Ants are highly social organisms that work together
- Ants have unique facial cuticular structures. the question is- why? and how can these patterns apply to a human design challenge?
the ant scientists at work
nature as teacher:
Biomimetic design looks to nature as a mentor, teacher, and model to solve human design challenges. "Biology to Design", as championed by Biomimicry 3.8, is a method in which natural phenomena (in this case, ants) are observed and then applied as inspiration to an appropriate human need.
revising our research & revising our hypothesis
patterns so distinct,
they must serve a purpose
Though we still lacked a definitive conclusion regarding ant cuticle structures’ purpose and function, we hypothesized that tactile communication could be the reason for variation among ant cuticle structures. We'd learned in our initial research that ants utilize their antennae to "read" their environment- maybe they could recognize one another by feeling one another's facial structures? Research has shown that ants utilize pheromone networks to communicate foraging paths and it would not be senseless to assume ant cuticles, distinct as they are, function as a secondary and supplementary form of communication.
In addition to providing potential communicative use among ants, the surface cuticles conveyed information regarding their subjects to those observing: us, the researchers.
what is the purpose
of ant cuticle structures?
Every species of ant has a unique facial cuticular structure. Some are ridged. Others are bumpy. Others are smooth. Scientists know very little about these structures' purpose and functions. My team became interested in finding the answers. Using AntWeb's database of structures and microscopes, my team investigated the different types of cuticular structures. We then 3D modeled and vector traced a set of them at scale and sorted them by species (pictured below). These prototypes gave us a deeper understanding of the structures' formal intricacies and realtive scales.
testing our hypothesis
comparing ant cuticle structures
with those of other species
We researched other animals with unique skin structures. Many animals have cuticle structures that serve specific functions. Some serve as an erosion resistance mechanism for inhabitants of harsh terrain. Others serve more mechanical functions. Shark skin's structure, for example, possesses antimicrobial properties. The structures operate on a microscopic scale to repel microbes from latching onto the shark's skin. My team hypothesized that perhaps ant cuticles serve a similar function.
testing the hypothesis
When we compared the ant cuticles we'd traced to shark skin (as well as anti-microbial scorpion-skin and cicada wings) at scale, we concluded that ant cuticles are not operating at the same scale as the other anti-microbial surfaces. Therefore, we determined that ant cuticles probably cannot repel microbes based on structure alone.
Because our original hypothesis proved unlikely, we shifted our focus to patterns we'd noticed in the ant cuticle structures. We found that we could categorize the structures into roughly 3 categories: network, linear, and cluster.
Grouping ant cuticle patterns by similar aesthetic properties provided evidence of a communicative system, one that could potentially communicate identity to other ants, or to humans about the ant’s living conditions.
identifying a design opportunity
the visually impaired & wayfinding
Environmentally-informative patterning presents itself in many human communication systems. Braille, road rumble strips, and tactile paving, for example, assist a user’s wayfinding abilities. However, these existing tactile-feedback-driven wayfinding systems, which primarily cater to the visually-impaired, simply relay impending danger without facilitating the user’s environmental exploration and enjoyment.
A wayfinding system that facilitates a visually impaired user’s holistic understanding of their surroundings could mitigate the evident gap in the current, limitedly-communicative, danger-centric tactile paving system.
(Annotated Navigational Tiles)
prototyping the system
a case study
The following images map the area and scale of the A.N.T. system. The Brickyard at North Carolina State University was the site we chose as a case study (see image below). The Brickyard served as an example of the A.N.T.’s potential application in a space that does not otherwise have major defined navigational patterns embedded within it. The area is in the center of NC State’s main campus and serves as a major transient space for students traveling across campus. There is a balanced interplay between destination points along its perimeter and undefined pathways throughout the center.
A.N.T. companion app
Most systems in place for the visually impaired are geared towards safety, rather than offering other useful [positive] information about an environment; too often are disabled users under-considered in systems design. The A.N.T. is meant to be a fully integrated, three-tier system of wayfinding tiles, tactile keys, and a companion app that creates a much more holistic experience of a space for a visually impaired user.
The A.N.T. app employs GPS and haptic patterns to guide its user. Customizable, high-contrast graphics and large type sizes assist
the A.N.T.'s logo mark resembles a speech bubble, representing the communicative purpose of the A.N.T. The spiral represents the creation of a pathway. The logotype further enforces the idea of connection and navigation.
reflection & next steps
I've chosen to show you this project, not because I think the solution is great. In fact, I think the solution is a pretty poor excuse for an accessibility-focused design. Involving members of the visually impaired community in this process would certainly have led us to produce a much richer solution to their challenges. I'd love to revisit our research and explore what other, more appropriate, human applications might exist.
Despite its flaws, this project taught me so much about research and problem-solving methods. I learned how to apply my skills as a designer to a different type of research. Who knew my Illustrator skills and my teammates' 3D modeling skills could help us disprove a scientific hypothesis?
I've always been inspired by nature and the biological sciences. After working on this project, I constantly seek opportunities to incorporate nature's time-tested solutions into my design practice. I recently completed Biomimicry 3.8's "Introduction to Biomimicry" course and I hope to take more courses in the future!
This project was a collaboration between myself and two of my talented classmates: Dipale Aphale and Lisa Wong.
Shout out to the Ant Scientists at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences for providing us with so much insight along the way!