The Final Project Emerges

Find Maria Rivera is a narrative, puzzle-based instillation which follows the story of the disappearance of a water witch from Visalia, CA. Situated between Escape The Room games and Participatory Theater, like Punch Drunk’s Sleep No More, Find Maria Rivera explores themes of environmentalism, mythology, and CSI.  The piece leverages responsive objects, web experiences and audio to draw in the participant in a mysterious and emerging story experience. The story takes place in the central valley of California with the backdrop of the looming drought and water crisis. As the user enters the instillation they will be presented with a series of clues and puzzles in a CSI investigation room. The participant will explore the physical objects, text, mobile websites, and audio to unravel the mystery.

I am adapting the Rusalka myth of a fallen water bearer to be set in the current day Central Valley of California.  The story follows the disappearance of a water witch, Antonia Rivera, from the town of Visalia. Her friends and family set out to find her, but they enlist the player to help them. Some believe she has become a Rusalka because of the strange artifacts and evidence they find while looking for her. The player will search for her and uncover dark truths about what she has become and what has become of the environment and water that they depend on.

Antonia’s job as a dowser, a person who helps farmers find groundwater in order to dig groundwells, afforded her a collection of interesting folk objects related to water, weather, and environmental monitoring. As the drought in California worsened more farmers turned to dowsers to find alternate sources of water. (Visser 2014) Antonia’s role as a water bearer expands as the environmental situation decays, but then she disappears.

The user will explore a collection of interactive artifacts from Antonia’s personal belongings. The objects will help entrance the user into the mysterious and magical world of the Rusalka. They will be displayed in a museum installation style.  For example, a user might open a drawer and discover that it triggers an eerie song, or they might discover a phone number and call it on their phone to hear a message. This kind of embodied experience of the environment and the objects from a character’s life may help tell another side of the story about Antonia’s disappearance and provide the user clues that will help them uncover the mystery. 

I am designing with a few constraints. Unlike an escape from the room game, a gallery installation has the user's attention for about 10-15 minutes max. Moreover, there may be one to three people in the installation at a time, so that means that the user should have multiple points of entry into the story and puzzles. I have four points of entry into the story: map, books, drawers, and board of clues. The map color codes those below. The final solution to the mystery of Maria's disappearance lies inside the book safe. However, the user should be able to put together the clues throughout the installation to start to piece together the story weather or not they open the safe.

The Timeline

I created a timeline for the last day that Maria was seen.

      7am: Maria wakes up.

      8am: She goes to the St. John’s River Trail - She loses her necklace or pendulum.

      10am: She appears at work at the Crystal Barn.

      1pm: She orders lunch over the phone from Watsons Veggie Garden and picks it up.

      4:30pm: She meets at Garcia Farms for a Dowsing session; the session is paid for by farm conglomerate, Cascade Farms. ( I am making this website)

      6pm: She goes back to the St. John’s River to look for her lost item.

      After 6pm: She disappears. When was she reported missing? Who reported it?


The Puzzles

I decided to create three game mechanics or puzzles to control the release of information about the story.

 1.    The player reads a letter on the wall that tells them to find a phone number.  

2.    Find the phone number to call and listen to a message with clues.

 3.   Use the voice message to guide the discovery of the Tarot Card clues and the Tumblr to help understand them.

 4.     Find the combo to the lock on the book safe.

A Prayer for Rain: Thesis One Final Paper

A Prayer for Rain is an transmedia adaptation of the Russian Rusalka myth which leverages interactive objects and maps to explore the water crisis in Central California.  The project is meant to inform the user about the damages of climate change and unregulated groundwater consumption within California, through the story of the disappearance of a water witch in Visalia, CA. The piece will explore web based interactive media as well as three constructed, responsive objects as a means of storytelling.

Read More

Prototype #2: Imagined Objects as Story

My second prototype form is inspired by Daniel Spoerri's work. He would have a dinner party or event and then keep the plates and tables eaten off of in the form of a "snare-pictures," a type of assemblage or object art. The reason that I like this form is because of what it tells about the people who had these experiences. I am interested in understanding what story a user would make after viewing a collection of objects.  Are there connotations about someone we can learn form seeing a collection of their possessions?

Peter Menzel photographed families from around the world with their possessions and published a book about it. I wonder what story those images would tell if those people were removed from the picture? 

Texas from   Material World: A Global Family Portrait   by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio

Texas from Material World: A Global Family Portrait by Peter Menzel and Faith D’Aluisio

I used the second prototype to explore form rather than concept. I created a workshop/user test for my second prototype. I gathered a series of objects and presented them to a group. Each person was given a pen and a notepad. They were asked to explore the objects on the table in front of them and then create a story about the person who they might have belonged to. They were also asked which of the objects told the story of the character most strongly and why. My thesis partner, Ezgi Ucar and myself presented these objects to two different sets of people for a total of 30 people in the user test. 

The Character

I discovered many similarities between the kind of character most people imagined after interacting with the collection of objects. Most people described this character who owned the objects as a woman in her late 20s to 30s. They described her as a traveler and an imaginative person who loves animals and music. They also had similarity across the objects which resonated with them to tell the story of the character. The Objects That Told The Story:

  • Glass box with moss and a crystal in it

  • A wooden flute

  • A tiny toy VW bus

  • A book of Finnish love poems

Midterm Presentation and Feedback

For the midterm I made sure to contextualize my work in terms of climate change and more specifically the issues of climate change and drought within that region. I also presented the notion of a future narrative in order to explore how this area might look through the eyes of a character living 50-80 years in the future.

My feedback from the critic, Madeline Schwartzman,  was mixed and somewhat hard to follow at times. She provided one excellent research article about the San Joaquin river that runs through the state of California. (CNN 2014) She was very interested in the idea of a fiction that expressed something about the future. She was less interested in the idea of California and also said that the dress idea I have that responds to the weather or pollution is uninteresting unless it was more of a data visualization with character like this online Wind Map. (Wind Map 2014)

The feedback from Melanie Crean was centered around me further narrowing down my focus on the area and issue I am studying about climate change. She encouraged me to figure that out while simultaneously broadening my response to that issue so that form follows concept a bit better. She gave me three concrete ideas on how to move forward:

  • First, based on research about future climates, find some specific aspects you feel are really compelling.

  • Then, write a detailed description of the world and what / why / how it is.  Think Calvino’s Invisible Cities.

  • Then, consider what types of things are normally used there, would be transgressive there, etc.

Next Steps

I am going to create a more detailed character and user persona for this fictional future person. That will guide my design process. The objects that resonated with people will be a form guide to inform what types of pieces I will make for my thesis.

I am also doing research on the dust bowl of the 1930s which I will use to guide my visual style. I am also looking for parallels between what is happening now in California and what happened then in Oklahoma.  Then I will isolate the similarities and characteristics of the current drought in California and (using the Dust Bowl as a model)   project what kind of changes we can expect in the climate moving forward in time.

From there, I want to then explore the kinds of objects this person living in this place, or perhaps migrating from this place, as happened during the migration from Oklahoma to California during the dust bowl, would be using.

I hope this exploration will allow me to further imagine a future world that expresses the consequences of not taking care of the environment of our current one.

Thesis Concept

“Designers ignore - at our own and others' peril-the extent to which any act of design is an act both of prefiguring a future social milieu but also the erasure of multiple possible alternatives. Design, for Fry, both designs and keeps on designing.” (Clarke 2011)


What Tony Fry calls, Defuturing is a guiding principle for my thesis. I want to build upon my explorations into screen-less design that promotes connectivity as well as explore the potential impact which climate change may have on our lives. By imagining a series of little objects or wearables that contend with the climate extremes over fifty to one hundred years in the future. Much like the image below, I want to explore a futuristic design fiction, which combines critical design, storytelling, and physical computing to contemplate the way we might mitigate climate change over time. The fantasy of an artist in 1900 (The Public Domain Review 2014), imagining a world under water, may become a reality in the year 2050. Islands like the Maldives are planning to evacuate thousands of citizens as the rising sea is covering their homes and California is facing the worst drought in decades. How might design be employed to call attention to and help plan for these new challenges?


I am motivated by explorations in materials, technology and story. Right now I am working on material and technology prototypes, but I will begin writing a future looking narrative to inform my design.  I would like my project to examine speculative narrative with concretized, physical objects that exist as relics of a possible future. I would like to explore synesthesia, or the transforming of one sense, such as temperature or touch into another, such as visuals or music. I would like to create sensory prototypes that reflect information and experience without a screen.

Precedents and Domains


I am studying Climate Change because I want to find out how climate change will affect us in 50 years in order to Design new clothes and accessories to accommodate those changes. I am focusing my inquiry into the desert regions of California, because that is where I am from. I have seen first hand, the effects and experienced the temperature extremes common to that area. I want to find out how best to live in balance with the extremities of temperature in order to design wearables that enhance the human body’s ability to mediate that environment.

The U.S. National Climate Assessment (NCA) in 2013 released a set of future climate change scenarios developed by multiple agencies in consultation with an NCA working group whose members include both university-based and Federal research scientists. These scenarios project the possible changes in temperature, climate, lifestyle, water supply, rainfall in each section of the U.S.  The Southwest report cautions about extreme weather conditions and predicts an increase in temperature between five and ten degrees between the years 2041 - 2070 and parts of California may experience more than 150 days per year where the temperature is over 95F. This kind of heat combined with droughts and flooding in seasons with rain and a dwindling groundwater supply could completely change where and how people live. (Scenarios for Climate Assessment and Adaptation 2013, 42)

I am studying Dystopian Futures because I want to find out how to craft a narrative about the future in order to predict and invent design fictions that can address that narrative. One influence on my thinking is JG Ballard’s novel, The Drowned World. The Drowned World explores earth after a series of solar flares have increased the intensity of the sun’s heat and radiation, where most of the previously habitable areas flooded, tropical jungle or swamps. The story follows the biologist Dr Robert Kerans and his struggles against the devolutionary impulses of the environment. The changing climate gives all the characters strange dreams, which haunt their waking life. I’m inspired by this projection of the future as people become more in tune and connected to the landscape around them. As nature changes the climate in dramatic ways we  may be forced to examine our own connectivity and place within the larger ecosystem.

Wearable designs such as Kobikant’s “The Crying Dress”, Chiu Chih's “survival kit for the ever-changing planet”, and Diffus’s “Climate Dress” all address the issue of climate change through wearable technology.

Diffus’s Climate Dress is laced with hundreds of tiny LEDs that respond to carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Powered by an Arduino Lilypad microprocessor and a carbon dioxide detector, the haute-tech frock uses conductive embroidery to transmit information to the hand-stitched lights, resulting in patterns that range from slow pulses to rapid flashes depending on the concentration of the greenhouse gas. (Ecouterre 2014)

Climate dress uses CO2, one of the principal causes of climate change and ozone erosion, to create visual patterns on a garment; this dress confronts us with our own environmental destruction in a beautiful display what creates a dark paradox.


My first paper prototype combines paper engineering, soft circuits and a new idea. When thinking about my project I imagine the future in 50 years, when climate change has progressed to create temperature extremes and air pollution issues. I want to investigate the way in which we might adapt our clothing and fashion items to address these climate and environmental shifts.

Hand held fans are traditional in many cultures where people have had to live in warm climates. They provide man made cooling and comfort when it is very warm out. I wanted to use this object as a template for a new kind of fashion and comfort accessory. I imagine a fan that would turn on when you unfold it and sense the particulates in the air and change a series of LEDs to indicate the relative air quality near the user.  As the air gets worse, the fan's led pattern will be more beautiful, brighter, more vibrant. I imagine the fan will look amazing in the very polluted central valley of California and look very simple and plain in the clean sea air of Honolulu, Hawaii.  

My current prototype is a proof of concept of a switch which turns an LED on when the fan is held in the hand. It was constructed with one LED, conductive thread, copper tape, a removable 3V battery, wood and paper.

Questions and Concerns

I am not sure how to connect the narrative of a future audience to the present day prototypes I am creating. I am also worried about making the future target audience clear, while making sure the audience in the present who contemplates and interacts with the designs I create is included in my thinking about the designs. In some way I am designing for two very different audiences. One is a very particular, projected future person living in California in the year 2070 and the other is the current MFADT community and the broader technology/design community in 2015. I am investigating the following questions:

  • Who is likely to wear new tech that responds to temperature and toxicity shifts?

  • What will the temperatures be like on the planet in 50-100 years?

  • How might we design wearables that provide comfort given the projected extremes of temperature within already dry regions of California?

  • What are the projected temperature changes in fifty years?


Ballard, J. G. Drowned World. Doubleday, 1962.

Clarke, Alison J. "Chapter Two." Design Anthropology: Object Culture in the 21st Century. Wien: Springer, 2011. 36. Print.

"Climate Dress by Diffus." Ecouterre Climate Dress by Diffus Comments. Accessed September 17, 2014.

"The Crying Dress." KOBAKANT. Accessed September 17, 2014.

"France in the Year 2000." The Public Domain Review. Accessed August 20, 2014.

"Regional Climate Trends and Scenarios for the U.S. National Climate Assessment. Part 5. Climate of the Southwest U.S." Home. Accessed September 17, 2014.

"Chiu Chih's Survival Kit for the Ever-changing Planet - Designboom | Architecture & Design Magazine." Designboom Architecture Design Magazine Chiu Chihs Survival Kit for the Everchanging Planet Comments. Accessed September 17, 2014.

Thesis Concept Map

This Concept Map covers the Domains of inquiry for my thesis, concepts, materials, and precedents to date. Each is in a different shape and color for ease of reading. More to come as the project unfolds.