It had to look cute, it had to take photos, and it had to cosplay.
As the students explained their focus group research and prototypes to the class, they championed a straightforward approach to interactive product technology. To stand out at one of the nation’s largest fan conventions, the team proposed, you start by acknowledging the crowd and use the technology that they use.
And if you’re in Kevin Shankwiler’s summer industrial design studio, the way to learn about interactive product design and pitching to corporate clients is to start with a Buzz doll dressed as a dragon.
“The concept was to engage the Georgia Tech community at Dragon Con. This class wasn’t about dressing Buzz up in a cool costume,” Shankwiler, the undergraduate coordinator of the School of Industrial Design said. “The costumes had to exist for a reason.”
An Atlanta institution, Dragon Con is a multi-genre fan convention held over Labor Day weekend. Spread out across five downtown hotels and the America's Mart, more than 80,000 ticket-buying fans attended the convention in 2018. Dragon Con has been held annually for 31 years and gained an international reputation for elite cosplay.
For the last four years, industrial design students have built and improved upon BuzzRa -- an interactive totem that serves as the centerpiece for impromptu Georgia Tech camaraderie at the convention.
Conceived by the Interactive Product Design Lab, this totem is built from a Buzz doll dressed as a dragon, kitted out with a variety of wearable light technology, programmed triggers, and even a smoke machine. The BuzzRa project served as a visual landmark for impromptu Georgia Tech meetups at the Atlanta-based fan convention for three years. In its fourth year, BuzzRa became a summer studio for School of Industrial Design minors.
This year, the School curated an exhibit of fan-centric work at their end of semester show, “Launchpad.”
User-Centered Design Wins Over Crowds
Included in the BuzzRa display at Launchpad was the winning design from Shankwiler’s summer studio, “ID 4833: Collaborative Capstone Studio for ID Minors.”
The class taught students the overview of the industrial design process, including research, ideation, rapid prototyping, and client presentations. It just so turned out, Shankwiler said, that a large fan convention like Dragon Con is the perfect environment to apply these same lessons.
By designing products for a crowded environment that they did not have immediate access to, students learned important techniques, he said.
“There were lessons about the ways industrial designers investigate context, and how to become familiar with an experience if you can’t actually experience it. The students had to rely on interviews and space tours in order to wrap their heads around just how big this convention is.”
Students in the class divided up into teams to work on proposals for a new version of BuzzRa. The project with the top grade of the class was then developed by a team of volunteer students for deployment at Dragon Con. The 2018 iteration of BuzzRa had three different costumes, inspired by pop culture dragons: Toothless from the Disney film How to Train Your Dragon, a mecha dragon armor inspired by the Godzilla franchise, and Haku from the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away.
Mounted within the dragon head-shaped hood of each costume was a camera that took photos of the massive, cosplaying crowd that took over Peachtree Center during Labor Day weekend.
Once inside downtown hotels like the Marriott Marquis and the Hyatt Regency, which were packed full of pop culture, science fiction, and anime fans, the BuzzRa project was an instant success, Shankwiler said.
“Next year, I hope we see an R2D2 BuzzRa!”
“It was incredible. As I walked around, holding BuzzRa above the crowds, I constantly heard ‘Is that Buzz?!?’ from someone next to me or behind me,” he said. “People ran to get a closer look and to have their picture taken with BuzzRa.”
The Haku costume got the biggest reception from con goers, he said. “Next year, I hope we see an R2D2 BuzzRa!” Shankwiler said the BuzzRa project will become a staple of the new industrial design summer minor program.
The Personal Impact of Georgia Tech Design
“On one level, with BuzzRa, we can connect to the Georgia Tech faithful,” Shankwiler said. “This project gives them something fun to see and it starts conversations. Students and alumni recognize that something is happening with the costume on that plush doll, and almost instantly they’re talking about Georgia Tech.”
BuzzRa has always been a personal interaction, Shankwiler said. The first iteration of BuzzRa included a programmed, Arduino-based light show triggered from an LED strip on BuzzRa’s tail and eyes. The next year, IPDL incorporated an artificial smoke machine into the body of BuzzRa so that the doll “blew smoke.” The third iteration of BuzzRa was redesigned as a cuddly, hand-held version with a long tail that wrapped around the person holding it and a variety of Arduino-based light shows that expressed BuzzRa’s feelings during the interaction.
A 2016 project initiated in the School of Industrial Design, called “DragonWheels,” operated on a much larger scale. Professor Steven Sprigle and his Rehabilitation Engineering and Applied Research Lab made an emotional impact on tens of thousands of visiting fans watching the Dragon Con parade in downtown, Atlanta.
Sprigle, alongside College of Design alumni, and undergraduate and graduate students from the Schools of Industrial Design, Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Mechanical Engineering designed and created cosplays for children with disabilities who use wheelchairs.
When the impressive cosplays were complete, the children (accompanied by a parent or sibling) participated in the annual parade.
“It was classic universal design, looking beyond the kids’ conditions and seeing the abilities they do have,” Shankwiler, who curated the "Launchpad" Dragon Con exhibit, said.
“And they weren’t just costumes, the DragonWheels group built these incredible floats around the wheelchairs. They were able to give these children an exceptional fan convention experience, one that didn’t show them as incapacitated. They were seen as, ‘wow that’s a cool costume!’”
Leading the Accessibility Conversation
Continuing a dialogue about accessibility and gaming at Dragon Con that has lasted for the better part of a decade, Ben Jacobs brought his latest technology discoveries to a packed conference room this summer.
An accommodations specialist with the Tools for Life team (part of the AMAC Research Center in the College of Design) Jacobs helps people with disabilities stay informed about new technologies that help people maintain or regain their independence. He regularly visits the Consumer Electronics Show and other technology conventions to find the newest developments in massively multiplayer online gaming (MMO) products.
“Were’ at the point in time where gaming companies are really listening to people with disabilities,” Jacobs said. “It used to be that we had to convince them that people with disabilities wanted to play games like everyone else, but now they understand that. Now they’re developing solutions to make sure that everyone can play, which is really great.”
It’s been a long time coming, he said. Video games have been home entertainment since the early 1970s, he said. “I’m sure, even back then, that there were a lot of people with disabilities that found it difficult to be able to enjoy those games.”
Because there exists such a wide range of disabilities, Jacobs said all of the controller options he brought to the panel resonated with the crowd. Many gamers with disabilities are used to modifying controllers, and have to essentially reinvent the wheel each time a console is updated, he said.
Most popular with this year's crowd was Microsoft’s work on the Xbox adaptive controller, Jacobs said.
“They spent four years developing it, working with various organizations in the disability and gaming communities including ablegamers.org. The Shepherd Center had a hand in it as well,” he said. “Microsoft wanted to collaborate and find out exactly what people with disabilities needed.”
“Not only that, once they had designed the controller and they had the hardware in mind, they spent another year on the packaging, to make sure it was accessible too. They made the whole experience accessible, from when it arrives at your door all the way to when you’re actually using it. The packaging on it is easy for people to pull back the tape, or to unbox the controller, to plug it in. No twisty ties at all, none of that. It’s really amazing.”
Landmark Design Welcomes 80,000 Fans
The fact that Dragon Con happens in several hotels as opposed to one large convention center is exceptional in the national fan convention landscape.
Even more noteworthy for Georgia Tech attendees, the majority of this convention takes place in a part of downtown and in hotels that College of Design alumnus John Portman designed, built, and developed.
Portman, who died December 29, 2017, at the age of 93, graduated from Georgia Tech in 1950 with a Bachelor of Science in Architecture. He went on to become a globally successful architect, developer, city planner, and artist who directly impacted 60 skylines.
In Atlanta, he’s known as the man who created Peachtree Center, invented the atrium hotel concept and the glass elevator (as manifested in the Hyatt Regency Atlanta and the Atlanta Marriott Marquis), and lined Peachtree Street with trees.
“The buzz, if you will, of Peachtree Center always strikes me when I walk through there of what an integrated space that is. Almost any time I walk through Peachtree Center, it is a beehive of human activity,” said Rick Porter, the director of the School of Building Construction’s Real Estate Development program.
“It’s a space for all kinds humans and their goals and desires and their dreams. That it can be utilized by bankers and utilized by ‘goblins’ during a fan convention is fairly powerful,” Porter said, “because there’s a lot of places that goblins would not feel comfortable interfacing with bankers.”
Real estate developers aim to create spaces that can be utilized over time and produce value that was not there before, he said. “And I think Peachtree Center does that. It’s got commerce, it’s got food, it’s got human activity, it’s got pleasure, it’s got nature, all those things. It’s a better place than it was before he came there.”