Social architecture for the international traveler

Master's thesis

Link to thesis booklet

Architecture is a social act and the material theater of human activity. - Spiro Koustof


What if the airport could transform into a place for renewed social interaction? This potential for sharing stories and experiences with our fellow international travelers has always been present in airports, but instead we choose to don our headphones and retract into our mobile devices and magazines, hoping to pass the time quickly.

My master's thesis presented a chance to grasp missed connections through the creation of an interactive space within the airport concourse. Travelers carry a modified boarding pass equipped with a multicolour LED which changes colour depending on their proximity to others. As the lights shine and reflect on architectural features, different spatial perceptions within the airport are experienced.

The interactive platform used multi-coloured lights integrated into passenger boarding cards. Depending on the proximity of travelers to other people, the lights would change colour, reflecting how many other travelers were nearby. Travelers were not told what the role of the lights were prior to experiencing the interaction - this left freedom to interpret the changing colours. The lights provided travelers with a ticket to talk, leaving open the opportunity for conversations that may not have happened otherwise.

User-centred design research

Interviewing travelers
Four students were asked a variety of questions relating to their experiences in airports as a means of understanding how an interactive project may be used and experienced by different people. Their responses formed guidelines for discoverability and what actions would be possible from a traveler in an airport. The interviews served as the opportunity for a common dialogue between the designer and the user, allowing for brainstorming to progress naturally.

Collaborative exploration
I conducted user experiments using flashlights with colour filters attached. Participants were guided through the experience by a set of questions and prompts that were designed to discover usage patterns for the lights.

Gathering data

Context-related projects found on the web were tagged to identify the ways in which interactive elements were being implemented.

Different problems and qualities of airports have attempted to be solved or built upon through projects aimed at social interaction. Projects curated from the internet were assembled and tagged to illustrate ways in which airports are striving to become more interactive. The exercise presented an idea of the landscape where an interactive environment may exist along with spatial patterns or tactics.


Le Corbusier's colour schema for the Weissenhof Estate, Stuttgart, 1927

In choosing the colours of the lights, I consulted a number of colour theories, and was intrigued by the treatments of colour by Swiss architect Le Corbusier and German composer Karlheinz Stockhausen. I saw the lights as the medium through which I could affect the spatial elements of the airport, and rather than constructing experiential architecture through bricks and mortar, I was using these spatial elements as the driving force behind the travelers' experiences.

Rules of the interaction

The interaction followed a series of rules that illustrated my specific design contributions to the project:

The lone individual in the airport was designated by a red-coloured light. Le Corbusier saw red as a colour with the capacity to stimulate and implicate sensations of force, intensity, and action. In this capacity, red colours can step forward and fix the traveler in space, affirming their exact position and dimension.
A pair of people were designated by a green-coloured light. Stockhausen used bright green in his Montag aus Licht (Monday from Light) opera as a symbol of renewal. The union of the pair is a positive sign; the reaffirmation of the ability of the individual to affect change within the interactive system. In the singular state, the traveler is red, and finds that when they are with another, their light changes to green. This is the point at which the interactive environment through the light begins to reveal itself, and the traveler finds that they can cause their light to change colour when they are with others. It is the moment of new, invigorating creativity.

As groups of travelers grew in size, their lights would change to cerulean, and increase into a deeper blue colour. Le Corbusier’s cerulean colours are assigned to act as mediator between the smaller groups of red and green, and the larger groups of travelers. Choosing cerulean as the mediator colour means that medium- and large-sized groups will all display complements of blue tones, and visually this will have the most noticeable impact on the space, as the colours reflect and project on different architectural elements. Le Corbusier used blue tones as a way to open up space and create airy expansions. By using blue, walls and objects can recede into the distance and be made imperceptible. Atmospheres are soft and calming, recreating the effects of water landscapes, the sea, and the sky.

The continued accretion of travelers into larger groups, especially in corridors or smaller spaces, has the increased potential for their lights to reflect and affect upon the architectural features of the space.

The traveler's light would activate after passing through the security checkpoint, symbolizing the transition into a space of higher agency. As the traveler moves and explores, they find that when they get close to another person, both of their lights become a more intense red, and fade when they separate. If they stand with another person long enough, not only do their lights become a more intense red, but they also eventually change to a dim green. If their group of two is joined by another person, that new person's colour will slowly change to match the group's. Once the group is all the same colour, the colours will again change to a dim cerulean blue, because of the greater amount of people in proximity to each other. This process continues each time more people join the group.

Engagement rules

The colour of a traveler's light is dictated by their proximity to others.

Example of two travelers meeting and being joined by two other travelers

When the first pair meet, their lights change from red to green. Additional travelers joining the group will experience their lights changing colour, reflecting their proximity to others.

Object design

In creating a new object that would take the place of the boarding card, I referenced earlier boarding card designs. The object went through a number of iterations that explored a vertically-oriented tag that could be attached to a bag, suitcase, or held in the hand. The final form chosen for the baggage tag object was one that emphasized a thin, vertical object that could stand on its base if placed on a flat surface. An added LCD display conveyed information found on a traditional boarding card, such as flight, gate, and seat number.

Boarding card design

The traditional boarding card has been replaced by a handheld object with a RGB LED.

Creation of a physical interactive space

My objective for the project was to physically create an interactive space where participants could walk around with their redesigned boarding cards and experience their lights changing colour. Creating the interaction in a full-scale, realistic environment was important not only for presentation, but also provided a means to observe the ways in which people interact in the space.

Creating the interactive test space

The interactive space relies on a chain of different pieces of hardware and software in order to work. The initial step is to detect proximity between people in the space. I used computer vision and image processing in order to "see" the space and convert people into points in 2-dimensional space. I chose an Arduino-capable Bluetooth microcontroller called the LightBlue Bean to serve as the controller for the RGB LED in the boarding card. I wrote simple object-based software that processed the data created by the computer vision component in order to detect proximity between people. I then translated this proximity data into RGB colour codes which were sent to the LightBlue Beans in each person's object they were carrying.

3D-printed test model of the new boarding card

I mounted a webcam in the gymnasium hall that would look straight down onto the space. The area seen by the camera became the "scene" where the interactive space would exist. The webcam was connected to a Windows computer running a piece of software called TSPS, which was responsible for doing the image processing on the scene.

Overview of toolchain used to create the interactive space


The addition of interactive architecture into places of high agency in airports has been explored in this thesis as a method of introducing increased social interaction into the airport. Providing more opportunities for travelers to interact with each other opens up the possibility of learning new things from others, sharing stories, and creating friendships.

The project passes the litmus test in the thesis abstract which stated that any project in an airport must preserve security and safety and the airport owners should be able to capitalize on it. A traveler can opt-out of the interaction simply by placing their boarding card in their bag or pocket while retaining its usefulness. There is an opportunity to display additional information on the LCD screen for potential revenue generation. Most importantly, the system does not force those using it to learn complicated usage procedures or read instructions. The operation and pattern of the colour-changing LEDs is kept intentionally ambiguous, leading the traveler to question the system through exploration and navigation of the airport space with their light. Through this, the traveler has the opportunity for creating a lasting experience by interacting with others.

There is potential for the project to continue further, therefore the work should be seen as a stepping-stone towards further investigation.