“Lighted Hearts”, Public Interfaces with Jake Barton & Ian Curry, Fall 2011.


Heart health can be simple to measure.

Mostly, there are three ranges to understand: 40-60 BPM indicates good health, 60-100 BPM is considered normal, and above 100 BPM likely means an increased heart rate. Knowing your range can say a lot about where you stand health-wise, both now and with your long term health.

But health can often feel clinical. In fact, we think of ourselves as isolated beings, but we’re actually largely influenced by those around us. What if we were to make it more of a social connection and experience?

Heartbeats on the High Line

For my first pass at an ambient concept, I played with the idea of a forest of vertical LED lights embedded near benches on the High Line. While the experience would still be personal to the individual, together, a group of people could light up the “forest”.

The intent was two-fold: 1) Translate a biological reading into something viscerally understandable; and 2) allow people to collectively influence one another.

Fireflies is to Heartbeats as…

After receiving feedback that I could and should further push the emotional impact of the moment, I scaled the lights down to something smaller but precious.

Still running with the forest theme, I decided to reference fireflies. Our hearts function a lot like fireflies in that they’re comprised of 10,000 pacemaker cells that trigger the rest of our hearts to beat properly. Each cell can have its own rhythm, but each cell can also influence one another–much like fireflies in group settings.

What if we were to experience our heart rates as something as visceral and living as a firefly? What would happen if we then released our heart rates and allowed them to influence one another?

Initial sketch of the firefly experience.

Initial sketch of the firefly experience.

Rough user journey sketch with individual light boxes representing each firefly.

Rough user journey sketch with individual light boxes representing each firefly.

Quick visual sketch of installation effect on the High Line.

Quick visual sketch of installation effect on the High Line.

Lighted Hearts

With the final concept in place, it was time to try prototyping the experience. While it was definitely out of scope to prototype the full installation, creating one light box (aka firefly) seemed to be reasonable.

I started with the good ‘ole Arduino. At first, I tried using a FSR because it seemed the quickest way to fake the three outputs (red for bad, white for okay, blue for good). But I managed to use an infrared LED + photo diode sensor to actually sense the heart rate. As luck would have it, soon after figuring out how to sense a heart rate the hard way, I was able to get my hands on the Pulse Sensor which gave me far more reliable results!

With the code and sensor mapped to the right outputs, I prototyped the box. I first started with thin, clear polyester sheets to get a sense of the dimension, then moved into frosted acrylic sheets cut to size. I also hand frosted each LED bulb to better diffuse the light.

One thing I didn’t quite get to finish out was the motor. I wanted to mimic the feeling of the heart beat, and while I was able to map the motor to each LED pulse, it was a little too unstable for the prototype.

Lighted Hearts

For the final, I also prototyped the visual “firefly” display using massive amounts of Keynote animations. Totally time-consuming, but totally worth it. I then projected the animations onto a studio wall with the light box in total darkness to simulate the installation.

“Lighted Hearts” is an ambient installation for collectively raising heart health awareness.

Designed with the High Line in mind, this installation serves to connect and engage people through their health.

Taking notes from fireflies and their lighted behavior, a small box senses and captures a heart beat, then releases it into the environment. A healthy heart rate is blue and soothing, attracting lighted beats nearby. An unhealthy heart rate is red, palpitating and repelling those around it.

The heart sensor box was created using Arduino, Processing, and the Pulse Sensor.