Volume 2 Issue 10 - January 4, 2008
Sentient Buildings that Sense, Think, and Adapt
Taysheng Jeng

Department of Architecture and Institute of Creative Industry Design

Imagine a building has a brain, senses, nerves, and responsive actions like a human being. A building can be smart and responsive so that it can adapt to environmental changes and proactively respond to human needs. The dream of smart buildings that sense, think, and adapt is a compelling one. Although a favorite subject of science-fiction writers and building technology researchers, however, the goal seems always to lie well off in the future. Researchers have yet to solve fundamental problems involving interaction design, influencing rules, and kinetic design. Some people are hesitated to accept new technologies because they think their lives may be overloaded by information technology and could be possibly controlled by machines in the future.

In the past few years, my research group at NCKU has made remarkable progress towards smart living space. We take a human-centric approach to integrating ubiquitous computing, intelligent agents, and microcontrollers into building elements such as walls, floor, and furniture. Spaces start to sense, think, and adapt to change. We refer to human-centric smart living space as sentient buildings.

A sentient building is sensitive. Traditionally, architecture is considered as a shelter for living. When computers interleaved themselves into our everyday lives, architecture becomes an interaction interface between humans and computation. In NCKU, we collaborate with other groups to create a prototype of smart living space. One design prototype is the responsive wall system. The responsive wall system supports dynamic configuration of spaces for physical and social contexts. The system allows the wall to dynamically change its physical property (e.g. from opaque to transparent) according to varied spatial configuration. Each wall is modularized and embedded with RFIDs. When connected, the RFID walls detect their state of connectedness and trigger the glass panel to turn opaque. The other design prototype is the interactive garden. The interactive garden is a sensing-based ubiquitous art installation designed for natural interaction at home. We borrow the notion of Japanese Karesansui rock garden used in meditation and apply sensing technology and augmented reality to connect people, emotions, and media. First, the interactive garden is a context-aware system. Sensors and LEDs are installed in a set of smart rock-like chairs. The chairs lights up the garden when one sits on it. The light would be on for minutes, implicitly implying an occurrence and people’s presence in the garden. Secondly, the interactive garden affords mixed reality for sentient interaction with family. Colorful butterflies in motion are projected on the sand ground after sitting, which mediates meditation and social interaction with the family. Figure 1 shows some perspectives of the smart living space at NCKU.
Figure1: In NCKU Aspire Home, the wall connection turns the glass panels opaque. The glass panels turn transparent when disconnected. (left/ middle);The garden is lighted up when/after the chairs are sat. (middle);Colorful butterflies in motion mediate social interaction with the family. (right)

A sentient building is thoughtful. In order to build up ambient intelligence in space, we use Internet to collect tons of commonsense knowledge about everyday lives, which becomes a huge open-mind commonsense database for use in smart space. The open-mind commonsense database is based on the user descriptions of everyday lives, which can be formalized into a semantic network. By connecting sensors and interactive devices in space, each sensing event is a node of the semantic network. The link represents event dependencies. Using spreading activation theory, we have implemented a system called ContextSense to draw inferences from the semantic network. The ContextSense system traverses the semantic network to “guess” the user’s situation and intention. An experimental study is conducted to guess user intention in a sensor-embedded laboratory, as shown in Figure 2.
Figure 2: A semantic network represents events and their dependencies in our everyday lives. (left);The user interface of the ContextSense system shows how to guess user situation, intention, and activities in space. (right)

A sentient building is adaptive. What actions could a sentient building proactively respond? First, a sentient building is climate-responsive in such a way that the internal and external forms are modified in response to changes in the environment. Secondly, a sentient building is user-responsive by changing its space volume and properties in order to mediate human needs inside and the environment outside. Houses, for example, might change their shape to cut heating costs and reconfigure themselves to improve ventilation. On one hand, a sentient building is considered as a living system like mimosa or amoeba with respect to the dynamics of architectural space. On the other hand, a sentient building acts like a large-scale intelligent robot that can physically reconfigure themselves to meet changing needs. In our work, we take a robotic approach to developing a kinetic design system with respect to the dynamics and flexibility of architectural space. The roof structure of the system can change its shape in response to varied lighting positions. The inner physical space of the system shrinks in order to reduce surface area and volume. The design prototype is shown in Figure 3.
Figure 3: A sentient building can change its shape to cut heating costs and reconfigure itself to improve ventilation. (left);A kinetic design system is implemented by embedding sensors and actuators in a laser-cut model. (middle);A sequence of kinetic design prototypes coordinates with each other to change the roof shape in response to varied lighting positions.

How soon will sentient buildings become part of living environments? What applications will drive this new creative industry? It is impossible to predict exactly when- or even if- this industry will achieve critical mass. It is quite likely, however, that sentient buildings will play an important role in providing physical assistance in home safety, sustainability, and creating new user experiences. The promises of sentient buildings are yet to be proved. If it does, though, it may well change the world.
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