Rest, relax and recharge at the Singapore Botanic Gardens.
Explore the Singapore Botanic Gardens Gallop Extension through sound. Enjoy a movement and moment of calm.
Sonic Walks: Relak uses geolocation technology to activate audio content as you walk around the park. Discover soundscapes, guided meditations, stories, a guided walk and a sound healing experience, designed to encourage a relaxed state of mind.
Conceived with the support of the Good Design Research grant from DesignSingapore Council, Sonic Walks: Relak is the outcome of an exploration into how the intersection of technology, audio and space invites new possibilities of experiencing our environment, to encourage a richer imagination of our surroundings and deepen our sense of place and connection to the city.
While this site-specific prototype is designed using GPS navigation and mobile phone technology, it is primarily crafted around experience and content. Download the app to discover new geographies by walking and listening.
This prototype is currently only available for Android devices
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Questions we asked while designing this sonic spatial experience
How can we make a sonic walk experience more invisible, more immersive, more dynamic?
How can we explore site-specific narratives and geographies of cultural memory?
How can we augment walking to enable users to dream, imagine past, present or future realities?
Some reflections on the design process
Most multi-sensory experiences take place in fixed locations such as galleries or theatres. This project explores sonic experiences that can be embedded anywhere in open spaces and delivered through the mobile devices we already own.
Choosing a site
Each site has a specific geomorphology and a genius loci, a unique spirit. Gardens are places that connect us to nature, that we cultivate a relationship with. They bring us close to life, plants, and animals. They bring us close to ourselves. This is the case of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, a garden populated by thousands of species and a beloved public space in the pulsing heart of our city.
No fixed paths
Walking improves your mental and physical health, gives us time to think. It is about “how the body measures itself against the earth” as Rebecca Solnit describes it. Rather than creating a guided tour with defined paths, we tried to invite users to drift, to use sound to get lost and yet discover things that are specific to the place where they are. This use of navigation technology is meant to be exploratory rather than efficient.
Mapping space and time
Repeated walks, research, auditory and photographic exploration at different times of the day helped us map the place. Much of the design effort has to be dedicated to situate the experience in space. To make it site-specific. Although overall the sonic walk relies more on hearing than on visual cues, it is essential to define boundaries, precisely map locations, identify landmarks, routes and time them. Duration and location are central to the design of this experience.
An interface is where user meets technology. It sets expectations about the sonic walk and facilitates the experience. This project explored an interface that is partly navigated by walking, rather than tapping or swiping which we are more accustomed to. It engages with the full body and our innate desire to move and explore our surroundings.
The digital interface offers variability and multiplicity. It can change with user selection or change over time. We offered options for users to customise sounds based on their mood, inviting them to repeat the sonic walk experience with slight variations each time. Other possible permutations include content that might differ by time of day, month or season.
We wanted users to also be able to access this experience from home, on a bus ride, or anywhere else in the world. How should this be similar or different from the onsite experience? We wireframed parallel paths for both conditions, modifying the app architecture to anticipate user movement through both space and app. The offsite experience extends the sonic walk to function as a music or podcast streaming playlist.
Beyond usability, a good interface should be a delight to use. Its design should be unique to its content. The visual design for Sonic Walks: Relak is elegant and minimal, to complement the restful quality of the audio tracks. Online tools such as Mapbox allow us to style GPS maps in the same colours or fonts to match the overall visual identity.
Experimenting with new technologies and tools has its challenges. It requires improvisation, trial and error, as well as developing ways of collaborating between different specialists.
The process involves repeated site visits to trace coordinates and identify landmarks. We relied on a mix of existing tools such as Google Maps and custom-built digital tools to map the space. While specific locations are easily-defined, an understanding of radius, areas and distances are more difficult to capture.
To build a complex sonic experience with multiple soundtracks, we developed a vocabulary and library of techniques to facilitate collaboration between sound design and computer programming. It involved managing volumes, fading sounds, the blending or mixing of one sound into another.
Preliminary mock-ups allowed us to test offsite, experimenting with different sound effects and the logic of how the sound reacts to the user. As with any other interactive experience, testing with different users and different devices is essential.
Sonic textures can be isolated or combined depending on the user’s location.
Sounds may be arranged in sequence, but users may move forwards or backwards through it.
Volume can suggest distance, users may walk towards or away from a sound.
The sounds we hear around us help us to understand our world. Unlike our eyes, our ears never blink. For most of us, we are always listening, we are swimming through the ocean of endless sound.
Traditional chanting and music from many Asian cultures use certain frequencies to attain spiritual transformation, calm the soul and even heal the body. The type of frequencies used in this sonic experience have strong healing powers and were generated after a process of researching various well-being sonic techniques.
Sound is digitally augmented and used as the main channel used for conveying information, meaning, aesthetic and emotional quality. The extended amounts of time spent looking at screens causes eye fatigue as well as mental and psychological tiredness. This sonic experience encourages a more direct engagement with the physical environment, it is open and yet immersive, it provides rest from screen fatigue.
Layering sound textures
While walking, one can interact with sound, hear different sonic textures merging and dissolving, getting closer and fading into silence. This layered way of designing sound uses a combination of drones, natural field recordings, voices, and synthetised sounds in a polyphonic way. At the same time it feels natural and fluid, more life-like.
In addition to sound, this project also experimented with the use of text, narrative and voice. Sonic experiences invites collaborations with creators in the non-visual space – musicians, writers, podcasters, voice actors and comedians.
As the sequence of sounds is directed by users’ movements in an open space, the narrative is more difficult to control. We can use the ‘incomplete’ or episodic narrative to an advantage, by creating mystery and suspense, allowing audience to speculate. This needs to be complemented with instructional scriptwriting, but a fine balance need to be struck, between providing directions and the central sonic experience.
Integrating poetry allows us to focus on mood, emotion and beauty, rather than plot. The script reflects the site-specificity of the walk, sometimes asking the user to engage with the external world, to “stop for a minute, observe…”.
Most people “hear” their thoughts, or have an “inner voice”. Sound is emotional and intimate. Different voices – young, old, high-pitched, low-pitched, male, female – all have different qualities. It can dramatically change the mood and tone of a piece of written text.
Amidst all the options available, acquiring audiences for a digital experience may be challenging. Thus, it is useful to think about an app experience as part of a much larger ecosystem of production and distribution. Special expertise is required to reach and grow users, audiences and supporters.
It is important to locate the product experience beyond the app itself. By mapping the user journey before and after using the app, we can identify opportunities for audiences to find out about it.
Project timelines should include pre-launch, launch and post-launch. Complement the app with supporting activities such as guided walks, behind-the-scenes tours, exclusive content, or workshops that engage other senses.
Mobile app analytics can provide data about how users listen, but it is also crucial to determine what stakeholders want to measure. If the goal of Sonic Walks: Relak is to raise the quality of life, or foster a sense of connection with the city, perhaps consider alternative ways to assess enjoyment, imagination and pleasure.
POSSIBLE USE CASES
Arts and music festivals
Health and wellness programmes
Heritage, urban & nature walks
The process and software developed in this project may be adapted for clients looking to create audio experiences around and about any physical location.
It might also be developed into a tool or platform for other content creators (writers, artists, musicians etc.) to produce their own site-specific stories or events.
We would like to thank the following people for their support on this project: Wayne Mau, Gwend Lim, Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Pooja Nansi, Chong Li-Chuan, Angela Teh, Tania Roy, Shawn Hoo, Mao Yuncheng, Goh Siong Teck, Eva Krishnan and Deborah Jane Gordon.