Curious Ear - How It Started

I have been collaborating with a group of local artists and friends in Portland on a community engagement project called Curious Ear. It started as a "wouldn't it be cool" conversation on a hike and has quickly turned into a real art project over the course of 6 months that has been showcased at events and art festivals. This write-up is a recap of how it all started, a bit about our process, the technology behind it, where we are now and how we hope this project evolves. I decided to write this because projects like this really get me excited about technology. It's awesome what a group of cross disciplinary friends can achieve when they come together around a common idea.

It all started in the summer of 2016 when I met Travis Abels. After uncovering I was in the technology space during a conversation Travis dropped an idea on me to gauge the technical feasibility. He wanted a portable physical structure, like a phone booth, that could be placed in different parts of a city to collect stories from people who don't typically have a wide audience. These stories would be stored online and broadcast from another structure in a physically different location. The concept centered around "we fear what we don't know" and hoped to bridge the unknown by connecting people who would otherwise not do so on their own. This project came at a time when phrases like "echo chamber" were being used to describe our online communities. Curious Ear was born with the hope it could help counteract our societies habit to group based on sameness. In addition to bringing different points of view together we envisioned giving people voice who would otherwise be less valued by society. I was personally really excised about the idea of placing a listening sculpture inside a retirement home or hospice to giving people the opportunity to record audio that they wanted to share.

After a couple of informal conversation Travis and I decided to get together on a weekend and build the listening sculpture to see how far we could get in 12 hours. Travis generously purchased the electronics and invited a his friend Marc Girouard to join the first work session. Marc later became a core member of the project team as a graphic and motion designer.

We used virtual reality to help grasp scale and play around with different form factors. Here is Marc using Tilt Brush, sculpting his vision for the listening pod.

The technology behind Curious Ear is simple and cheap. A consumer tablet is the computer and user interface. We decided to go with Android because there are a lot of $100 - 200 options. The tablet is connected to a powered microphone to improve the audio quality.

At the time I had zero Android experience but as a technologist was not afraid to learn on the job. I feel like my entire software engineering career I have been doing while learning in parallel. Maybe the primary reason I enjoy development over mechanical engineering. When you don't know what you're doing but you have promised someone something it sobers you up pretty quickly.

During our session I focused on writing an Android app and setting up a backend to host the audio files and structured data. I will write a more detailed post about the technology behind Curious Ear because I am personally proud of it and think it's a solid engineering approach.

We started at noon and by 11:30 PM Travis and Marc had created a rather attractive base ear structure and I managed to create an app that recorded and uploaded audio to our backend.

When I look back on that day I recognize now how important it was to make so much progress so quickly. It got us all excited about the project.

Curious Ear has come a long way since then. We have grown the team to include more talented friends. We have done a bunch of user testing at local events and venues.


You can learn more about this project here.