There are a lot of ways to divide up space. Mostly, we use walls, windows, fences, and doors to do this. These are architectural solutions, somewhat permanent and quite definite. When it comes to more ad hoc situations, things don’t get much better. "Traditional space dividers range from blunt screens, to slightly less blunt semi-open structures," says designer Sebastiaan Pijnappel. Compare this to the way that humans communicate to one another about space. "A subtle change in posture, the expression on our face, or the speed at which we walk" can signal how much or how little we are willing to allow others near us.
Mimosa is Pijnappel’s attempt to capture some of that subtlety in an external space divider. "My vision was to make the act of dividing space a beautiful, playful, and 'featherlight’ thing that doesn’t feel as an awkward gesture toward others," he says.
Mimosa is designed for use in a co-working environment, where people are coming and going in flexible arrangements. In order to create a subtle space divider, Pijnappel looked at how dividers impacted the experience of individuals in their working space but also how they formed the office landscape as a whole. He says he took special inspiration from laying amidst high grass in a park.
"As you lift your head up slightly you can just about see a few people walk by. You see them, but they don’t see you, or at least that’s the sense of security and privacy you have," he says, "You lower your head back down and everyone and everything is blocked from your sight again. Just as easily, swiping the grass halms aside exposes you, putting you in the same space as them and allowing you to say hi."
Watching the video, you can see how these features translate into the strange shifting paper clouds. You could be forgiven for thinking that it’s a conceptual prototype with the interactions added in post. It’s not. Every interaction is a live function.
"Key to the idea of a magical, subtle, almost 'cloud-like’ space divider was to have no visible technology whatsoever. Realizing this vision took a ton of exploration," says Pijnappel. For instance, to make the paper touch-sensitive, he experimented with conductive transparent foil, thin conductive yarn, and piezo-electric strips. "Eventually I used conductive wool pulled apart to nearly invisible quantities," laminated between the materials and attached to a hidden microcontroller which senses when the wool is touched.
Prototypes for the folding and unfolding similarly went through mock-ups using exotica such as shape memory alloys and artificial muscle technology. In the end it came down to fishing wire attached to silent DC motors. "The gradual way it all folds and unfolds is mostly a natural result of the mechanical resistance of the material."
A lot of thought went into the prototype, and if you are interested in learning more, there is a report on the process of creation [PDF] available online. It’s a really neat glimpse into the thinking process of someone who likes to design-by-doing.