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Monochrome Room

In Inspiration on 2 • 10 • 12 at 11:08 am

Inside the Exploratorium's Monochromatic Room.

Honestly, I could fill the entire ‘Inspiration Section’ with exhibits from San Francisco’s Exploratorium. Classics like the Tactile Dome will never get old and continue to offer new experience design insights. The exhibits are so dense that there’s always something new to discover.
On my last visit, I went to the Monochromatic Room. Tucked into a small back corner, it’s a room flooded with yellow light from sodium lamps. Various objects are in the room: a poster with an aerial view of the city, some toy cars on a track, stripes painted on the floor, even a jellybean dispenser. Hanging on cables from the center of the ceiling are a pair of regular old flashlights. Like many of the best Exploratorium exhibits, it’s intuitive what to do next – no explanatory text needed.

Rubik's Cube in under sodium lights. Video by expert solver Shelley Chang.

After adjusting to the intensity of the light, things in the room seemed fairly ‘normal.’ It’s not until I turned one of the flashlights on the poster that I realized the intense yellow light has turned the poster entirely monochromatic. When I aimed the flashlight, colors appear where I least expected them. All of the grey cars were actually different colors: green, blue and red. My friend Lea Redmond  got a handful of jellybeans. Together we tried to guess what flavor each seemingly black, grey, or white bean was before we ate it. I went first, picked out a white-looking one and guessed ‘lemon.’ It was apple flavored. I tried a darker one next and guessed licorice – it was root beer. We quickly realized we were playing a dangerous game when Lea’s white-looking one turned out to be the dreaded buttered popcorn. After that we used the flashlight to confirm our guesses before eating them.

Sometimes the best way to engage someone’s senses is to take some of them away. The Exploratorium classic of the tactile dome is a great exploration of this, but the Monochromatic Room does this more subtly. In the tactile dome, it’s completely dark, and it takes some getting used to. But when I go in, I know it’s dark and I expect to have to rely on other senses. The design of the Monochromatic Room is a great tease. It only takes away part of your sense of sight – your ability to differentiate colors – and it does this by adding in a whole new sensory experience – the intense yellow light. This makes the discovery of different colors even more surprising because you don’t instantly recognize that they’ve been taken away. They also brilliantly allow visitors to experience how loosing your ability to see color affects other senses as well. You can’t tickle yourself because your brain knows what’s about to happen – it’s nothing unexpected. The joy in this exhibit is that it gives us the ability to surprise ourselves. It allows us to think we can see, when in reality we can’t. We get to convince ourselves that our eyes can tell us what the jelly bean will taste like, and then, with a sweep of the flashlight, reveal how mistaken we were.

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