The Interaction Research Studio, based at Goldsmiths University, has recently designed a pair of sunglasses… for puffins. The studio, which utilises “design-led methodologies to explore innovative technologies for everyday life,” has spent the past few months developing a pair of sunglasses for puffins to wear, not for the summer months that lie ahead, but for their protection all year round.
Speaking to Dean Brown, a researcher at the studio, he explains that this unlikely brief developed through a discussion with Ornithologist, Jamie Dunning. Jamie had been working on an international project with the University of Nottingham and scientists in the US and Canada, “investigating the phenomenon of an apparent photo-luminescent glow in the bill of the Atlantic Puffin,” Dean tells It’s Nice That. The teams were stumped as to why puffins had this shimmer, but the scientists felt “as with all animal behaviour and characteristics, this glowing beak must have a meaningful purpose in the world of the puffin.” It could, for instance, be linked to “sexual signalling, feeding young in their burrows or perhaps even capturing prey,” adds Jamie, but nevertheless, “at this stage, we aren’t really sure why puffins need this trait (if at all).”
The process of working out what this glow means for puffins meant the scientists would need to shine an ultraviolet light on their bills, potentially causing damage to their eyes. For the scientists and ornithologists involved, the safety of the puffins was the foremost concern, leading Jamie to contact Dean and ask for a design solution. The idea was relatively simple but effective: we wear sunglasses to protect our eyes from UV rays, the Interaction Research Studio would make the puffin equivalent.
In order to actually design these sunglasses, Jamie provided the studio with “the scenarios of use, and important puffin metrics like the range of beak sizes and head widths,” Dean tells us. From there, the studio got to work investigating the optimum form, size, materials and “wearing concepts” for the sunglasses which “prioritised ethical usage, the comfort of the bird and outdoor use”.
Testing options in-house, the Interaction Research Studio laser cut various options, tested them on deceased specimen puffins, “to be sure the designs were completely suitable before creating our ready-to-wear range for live puffins”. The process followed “a user-driven design process – the user, in this case, being a puffin,” explains Dean. “Having the opportunity to apply a user-centred design approach to an animal rather than a person was fascinating and quite unique for me,” he adds.
The consequent outcome is a “simple nose-resting design” without the usual “side arms” which balance sunglasses on the face of a person. This makes the glasses “quick and unobtrusive to fit to the puffin, with a brightly coloured nose piece that bridges the animal’s distinctive bill.” Material wise, the sunglasses are made from a core material of neoprene foam which is soft to rest on the nose of a puffin, as well as a ripstop nylon layer in order to be water repellant. These materials are fitted to an aluminium bridge component “introduced to enable to glasses to curve and hold to accommodate different bill and head sizes,” points out Dean. “The overall ‘sandwich’ assembly enabled the slim and light-weight design to be completely light absorbent.” And, when it came to picking colour combinations, Interaction Research Studio was inspired by the puffins themselves: “…The dark grey outer is complemented by vibrant point colours found in the puffin’s bill. Furthermore, the dark colour absorbed the UV light, rather than bouncing it back at the field researchers.”
Now with the puffin sunglasses designed, Dean hopes Interaction Research Studio’s work will help people learn “about this fascinating feature of puffin ecology and the role design can play in enabling ornithologists to make these discoveries and observe what they mean.” The studio’s design has also since been credited as a contributor to “the official discovery of ‘Photoluminescence in the Bill of Atlantic Puffin Fratercula Arctica’ published in the Bird Study Journal” where Dean is listed as a co-author. And, while the research is still ongoing, for those wondering, the current observation is that “the glowing bills are at their most vibrant during the breeding season, and fade during the non-breeding season – hence, they probably serve as a courtship signal.”
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