Social discourse through art

Jasmine (in orange blouse) and her teammates explaining their project to enrich the lives of red pandas to curious visitors at the exhibition

Random Blends, the showcase event of NUS Communications and New Media (CNM), returned for its 10th anniversary from 5 to 6 April at University Town, featuring over 25 interactive and thought-provoking projects designed by students to imagine a better future. 

This year’s exhibition titled “RE:” allowed visitors to experience unique applications of technology that sought to challenge preconceived notions of the sociopolitical environment, address salient social issues and spread a strong message of environmental sustainability. The title “RE:” is a play on the prefix ‘re’ commonly used in calls to “reduce, reuse and recycle”, as well as the ‘Re:’ seen when crafting an email reply, with the exhibition denoting a “reply” to the environmental conversation. Eco-friendly and recycled materials were used throughout the exhibition, right down to the ribbon that was cut during the opening ceremony. 

Among the exhibits were robotic devices designed for animals, created by students of module NM3231 Physical Interaction Design, in collaboration with Wildlife Reserves Singapore. To develop their prototypes, students were taught basic coding and ‘maker’ skills by NUS CNM Assistant Professor Andrew Quitmeyer. 


From left: NUS CNM students Vivian Ngiam and Isabel Ng and Teaching Assistant Mr Dennis Ang demonstrating the prototype remote control of their tiger enrichment device to carnivore keepers in the Night Safari

Year 2 CNM students Aw Mei Yu, Emmelyn Koh, Vanessa Kwa and Jasmine Chong, together with Year 3 CNM student Deanne Galicia and University of Sydney exchange student Daniel Chan, used their newfound skills to design a series of natural looking “rocks” that would light up in turn and, upon contact with a red panda, initiate the launch of apple slices randomly throughout the enclosure, helping the animals remain physically active. 

However, the team soon learnt from the zookeepers that red pandas adhere to a strict diet and cannot eat food off the ground, rendering the device impractical, though it could still be used for other animals such as monkeys. The device also could not be too loud since the red pandas are housed in the same climate-controlled complex as the giant pandas. The students worked around this by separating the food dispensing mechanism from the catapult device, and creating a quieter sensor-driven feeder that could provide food for the red pandas at a pre-set number of times per interval once motion was detected at parts of the enclosure.      

“It was challenging. We had to take things apart and put them back together and when you put them back together, other things happen; it was frustrating at times. We had to do a lot of research. However, I found the module interesting. It’s not every day that you get to work with zoo animals. I also learnt new things like coding. I have coded for websites but never for robotics. I didn’t even know I could build rocks that light up! It was pretty enriching, overall,” said Jasmine. 

Turning their attention to the ever-changing chameleon, Year 3 students Winnie Soh from NUS Psychology and Alec Ng from NUS Computer Science, together with Year 2 students Shaun Han from CNM, Nicole Khoo from NUS Sociology and University of Sydney exchange student Laura Bee, spent many late nights on campus designing a mechanical tree branch that could sway to simulate a gentle breeze and strengthen the reptile’s leg muscles as it clings to the branch. On the advice of the zookeepers who mentioned the chameleon’s limited 2D vision, they also created miniature contraptions with moving artificial crickets which disappear after making contact with the chameleon’s tongue as a form of target practice for the chameleons. The team hopes to further refine their project by adding more varieties of motion to the branch.

In addition to the animal enrichment projects, the exhibition featured a variety of other highlights including film and poster campaigns on issues such as poverty and foreign domestic workers, terrarium-making, a book swap, as well as guest speakers from environmental organisations.

We have media works that have been presented as films, campaigns, video games, board games, workshops, and even interactive robots that tigers, orangutans and sun bears can play with…The students organising this event faced a difficult task curating such different types of art, but they managed to pull them together.

Since 2009, Random Blends has provided a platform for NUS students to express their talent and creativity through projects that bring art, design and new media together in innovative ways, while also honing their skills in marketing, communications, as well as events management and curation.


Asst Prof Quitmeyer with the tiger enrichment device

Random Blends has been going on for 10 years now and has been exhibited at places all around Singapore. This year is our ‘RE:turn’ to campus to function as a homecoming for our department and reconnect with everyone in NUS. The exhibitions that are featured here are extremely diverse. We have media works that have been presented as films, campaigns, video games, board games, workshops, and even interactive robots that tigers, orangutans and sun bears can play with…The students organising this event faced a difficult task curating such different types of art, but they managed to pull them together,” said Asst Prof Quitmeyer.

Tricia Neo, a Year 4 NUS CNM student and member of the Random Blends organising committee said putting the event together was definitely an exciting and memorable experience. “We had the chance to witness the sheer creativity, ingenuity and passion of students through projects that deal with technological innovation and important social issues of our time. Importantly, we came together as a team to bring the exhibition from conception to execution, surmounting several challenges in the process. We pushed ourselves to focus on environmental sustainability and using only what we need, and under the guidance of Asst Prof Quitmeyer, we are happy to say that we are proud of what we have achieved together,” she said.


Visitors giving a digital game a go