Viruscraft is a Wellcome Trust funded research project combining tangible interfaces, craft and computer games to explore the work of evolutionary biologist Ben Longdon, who is finding out what determines the ability of a virus to jump into new host species.
If you zoomed in enough, you would see that viruses are geometric structures. These structures are coated with tiny shapes made from proteins. The shapes on the virus fit into similar shapes on the surface of host cells. If they match (a bit like a key fitting into a lock), infection can take place. To avoid infection, hosts evolve to change the shapes on the outside of their cells. To keep up with this change, or to move into a new host species, viruses have to evolve their own surface shapes. In real life this happens all the time, like the bird flu virus mutating to infect humans.
We designed Viruscraft to allow anyone to explore how viruses evolve and jump between host species - the game is based on real host-parasite evolutionary dynamics. The game is played from the perspective of a virus - players evolve their virus by changing the shapes on its surface. When the shapes on the virus match a host creature on the planet, infection can take place. The aim is to keep your virus alive as long as possible by evolving to infect new hosts. Players must avoid killing off all the host species, or their virus will die too.
There are two versions of the game - one is screen based (see link above) and looks like this:
The other version is a tangible interface system for exhibition use. The tangible interface is a large wood virus with lots of plug in shapes - these plug in shapes represent the proteins on the surface of the viruses. When the shapes are changed, this is automatically detected using photointerrupter sensors on the virus itself, and simple barcodes on the bases of the plug-in shapes:
Viruscraft was developed through a series of open workshops. We launched with a workshop in April 2017 to co-research virus genetics and structure, and use craft approaches to explore ways of building modifiable viral structures for informing the tangible interface design. We then held an open workshop in April 2018 for testing and improving the prototype version, and finished with an open event for testing the full version with visitors at the Eden Project in Jan 2019. We are now planning to develop Viruscraft into a full exhibition version that can be installed long-term.
The first Viruscraft workshop made an appearance in Blueprint magazine, and another interesting unexpected outcome from the project has been that one of the original workshop participants, Aaron Moore, ended up creating a whole range of virus-inspired products, including a virus shaped lampshade (used in our later workshops and installations, as well as a virus shaped chair and funeral urn. The design and build of the tangible interface were made in collaboration with Aaron and his brilliant woodworking skills, and the pieces for the final version were cut on his self-made CNC machine the St. Agnes Makerspace.
You can try out the online version of the game here, and see photos and videos for the project here.
In 2020 we received funding from the University of Exeter to complete evaluation on the project - we'll be installing the tangible interface and screen based versions at the Eden Project, and seeing how people use them and what people learn from them, with help from Dr. Lotty Brand.
The project runs from 2016-2021 and is funded by the Wellcome Trust - it is the public engagement component of a Sir Henry Dale research fellowship. Additional funding has been provided to FoAM by the Cultivator Skills Development Programme (the European Social Fund, Arts Council England and Cornwall Council).