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Primate Quest

Primate Quest is an exhibit about primate brain size relates to diet. Recent NYU research explains that diet drives brain size, not social pressures. The exhibit was delivered in a playful way, we created interactive installations for the audience to learn deeply about the research.


Experience & Interaction Designer, Developer

Project Type

Interactive exhibit


Arduino, Unity, Microsoft Kinect, p5.js


Haiyi Huang, Elizabeth Ferguson, Ella Chung

Project Timeline

January 29th - April 30th 2018


ITP Spring Show 2018

New York Hall of Science

New York Maker Faire 2018

New research shows that primate brain size is predicted by diet but not sociality.


Recent NYU research proposes that over evolutionary time, diet drives larger brain size in primates — not social pressures as originally thought. Alex DeCasien, a PhD student at NYU’s Primatology Lab, conducted this new and groundbreaking research. She and her colleagues used larger data sets and newer methodologies now available to scientists. They discovered that primate brain size is predicted by diet but not sociality.

Why does diet relates to primate brain size matter?

Larger brains are more “expensive” because they require more energy to power. Differences in the quality and difficulty of diet drives  brain size over evolutionary time, too. The higher quality a diet is, the more energy the primate can obtain. The more difficult a diet is to obtain, the more energy it requires. Why does this matter? These diets evolve over thousands/millions of years, allowing species to capitalize on their environment’s food resources. Humans share a common ancestor with primates. We are more closely related to primates than any other mammal. And of all primates on earth, human brains are the largest and most complex. What can primate brain size tell us about ourselves? Perhaps we, too, developed large brain sizes due to diet.

Making a serious research into playful exhibit

A topic about primate is not commonly exposed and probably not too interesting for public. We noticed that such a heavy topic could be turned into a playful way to share the messages behind this research to public. We worked together with the researcher to make an interactive and playful exhibit to engage public attention to this topic. We wanted to spread this new research that diet is linked to brain size in primates and not sociality like previous evolution theory. Not only that, but we also wanted public to think about how we, as humans, understand our own past by studying primates.


Designing an exhibit

Creating an interactive exhibition was not easy. We had to think about spatial, experience, and how audiences interact with the pieces to understand the value of its exhibit. Designing an exhibit is all about planning. Discovery was definitely an important step to explore how was people ambiance and what value to bring in the exhibit. To create a memorable exhibit, me and my team carefully thought about all the details in design, starting from Conceptual Design, Schematic Design, and Design Development before we did the prototype for play testing. Final design was made after several iteration before we executed the exhibit.


Conceptual design is very important for concept development. In the Conceptual Package, we decided the exhibition messages and goals, and the target audiences who were NYU students and researchers, public and also middle schoolers. We also planned the interactive pieces for the exhibit content ideas including the interactions, experiences, and the takeaways that the audiences would get from the exhibit.

The Schematic Design is important to provide more detail information about the scope and character of the exhibit. By this stage, the exhibit goal, theme, and spatial design should be more concrete. The Schematic Design helped us with visualizing the concepts, including spatial arrangements, artifact use, interactive displays, game flow, materials, and also bill costs.

As an Experience and Interaction Designer, I believed planning a journey map to state how the audiences would experience in every stage of the exhibit was necessary. Primate Quest had three major sections in the exhibit: Discover (Information) Area, Interaction Area, and Takeaways Area. Each area was designed to achieve a proposed goal to create a certain user experience.

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User Journey

During the Design Development, spatial design (layouts, exhibit flow, arrangements) was created and exhibit content (research content, text, and messages) was compiled into final draft. All the graphic elements such as signage was also finalized to elevate the final design.


Model made by Haiyi Huang

Learning about primate brain with Brain Interactive

We created two interactive pieces for this exhibition: Brain Interactive and Diet Interactive. The goal of Brain Interactive piece was to let user understand how brain size is actually related to what primates eat. For the Brain Interactive, user was able to adjust brain size physically and see the display digitally.

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Understanding primate diet with interactive game: Diet Interactive

For Diet Interactive, we wanted to deliver the main message of the exhibit. That was, the type of diet involved in how brain size changed through evolution. We wanted to make sure that audiences could understand directly and could take away the insights clearly by interacting with the game. We designed the Diet Interactive so that users could experience as if they were primates. We created an interactive game using Microsoft Kinect and Unity. This interactive game contained three levels that each level represented a type of primate. User would experience how primates eat using different tools and energy to eat different type of food.

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Since the audiences were mostly for kids and young adults, the game flow was pretty much simple. On the game development phase, we went through many iterations to create as easy to understand as possible for the users. During the development, I believed a short prototype was worth a thousand words. Creating the prototype as soon as possible helped a lot in clarifying the game mechanism and design from users perspectives. The game was made in Unity and C#.

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Iterative design: How playtesting enhance user experience

We did a lot of prototyping and playtesting before we developed all the interactive pieces. Quick prototyping and doing playtest as soon as possible were really helpful. That way, we could get a lot of insights and could iterate the design before actually developing them. Also, playtesting was very helpful to get the answers from all our confusions while deciding on some implementations.


Primate Quest on Tour

Primate Quest was exhibited four times: in Playful Communication of Serious Research Exhibit, New York Hall of Science, ITP Spring Show 2018, and the World Maker Faire New York 2018. Creating an entire exhibit was really challenging. Moreover, for four different venues. But I was really happy to be able to achieve our project goal - to deliver the messages to public in an interesting and playful way.

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How Exhibit Design taught me about Experience & Interaction Design

Creating an interactive exhibit did teach me a lot of things, especially about Experience and Interaction Design. Designing an exhibit was also like telling a story, in many different forms. From the entrance to the end of the exhibit, I learned a lot to think how to engage the audiences using all elements: spatial layouts, visual graphics, interactive displays, and special effects such as sound and light. Every single detail matters.

For this projects, I was more focus on developing the interactive game (Diet Interactive). By making the game, I learned that crafting an interactive experience need many iterations of prototyping and playtesting. Since we were dealing with the public, it was really important to put myself on their shoes, trying to understand how people would experience while interacting with the piece. Prototyping did matter a thousand words. It was not just clarifying assumptions, but it helped gathering insights how the interactive display should be. More importantly, as a designer, it mattered a lot that at the end of the exhibit, the audiences could tell what the exhibit messages that were trying to be communicated.

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