Interaction Design: Physical Digital Products - Prototyping and Aesthetics

After reading week and with a solid idea to work with, we began prototyping our product. It was established that we were going to create baby mobile that would be positioned above a crib and paired with a separate device that could activate and communicate with the baby when the baby's cry reached a certain noise level. We began the week with a quick brainstorm of everything we wanted to include in the product and began whittling down features.

Our lecturer in charge of giving us technical support suggested that we begin by reverse engineering walkie-talkies and experimenting with the circuits to create our first experience prototypes.

Experimenting with the circuits gave us an idea of how we wanted to recreate the circuits using Arduino and also began to give us an idea of the scale to work with when thinking about creating the final prototypes. It was at this stage that we also began experimenting with aesthetics of the product. We began by studying traditional baby mobiles and considered using materials such as felt and cottons to mimic the traditional style but after a tutorial with our lecturer and a discussion, none of the group was very taken with the concept and we began to look at how we could put a different spin on the baby mobile. A phrase that stuck during the process was "design for a product designer" and that ultimately meant moving away from softer materials. However this decision was not made before we experimented with various animal designs in 2D and 3D.

As the interaction designer in the group, I volunteered to take on the role of working with the coding and setting up the Arduino circuit to use in the product. Using Arduino or a similar technology was part of the marked criteria for this module so it was non-negotiable in terms of using it, unless your group had a suitable alternative (Processing etc.). I'd had previous experience working with Arduino in second year so was happy to take the lead on this part of the project and gain extra experience.

When deciding on features, we decided to keep the board as simple as possible. On one board to begin with, I began experimenting with an audio sensor and a piezo element which gave us the means of testing different experiences that could trigger the circuit. When these sensors reached a certain threshold, an LED would light up to show this and gave an idea of how sensitive the sensors had to be. When we knew the threshold, we decided to include an mp3trigger to the board. Originally, we had planned to replicate a walkie talkie using two Arduinos but after a few weeks of struggling to even get the two boards to talk to one another we opted to use the trigger to pre-record the 'live' sounds for our final presentation; this left myself more time to focus on actually making the boards speak to each other efficiently via serial without having to then worry about sending live recordings across the board.

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To make the code work, I had to make the circuits have a transmitter/receiver relationship with each other. This meant coding each board separately and using a softwareSerial() function to redefine which pins on the board were the TX and RX pins - this was to ensure the signals would actually send over the serial port to activate the mp3trigger on the RX board when a button on the TX board was pressed. This set up was used for demonstration purposes; the finished product would allow the parent to hold down the button and then say whatever they wanted to their child before it would send to the receiving Arduino.  For the demonstration, this had to be done using a serial wire between the two boards, since the wireless transmitters I had experimented with prior would not work with the code needed to make the actual functionality of the product work.

While I was experimenting with the Arduino, we began to move away from traditional materials and instead considered acrylic as a material. Looking at the work of Tord Boontje after a tutorial with our lecturer, we decided to adapt his style to our own needs and create a unique floral pattern that we would use to disguise the box the Arduino would be housed in. To do this, the girls created the floral pattern on Adobe Illustrator before printing about 100 flowers on an A3 sheet of different coloured of acrylics (a mixture of white, clear and light blue). We then used the flowers to build up the box into a spherical shape leaving us with a highly interesting and unique product.

We used off cuts from the acrylic to make a simple box to house the Arduino and which would become the parent's product. It was decorated with an etched pattern of the floral pattern we had used for the acrylic cuts and felt that despite a pattern that would suggest a more feminine look, it remained quite androgynous due to the colour of acrylic we had used. With everything working for the final day, it was time to turn our attention to the final presentations and the upcoming exhibition.