Atelier Whisper

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.

Interaction Design: Physical Digital Products - Team Assignments and Brainstorming

Following a presentation of the ICON article, we were asked to make notes on everyone else's topics to watch for correlations between our research topics in the hopes of finding and creating groups of 3 based on common interest while making sure no group had 3 interaction designers or 3 product designers. Dubbing my research as 'Touch Technology' I agreed to work with two girls from Product Design who's topics of research had been 'Emotion in Design' and 'Alternative Communication'. With our group decided we immediately began our reading week with brainstorming ideas based on the idea of Emotion in Design.

With that as our focus, we began to explore a broad spectrum of options that we could pursue. We eventually narrowed it to topics such as parent-child relationships, premature babies, friendships and reactive objects.

The refined topics helped us expand on our current ideas and gave us a lot of different ideas as well as interesting ways to approach the brief. The only problem was trying to keep the project related to whispering without simply tacking it on at the end to make the the product relevant. At this stage ideas considered included gloves that used heat as a form of notifying the wearer if a parent had sent their child money (a concept that derived from each of us experiencing this at some point during our time at university). Another idea was to create a device that allowed a parent to whisper to their premature child, referring to studies that parent's voice can help stimulate growth and bonding with their child.

Our brainstorming took one final iterations before we came to the agreement on our final design - adapting the idea of product for a premature baby, we instead opted to design a product that could whisper to a child from the parent's workplace. This stemmed from considering how parents that have to return to work early for financial reasons continue to find that way to bond with their child.

Interaction Design: Physical Digital Products - ICON Article

Third year of Digital Interaction Design began with a brief on creating objects around the concept of 'whispering' and having us as a class brainstorm about how the word is perceived, for example, metaphorically or literally.  From this we were to find our own interest amongst the topic of whispering to research and produce a critical piece written in the style of an ICON magazine article. Our lecturer Graham gave us free reign to explore any aspect - this led to some of the class exploring technological routes, metaphysical routes and even exploring ethical issues. The catch was that we had to relate it in some way to whispering. I decided to head down the technological route and initially begin exploring how whispering could be integrated into technology. This led me to very interesting research and experiments conducted by, surprisingly, Disney.  Their project "Disney's Whispering Finger" or it's official name "Ishin-Den-Shin" looked at sending converted audio signals through the body through the use of special microphone - the gist of the project was that when the user spoke into the modified microphone the audio signals would be turned into electronic signals by a computer and sent back to the microphone's casing. When the user of the microphone touched another person's ear the signal was transferred through a tiny electric shock, allowing the person to hear the message whispered into the microphone.  This gave me the inspiration for my article's title "The Magic Touch" and also led to me to more interesting leads on technology exploring the combination of whispering and touch.

The next piece of technology I looked at was a project called Touch-Hear. Developed in Singapore, it aimed to help readers who came across unfamiliar words or troubling pronunciation by whispering the meaning into a device in the user's ear. Using an implant consisting of three dots (sensors) on the user's finger, when the dots scan over the troubling word the information is relayed to the device and 'whispered' to the user in a bid to make it non-intrusive and so only the user can only hear the information. This helped give my article more depth since it led to me to consider how the whispers were being used in the different technologies - in one, it seemed that the idea of whispering was used as more of a novelty aspect where as in the other the device was using the whispering in a meaningful way.

To round off my article, I researched a technology that seemed slightly more abstract compared to the first two projects. This project was called 'Finger-Whisper' and was created by a Japanese Company called NTT DoCoMo. They aimed to create a device worn on the wrist that would turn the user's hand into a mobile phone. Using various different hand gestures to interact with the phone, the project sadly never took off into the commercial market and was eventually dropped - not before the possibility of telepathic communication was explored as a potential development of the device.

As part of the hand in, we were required to fully create the article - including typography, images and text. Below is a mockup of my final hand in and my article can be read here.

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