Tea with Anab Jain

Last week we received the visit of Anab Jain, who gave her insights into the projects that are currently being carried out here. Anab is the founder of Superflux, and the creator of the Power of 8 project which brings together scientists, urbanists, educators, and permaculturists to imagine optimistic futures. Many thanks for your valuable input and hope you will join us for tea again soon, Anab!

Story Cultures – Presentation at UbiComp 2010

I had the opportunity to present my work at the Digital Object Memories (DOMe) workshop held in conjunction with the Ubicomp 2010 Conference in Copenhagen on September 26. The theme of this year’s workshop was the Internet of Things (IoT) and I presented the short paper Story Cultures: understanding how stories of different cultures can influence digital memories, which discussed implications of object-memory systems on human relations, and on peoples’ relations to objects. The workshop brought together top researchers and practitioners who are interested in both the technical and applied aspects of Ubiquitous Computing technologies.

Connection Boxes

The Background

I was approached by Dance Base to create a collection box for their architecturally designed building on the Grassmarket in Edinburgh. It was recognised that to simply place a large collection box in the middle of the front foyer would be insensitive, unrewarding and simply not work.

As well as the obvious use of a collection box, which is to collect donations, the Dance Base team wanted to raise the awareness to their customers of the fact that they were actually a charity. They are dependant on grants and funding to function day to day and manage a range of outreach programs for children from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This began a program of activities and design exercises to help the design team understand the environment, the people and the design challenges.

The Approach

I was designing a product to be used by people of all ages and backgrounds brought together in one place by dance. In order to understand the people, the tutors, the infrastructure, and the environment better we enrolled in a dance class. The class I enrolled in was called an Alexander Technique class.

Being part of this class not only showed me the variety of people that attended the one class but also allowed the participants and tutors get used to me. I was the new comers into their environment. This helped to break down any barriers which allowed me to communicate with them more effectively.

To get a deeper understanding of Dance Base I asked several of the employees if they would each create a 3 minute film showing their ‘perceptions of Dance Base’. This exercise was called a ‘Video Probe’. This helped in gaining greater insights and design inspiration.

I took what was learned in the Alexander Technique class and the Video Probes and applied it to a workshop held with board members, staff and customers of Dance Base. I wanted to approach the workshop from their level, to incorporate things familiar to them, not to intimidate them with our initial design concepts.

One of the elements recognised was the use of the space by various user groups. Professional dancers, drop in classes, children interested in street dance, children interested in ballet, ballroom dancers, administration staff, and the board of directors. I wanted to create an object that connected the ‘space’ with the various interconnecting people.

This began an exploration of ‘connected objects’. The objects investigated connecting the people through a dance studio radio, twitter, flickr and youtube. Although interesting objects in their own right, upon review they were not suitable for the dance base. There was still a strong desire to ensure a financial element to the final design; the collection boxes provided this.

The Outcome

The Connection Boxes are essentially self-service communication terminals. They provide feedback through sound to the consumer directly; giving them an instant reward for their donation. Importantly they also communicate to a wider audience as inserting money in one device triggers a reaction from the rest that are placed throughout the building.

This reaction can be modified to suit a particular environment, a particular event or marketing strategy. One of the key reasons for the whole project was to raise the awareness to customers of the fact that Dance Base was a charity. This had to be done in a sensitive and considered way.

The sounds selected are important as they provide an instant reward to the user which in turn encourages re-use of the product. The greater the reward, the more frequent use, the more frequent use the more money collected.

Three objects have been created initially; the aim is to expand on this. Having three objects allows the objects to have 3 distinct ‘personalities’. The sounds projected from the devices can be for example, informative, cheeky or gratifying in content and female, male or computerized in delivery. By giving the devices a personality the aim is to promote the feeling of trust, encourage repeat use and ensure an unexpected but rewarding experience for donating money.

The objects have been designed to be distinctly different from any other collection boxes that are routinely ignored on counter tops around the country. There is a certain ambiguity about the form. This is deliberate. The aim is to create an initial interest in the object that will attract potential donators. Once the initial interest has been captured then there should be no confusion of how to use the device. There is a large area on the top of the device for instruction and branding. The money slot is prominent, protruding toward to user; this clearly indicates where money should be inserted.

The Impact

The Connection Boxes are to be placed at locations within Dance Base. A series of studies will be held to asses the impact in terms of amount of funds raised and if the devices have increased the awareness with in the community of the fact Dance Base is a charity.

The methods used to understand the impact of the designed object with in the environment will be developed in conjunction with the Dance Base team but will be transferable to different sites, charitable bodies and industry. Understanding how to measure the impact of an object within a community is an important factor of the research element of this project. The insights gained through the partnership with Dance Base will help in the understanding of the consumer experience of other self-service objects and how the designer can impact that experience.

The Development

The connection boxes have had an upgrade! Now fitted with a super strong wireless chip which means they do not all need to be connected to each other. This is much more in line with the original concept and should make them much more reliable.

They have been installed in Dance Base as of last week. They are essentially a blank canvas for the Dance Base team. I will be interested to conduct further studies with them to understand what feedback they have uploaded onto them and how successful they have been in attracting customers to use them.

As part of the feedback I will be trying to understand what makes a consumer use a self-service device? What type or level of reward/feedback is appropriate? Also, what makes a consumer use the device again and again, how can you instill loyalty in a device?

Connection Boxes Video

The video includes sounds that were created by the Dance Base team. They were deliberately fun and even slightly cheeky to reflect the Dance Base ethos, environment and marketing strategy.

For further updates, information and other design activities you can check out Steven Birnie’s blog here.

Making a Printer for Totem

Wouldn’t it be great to link any object directly to a ‘video memory’ or an article of text describing its history or background?

That’s one of the provocations behind TOTeM, a research project exploring social memory in the emerging culture of the Internet of Things. As part of this, we are making a portable printing/stamping machine that will be able to leave a temporary QR code on any surface. The aim is to print these tags from your phone, and be able to read tags that you find with your phone, linking you back to the author’s video or text memory to do with the object or place.

In practice this is a not inconsiderable mechanical challenge, as I am oft reminded by Mike, but we’ve made good headway with a solenoid test rig (pictured above) and some custom marker-based print heads. It’s messy work. Ultimately, the printer will use the headphone socket of the phone as an output to the printer, the same method that Apple Karts used to control motors.

You can already contribute your memories and get printable tags at talesofthings.com .

Journalism as Design Research

One of the main themes of the Bespoke project is how journalism can be used to feed into the design process.

After a long set-up period we finally have a number of citizen journalists working in the housing estate that we are designing for, the Callon estate in Preston. A couple of months ago we set them briefs revolving around themes that have emerged over the last year and a half of work, themes such as green spaces, community communication, crime, growing old in Callon and activities for kids.

The journalists took on some of these briefs and last month showed us their pieces that they had create, some video, some written and some slide shows. We then had a few days to discuss the responses and come up with some idea concepts to then present back to the journalists in a press conference style event.

The press conference went well with some blunt and brutal questions coming from the press. We then had some conversations with the citizen journalist before they went back out onto the estate to generate more news content. This next wave of journalism allowed us to narrow down and fine tune our ideas. The hope is that there will be a constant flow of journalism reporting on our ideas and their deployment throughout the whole design phase. We are currently in the process of finishing up the first two prototypes to take down for the estate to see, and hopefully for the journalists to report on. Here are sketches of the two ideas.

The answer to the question can journalism help the design process? will only really become apparent at the end of the deployment when we can gauge the success of the designs.


Elio, Mike and two of our students, Paddy and Anna-Clara are working on an installation for Plart, the museum of plastic in Naples.

We were asked to take part with two other universities, Nuova Accademia di Belle Arti, Milan and Ineraction-Venice. The installation has to tell the narrative of various old plastic objects from lighters to lamps and fans to light switches.

Our installation is going to be called Plastic Fantasia. Plastic fantasia is a world of sinister delight, mysteries and curiosities. In the domestic environment, traditionally products live a contented life. Specific design companies, such as Alessi, underpin this blissful existence with their products with a smile. However, the world of Plastic Fantasia is a very different place. Why should these plastic objects inhabiting our homes be confined to a world of continual merriment? In Plastic Fantasia, everything is not quite as it seems. In this world, products do not innocently smile in the faces of their users, they do not sit sedately waiting to be used. In this world, the products have a life of their own, detached from normality. They are menacing and murderous. They scuttle and scurry. Each product becoming a part of a larger horrifying story.

Ideas Day

On Friday we had various visitors up to speak to the students, and to also have a design debate for our annual Ideas Day. On the bill this year was:

Abigail Sellen (Microsoft Research)
Tim Regan (Microsoft Research)
Richard Banks (Microsoft Research)
Tim Brook (Nokia Research)
Steve Birnie (NCR)
Charlie Rohan (NCR)
Bill Gaver (Goldsmiths)
Chris Speed (Edinburgh College of Art)
Kenny Anderson a.k.a. King Creosote (Fencecollective)

The students all received great advice on their projects, and the debate at the end saw some interesting topics discussed likes the future of social media and what will product design be in 10 years. I will hopefully have a video of the big debate up here shortly………