People: on the edge

XIII.1 January + February 2006
Page: 47
Digital Citation

Sketching in hardware

Lars Holmquist

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Sketching is an essential part of any design process. Whereas the graphic designer can sketch on paper, and the product designer can make mock-ups in wood or clay, a sketch of an interactive product has to express not only the static look of an interface, but also its dynamic properties. Skilled programmers are able to "sketch in software" by combining quickly created components into something that communicates the essence of a proposed system.

Interaction design is increasingly going to be about designing interactive physical products, not just software. Is there a way to bridge the virtual and real materials to "sketch" interactive products? A few tool kits are available to create physical interfaces, primarily aimed at computer-literate students. For instance, Phidgets from the University of Calgary allows programmers to create physical input and output devices in a similar way to graphical user interface widgets. It has been successfully used in university courses where students quickly built innovative physical interfaces.

The interactive products of the future will be self-contained devices, which can take in input from various sensors, act intelligently on the information, and do something about it. Tool kits such as Phidgets allow you to produce new forms of buttons and mice to interact with what is still essentially a desktop computer. A true sketching material for interactive products should be something that can be integrated into just about any physical form and not rely on a central server.

The Smart-Its project was a European collaboration with the goal of creating a physical construction kit for truly distributed applications. A Smart-It is a "stick-on" computer that can be attached to any object. It features a number of sensors (for instance light, temperature, movement, and sound), a microprocessor, some memory, and a radio. Each device can collect data from the environment, run its own code and communicate with other Smart-Its, as well as external servers. The original Smart-It hardware was produced by the University of Karlsruhe. Lancaster University created a set of instructions on how to build your own devices from standard components.

Many innovative prototypes were created using Smart-Its, and although most of them did in fact rely on a central server, they still showed how computation can be diffused into the physical world to support various activities. For instance, ETH Zurich devised an application where a piece of flat-pack furniture from IKEA provides continuous help as the piece is being assembled. Smart-Its determined how far the process progressed, and lights on the various parts would indicate the next step or warn against errors. The Interactive Institute designed a demonstration of a smart restaurant environment which featured Smart-Its in a wine bottle and a (fake) piece of cheese. The sensors were used to determine the quality of the food from such factors as handling and temperature, and when the conditions were perfect, the waiter was signalled that the food was ready to serve.

We found it interesting to explore whether the Smart-Its system could be used by designers. Rather than going to interaction designers—who are already fairly computer savvy—Sara Ljungblad at the Viktoria Institute gathered students and professionals from fields such as product design and graphic design. We showed them a number of Smart-Its prototypes and talked about how it related to their own work.

The results were surprising. Overall, while the designers were very interested in the potential of smart objects, they did not see Smart-Its as something that they could use in their own design process. Instead, they felt it was the domain of engineers and programmers. And just like with most research prototypes, they found our Smart-Its to be big and unattractive, and could not see how they could ever become a part of a real product.

But at least the size factor is changing, thanks to the company Particle Computers, which sells Smart-Its-based sensor nodes and wireless USB bridges. Their most fascinating device is the "uPart," which is smaller than an average coin and features an accelerometer, a light sensor, and a thermometer, plus a radio, a one-MIPS processor and a few kilobytes of memory. Because of its size and comparatively low price, the uPart should make it much easier to create physical prototypes. I have already used uParts in a course at the Göteborg IT University, and while there are a lot of initial problems, there is amazing potential for this type of prototyping system.

In the future, tool kits like the Smart-Its should make it possible to "sketch in hardware," just like programmers and interaction designers are already "sketching in software." The capability to build a physical mock-up and augment it with interactive behaviours will become essential for product designers. But this will not only require better software and hardware tools. It is also necessary for the design profession to come to terms with the fact that interactive behaviours like those made possible by Smart-Its may become an integral part of their work. While some design education programs already take this into account—in particular those that are based at technical universities—we have a long way to go before it is as easy and natural to sketch in hardware as it is to sketch with pen and paper.

back to top  References

bullet.gif URLs

1. Phidgets-Physical widgets for prototyping physical user interfaces

2. Smart-Its hardware

3. DIY Smart-Its

4. Building Intelligent Environments with Smart-Its

5. Proactive furniture assembly

6. Intelligent restaurant scenario

7. Particle Computers

back to top  Author

Lars Erik Holmquist

About the Author:

Lars Erik Holmquist is leader of the Future Institute in Goteborg, Sweden. Before this, he founded and led the PLAY research group from 1997 to 2001. He is interested in innovative interactive technology, including tangible interfaces, informative art, mobile media and autonomous systems. He was general chair of UbiComp 2002, the international conference on ubiquitous computing and is an associate editor of the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing.

back to top  Figures

F1Figure 1. The Smart-It is a small "stick-on" computer that can be used to augment everyday objects.

F2Figure 2. An example of a future interactive product—cheese and wine equipped to sense when they are ready to serve!

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©2006 ACM  1072-5220/06/0100  $5.00

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