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Make Your Laundry Tweet You When It’s Done

Laundry Day (Image by Erik J. Gustafson)

Laundry Day (Image by Erik J. Gustafson)

For ages, I’ve wanted to create an Arduino project that will sit in my laundry room (shared in a small complex) and monitor whether the machines are being used or not, so we don’t have to keep checking. I figured it could talk to my WiFi and I’d put up a site that the whole apartment complex could use.

I’ll admit, this is supreme laziness on my part because we literally share a wall with this laundry room. It takes oh, about 30 seconds to walk over and peek in. However, as someone once said, “If necessity is the mother of invention, then laziness must be its father.” Plus, it just seemed like a good, straightforward project to learn more about Arduino, the DIY microcontroller hardware kit. So, I got as far as taking an Arduino workshop, and then life took over – the project got relegated to the backburner. But now, a kickstarter project called Twine has beat me to the punch (and bank) by creating a cool new product for just this sort of scenario!

Enter Twine!

Twine is a 2.5 inch square of plastic that has WiFi, temperature and vibration sensors and expansion capability for other sensors. It talks to a web application called Spool that allows you to “program” the Twine with simple rules, and monitor it from anywhere.


The rules are built using an array of available conditions and actions. If you’ve ever programmed rules for your email, this looks pretty similar. Something like ‘WHEN moisture sensor gets wet, THEN tweet me!’

Screenshot of Spool

Screenshot of Spool

Your Very Own Internet Of Things

The Twine website actually mentions the laundry scenario so they clearly have my needs in mind.  Out of the box, it can sense temperature, vibration and orientation. With expansion, it can do more, so for e.g. you could also get notified when your basement floods. What’s especially great about this product is the versatility and simplicity of the solution. You buy one product but it has multiple possibilities – Today you can use it to monitor your laundry, next week it could babysit your neglected herb garden. Buy a couple and you have your very own Internet of Things, how neat is that?

Got any cool ideas for ways to use Twine? Let me know in the comments!

You Are The Natural User Interface

Today my boyfriend’s iphone screen cracked, not spontaneously – he dropped it, but the cracked screen reminded me of one depressing fact. The fact, that despite research into Natural User Interfaces and embodied cognition, all these smartphones and tablets are just pictures under glass. Our interactions with them are funneled mostly through one or two fingers. In fact, I’d argue this is a step back from using a mouse and keyboard. Just try coding with a touchscreen keyboard! I dare you. If you haven’t seen Bret Victor’s illuminated rant about Pictures Under Glass, you can read it here.

Olympic Grace for the Rest of Us

With the inspiring Olympic displays of the power and grace of the human body all around us, it’s dreadful that we confine the human body that is capable of this:


to interactions like this:

The One Finger Interface (Image by flickingerbrad)

No Olympic grace there, and the sadder thing is, that poor kid is probably looking at many years of pointing and sliding to come.

With an entire body at your command, do you seriously think the Future Of Interaction should be a single finger?
– Bret Victor

From Bret Victor‘s rant, “The next time you make breakfast, pay attention to the exquisitely intricate choreography of opening cupboards and pouring the milk — notice how your limbs move in space, how effortlessly you use your weight and balance. The only reason your mind doesn’t explode every morning from the sheer awesomeness of your balletic achievement is that everyone else in the world can do this as well. With an entire body at your command, do you seriously think the Future Of Interaction should be a single finger?”

So what are some interfaces that truly allow us to interact naturally with our environment and still benefit from technology?

Brain Imaging Made Easy

Acryclic plane interface to Brain Imaging software

Acryclic plane interface to Brain Imaging software

In this 1994 paper, Ken Hinckley, Randy Pausch and their colleagues detail a system using an acrylic plane and a doll’s head to help neurosurgeons interact with brain imaging software. The 3D planes that the neurosurgeons need to view are difficult to navigate with a mouse or keyboard, but very intuitive with an acrylic “plane” and a “model” of the head.

From the paper, “All of the approximately 15 neurosurgeons who have tried the interface were able to “get the hang of it” within about one minute of touching the props; many users required considerably less time than this.” Of course, they are neurosurgeons, but I’m guessing it’s very unlikely that they would get the hang of most keyboard and mouse interfaces to this system in about a minute.

This interface was designed in the 90’s, and we’re still stuck on touchscreens!

Blast Motion’s Sensors

Blast sensors analyze your swing

Blast sensors analyze your swing

Blast Motion Inc. creates puck-shaped wireless devices that can be embedded into golf clubs and similar sporting equipment. The pucks can collect data about the user’s swing, speed or motion in general. The data is useful feedback to help the user assess and improve their swing.

I like that the interface here is a real golf club, likely the user’s own club, rather than some electronic measuring device. The puck seems small and light enough not to interfere with the swing, and will soon be embedded into the golf club rather than sold as a separate attachment. I’m interested to see how their product fares when it comes out.

But I Can’t Control my Computer with A Golf Club

Yes, yes, neither of these interfaces can be extrapolated in a general way, but maybe this is a limitation we should be moving away from. Why are we shoehorning a touchscreen interface onto everything? Perhaps we need to look at the task at hand and design the best interface for it, not the best touchscreen UI. The ReacTable is a great example of completely new interface designed for the specific task of creating digital music. (Of course, the app is now available for iOS and Android – back to the touchscreen!) Similarly, the Wii and Kinect have made strides in allowing natural input, but are only recently being considered for serious applications. I really hope that natural interfaces start becoming the norm rather than the exception.

Have you struggled with Pictures Under Glass interfaces for your tasks?
Have you encountered any NUIs (Natural User Interfaces) that you enjoyed (or didn’t)?
Let me know in the comments below.

Awarepoint – UbiComp for the Healthcare Industry

RTLS for hospitals

RTLS for hospitals

Recently, I was emailing with a colleague who uses 3D printing for prototyping at his job. The company he works for makes healthcare related wireless devices. They prototype these devices using 3D printing to ensure their mechanical soundness and usability, before having them manufactured.

On probing a bit more, I found that his company provides Real-Time Locating System (RTLS) solutions for hospitals. RTLS is a local positioning system where small, inexpensive electronic tags are attached to people and objects, such as equipment, patients and caregivers in a hospital, to help track interactions and improve services.

This means hospitals can better track when doctors and nurses entered the room, interacted with the equipment and patient etc. This non-intrusive logging means that the system could alert nurses when a patient hasn’t been checked on for a while. It could also be used for better asset-tracking; Hospital staff no longer need to manually log every time a piece of equipment moves rooms, but can locate equipment instantly even in large hospitals. Tags on the patient’s wrist can pull up their electronic medical records immediately and accurately, reducing the risk of dangerous errors.

The ability to do communications this way – with no recharging, changing batteries, or worrying about the thing – really changes the game.   – Gary Jorgensen, Awarepoint

Awarepoint Tag

All this is done through small, wireless tags that are low-power and need no recharging for the life of the tag. I wrote earlier on why I think the no recharging aspect is important. My colleague, Gary Jorgensen, concurs, “Our products run 3-5 years (we’re Zigbee based) off a single coin cell battery, which is usually the obsolescence life of a product anyway. The ability to do communications that way – with no recharging, changing batteries, or worrying about the thing – really changes the game.”

I think this kind of system is a good start for UbiComp in the real world. The system is non-intrusive in that it doesn’t require users to change their behaviour, but instead integrates into their environment and provides benefit through improving patient care and reducing risks and errors. The tags are small, need no maintenance and easily integrated into wristbands, asset management tags etc. The basestations for talking to them are simple devices that can be plugged directly into a wall socket.

My Home Badge!

My Home Badge!

In the hospital environment, it’s reasonable for all machines and people to wear tags, badges and wristbands. However that’s not so true at home – the first thing I do when I get home is rip off my work badge! Would I really be willing to wear a home badge? Still, there are ways in which this technology can be used for home automation. At the very least, sensors can detect environmental features like light, humidity and temperature and report to a main home system. You could get tweeted if your basement floods, or if your lights are unexpectedly turned on while you are not at home.

What kinds of uses do you see for this kind of technology?
What kinds of privacy issues could it bring up in a non-hospital scenario?

Design and Disaster Onboard Air France Flight 447

Today I read a fascinating although tragic article on the investigation of the Air France Flight 447 crash of 2009. Early in the morning on June 1st, the Air France flight from Rio de Janeiro to Paris crashed in a storm, somewhere in the ocean between Brazil and Africa. It took days for them to find the aircraft and its 228 passengers, of which there were no survivors, and years to find the flight recorders. Finally, these flight recorder have revealed the pilots’ last conversations and they struggled to recover control of the aircraft.

Design Changes and Disaster

Aircraft cockpit

Aircraft cockpit

What they found was that Airbus‘ newer cockpit design makes it harder for pilots to use the feedback mechanisms traditionally available to help them assess and control emergency situations. This made it hard for them to comprehend what was happening to the aircraft as it stalled.

In the past, the pilot had to hold down a control (called a side-stick) to cause the plane to climb or descend. Side-sticks in newer Airbus aircraft can be set to a certain angle and left there. When the less-experienced, and seemingly disoriented, younger pilot pulled the nose of the plane up and left it there, the other pilots were unaware he had done this. They struggled to understand why the plane was climbing until it was too late to recover.

“We still have the engines! What the hell is happening? I don’t understand what’s happening.
– David Robert, Air France Flight 447 Pilot

The side-stick redesign was a popular change because it reduced pilot fatigue and generally did not need to be used when the plane was in auto-pilot. However, in the stressful emergency situation about Flight 447, when the pilots needed to fly the plane manually, it meant that their shared understanding of the flight environment, their distributed cognition, was hindered by the lack of feedback.

Distributed Cognition in the Cockpit

In safety critical applications like a flight deck, it is very important that the design of the interface support the pilots’ shared understanding of the flight environment as well as each others’ intentions and actions, rather than hinder it.

Autothrust Throttle

Autothrust Throttle

Another example of the interface hiding feedback from pilots is the design of the auto-thrust feature. Similar to cruise control in a car, the engine thrust is adjusted automatically to keep the plane at a particular speed, however the adjustments are not reflected by the position of the controls. Again, pilots do not have the tangible feedback from the levers that they had in the past.

According to the article, Airbus defends these changes as part of their design philosophy. Boeing, on the other hand, has a busy and cluttered cockpit interface where every control is manual, despite being electronically managed behind the scenes. The manual controls provide a tangible interface, and even move the levers to reflect automatic adjustments.

This story shows us that that even the smallest change in such a safety-critical interface can have disastrous effects. This doesn’t mean that changes can’t be made but that, as engineers, we need to take into consideration the cognitive load our designs place on users, and in this case, on the distributed cognition of the whole scenario.

Human-Computer Interaction in Your Car

Pioneer AppRadio

Pioneer AppRadio

More and more, apps and touchscreens are being incorporated into our car dashboards, and without this sort of analysis, it’s only a matter of time before the accident rate starts rising.

While driving, I much prefer the tactile dash interface that allows me to change radio stations or operate the air conditioning without so much as a glance, to the touchscreen interface on my phone when I change a song or try to answer it.

What about you? Have you felt the cognitive strain of trying to handle newer, more complex interfaces while driving? Do you think design should ever be placed above safety?

The Nightmare of Ubiquitous Chargers

The Future, as seen by the 90s

Remember the future the way we imagined it back in the day? Where everything was magically all-knowing and connected – Your home detected when you returned and played your tunes, lit up the walls with your favorite art and warmed the house up just the way you like it. Your clothing was instrumented with all sorts of useful sensors and passed on this information to your home and computer. Your watch made measurements, and then talked to your shoes which called up your doctor’s shirt to exchange notes – I’m not sure what about.

Unfortunately, we aren’t there yet – not by a long shot – but why is that? Well, part of it is standardization of how these things talk to each other. But another important limitation? Keeping all these things charged. Wireless connectivity uses a lot of power so connected, portable devices just can’t last long without needing a charge.

Charging Ahead

Nest of Chargers

Nest of Chargers

I can barely manage to keep my cellphone charged everyday, not to mention my laptop, nook, cameras, etc. But a key theme of ubiquitous computing is that the technology should seamlessly integrate into your life and not demand attention. Any device that forces you to check and maintain it several times weekly, or even monthly, cannot be called seamless. The dream of ubiquitous computing has transformed into a nightmare of ubiquitous chargers and power bricks.

This maintenance adds a significant cognitive load to our daily lives, which essentially decides whether we buy a new gadget or not. In other words, it sets a threshold for ubiquity – devices must provide more perceived benefit than their cognitive or maintenance cost, or they won’t succeed.

Devices must provide more perceived benefit than their cognitive or maintenance cost, or they won’t succeed.

Cutting Loose

Bluetooth Low Energy

So, is there a solution? Thankfully, yes! There are a number of new low-power wireless technologies, such as Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE) and ANT, that are expected to be able to run off a coin cell battery for months, if not years, depending on the application. This means you may not have to charge this device or change the battery for its entire product lifetime!

Of course, these technologies are meant for low data bandwidth applications, like sensing devices and not for laptops and cell phones. But many small, low-power devices could easily talk to a local higher-powered device, and they would never need charging.

Standards, standards

And as for the other issue of standardization? While there have been other low-power wireless protocols in use already, BLE is standardized and included in Bluetooth 4.0. It  needs very little modification of older Bluetooth hardware to work. Already, the Apple IPhone 4S can communicate with BLE devices, and other phone manufacturers will likely follow suit as devices start showing up in the market.

Soon, a whole host of devices that would never have met the threshold of ubiquity before will become available, enabling a new wave of interconnected, low maintenance technology. So, are you excited? Your shoes certainly are.

[Disclaimer: I am currently doing an internship for Texas Instruments Low Power RF group, but I haven’t been paid to write this. On the contrary, I picked this internship because I am excited to learn more about these technologies.]