Sense The Excitement

Google Sky Map

Google Sky Map

For a long time, I was a bit of a Luddite when it came to smartphone technology. I spend so much time around computers, I didn’t really see the need for another one in my pocket. But when I finally got one, I realized that smartphones are, in fact, so much more than the average computer. It’s not the portability of the device – yes, you can take it everywhere all the time – but what’s truly amazing is that it knows. It knows where you took it, it can see, hear, sense its location, position and acceleration.

I can get directions to anywhere from here. I can have it listen to a song and tell me who sings it. I can point it at a star in the sky and learn the name. On the other hand, my significantly more powerful traditional computer can’t remember my home address for directions, even though it never goes anywhere!

It Knows!

The magic, of course, is all in the sensors. My LG Optimus V, a fairly low-end Android smartphone, has a GPS sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, camera and microphone. It’s this varied collection of sensors that makes a smartphone such a technological leap forward. And it is just the beginning. With new devices that sense your activity levels, health, climate, the possibilities are endless.

My [..] fairly low-end Android smartphone has a GPS sensor, accelerometer, gyroscope, compass, camera and microphone. It’s this varied collection of sensors that makes a smartphone such a technological leap forward.

The FitBit

The FitBit

The Fitbit device uses sensors to report your daily levels of activity so you can limit sedentary behaviour and increase activity during the day. It can even monitor your sleep patterns at night. LumoBack is a newly funded Kickstarter project that senses your posture and delivers a gentle vibration when you slouch – a virtual “Sit up straight!” from Mom.

Previously, I mentioned Twine, a sensor module you can use for a variety of applications in the home. Similarly, Node is a powerhouse version of the same idea with modules for sensing magnetism, altitude, barometric pressure, humidity etc.

Txting Sheep!

Txting Sheep!

I could go on, but I’ll leave you with the most entertaining one I’ve seen of late. Swiss scientists have been developing a collar that will allow sheep to cry wolf all by themselves. A heart rate monitor on the collar detects a sudden rise in the heart rate of the sheep, signalling likely danger, such as a wolf. The collar can then send a text message directly to the shepherd.

“OMG, Wolf!”

Which sensor-based devices do you find exciting?
Do you have any you’d recommend?

The front page image for this article is by Flickr user amcunningham72

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.