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DigiCrafters: fun, physical computing for kids

One of the last modules I took as part of my MSc at Sussex Uni was Technology-Enhanced Learning Environments, taught by my dissertation supervisor Dr. Judith Good. In a laid-back, “caffeine addicts anonymous” atmosphere, we covered learning theories, learner-centered design and issues of motivation and emotion in instruction. Good fun.

The Fear sets in.

Then our graded project for the module was announced and it was… erm… daunting.

Our team was to visit a local school and, with the help of its students, devise a way to teach kids how to become creative users of technology. For a child-allergic introvert like myself this was as close as you could get to “worst nightmare” territory.

But hey, it’s nice to be surprised – especially by yourself. Over the course of several visits to the Self-Managed Learning College, Marie, Andy and I hung out with a group of 10-12 year old girls, made silly Arduino-based projects and generally had a grand time. In the end, inspired by the fun we had, we made something which I think is pretty cool: DigiCrafters.


But… what is it?

DigiCrafters is a handful of basic, color-coded projects which let kids craft cool stuff with circuit boards, lights and sensors. As a “thing”, DigiCrafters is a website and a series of instructional videos – but only for now.

How did it come together?

Wires and circuit boards are intimidating. We wanted to show our girls how easy it was to use a few basic digital components to make crafty stuff. We decided the best way to go about it was to make things that were weird and mysterious – like our Glowing Gremlin Egg project.

Our team’s objectives meandered somewhat at the start, as our intrepid group of girls decided they wanted to use our treasure chest of electronic gizmos to build a musical instrument which responded to their heartbeats. We briefly pursued this, but then realized that, rather than teaching the kids anything, we’d end up making them a toy to play with. So we shelved the idea and focused on small, rewarding projects that slowly opened up the possibilities of wires, circuits and code.

But the idea that 10-12 year olds were keen to design something as amazing and complex should not be dismissed. It showed us that kids are keen to make new and fantastic digital products, even if they don’t yet have the skills to do so. So something may yet come of the musical heartbeat idea – watch this space.

What are you teaching?

Our projects are not aimed at kids who – as many lucky ones already have – had exposure to electronics and basic coding concepts. We wanted to introduce kids to the idea that it’s easy to make something fun and creative with computers and their various components. Along the way, we would slowly be exposing them to the core concepts of digital and analog signal processing, I/O, tangible UI design and of course code.

Why circuit boards and sensors and wires?

We think teaching kids to code is fantastic. But computers don’t just exist as laptops, tablets or smart phones anymore. They’re everywhere! Almost any object can execute code. Almost any object can sense. We felt the idea that the digital and physical boundary has long ceased to exist should be taught.

What’s next? Workshops!

This feels like the first, tiny step in something that could become quite awesome. And while having an Instructables-like website is great, DigiCrafters is more fun when done in a hands-on, group environment.

This is why we’re keen to develop a proper “curriculum” of crafty projects and package them into kits and workshops suited to various interests and skill levels. And then let kids come and make stuff!

To start with, we’re hoping to run a few trial workshops during the Brighton Digital Festival. There’s loads to be done and we’ll need help: volunteers, experts, sponsors. If you want to get involved, please get in touch

Last but not least, epic thanks.

It’s early days but we already have tons of awesome people to thank. Dave, Kate, Jenny, Naomi, Philip and everyone at the Self-Managed Learning College: thank you so much for your support. May you be richly rewarded with kittens and cakes forever.

Web wearables and tech textiles

All manner of web-enabled, tech-augmented textiles have been cropping up lately, from jackets that hug you when you’ve been liked on Facebook to an app that tracks and pairs your NFC-chipped socks (the app also comes with – wait for it – a “blackometer”).

On the more crafty – and less silly – side of things one can find “soft circuits”: LilyPad Arduino, especially designed to be sewn into various wearables. Go ahead: make awful light-up Christmas jumpers and LED-studded scarves to your heart’s content. Technology’s on your side.

All well and good, but how much closer are we to the ultimate hipster wet dream, glimpsed a few years ago in this Justice video?

If I really wanted that animated, web-ready – and possibly interactive – tshirt, I might consider the e-ink shirt . Or I might invest in the tshirtOS project, brought to us by CuteCircuit, the “future fashion” company.

But of course I wouldn’t. Every single one of these projects is in some way ridiculous or unappealing. But what I love about them is that they all seem to be churning up from a fertile swamp of innovation that may or may not yield something genuinely appealing and useful. The “ooh, how about this?” charm.

So, how about a hat that doubles as storage for my most interesting thoughts?

Embrace the strange: on meeting weird interfaces

I’m in Lisbon this week. When you’re in a strange, new place, you tend to meet new people. You also tend to meet new interfaces, often as a feature of some public device or in the guise of some kind of public information portal – which at times makes these new friendships a necessity.

If you’re a designer forced into encounters with these UIs, it’s only natural to lash out at their eccentricities and usability shortcomings. Yet I can’t help seeing these alien interactions as part of the adventure of being in an unfamiliar environment. Besides, it’s nice to find yourself denied total, intuitive control over a system once in a while. It’s nice to be baffled and made to pay attention.

And lately I’ve also found great joy in antagonising and testing these systems – the sort you get from baiting a racist uncle at a family gathering.

So here are my Portugese friends.

Interactive Floorplan, Vasco da Gama shopping mall, Oriente

Possibly buggy but nevertheless mystifyingly hybrid touchscreen UI – only the video could do it justice. The “touchscreen” insists on possessing your fingertip with a cursor (one that shapeshifts into a pointing hand, no less) for reaching your onscreen destination. I played with a few of these displays, and some appeared to suffer from a kind of cursor lethargy. This meant that you sometimes found your finger not quite aligned with the ghostly cursor and were forced to daintily guide it towards its goal. You then click somewhere in the periphery of where you’d like the cursor – not your finger – to hit. A heady blend of direct and indirect input.

Floor selection keypad and display, Olissippo Hotel
Upon checking into my hotel I was given instruction: the buttons for selecting the floor were on the outside of the lift. Interesting! Let’s watch:

The keypad’s physical buttons have no way of retaining their pressed state and the little screen above them goes blank after informing you which of the two lifts would arrive. This means that if multiple people are selecting their respective floors, all quickly lose track of where the lift would be going or if they had selected the right floor at all. I’d like to point out that this had the oblique benefit of encouraging bonding between the waiting parties. Perhaps there’s a case to be made for designing for frustration as a way of facilitating shared experiences of bafflement or suffering.

City guide kiosk, Lisboa Airport
The city guide kiosk is the first interaction honeytrap you encounter on arriving in Lisbon – it hovers just outside baggage claim, luring those who mistake it for an ATM or local transport ticket machine – its first shortcoming. At first glance the kiosk appears to be a touchscreen map offering directions and information about the city. But look down and you’ll find a brushed chrome, industrial-strength keyboard familiar in these types of installations. Behold:

Lisboa city guide kiosk keyboard

I love the harsh, sturdy feel of these kinds of keyboards – they were clearly designed to withstand frustrated bashing. The “mouse” is a giant, shiny ballgag of a trackball that shunts reluctantly in its metal slot, jutting the cursor jerkily to its onscreen target. Once you’ve used it to guide the cursor to its destination, you must seek out a secondary confirmation button – and affirm your selection with another click. After that, steel yourself: every action you undertake is greeted by the screen with a “Loading…” progress bar.

And there you have it. All interesting encounters, but I don’t think we’ll be swapping postcards this summer.

On-Body Interaction: at one with the interface

In preparation for a class presentation, my study group at Sussex immersed itself for a few short weeks in the rather vast discipline of Ubiquitous Computing. When we came up for air, we were left with the feeling that we’d only just scuffed the surface. I personally felt we didn’t spend enough time focusing our attentions on some of the new interaction paradigms which will make UbiComp viable and, well, ubiquitous. The work of Chris Harrison at Carnegie Mellon’s HCII is arguably at the forefront of these new and exciting interactions and boggles the mind in its ambition and scope.

Armura - on-body projection

Chris’ interests are in novel interaction models for small devices – see, for example, his PocketTouch project which allows access to basic functionality of mobile devices without the need to retrieve them from one’s bag or pocket. But he’s more recently been in the news with Armura, a new system which combines gestural inputs with on-body projection. I loved the project’s flurry of practical use cases, from summoning directions while lost in a museum to virtual tattoos to innovative on-body menu interactions. Chris admits there are challenges to this, from dexterity and fatigue. As he bluntly puts it in his overview of the Armura project: “our bodies have no API”.

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