Problem Statement

Physical objects present unique opportunities for speculative interactions.
What rituals and stories might we build with the help of responsive devices?

Kyle Tseng
Concept Development
Spring 2018
8 Weeks

As our everyday technologies evolve, they alter our behavior and create new habits. The field of physical computing—which employs hardware and software for the development of systems that sense and react to their environments—presents exciting avenues for speculation. This project explores narrative and ritual-building around domestic devices through the lens of Shrine, an interactive charging dock that questions our relationship to smartphones.

The Ghost in the Machine
The first step in the development process was exploring the integration of computing into existing objects. I tore apart a Keurig machine and classified its components according to function, trying to figure out what made it tick. The exercise left me appalled with the device, ill-conceived both in terms of material waste and overcomplicated, anti-repair engineering.

Storytelling Objects
A range of sources proved useful in considering the possibilities of interactive objects:

︎ Research Through Design
RtD employs methods and processes from design practice as tools for inquiry. Contrary to the solutionism found in typical design work, RtD enables new ways of thinking about questions at the intersection of designed objects and lived experience. As something I was learning about at the time, RtD offered an intriguing way of approaching this project.

Ritual Machine V: Where Are You? David Chatting et al. 2017︎
This project seeks to understand the challenges of working away from home through bespoke and provocative artifacts

︎ Ludic Design

The word “ludic” denotes something that is playful and spontaneous. Accordingly, Ludic Design is an approach that emphasizes curiosity, exploration and play over purely utilitarian functionality. Since we were not constrained by the need to make something “useful”—and were in fact encouraged to do the opposite—ludic design presented a useful model of design that was not product-oriented.

Drift Table. William Gaver et al. 2004︎
Through a central window, the Drift Table displays a moving aerial panorama controlled by the distribution of weight on its surface

︎ Chindogu

Japanese for “weird tool,” Chindogu are objects that embody an ethos of being “un-useless,” solving a problem in a way that is practically unworkable yet humorous and playful. A classic example is the Solar Flashlight, which only works when the sun is shining. Design has a tendency to take itself rather seriously; Chindogu teaches us to have a sense of humor.

Hay Fever Hat. Kenji Kawakami. Early 90’s︎
Ever felt a sneeze coming only to realize you can’t find your tissues? Frantically search no more — the Hay Fever Hat makes sure your nose-blowing implements are always at hand!

Initial Exploration
Knowing we wanted to create a playful object for the home, we set about exploring potential interactions. Initial ideas like a desk chair that started to dance if you’d been sitting for too long helped us narrow our focus on an adversarial comment on the role of technology within the domestic space.
        Enter the Welcome Home Lamp, a light fixture meant for the entryway of a home. Upon detecting that someone has entered the home, the lamp turns on, demanding the person relinquish their smartphone as a prerequisite for crossing the threshold between the busy, connected world and the comfort of home. 
The device could act as a charging stand — giving you more of a reason to give up your phone — and center the smartphone as an indelible component of contemporary life. In addition, we wanted to address the fact that most homes contain multiple people with multiple smartphones.

Sensors + Actuators + Arduino
Now that we had a concept, we needed to figure out how to make it work, what sensors we would need to detect the relevant changes in the environment and what actuators would perform the actions we required. In addition, these needed to be coordinated with an Arduino. Since my partner was an electrical engineering major, this part of the project was led by him with only occasional input from me. 

A Shrine for Your Phone
Many people, particularly those that regularly engage in a religious practice, devote a part of their home to rituals. These rituals are closely bound up with ideas of identity, belonging, or personal meaning. They can take many forms — praying, burning incense, etc. The idea of the shrine as a space that enables reflective rituals became more and more relevant as we considered how we might engage with the space that smartphones occupy in the home.
        Smartphones do not take up much space physically, yet our attachment to them is so great that they seem to psychologically dominate whatever space they occupy. Hence all the articles dedicated to practices like “phone stacking.”
        What role should smartphones play when it comes to the home? Do we want the outside world to intrude, through the constant buzz of notifications, into what should be our refuge? What if we made a shrine for the smartphone, a dedicated spot that both respects the outsize role it plays and effectively quarantines it?
        With these considerations in mind, explorations for the final form of our artifact drew on ideas of temples, devotion, and monumentality to build a suitable resting spot for the phone.

Interaction Features
︎ Demanding Phones
Shrine detects when someone passes and, if it has empty charging slots, flashes its light and blares an alarm, demanding they relinquish their phone

︎ Amplifying Notifications
When a phone is in a charging slot, Shrine senses vibrations that indicate that a notification has been received. It amplifies the notification through an alarm, summoning the phone’s person

︎ Appeasement

If all charging slots are full — indicating that everyone in the household has given up their phone — Shrine is mollified by the sacrifice. It stops amplifying notifications to encourage in-person connection

Concrete + Wood + Paint
Fabricating the final product fell to me as the industrial designer on the team. To make the object as striking as possible, I decided to experiment with a new material, concrete. There was also an attempt to use scraps of marble scavenged from local workshops for the base.

Final Artifact
By creating a new ritual around smartphone usage in the home, Shrine prompts us to critically consider the agency we relinquish whenever we rush to our phones at the ding of a notification, whenever we let these portals to infinite information and entertainment seduce us despite the fact that we are in close proximity to those we care about. What other behaviors might we want to cultivate? What might prove healthier on the long run? Shrine does not have the answer, but in its playful, adversarial way it starts the conversation.

The process of creating Shrine was both technically and conceptually challenging. It forced me to push the boundaries of what I though constituted design practice and allowed me to tangibly engage with a more critical and playful side of design practice.