Tangible Interactions Workshop - Final Project - Computer Wellness Stone

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A general theme I have come to recognize in many of my projects at ITP is a desire to mediate or soften the experience of interacting with technology, and this particular device exemplifies that idea. I was interested in experimenting with cement as a cast-able material, and in particular the possibilities for it to be finished in a warm, organic-feeling way. Working from there led me to consider ways in which that “softness” could be paired with the obvious analog quality of the material to create a USB device that would stand out in form and function as part of a desktop computer setup. I spent a lot of time considering different devices which would simplify a computer process I use daily, but ultimately it was this idea of actually gently interrupting computer use that I latched onto.

The American Optometrist Association created what they call the “20-20-20 Rule”, which suggests that computer users take a 20 second break from their screens every 20 minutes, and look at something 20 feet away. The concept of the Computer Wellness Stone is to facilitate this process by actually turning off the user’s computer screen for them. Every twenty minutes the device will gently vibrate on your desk. When you pick it up, it will begin to vibrate at a slower pulse, imitating a relaxed breathing pattern. Picking up the device also activates the dimming of the user’s monitor, and once it is completely off, as long as the device remains in the users hand, it will remain off for twenty seconds before slowly dimming back up. Once this sequence has completed the user can return to their computer activity and the device returns to being an abstract sculpture on their desk.

The form of the object also proved to be significant outside of simply being pleasant to look at. In addition to the screens on our computers, the vast majority of users in this particular situation also have a smartphone in their pocket. As such, I imagined the shape would be comfortably held with two hands, and the weight of the material would make it challenging to hold with just one. As a result, when the prescribed break occurs ever 20 minutes, it forces the user to simply hold the stone and relax their eyes, rather than simply switching from one screen to another smaller one.

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Once I had settled on the concept as a whole, I began thinking more specifically about the design of the object, looking at a couple of fairly different sources. On one hand, I wanted the object to function on its own as a sculptural object, and so I looked to many of the abstract works by Isamu Noguchi as exceptional examples of that. But also considering the importance of this object being inviting, comfortable and relaxing to hold I found that there were many wonderfully-designed computer mice which informed the way that I thought about something designed for the curve of the hand. And I would be remise to not point out the influence of the USB Pet Rock from ThinkGeek.com. I did a series of sketches, and then also experimented with a few different forms in oven-bake clay before settling on the shape I ultimately made.

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The next step in the fabrication process was to use that model to make a mold with which to cast the cement. I used this particular tutorial as a guide for using readily available materials and found it to be a relatively simple (if imprecise) process. Once it was dry I cut out the model and began the process of setting up the final pour.

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This is the point at which the tech aspects were integrated. The actual electronic components for this piece were shockingly simple, just a MKRZERO board, a small vibration motor and a wad of aluminum foil. However the Arduino code includes keyboard, HID and capacitance sensor libraries which powered the device’s functionality. Using nested “if” statements I created a series of states which activate in a certain order based on a combination of timing and capacitive touch inputs. During each of these successive states the motor vibrates at different rates to indicate the state change, and the HID library is used to either dim up or dim down the computer screen.

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My initial goal was to integrate all of the components into the device itself, but unfortunately that goal was a bit optimistic for this first version. Instead I carefully suspended a core of aluminum foil inside of the mold to serve as the conductive receiver, mounted the vibration motor inside of a small cavity in the base of the device and ran a wire to the external Arduino.

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The actual casting process involved mixing a powdered colorant into the wet cement before filling the mold carefully around the aluminum core. When I later began to remove the hardened model I learned the value of more precisely mixing the silicone for the mold. Since I had somewhat rushed that mold-making process, small chunks of the silicone had actually gotten stuck in the cement. Luckily this proved to not be a major issue because it all came off easily during my initial sanding with an orbital sander. I then moved on to using a 200 grit wet sandpaper to achieve the final “river rock” surface texture.

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Overall I am incredibly happy with how this first version turned out, and I intend on improving it in the future. On one hand, I would like to experiment with different shapes for the sake of ergonomics and aesthetics. On the other hand I have found working with the capacitance sensor library to be very finicky, and so in the next version I imagine using a dedicated capacitance sensor breakout board to make that input more reliable. And ultimately my goal will be to fit all of those components inside of the device itself, allowing it to be simply a stone with a USB tail.

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