Response to Margaret Hamilton

This article left me awestricken in many ways. I think it’s mind-blowing that Hamilton didn’t even mean to create the concept of software. This entire realm of computer programming that the world so heavily relies on today was stumbled upon accidentally. It was only a handful of people, working towards a single ambitious goal, that changed the future of possibilities. Even then no one really knew what they were doing – let alone imagine their feat would trigger an entire industry and a new era of technology.

It’s also amazing that a computer of (what we now consider) rudimentary complexity – low storage and slow speed – was capable of building a spaceship. We’re familiar with hard drives today, intricately and precisely engineered using our current level of technology. But imagine hardwiring every component of that manually! Not only is it impressive that all of this was half a century ago, but I also realized just how much development has been witnessed since. If technology then was able to successfully land a man on the moon, what crazy things are we capable of doing now?

My entire life I have only learned from others – I can’t imagine teaching myself something entirely new, pioneering in something the rest of the world is clueless about. But throughout history, it’s always been introductions of such unprecedented fields that revolutionized the world. I think Hamilton’s traits perfectly define those of a successful designer and pioneer. Her perceptiveness made her think of implementing precautions to a highly unlikely situation. Her persistence kept her committed to perfecting the project. Most of all, her enthusiasm kept her committed in the entire “arcane novelty,” all the whilst being a mother, a supporting wife, and a woman in a male-dominated environment. I think her story is a true reminder that with passion and dedication there are no limits to what can be achieved.

On Greatest Hits

The worst part of any creative process is the creative block. Although I’m aware that it’s near impossible for any ideas to be entirely original, I still can’t help but feel the need to be unique. What this article helped me realize is that unique and original aren’t necessarily synonymous – although common themes may be everywhere, my projects could be unique if I put my own variation on them. I wish I realized this earlier before starting my midterm project so I could have been a lot more open to other ideas I initially shied away from, thinking they were too banal before even attempting them. I will definitely revisit this page for inspiration for my future projects.

It was also fascinating to see so many examples incorporating different interaction mediums – including our voice, feet, or our entire body. This extends Victor’s argument that contemporary technology should move towards implementing the rest of human capabilities to sense and manipulate. The example of body cursor designed for a patient with limited functionality in arms and legs clearly demonstrates the implications of such technologies: diversification of our interactions by fully exploiting our bodies’ potentials.

On Making Interactive Art

The article comes back to the question that has been asked throughout many of our previous readings – just how important it is for interactive design to be accessible to its audience. Tigoe very much emphasizes that a design should be able to communicate its functionality fully to its audience without intervention from the creator. After all, how could a design possibly offer any room for the interactive experience if the audience is already biased with directions? There is a clear difference between interacting and simply following commands.

However, as ideal as this situation is, I think it’s too unrealistic. It is inevitable that different people develop different interpretations of the same work, and a design that is able to encompass everyone’s way of interpretation must be almost impossible to achieve. As much as Togoe asserts that “your task in designing an interactive artwork is to give your audience the basic context, then get out of their way,” it’s ambiguous just how much of this “basic context” is required to begin with in order to guide the audience to the right track, without entirely narrowing the possibilities of its responses. To overcome this real-life factor, I believe the designer should offer at least some degree of direction. What would then differentiate between good and bad designs wouldn’t be “how much” direction there is, but “how well” the direction has been incorporated into the overall piece. Taking an example from one of our previous readings, attaching a wordy instruction to a watch with seemingly identical buttons would not be well-incorporated direction, but engraving some forms of symbols that are easy to interpret next to the buttons would be better.

The importance of guidance would also vary depending on the creator’s intention as well as the purpose of the creation. Thus it is entirely up to the artist to decide how they wish the art to be viewed by the audience – the artist could have well intended to exactly tell the audience how it should respond. For example, a design intended to carry out a specific, functional purpose would require a high degree of direction, and although ideally, the design should speak for itself, a well-incorporated guidance would save time and effort. On the other hand, the intention could lie at an opposite extreme: to freely let the audience respond. Overall, I believe a good design should be appropriate to its context and serve the expectations of its audience – I don’t think it is enough to solely emphasize its accessibility.

Color Detector!

Using 4 different LEDs and a photoresistor, I was able to build a color detector (although without any scientific basis). It’s quite self-explanatory – when I flash a color to the photoresistor, a corresponding colored LED lights up:

To give it a twist, I set all the lights to blink when it’s dark.

It was difficult to choose colors that gave off a different range of intensity of light, so that the gaps between the ranges big enough so that none of them would accidentally overlap. The shade of green I initially chose emitted the same range of intensity as my red so I had to choose a different shade – only to then overlap with yellow.

Also, because the range of intensities relied on the ambient light to a large degree, I had to recalibrate the ranges every time I tested in a new setting. I don’t think this is something that could be improved upon because the photoresistor is so sensitive to light.

Diorama?

I was initially both inspired by the aesthetics of different LED lights and my love for plants – thus deciding to create a diorama of a natural scenery. Looking at all the different types of sensors I could make use of, I was so excited at the thought of compiling a bunch of seemingly irrelevant inputs and then getting them to work together to create a single aesthetic piece of art – how satisfying that would be! At the same time, I wanted the scenery to be as simple and easy to manipulate as possible, and came up with the ambitious idea of using a single master toggle to control the entire operation of the diorama.

  I was stumped from the very beginning in coming up with the theoretical model that successfully encompasses this idea. I knew that I wanted to create a series of cause and effects, one sensor activating another, but actually coming up with the right, plausible order of operation turned out to be difficult. I spent a couple hours drawing the perfect theoretical mental model:

It made perfect sense to me.
  • The master switch turns on the ceiling lights
  • A photoresistor at the bottom detects the increase in light intensity
  • The change in the value of the photoresistor drives motion of servo to day mode – where the sun comes out (R of RGB LED behind the servo lights up) and a generic morning melody Morgenstimmung by Edvard Grieg.
  • Similarly, when the master switch turns off the ceiling lights, photoresistor detects low light and drives the servo to night mode – where the moon comes out (RB of RGB LED behind the servo light up) and the starlights in the background start twinkling.

I then proceeded to code to make sure the cause and effect relationship worked. I built a simplified version of the entire model using 3 LEDs and the ambient light of the room (something that really made me overlook a crucial issue, to be discussed later), and I was excited that they worked perfectly – although it was just a simple compilation of all the basic examples, I was glad to see they were indeed able to operate amongst themselves with just a single variable light input. I couldn’t wait to build up the actual model to see everything in action.

The final schematic diagram.

Mess 1

Upon completion of the technical component, I started to make the prototype of the physical box using cardboard. I used this mainly to get an idea of what dimensions would be appropriate to fit the entire system – I didn’t put any joints to connect the box faces (which also made me overlook another crucial issue, to be discussed later). At this stage, I realized everything that was wrong with using so many LEDs in such a compactly spaced project. Firstly, the amount of time and effort I had to spend on soldering long wires (to reach from the ceiling of the box to the bottom where the breadboard is) onto each LED was ridiculous, from snipping at a box of unruly miscellaneous wires to twisting the ends of each led and wire. Eventually when I was done, I realized the weight of the pair of lengthy wires on each LED outweighed the stability of the LED to fit into its position on the ceiling or the background faces.

Mess 2

To solve this issue I decided to use copper tape to reduce each required length of wire – for which I had to start the process again, this time soldering the tape! Secondly, I realized that I made a mistake in planning to use a single source of power (a single redboard), which turned out to be unrealistic considering I was working with 30 LEDs. When I eventually powered everything on the same long breadboard, nothing worked as the redboard had turned itself off – this was something I should have thought of earlier in the process of brainstorming. As a solution I loaned another redboard from the lab and connected it to a battery pack, and assigned this redboard to power just the master switch and the ceiling lights.

Looks like an abstract sculpture…

Another big problem was when I finally got to building the final box, this time with all the joints and holes, I realized I had to take into consideration in the overall dimension of the box the space between the enclosures as well as the actual display space. This meant a single regular box wasn’t going to be enough – it needed compartments within as well to separate these two spaces. I had to design these compartments myself using Illustrator which took me a couple hours. Furthermore, the fact that the laser cutter could not be used myself meant I had limited opportunities to prototype, especially since I always work late at night after lab monitor shifts are over. That I couldn’t test the components without the actual box made this a serious problem – ultimately I couldn’t get the dimensions of the box to be exactly right, and I think this dependence of my project on the laser cutter was the primary reason for the failure of my project.

Garden – one of the most enjoyable (and unnecessary) processes in the entire project!

Clearly most of the problems encountered in the process of my project were physical over technical – something that isn’t even an assessment criteria. The nature of my project itself relied so much on the physical structure, as each component had to be placed in specific positions for the entire system to function. As I struggled to resolve these details, the more I felt like I was wasting time and putting in pointless, worthless effort. Overall, I took away a lot from this project, especially the fact that it is risky to expect conceptual models to be perfectly realized. Therefore it is wise to try reduce this risk to begin with, especially by minimizing the dependence of the project on physical features. Hopefully my future projects would revolve more around technical details and less around the physical. (On a brighter note, after almost 100 soldering practices and occasional burns, I can now confidently call myself an expert solderer.)

Response to Response to Victor’s Rant

I understand Victor’s main concern about the lack of dynamic media in today’s technology. It is clear what he is afraid will happen in the future, where we “spend lives completely immobile mediated by a computer.” His description resembles exactly that of the dystopian future portrayed in wall E, and it is definitely a frightening thought. To what extent will technology simplify our lives; to the point that we eventually give up on our physical capabilities?

On the other hand, I feel that the current level technology and Victor’s visionary technology can reach a compromise. I fully agree that more investment and research should be made towards developing new interfaces that make better use of our capabilities, since there is indeed a massive untapped potential in the rest of our bodies. However, I don’t think there is a reason for us to force ourselves to make a transition. As Victor admits, our current flat, glassy screen is revolutionary, and I do believe it fully serves its purpose in many applications. I don’t think it’s necessary, nor realistic, to abruptly divert our entire vision to some completely new, abstract mediums of technology. Rather, I believe we should simply regard them as new doors of possibilities to help us gradually transition to a better future.

Response to Victor’s Rant

The entire reading reminded me of the discussion during class where we talked about whether human intuition is innate or acquired throughout life as we interact with various things. Surely we call the interface of our smartphones and PCs “intuitive”, but if so, why is it that my grandparents struggle to operate smartphones? Would we still have felt this way if we weren’t already accustomed to such display? After all, as Victor points out, no human interaction in nature resembles sliding on a flat glassy surface. In reality, the senses in our hands do a lot more than simply pressing and sliding – they feel weights, recognize different textures and shapes, and apply delicate pressures accordingly. I agree with Victor that contemporary technology neglects the rest of human capabilities to sense and manipulate. Implementing not only dexterity, but the rest of our perceptive abilities to technology would make interactions more intuitive than ever.

At the same time, especially with our current level of development and dependence on “Pictures Under Glass”, it is definitely hard to imagine how entirely new technologies based on other senses could integrate into our daily lives. As much as the touch-sensitive glass is unrealistic, it’s the most flexible form of human-machine interaction at the moment – what can’t we do on a smartphone these days? Until I read the article, I was completely oblivious to how little I used my senses in technological interactions. Today’s generation almost takes touch screens for granted – it’s no longer an innovation, but an essential tool in our daily lives. As much as this has limited our sensory potentials, I feel it is also inevitable that we constantly gravitate towards the technology we’re the most comfortable with.

Response to Don Norman

As someone with barely any technological literacy, Don Norman’s chapter was a delightful read. I strongly agreed that that human-machine interaction must be a priority in designing a product- looks should not compromise the quality of the experience users get out of using a device. Often I feel like product designers presume the level of users’ ability to understand its functions: as Norman points out in the watch/refrigerator examples, some controls on devices either have no hints on how they operate or simply cannot be understood with common sense/intuition. Even worse, our attempts to fix the device when something goes unexpected only exacerbates the issue. He asserts that in this case, the devices’ designs are at fault, rather than the people who were misled to incorrectly use them. Machines, after all, are meant for humans, and therefore it is only reasonable that their designs take human errors into consideration.

At the same time, I realized these are all concerns I should address myself as a designer. A good design should facilitate users to predict the consequences of an action, which allows the experience with the design to be smooth and pleasurable. The chapter introduces several fundamental principles behind successful human-machine interactions, that collectively, aim to achieve compatibility between the design of the product and the expectation of its users. For example, it isn’t enough to build a product capable of performing amazing tasks, when most its functions are undiscoverable to its users; quoting Norman, “design presents a fascinating interplay of technology and psychology, and designers must understand both.” I think it is indeed a paradox that the main purpose of technology to make life easier is in fact being defeated by increased complexities introduced with its advances.

In the article “Attractive things work better,” Norman takes a more neutral stance and attempts to alleviate the tension between aesthetics and usability. He analyzes different environments in which affect impacts our judgments and hence our actions, and the implication of this on how we respond to design – I had never thought cognitive sciences and design would be so inherently intertwined. The conclusion is that designs must be adapted to suit different situations: whereas in a stressful situation, design should be human-centered and intuitive to best serve its purpose, in a more relaxed and everyday environment, more emphasis could be placed on aesthetics. This is quite logical, as clearly in different situations, the significance of some features of a product would outweigh that of others. As a personal example, I would very much prioritize the aesthetic features of pens, such as their colors, smoothness, grip, etc. when I’m casually taking notes for my classes. On the other hand, if I were to suddenly run out of ink during an exam, my priority would not be so much about all the above features as it would be about whether it works or not – i.e., its usability. Regardless, good aesthetics is often a big criterion in making purchases, as elaborated in the computer display example in the article. Colors have no functional advantage over different shades of black and white, but it’s solely their aesthetics that attracts users and is associated with more pleasurable experience. That is not to say aesthetics should ever be prioritized over usability – it’s definitely important that there is a balance.

Unexpected LED Behaviour

My final LED circuit consists of two buttons and 3 LEDs – initially I was inspired by fairy lights and wanted to create a blink pattern that comes on with a push of a button, using a combination of Button and Blink commands. After many hours of relearning basic Arduino codes and struggling with error messages, I managed to build a parallel circuit of 3 consecutive LEDs with delays so that each LED blinks one after another when a single button is pushed.

As I thought about how I could give a twist to it, I accidentally stumbled upon my final circuit. I plugged in another button to see what I could do with it and rearranged the wires to complete the circuit with the new button. Then I pushed each button to see how the behaviors of the LEDs changed – this time, the old button only turned the first two LEDs on in the initial fairy light pattern, and the new button didn’t turn on anything on its own. I realized the third LED did not turn on unless I pushed both buttons at the same time (It was so unexpected that I was surprised myself).

Major problems encountered:

  • The biggest problem was my lack of knowledge on coding. If inputs/outputs were programmed incorrectly on Arduino, the circuit didn’t work, although it was theoretically built right. This made the source of an error even harder to track whenever there was an issue.
  • It was difficult to keep track of the wires – small changes often ruined the entire circuit and it was frustrating when I couldn’t remember how it looked before. Maybe frequently taking pictures of the circuit would help (just like habitually saving a word document).
  • I should try to actually plan the function of my circuit first and work towards it – I can’t rely on myself to coincidentally stumble upon solutions every time!
  • Two of the legs on one of the buttons broke – it doesn’t function like a switch anymore and rather like a wire, just completing the circuit. 🙁