Happy New Years!

My New Years e-Card 2009 from Allison Walker on Vimeo.

2009 was a big year for me. And, I spent some time today reflecting on how I relied on the help of a lot of people, both personally and professionally, to make this year a success. I met so many fun and exciting people, and my life changed so much, I just couldn’t ring in 2010 without writing something to thank them.

The problem is writing/sending something appropriate for both professional and personal contacts. That led me to look for a nice e-Card that wasn’t too sassy, but still fun. Well, I looked for a card and frankly, I didn’t like them so much. I guess the ones that were so generic to work for everyone seemed like cards I could make myself. So, I did…

First, I had the content, or copy, and figured out what I wanted to say. Then, I looked for the picture I wanted, and found a nice one of the Statue of Liberty that I’d taken earlier this summer and had already adjusted the colors. Then, in Photoshop, I continued to add text and image layers, and adjust color balance just to what I liked. When I was satisfied, I pulled it all into After Effects.

In After Effects, it was pretty easy to pull the composition together. Since I ended up animating one big image, instead of an arm or mouth, the animation part was super quick, relatively. Finding the image files was sort of difficult, but not too bad. I didn’t edit the sound files ahead of time, mostly because my impression was that After Effects could handle what I wanted, which was just fade in and out. Sort of, yes, but after this project I’d probably use any sound editor other than After Effects. It works but it’s not a sound editor – much like double-stick tape will help in a pinch, but it’s not sewing.

Then, when all was finished, I exported as a .mov file and that was that…or not. Rendering so I could watch the animation and the sound together took kind of a while, and I made a couple of .mov files as I made small changes here and there. (Actually, the RAM preview and exporting eventually took about the same time!)

In the end, I ended up with a generic enough card, that also includes something meaningful to me and New York. Not perfect, but it works.

Article: Merging Man and Machine, The Bionic Age

Image of a mechanical arm from a National Geographic article

The cover story to the January 2010 issue of National Geographic is an article about how bionics, or “the study of mechanical systems that function like living organisms or parts of living organisms”, is being used to help people with limited abilities and handicaps, due to accident, genetics or age. In addition to a very nice slideshow, the whole article (maybe?) is available here. The following is a small clip…

Four years ago an automobile accident robbed Amanda Kitts of her arm and the ability to do things most of us take for granted, like making a sandwich. “I felt lost,” the teacher from Knoxville, Tennessee, tells writer Josh Fischman in this month’s cover story on bionics.

Then Amanda met Todd Kuiken, a physician and biomedical engineer who knew that the nerves in an amputee’s stump can still telegraph brain signals. He fitted her with a bionic arm. Bionics is technology at its most ingenious and humane. Most of us first encountered the word in science fiction books or television shows like The Six Million Dollar Man. In that 1970s series, pilot Steve Austin is injured in a crash. His rebuilt body, which includes a bionic arm, eye, and legs, is nothing short of superhuman.

But the bionics of modern medical engineering has little to do with enabling someone to run at 60 miles an hour or use an eye like a zoom lens. It is more about the quiet miracle of holding a fork or seeing the silhouette of a tree. It’s about allowing people like Amanda to reclaim what they’ve lost.

A year ago Ray Edwards, a quadruple amputee, was one of the first people in the United Kingdom to be fitted with a bionic hand. When he flexed his new hand for the first time, he cried. “It made me feel I was just Ray again,” he said. The restoration of one’s normal self is a powerful gift.

There’s also an interactive section about bionics and current advances in prothetics relative to specific body parts.

Just an added note: In the slideshow, there’s a picture of Kitts laughing as her prosthetic arm squeezes a bottle of mustard. Frankly, it’s a pretty awesome photo – and, I definitely find much more joy this photo than I do of that other photo of Jenny McCarthy squeezing a bottle of mustard in a bikini. (Not added, but easily found if you search.) Anyway, if Kitts ever sees this post, I hope she’ll appreciate my comparison between her and her bionic arm, and McCarthy.

Article: Bacteria is put to work turning gears

I came across this interesting article about biological and “micromechanical machines” this morning while eating oatmeal and toast.

Scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University have discovered that common bacteria can turn microgears when suspended in a solution, providing insights for designs of bio-inspired dynamically adaptive materials for energy.

More on RDmag.com….

Liveable Interactive Music Player


My final project for Physical Computing eventually ended up to be an MP3 player that encourages you to take care of your houseplant. This evolved from a previous idea of making a plant that is more like a pet than a plant. I changed my mind after getting some good feedback from my class when I presented my idea. One of their suggestions was to focus on the emotional aspect of how the plant makes you feel. They also advised that care of the plant needs to be an important aspect of the project.

This is how it works: Press the moisture test button. If the soil is dry, the plant will cry; otherwise, it will laugh. If the soil isn’t dry, you can use the MP3 player. You can advance forward and back through an array of music files. You can also pause the music.

Test Button
Test Button

Not only do you care for your plant, it seems like your plant cares for you, too. Although the interface for this project ended up being dainty and pretty, I do admit that 90% of my time on this project seemed to really be spent on code and trying to get things to work. I’ve written about this project in previous posts, so I won’t recap what I’ve discussed in those. But, they’re here if you are interested in reading through them and understanding more about how the project was generated.

Process Description

Because I wanted to embed the interactive mechanics inside the plant, I spent about 1 week on the wave shield and, while I did get it to work, in the end still couldn’t get it to work so well. Some of the issues I had with it were that I didn’t understand the documentation clearly, the code is in some C-language, and my SD card wasn’t formatted correctly. Eventually, I did get it to work, but by that time Minim was looking pretty good. So, sound was now going to be handled by Processing. I also tested out different motion detection sensors to see what types of results I could get that would fit my needs best. Some of the issues I had were that the sensors were too bulky to elegantly embed inside the plant or the serial data I got from the Arduino was too sensitive.

Meanwhile, I was also thinking about my ICM final and how I wanted to create something separate from my Phys Comp final. Originally, I wanted to make a radio that streamed internet radio stations. However, when I discussed this idea with more knowledgeable people and looked it up online, I got the impression that it would be very difficult to implement. So, I left that idea behind and went to my next idea, which was simply an MP3 player. Wanting to make something more interactive and pretty, I started looking up options for Processing and Minim, and what type of visual display I could make. I looked around for an “audio visualizer” on OpenProcessing.org and found this sketch to work with. After that, I spent a little bit of time everyday trying to figure out how the code worked and augmenting it bit by bit to create something new.

By now, it became obvious that I should just put the two projects together. Deciding to use Minim for my Physical Computing project was a huge relief. Not only was it easier to use and had documentation I could understand, it was also easier to get help since Minim is something that other people at ITP have actually worked with on a somewhat frequent basis. (It’s also in the book).

Plus, I could research more about Minim while I was away at a conference in London for a few days. When I got back the States, I went back to the prototype I’d set up before I left using FSRs as triggers for the playback buttons. The FSRs I switched out for exposed wires, because I really didn’t need the analog input values the FSRs provided. (Plus, I seem to have a tendency to destroy my FSRs.) What I really needed were simple HIGH and LOW values from a digital switch which I made out of small sheets of copper.

To test the soil for its resistance to electrical current, I made what could easily be called the simplest switch ever. Add 2 nails + 5V + ground to wet soil. Test for current. Actually, I learned how to do this from reading the internet, the blog of another student,and talking to yet another knowledgeable person.

As I understand, this switch works when the resistance of the soil changes enough to allow a current to flow more freely. At first, I tried this out with just a bowl of water, but I think maybe it shorted out (?) – you really need a plant or at least the soil to get this to work properly. I also added an LED for my own visual feedback.

So, now I had the buttons and the plant. Eventually, I also had a pretty nifty audio visualizer (which at the time of this writing, I may still try to improve upon). So, finally, I just had to assemble the pieces.

Pretty much I just found whatever I had lying around. I found a picture frame in the junk shelf and used that for the frame. I also had some pieces of cork lying around for a bulletin board I never put on my wall, and I used that to cover the frame and to be a backing for the buttons. The whole construction phase literally took just 1 day. Most of my issues with this project were with the code. Luckily there are more knowledgeable people around who can offer help with the code. It also made it a lot easier to test the switches when the wires were not stuck in a plant.

Now that I’m done with the simplest of functionality, to improve it here are a few things I could do:

  • Make a sturdier interface – use something other than cork
  • Label the buttons
  • Provide more feedback when a button is pressed, such as an LED
  • Make the hardware smaller – so that it could fit into other plants or could be portable
  • Make the hardware wireless – so it can work with your iTunes playlist or another array of music files; e.g., it would just give the go ahead that the plant is well watered and you can now play music
  • Use a larger array of sound files, such as from your computer’s music library or a specific playlist you’ve selected. The issue with this improvement is that Minim doesn’t seem to like audio files that are not .wav or .mp3

Flickr Photos!

Play and Next buttons - more photos on Flickr!
Back and Next buttons - more photos on Flickr!

MEX: Mobile User Experience Conference, 09

December 1-4, 2009, I attended the MEX 09 conference, held in London, UK. I attended the conference on a scholarship I received from the conference organizers. Flight and accommodation were not included, but thankfully a friend of the family allowed me to stay in her flat. There were presentations over 2 days, but I only have time to write about 2 now. I’ll update more from my notes at a later date.

Sofia Svanteson of Ocean Observations gave a talk on incorporating creativity into your design team. At one point, she asked: “What’s more important? A great idea or a great team?” Answer: “A great team. A mediocre team will kill a great idea, but a great team will save a mediocre idea.” Other points she brought up:

  • Pixar’s operating principles:
    • everyone has the freedom to communicate with everyone
    • make it safe for all to offer ideas
    • stay close to innovations in academia
  • Design process need a mix of culture, people and ideas. If it were all about the process, we could all be Apple.
  • Use the same vocabulary: for instance, go so far as to make a dictionary of terms. As an example, she discussed the ever contentious UX/IA/ID/UxD/IxD etc, terms used to describe pretty much the same job.
  • Be candid but critique with empathy. Remember, ideas are fragile.
  • Finally, she mentioned The Idea Book, by Fredrik Haren.

Sofia also got everyone bringing up the question: What would Jason (Bourne) do? Her reference is meant to link the skills that Jason Bourne has in noticing many details of his surroundings that would also be similar to designing for the mobile user experience.

Dr. Chris Roas of Sheffield Hallan University discussed user-testing in multiple platforms. Some of his pointers:

  • Remember, you’ll never be able to test all possible platform combinations.
  • This is about understanding users; it’s less traditional, in terms of user testing and usability

In experience design, it’s important to keep in mind if you’re designing for an experience or the experience. AN experience, is something that might change your world view, such as your first trip to Africa. THE experience is something with tacit awareness, like going to work.

He quoted this paper, presented at CHI 09: “User experience over time: an initial framework”, by Evangelos Karapanos, John Zimmerman, Jodi Forlizzi, Jean-Bernard Martens. Here’s a quote from the abstract: “This paper presents an in-depth, five-week ethnographic study that followed 6 individuals during an actual purchase of the Apple iPhone™.” Looks like a good read, actually.

Challenges: Use a provocative situation and embrace the challenges. Reduce any major experience effects, which will help provide a good basis for feedback. For your testing, put randomized tasks all around the building.

And seek stories – what would Jason do?

Michael V. Roeder of Iconmobile, discussed Cloud Computing

He gave a few example of such services: photoshop.com, dropbox.com, Vodaphone 360. He described Cloud computing as an integration of several services with users going to each one individually.

The Cloud User’s Hierarchy of Needs, include:

  • Bandwidth
  • Storage
  • Acces
  • Interface
  • Context
  • Omni Cloud

Final: Communications Lab, “A Self-Packing Suitcase”

Self-packing suitcase from Allison Walker on Vimeo.

Due to a time constraint, I chose stop-motion animation as my final project. With a day or so before a trip to London, I took out a camera and made this film. I really liked working with fabric for stop-motion. It’s a lot easier to move around, but it looks much more organic than moving paper or other objects that are inflexible. I hope you like it!