Smart IxD Lab


Thoughts, observations and experimentation on interaction by: Smart Design

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We’re always in the process of playing with sensors and tracking, and our newest toy, the Pulse Sensor, has led us to a new lab project, affectionately named “Stressbot”.

In our interview with one of the Pulse Sensor’s creators, Joel Murphy, we learned a lot about the link between Heart Rate Variability (HRV) and the physiological state of stress that can be so dangerous when sustained for long periods. Since there is a Smart-wide initiative around stress awareness and healthy lifestyles, we decided to put our learning to good use and designed the Stressbot as a way for Smarties to learn how to detect and manage stress. The stressbot lets you measure your HRV for a few minutes and displays real-time results on the screen. It then coaches you on breathing activities that can work to even out the HRV and effectively reduce stress.

We’re still in the process of learning more about the science behind it and modifying the code that the sensor’s creators have developed, but wanted to share a glimpse into our sketches and initial inspiration.

Stay tuned for updates on the Stressbot project over the next few weeks.

Above: Photo of the Nanoblocks Sagrada Famiglia model, with the 123D Catch 3D model built from a scan with the DIY iPhone Dolly.

Smart’s Master MacGyver Ron Ondrey loves his photo toys and when he shopped around for movable tripods and dollys he decided he could do a better job if he made one himself. He built the rig, shown below, in order to pan, truck and take 360° bullet-time style spinning videos around people and objects using a standard camera mount or by mounting an iPhone.

We had a lot of fun in the lab taking experimental videos of our product designs, but decided to bring the rig’s coolness factor up a notch by using it in conjunction with Autodesk’s 123D Catch App, software that essentially turns your iPhone into a 3D scanner, and then lets you spin and tilt the virtual 3D object on the screen.

The video above shows our test shots with the Nanoblocks model of Barcelona’s Sagrada Famiglia.

Here’s Ron with the rig.


And our test model.

Here’s our test with the rig in 360 spin mode.

This weekend’s New York Times Sunday Review cover featured the article, “Our Talking, Walking Objects” by Lab Founder Carla Diana. The piece highlights the influence of robotics on the design of everyday objects, and how dynamic behaviors like sound, light and motion can be harnessed to express product personality.

The article has led to a lively debate people’s line comments (81 at last count) regarding the value of having an emotional connection with our everyday things.

Check out the piece and weigh in here:

Food is a big part of Smart’s studio culture, but sharing meals can be tricky when we all have different schedules. As part of our ongoing exploration of how products can harness the Internet of Things to keep people connected, we focused on lunchtime in the New York studio.

The Apron Alert project is a concept that emerged when we combined our experiments in wireless devices with our thoughts around improving our communal kitchen experience.  Wireless XBee radios attached to Lilypad Arduinos were used to build a “smart” apron that can sense when the cook has put it on to start the meal, and when he or she has removed it to serve it. In response, the apron triggers a series of tweets or text messages to let people know when a meal is being prepped and when it’s time to come to the table.

Above is a short video showing how we used our Apron Alert system to coordinate an office lunch this week.

And a diagram of how the whole system is set up:

Special thanks to Mark Breneman for his work on this project.  Thanks also to Evi Hui, Nicholas Lim and Edouard Urcadez.

Last Friday we had a visit from  a group of students from SVA’s Summer Intensive program in Interaction Design and it was a great oportunity to share a bit of what we’ve been up to in the Smart Interaction Lab.

Lab researcher and summer Smartie Mark Breneman demonstrated a bit of what we’ve been cooking up with our recent Internet of Things experiments. We’re using off-the-shelf components to prototype scenarios around mealtime to let family members communicate with one another to coordinate dinner schedules. Here, Mark demonstrates how a wireless Xbee-enabled device can be used to send a tweet or text message when a certain gesture is made.

Thanks, SVA summer intensive students, for stopping by our lab to exchange ideas.

The Wall Street Journal featured our very own Jason Short today in this piece entitled “Drones Are Techies’ New Darlings”:

The article describes DIY flying drones, which are essentially helicopters embedded with sensors and equipped with cameras so they can be remotely controlled and programmed to grab images while navigating in the air.

Here’s a quote from the piece:

“Mr. Short, who helped design the Flip video camera, is working on technology that allows the drones to be controlled via iPhones and Android devices. He also recently built drones with a fancy chip that can process inputs from three gyroscopes, three accelerometers and a compass.’We’re ahead of the phones,’ says Mr. Short, who adds that he prefers the helicopters to the airplanes, because they are easier to test in his backyard.”

Folks at the interaction lab recently have been playing with the LUFA framework.  LUFA is an “open source complete USB stack for USB-enabled Atmel Microcontrollers”.  This basically means with LUFA you can turn an Arduino into a keyboard, mouse, joystick, or other USB devices. Awesome!

There are tons of ways to get LUFA onto your Arduino.  We found it easiest to use Darran Hunt’s LUFA hex files (which he already pre-compiled) posted on his website and load it via an AVR Programmer.  If you’re interested in trying our process download the sample project (which is based off of Darran’s work). It contains a keyboard hex file, the original arduino hex file, and a sample arduino sketch.

You will also need:

  • Crosspack
  • AVR Programmer (we used an AVR MKII)
  • Arduino Uno

Here’s the steps for creating a LUFA Keyboard.

1. Download and install Crosspack. This will give you the ability to run avrdude, which you will need to flash to your Arduino.

2. Load LUFA_Sketch from our sampe project onto your Arduino. It is important you do this step first since once you do step 3 your Arduino won’t be recoginized by the IDE anymore.  Don’t worry, we’ll go over how to get it back in step 6.

3. Hook up your Arduino like so.  Open up terminal and navigate to the folder.  Once there, run the following command to flash the new hex:

avrdude -p at90usb82 -F -P usb -c avrispmkii -U flash:w:arduino-keyboard-0.3.hex -U lfuse:w:0xFF:m -U hfuse:w:0xD9:m -U efuse:w:0xF4:m -U lock:w:0x0F:m

Once it is done (should take less than 10 seconds), unplug the USB cables and AVR Programmer.

4. Now, wire up your Arduino so that there’s a button connected to pin 2.  Re-plug in your Arduino and computer should say it has detected a new Keyboard device.

5. Open up your favorite text editor and press the button.  You should see “w”‘s being typed.

6. I mentioned that once you load LUFA onto your Arduino you won’t be able to load a new sketch since it is no longer recognized by the Arduino IDE.  To load a new sketch you need to re-flash the original Arduino firmware (which is included in the sample project).  So hook up the AVR Programmer as in step 3 and run the following command

avrdude -p at90usb82 -F -P usb -c avrispmkii -U flash:w:UNO-dfu_and_usbserial_combined.hex -U lfuse:w:0xFF:m -U hfuse:w:0xD9:m -U efuse:w:0xF4:m -U lock:w:0x0F:m

Once done your Arduino will be recognized by the IDE again.

Happy Hacking!

MenuCube is a four-sided menu navigation interface.

We love the idea of moving interaction design away from the mouse and keyboard and into the physical, tangible world, and have been playing withusing real world physical objects to manipulate digital data in natural and intuitive ways.

In this experiment, we decided to map values to a simple geometry, the cube.

The cube’s geometry lends itself to a simple interaction of switching among values by flipping it onto one of four faces  – we saved two faces for an LED matrix display that can be seen by the user, and perhaps others nearby. Turning the cube switches to the next option in a menu list.

Our first application lets someone choose and display a status by selecting a facial expression (happy, sad, neutral… and excited):

Beyond this, we envision many possible applications, such as:

  • Switching time zones (particularly useful when you have studios in three time zones like Smart does)
  • Changing Mac OS spaces
  • Navigating through favorited websites
  • Navigating favorite TV or Pandora stations

Special thanks for Geoff Woo.

Here at Smart we’ve been playing around with ways that RFID-tagged physical objects can trigger digital events such as sounds, videos and even map navigation.

We put together three experiments as part of a prototyping workshop that Jeff Hoefs of Rockwell Labs and fellow Smartie Carla Diana led at IIT Chicago and SVA here in New York:

The Internet of Things vis-a-vis a product catalog – Placing an object on the RFID reader surface brings up a full product description along with how to purchase. We used some OXO products Smart had designed to tell the story – the next evolution of retail, perhaps?

Paper characters come to life! – Using cardboard cutouts that Shu Li (illustrator and interaction designer at R/GA’s visualization group) designed for Math World, we brought story characters to life in animation on the screen:

Lord of the Rings, meet New Zealand – Embedding tags onto a DVD case lets you create a geographic movie viewer, where the tags launch a Google Map of the movie’s location. Lord of the Rings takes us to New Zealand, Chocolat takes us to France, and Chicago takes us to, well, Chicago:

If you’re curious for more, here’s a sneak look at the actual workshop these came from:

Stay tuned for more explorations! We’re just getting started…

The Lab has started a weekly Arduino session here in the studio where we can share knowledge and explore technologies together.

So far we’ve had a few sessions:
Week 1: Intro to Arduino
Week 2: Potentiometers and sensors for variable resistance
Week 3: Accelerometers and physical menu show and tell

We thought we’d share our notes from Week 4, where the topic was motors and motor control with Arduino:


Smart Arduino session Feb. 28, 2012

Topic: DC, servo and stepper motors

Motors aren’t really polarity dependent, but the direction will change based on how you have the polarity.


DC motor:

You don’t really have a lot of control over how fast it goes, but to control it you can use a potentiometer and tune it so that it’s not running at full speed.

Can also use PWM instead of the potentiometer to set the speed of the motor, allows you to get slower than your cutoff voltage.

To get your motor to go bidirectional, you use an H-bridge – you can switch the positive and the negative.

H-bridge unit off the shelf: SIMPLE BRIDGE solutions cubed board (

Also good because you can provide more voltage than the micro-controller (arduino) can provide. You want to keep the voltage separate so you don’t fry your arduino. Can use a voltage regulator (7805) to give the Arduino just 5 V. Capacitor (22 microF also smooths out the spikes).

You can also use an H-bridge chip with software programming:



Has a limited range of motion. You send it a PWM signal which corresponds to a specific position. You can use a pot to control the position you want the servo to be in.

Can easily hack a servo to make it like a regular motor with speed control instead of position control by just taking the cover off.

Here’s a GREAT link for info about servos:

You can also hack a servo to get feedback about its position:


Stepper motor

Gives you really precise degrees and speed (e.g. Turn 35 degrees in 100 steps)

Unipolar versus bipolar. Bipolar 8 wire gives you more control

Sparkfun actually sells a 4-wire stepper motor (

Ben recommends getting the motor controller that sparkfun sells to work with the stepper because otherwise it’s a headache to time your pulses. (

Some applications are like printers, CNC machine, places where you need very precise control.


General tip: it’s a good idea to use diodes with motors so that the current doesn’t shoot back. Good idea to not run the motor from the same power source as the micro-controller.


Special thanks to Ben Chao for sharing his motor know-how.