Smart IxD Lab


Thoughts, observations and experimentation on interaction by: Smart Design

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In our curiosity around the potential of the Internet of Things, we’re keeping our eye on a product called Lapka, set to launch next month.

The Lapka system is a series of really pretty-looking white and wooden blocks that let you measure certain invisible aspects of your environment and visualize them through a mobile app by plugging them in to the headphone jack of an iPhone. By December they plan to offer the blocks for sale as individual pieces, or as a set, giving people the ability to measure four key aspects of the environment.

According to their website the blocks will detect:

Radiation- “it will reveal highly accurate information about radioactivity near you and explain in detail if and how it might be affecting you”

Organic- “designed to look for significant quantities of nitrates in raw foods and drinking water in order to detect residues of synthetic fertilizers”

EMF- “detects electromagnetic fields which can be caused by electronic hardware, telecommunication transmitters, or power lines around”

Humidity- “combines both the temperature and the humidity level of your environment to help you find the perfect comfort level”


It will be interesting to see how the app interface slices and presents the data to provide meaningful information. We also wonder if visualizing and quantifying invisible environmental factors like EMF and radioactivity will make people more concerned about changes in their surroundings or more involved in environmental activism. Lapka coupled with a service like If This Then That could also allow for interesting sets of triggers (public twitter alerts, targeted emails or even appliance controls) based on changes in measured data.

Keep an eye on their progress with us through their website

This past spring, lab chief Carla Diana traveled to Emory University in Atlanta to give a talk at TEDxEmory 2012 on how the Internet of Things can help us design products to connect with people’s needs in their everyday lives. She cautioned against the temptation to use “technology for technology’s sake” and highlighted a framework of the four elements that can help designers to gauge value on a personal level. These elements are:

Learning and feedback: encouraging behavior change through visualizing data

Analog plus: intuitive use of physical interfaces

You, me and everyone: social support and community involvement

Anytime, anywhere: remote and location-aware services

You can read more about Smart Design’s approach to designing for the Internet of Things on the Smart Thinking section of the main website.

Smart Interaction Lab was thrilled to be included as part of the roster of impressive speakers at this year’s TEDxEmory.

Special thanks to Smarties Eric Frietag and Evan Allen.

Last week artist-technologist and creative coding pioneer Zach Lieberman visited the NY arm of the lab to share stories of his project adventures as part of the studio-wide “Get Smart” lecture series.

Zach, whose Eyewriter project was featured in the MoMA’s Talk to Me show this year, began his talk by sharing some of his early experiments with digital drawing. He talked about the tremendous learning and inspiration that comes from putting his software drawing tools into the hands of general audiences. He also shared some of the story behind the open-source Eyewriter project and his amazing work with Graffiti artist Tempt.

Finally, Zach debunked the myth of the solitary artist working alone and championed the trend toward collaboration and community-based approaches to creativity. He presented work created by artists using Open Frameworks, an open source toolkit that facilitates creative code writing that he co-founded with Theo Watson.

Peter Altoff of the NY Studio said, “what’s really inspirational is that he’s coming at it from an artist’s point of view and not just a technology perspective.” Monica Gonzalez of our SF studio remarked, “I love how he measures success, like looking for the ‘mouth open’ response. It’s very human.”

Photo by Ferdinand Salis via Flickr.

Adding to the RCA report is Iris, the degree project by Mimi Zou, hybrid designer-engineer and recent friend of the lab.

In this well-crafted vision, capturing images with the camera takes place just by looking at a target and blinking, but a physical device is still retained as part of the design to offer a satisfying visceral and kinesthetic experience. We love this physical-digital version of an object that’s been rapidly disappearing in physical presence despite its increased emotional role in everyday life.

And the Co.Design review of the work.

The RCA show finished recently, and a couple of projects from the Design Interactions MA led by Anthony Dunne caught our eye:

The Pareidolic Robot by Neil Usher was created to encourage debate around what robots are for. Usher introduces us to different possible scenarios in which robots are used for recreational tasks. As he puts it, “robots are designed to perform precise and repetitive operations with relentless efficiency, performing the tasks we find too laborious or dangerous. However, could these robots be deployed to improve the efficiency of our leisure time by performing tasks we enjoy? Could intelligent machines bird watch for us or look for four-leaf clovers? Could they optimise our pastimes, searching for patterns and spectacle in nature that would be imperceptible or too time-consuming for us to find for ourselves?”

Nimbus MkIII – a ‘pareidolic robot’ that identifies forms and faces in clouds.

Guiltless Excuses is a mobile application design by Pei–Ying Lin. What’s particularly interesting is how it creates debate around how the new advances in technology like social networks, real time communication etc., are butting up against new issues and anxieties that will shape our society. Pei-Ying Lin explains the concept as “a mobile application that pragmatically deals with people’s inner guilt and helps them to maintain a balance between the personal and the public self. It is an experimental effort in creating a social utopia as a way to re-examine human nature and a social phenomenon.”

Guiltless Excuses screenshot.

The project introduces the idea of ‘Excuse Management’ which turns the ordinarily “undercover” human behavior of making excuses into a serious consideration, and quantifies social status with a variable called “’Excuse Credit” which is a person’s popularity in a community. Each user will have an Excuse Credit value for every community they are in. The community members can decide the value of an event which will be used as the amount for Excuse Credit reduction if the user decides to miss the event. This will provide a more precise view of the social cost of missing an event. The user will also be able to set up her expected public perception such as being popular, sociable, or merely a member. It is an attempt to create a seemingly utopian social network application which actually creates new kinds of pressure.

Guiltless Excuses screenshot.

The Belkin Wemo system gets just us a bit closer to future visions of a connected home with very little disruption in terms of  infrastructure or new devices. The system consists of switches that plug in between an existing appliance and the wall, and motion sensors that can detect if people or pets are nearby. It all interfaces with a smartphone app so that devices can be controlled remotely, and it even works with the web service If This Then That  to let you set up events that are triggered exactly the way you want them to be – coffee can be brewed before you awake, gadgets can be turned off after a certain hour, etc.

We’re excited to see what people do with this kind of consumer-friendly, plug-and-play functionality and are keeping our eyes peeled for more types of sensors from Belkin. Check it out, along with a video on how it works, here:

The Leap system features an iPod-sized box that connects to your computer to enable you to interact using natural hand and finger movements. According to their website, “This isn’t a game system that roughly maps your hand movements. …The Leap technology can distinguish your individual fingers and track your movements down to 1/100th of a millimeter.”

Though at first this may seem like yet another interface paradigm to get used to (I’m still learning my trackpad gestures… three fingers sideways…), Leap claims that the interface is more intuitive than what we’ve had in the past. They originally envisioned the technology as a better way to interact with 3D applications (like sculpting digital clay), but also see it as an input device that will make sense in everyday life situations:

“This is like day one of the mouse. Except, no one needs an instruction manual for their hands.”

For more information about Leap, check out their website:

We love this project by NYC neighbor design studio Pensa. The D.I. Wire bender can take a CAD file and reproduce the lines in a physical object composed of bent wire forms. In true DIY style, it’s run, in part, with Arduino. It can read vector, 3D CAD (Rhino or Wavefront OBJ) or text coordinate files and then translate the data into wire bends as it feeds the material from a large spool. The video shows sample creations such as eyeglasses, 2D shapes and a 3D wire hat.

Here’s how they describe it:

The D.I.Wire Bender is a rapid prototype machine that bends metal wire to produce 2D or 3D shapes. Wire unwinds from a spool, passes through a series of wheels that straighten it, and then feeds through the bending head, which moves around in 3 dimensions to create the desired bends and curves. Vector files (e.g., Adobe Illustrator files), text files of commands (e.g., feed 50 mm, bend 90° to right…) provide DIWire’s instructions.

It’s essentially a 3D printer that describes lines, instead of volumes, in space, and it could be used for anything from prototypes to customized products.

Here’s a more detailed description:

Former Smartie Jeff Hoefs has created a prototyping tool called Breakout ( for using Arduino to take physical world data from switches, buttons and sensors and broadcasting it to online applications. The tool also allows you to create web-based interfaces that can be used to control physical outputs such as LEDs and motors.

We ran through the “getting started” guide during our weekly Smart Interaction Lab tinker session and then played around with some analog sensors, and we’re looking forward to getting creative with broadcasting monitoring and controlling different real world gadgets with websites and mobile devices. Our next experiment? Taking the desktop status MenuCube ( and hooking it up to Breakout to provide a real-time, virtual representation of status.

The BBC reported today that a 3D printer that uses chocolate, developed by University of Exeter researchers (, will soon be commercially available. Just like 3D printers that deposit plastic, this one lays down strips of chocolate in layers that accumulate into a 3D form. We envision lots of creative sculptural shapes – like nested forms and algorithmic structures, as well as interesting flavor profiles, where one type of chocolate can be interlaced into another. This could be a great place where Smart’s IxD lab and its Food Lab can collaborate: