This project was motivated by the creative anarchy of the 6th floor digital futures lounge. In this chaotic and collaborative space, students work, talk, mix, rest, study and hide out.
The videos posted by DF students on this blog give a pretty good sense of the variety of creative activities taking place there. The air is filled with experimental music, flux fumes, hilarious conversation and the sights and sounds of creative collaboration. You often have the opportunity to test someone’s brand new prototype or learn how to do something new with or without a computer.
In addition, students working on individual assignments like this one, and those in second year sometimes require uninterrupted time to focus, to code and to think. But how can I know if the student sitting across from me is available to help with a technical question, or would rather be left alone to work?
We’ve seen a students C-clamp a shelving unit to a table to hide behind, or wear earphones to signal their intentions. We’ve rolled whiteboards over to a table to create some visual, if not auditory seclusion. Despite this, it’s usually not clear when someone in the space is available to talk, or when they’re working against a tight deadline and would rather be approached later.
The Dwell Belt is intended to provide a friendly non-verbal cue about the wearer’s availability.
Highly focused time, such as when writing or coding can be interrupted by smartphones and notifications (Ward, 2017). Likewise, when brainstorming with a colleague, it’s detrimental to have a phone anywhere near, even if you don’t look at it (Przybylski 2013). How can wearable electronics provide us with the ability to connect professionally and socially with others without causing all of the distractions associated with smartphone use and desktop notifications?
The Dwell Belt provides the option of posting pre-programmed messages directly to a Facebook group, summoning coding help, or suggesting face-to-face social time.
Hardware and software details
(Code, sketches, design files, photographs)
The finished product consists of a belt and electronic buckle that allows the user to select an LED animation, and a button for wirelessly posting to Facebook
As produced, the Belt consists of a battery pack, on off switch, arduino with wifi, three LED rings, a six position mode switch, a button, software and a housing.
The switch permits various display animations, and the button posts to Facebook, via IFTTT. Since I wanted to post to a Facebook group rather than a page, I needed to use Gmail to post, since IFTTT supports posting to pages but not groups. (Zapier supports posting to groups, but the feature is in beta, and didn’t work for me).
The Belt has several modes to signal the wearer’s state.
Off: power switch is off to save battery
On/standby: code is running for quick start, but no display.
Converse/collaborate: In the first switch position, the lights animate outward in a gentle magnetizing display
Party Time: This colourful flashing display of many colours is inspired by a disco ball. The wearer is looking to chat, have fun, go for coffee or drinks and debrief about how Creation and Computation critique went
Need Help: The flashing red pattern indicates distress and sends the message that all is not well. Perhaps there is a persistent error in the code? People who are not otherwise occupied are invited to come over and ask “How can I help?”
Summon Help: The animation changes to concentric red rings highlighting the “Post” button. When pressed, the Belt connects to wifi to post to Facebook. The animation switches first to amber, and green rings appear as the wifi connection process completes. When the message has been sent successfully, a soothing pulsating green light displays. The wearer may keep debugging, or may adopt the recovery or fetal positions until help arrives.
I originally intended to design a smaller housing with an ornamental design covering the Facebook button (“Svelte Dwell Belt”, see design v.1 below), but I ended up with a more boxy approach.
Miniaturization was a challenge. I used hook up wire and a small PCB bus for power. I made the buckle hardware from bicycle spokes and spoke nipples, since these were the smallest threaded parts I could find without machining anything or going to specialty stores.
I started with example code from Adafruit – WifiClient from their Wifi101 demo, and striptest from the Neopixel demo. First I got the Feather working as a server, then as a client, then reading switches & buttons, then making calls to adafruit.io when a button is pressed. I then added the animations, and finally “interwove” these so that animations could be interrupted with a switch or button. I wrote rough pseudocode along the way to help me structure the code and prioritize the tasks.
I alternated between writing code and assembling the product. This seems like an unusual approach, but I didn’t want to get too far with any one part before realizing there was an in surmountable problem in another area that would require a redesign.
As expected, the original concept evolved during the creation of this project due to technical constraints, part availability and schedule limitations.
In addition, while working on the project’s details – making parts, soldering wires, writing code – I noticed I spent a lot of time dwelling on the problem and the creative space; part of the reason for the Dwell Belt’s name. This was different from the more ordered and deliberate design phases of concept generation, selection, design, etc. It made me think there is some value in the idea of “Critical Making” I was studying to Research Methods class (e.g. Ratto, 2011). While building, I spent contemplative time with the question of how we can interact and give each other signals, rather than just analytical time.
Issues with this version
The belt did work as intended. There are a few questionable bits of code. Firstly, it was necessary to comment out the serial port communication when working wirelessly. Secondly, in order to run the animation which reading the switches, I couldn’t separate our the functions for animation and switch-checking. A better solution would use “listeners” or other asynchronous computing techniques.
In addition, the wifi call (to Adafruit, and from there to Facebook via IFTTT and Gmail) is pretty basic, and not very secure, since it includes my Adafruit credentials in the http GET request, which could be overheard or cached along the way. It does not use https.
I had hoped to have time to do more with the belt and not just the buckle. I would have liked to have a smaller buckle and more light signals from the belt itself. Some of the components (e.g. battery) could have been distributed around the belt rather than being solely contained in the buckle.
The critique feedback was pretty clear – the belt buckle is not a place people want to look for social cues. It would certainly be possible to move the LEDs to other areas. I would like to try sewing 6 or so LEDs around the belt for a more understated effect, and removing the animations from the belt buckle.
Andrew K. Przybylski, Netta Weinstein Can you connect with me now? How the presence of mobile communication technology influences face-to-face conversation quality. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships Vol 30, Issue 3, 2013
Adrian F. Ward, Kristen Duke, Ayelet Gneezy, and Maarten W. Bos Brain Drain: The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research 2017 2:2, 140-154
Ratto, Mark Critical Making: Conceptual and Material Studies in Technology and Social Life. The Information Society: An International Journal, Volume 27, 2011 – Issue 4 pp252-260