UX Australia 2013: Physical to Digital Workshop

On Tuesday of this week, we facilitated another very successful Physical to Digital workshop at UX Australia in Melbourne. We had a slightly smaller, but equally creative group in attendance. We began the day with an introduction and discussion about innovation and digital disruption that included contemporary examples such as the Nest thermostat and the Coke Freestyle drink dispenser – neither of which is currently available in Australia. Our workshop participants were quite interested in both of those products and are eager to see them arrive here.

From there, we did a round of personal introductions and skills assessments that included identifying everyone’s hidden super power and favorite super hero-ish character. Seems there are a lot of MacGyver fans in Australia. This was, in fact, a good sign for the day!

As with the workshop at UX Week in San Francisco, we introduced participants to concepts around “looks like” and “works like” prototyping including the need to dissect problems into discreet parts that can be easily solved. In all of our workshops, we encourage participants to explore the problem/assignment conceptually, but then to break it down into ideas that can be prototyped via a combination of physical (works-like) Arduino-based systems, craft materials, illustrations (looks-like) and storyboards. The idea is to prove the efficacy of the concept via an artifact with the support of a compelling story arc that frames and builds on the idea. This framework provides fertile ground for exploration and taps into a wide assortment of skills without relying too heavily on any one particular skill set. It also sets the stage for a very robust and collaborative afternoon of brainstorming, building and story telling.

After the introduction to prototyping and a few basic skills exercises involving the Arduino platform, the teams of 3 participants received a secret envelope assignment focused on Quantified Self. They were also given an assortment of brand-based mood boards and body-based mood boards to choose from and to rally their thinking around. The remainder of the day was spent actively designing, crafting and prototyping an interactive product with both digital and physical manifestations. Each team delivered three presentations throughout the afternoon culminating in a final presentation and working prototype – and each team was highly successful.

The UX Australia projects included:

Training Legs – This was a wearable set of tights intended for use in physical therapy, primarily targeted at children. The tights are designed with embedded flex sensors that can be calibrated to define a desired range of motion. When patients exceed the target range by hyper-extending the leg or by bending too deeply at the knee, embedded vibration motors provide haptic feedback to the wearer. The team built a functioning prototype using Tyvek pants.

Porsche Driving Safety Glove System – This team, the UX-Men, designed and built a functioning pulse sensor that monitored the wearer’s heart rate in order to provide a better driving experience for the wearer. The system is intended to communicate with the onboard computer to activate sport mode for more aggressive driving at the track, provide safe stopping in the event of a medical emergency and even reward the driver for maintaing composure and driving safely under normal traffic conditions. The pulse meter provided realtime feed back to the driver (and car) via a multi-colored LED that changed colors based on the driver’s level of excitement.

Philips Posture Mate – This project was intended to help users monitor their posture and the amount of time they spend sitting. It was designed to be either an embedded device found in chairs for more sedentary office workers or, in a less explored scenario, a wearable back-brace style device for manual laborers who do a lot of lifting. The team focused primarily on office workers and built a functional prototype that measured pressure and alerted the user when too much pressure had been registered over a defined time period. In other words, if the user sits too long or sits with poor posture, the device encourages them to stand for a while. The system connected with both a desktop and a mobile device to deliver alerts in the proper context for the user. This team actually built the pressure sensor for the prototype using a pressure sensitive material, copper tape and packing tape.

All of this great work was completed in less than 4 hours of actual working time for the participants.  It’s really incredible to see this type of thinking come to life in such interesting and interactive ways.