Social Objects

tl;dr; Brief: Prepare a conceptual design and realize a working prototype of a IoT devices that will coordinate to meaningfully enhance social relationships.

  • Due: Part 1: Feb 5; Part 2: Feb 12; Part 3: Feb 19.
  • Collaborative Project
  • Deliverables:
Week Concept Prototype Due Submit to
1 Ambience and Embodiment Data Presentation Feb 5 Part 1
2 Designing Networked Interaction Data Communication Feb 12 Part 2
3 Connectivity, Responsibility and Ethics Interaction & Iteration Feb 19 Part 3

“By augmenting objects with capacities for communication, such intimate designs recognize the significant role objects play in mediating interpersonal relationships between people, but also the ways objects are active participants in social relationships.”


For years, technology has empowered new forms of human-to-human connections. Mobile phones and SMS are an incredible example of this - they have radically transformed when, where and how we can reach out to other people.

While the Internet of Things is often talked about in terms of sensors, hardware and functional utility, it also creates new opportunities to enrich human experience; to not just connect objects, devices and things to one another but to help us better connect with the people in our lives.

Connected objects have much potential to create more intimate contact, shared understanding of rhythyms and routines, or create dialog between us.

Over the next three weeks we’re going to explore these ideas. We’ll iteratively explore the design of a connected internet-appliance to meaningfully enhance social relationships. We’ll take cues from our readings (see above) and consider the role smart ‘things’ can play in helping us to communicate.

Each week you’ll work collaboratively to explore an aspect of this devices design. You’ll deliver a milestone in the form of a working prototype. This will be presented in-class.

Each week you’ll be asked to explore one aspect of this device through in-class exercises, research and discovery exercises, skills development exercises, and by developing interactive prototypes.

Learning Objectives

As part of this assignment you’ll be asked to:

  • Explore opportunities for enriching human relationships and creating attachment through products

  • Develop your working knowledge of co-ordinating communications and network-interactions between devices

  • Develop your working knowledge of actuators (motors, light, sound) in feedback scenarios.

  • Explore the ambient, glancable and peripheral interfaces by developing a conceptual design based on the principles; and

  • Work collaboratively to explore and develop a well realized conceptual design and working prototype with the Particle platform.


Below are a series of reference projects to consider. Additional precedents may be found in the following catalogs:

The Good Night Lamp

The Good Night Lamp is an excellent example of how internet-connected devices can help to support intimate ‘digital gestures’ between humans. It supports couples seperated over distances to maintain a connection to and share in nighttime routines:

The Good Night Lamp is a kickstarter backed project that connects a series of bedside lamps. “Good Night Lamp is a physicalsocial network. It allows you to keep in touch with people all over the world. When you buy Good Night Lamp it comes as a set of two lamps: a Big Lamp and a Little Lamp. When you turn on your Big Lamp, the Little Lamp turns on too. You can send your Little Lamp to your friend or family member anywhere in the world. There is no lengthy setup and no internet connection needed.”

Slow Games by Ishac Bertran, Garnet Hertz, and Will Odum

While not a connected device, this does present an interesting precedent. It shows how you can effectively design a ‘slow interface’ that supports just a single interaction a day. After that interaction occurs, it can operate in the periphery. They say of the project:

Slow Games. Concept by Ishac Bertran

The Slow Game project draws on the practice of playing Chess with a remote opponent in which people would literally send their next move through paper correspondence via the post as inspiration for design. This activity required players to live with their chessboards over long periods of time as they contemplated what their next move might be. In this project, we apply a slow interaction framing on a tangible interactive game that enforces a very low frequency of interaction: one move a day. The game exists as a small 5cm cube, with a low resolution display consisting of 64 tiny white lights. The game is based on the classic video game ‘snake’, where the player manoeuvres a line which grows in length, with the line itself being a primary obstacle. The game is played by physically rotating the cube, which turns the direction that the snake moves. By reducing the feedback loop to a frequency of a day, Slow Game radically challenges our memory, observation and patience.

From details of the open source DIY Kit by Will Odum Ishac Bertran, Garnet Hertz, Ron Wakkary

Love Letters by Jonathan Sher

Love Letters by Jonathan Sher, see also article on Designboom explores the same opportunities for intimate communications through playful, affective interactions with devices:

present day technology allows us to hear, text, see, and use pictures and icons to express how we feel. however, there are physical and emotional dimensions that exist only when we’re close to loved ones. in response to this problem, daniel sher asked herself, ‘how can I use technology to bring people closer in a different yet familiar way? it was important to me not to try to reenact the feelings of touch, pressure and warmth we feel when we hug of caress our loved one. trying to imitate that will always feel fake.’ with this understanding of human interaction, she wanted to create new experiences for those who wish to express their love and affection. as a result, for her final project at holon institute of technology, sher, along with ben hagin, has developed ‘saying things that can’t be said’, a series of objects that revolve around people in long-distance relationships.

Other projects have explored: sharing pulse readings or biometrics between partners, activating scents remotely and many other variations but fundamentally they are designed to let two people say “I’m thinking of you.”

Empathy Box by Sophiab Brueckner

The Empathy Box is a networked appliance that connects many anonymous people through shared warmth.

Empathy Box Video.

“I designed and built two functional devices: the Empathy Box, a tabletop appliance inspired by Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick; and the Empathy Amulet, a wearable version of the aforementioned appliance. Both devices use shared physical warmth as a way to cultivate empathy and a novel sense of connection with anonymous others. The devices encourage their users to make a deliberate and generous choice to invest their time and energy in connection with strangers, and they incorporate reciprocity into their design, such that helping oneself means helping other people. The Empathy Box explores synchronous connection, while the Empathy Amulet uses asynchronous connection allowing the user experience the shared warmth either consciously or unconsciously. “

See also: The Empathy Amulet

Tenison Road By Microsoft Research

Tenison Road. Life and Data on the Street.

Microsoft’s Tenison Road explores the use of physical charts to visualize the community polls and live sensor information gathered through connected devices. They’re presented in a local storefront to drive conversation with data throughout the neighbourhood.

[Tenison Road By Microsoft Research](

Tenison Road By Microsoft Research

This storefront contains physical charts to materialize data and “engage people with their data and enable them to use it to actively participate in communal life.” These are supported by ‘bullfrogs’; internet connected polling devices that are given to members of the community. Regularly they vote and respond to prompts presented and the data is relayed to the storefront.

Project Brief

Prepare a conceptual design and realize a working prototype of a IoT devices that will coordinate to meaningfully enhance social relationships. As part of this project, you’ll

  1. Week 1: Prepare a concept and design a storyboard for an ambient or embodied interface that represents intimate, personal, or shared data without a screen through movement, light or sound. You should negotiate issues of abstraction, ambiguity and legibility to identify a strategy for data-embodiment. You will also explore a ‘calm’ or ‘slow’ approach to interaction with the device that will not demand attention or interaction overly.

  2. Week 2: Prototype a preliminary version of your device and consider how the networked interactions between two or more devices will take place. You will be asked to imagine a series of devices that will be shared between people (e.g. a couple, a family, co-workers) or a community. While devices might leverage online data from APIs but the information they relay between them must be essential to the experience.

  3. Week 3: Consider the responsibilities and ethics of a social object. You should examine the tensions between a viable business model (monitization) and consumer trust and confidence in your product. You will explore the implications of sharing potentially personal data through internet connected devices and develop a statement on principles to be adopted.


  1. At least two devices must be prototyped and working

  2. At least one device must present information using a calm or slow strategy (ambient, embodied infornation, non-intrusive)

  3. The devices are networked to one another i.e. the interaction relies on one device relaying some information to the other.

  4. No screens may be used

  5. No high fidelity communications may be used (video, photo, audio transmission).

  6. In addition the following constraints apply for each week:

    • Week 1: Designing Feedback (Presenting Data): The focus is on designing the presentation of information _not the transmission of information. No networked interactions between devices or live data may be used in your first prototype.

    • Week 2: Designing Networking (Sharing Data): You must have a working prototype of two independent prototypes that communicate directly with one another.

    • Week 3: Interaction & Iteration (Refinement): You should prepare an integrated form for your device.

  7. You are not required to create a fully implemented product prototype, but should have a working demonstration.

Considerations and Food For Thought

  • Objects already play a role in relationship management. Giving gifts. Photos of important moments. Smashing plates or slamming doors in a heated moment. A potted plant as a proxy for a child. What are the everyday actions with objects that might not exist or could be amplified to work over distances?
  • Technology is already embedded and intertwined with relationships. Think about the technologies that effect relationships when people are together and explore what they could be in the context of distance relationships? See: Use technology to avoid relationship conflict
  • Could you design for conflict not just connection? It’s not just about enriching and maintaining a relationship. “There is no such thing as a relationship without conflict.” - conflict is an inherent part of relatiosnhips. Don’t overlook it. As much as bringing people together and maintaining a feeling of prescence is needed, so is technology that might help mediate the less beautiful moments of a relationship: see: Relationship Conflict: Healthy or Unhealthy
  • It doesn’t have to be about an existing relationship. Could your tool help to cement a new relationship in new ways? Or could it help with it’s dissolution - Pixelated Heartbreak: The Unparalleled Pain of a Digital Breakup
  • There’s a real the anguish of separation. This recent article in the NYTimes gives a compelling example of just how vital technologies for remote intimacy can be. Love, Interrupted: A Travel Ban Separates Couples
  • Many games have established practices for playing over distances. The practice of sending chess moves through the mail inspired slow games. Are there other practices that can inspire your approach?
  • Creating interfaces for data in communities can be a great way to inspire friendly competition and behavior change. The Tidy Street project did this in a low-tech way: they chalk painted energy consumption for households on a street and reduced energy consumption by 15%. How might high-tech objects support this too?


Outcomes should be reasonably well developed and documentation should be submitted to the Gallery on or before the deadline. Each milestone should be added to the Gallery as a separate project (see below)

Week 1:

  • Concept: Provide a high level overview for your proposal.

  • Storyboard: Create a storyboard showing how data will be displayed through an ambient or embodied technique. This should show change over time.

Week 2:

  • Working Prototype of the data-embodiment and/or networked interaction

  • Demo: An in-class demonstration of your prototype

  • Timelapse/Video/photos showing the user interface or interaction in it’s early stage

Final Deliverables (Week 3):

In Class

  • A demonstration of your final prototype
  • A 3 minute pitch that discusses the value created, target users, and principles for responsible design incorporated


  • A statement on the design of the product, intentions and decisions you’ve made

  • Conceptual Design: Provide a high level design overview that considers and describes: what context it operates in ; what it does and how it behaves; how someone would or could interact with it; and how these interactions unfold to lead to the desired outcome? Detail your design proposal with a series of illustrations.

  • Storyboard: Create a storyboard showing the final interaction and workflow with the device.

  • Network Diagram: Illustrate how the devices connect to one another and the data exchange that takes place. Your diagram should show the sequence of networked interactions and provide examples of the data packets shared.

  • Video: Create a short (1-2 minute) video illustrating how the device would be used. This should illustrate the intended scenarios, interactions, etc.

  • Prototype: Deliver a functional mock up of the device(s) prototyped using Particle.

  • A Bill of materials (a list of the components used) and Circuit diagram

  • A detailed description of your process


Each milestone should be added to the Gallery as a separate project. You should provide a clear and concise description of your project, your process, and the outcomes. It should be quick to get an overview of the project. Ideally, your description of the outcomes should be repeatable too i.e. anyone in the class can replicate it easily from the information provided.

Your project documentation should:

  • Clearly explain and provide a succinct overview of the problem and how the proposed product solves that problem

  • Briefly describe the design process (iterations, refinements, challenges encountered)

  • Document the outcome itself (code, circuit diagrams, photos, design files, 3d models, video demonstrations, etc. as required) and provide a short narrative. A bill of materials (sensors, input devices, actuators, and other components) should be provided. This documentation should be sufficiently rich to allow anyone to repeat / recreate it.

Using Online Material:

It is perfectly fine to use examples, code, tutorials, and things you find on the web to help you realize your project. That’s part of the open-source mentality that surrounds much of Making, Arduino and microcontrollers. However, you cannot just copy and paste these solutions. In your documentation you must acknowledge where you got this content from. Include a link to any tutorials, guides, or code that are part of your final solution.