[Thesis] We’re Still Here


My thesis is entitled We’re Still Here, and it is the beginning of a planned series of ordinarily mundane objects that have evolved personalities and behaviors that are based on their original functions. Here’s the longer blurb:

“Why should our sleek, sexy, status-symbol gadgets get all our attention?

We’re Still Here is an exploration of the ordinary objects in our lives that perform their duties day in and day out without much acknowledgement or conscious thought from their users. Each object in this collection is modified to display surprising behaviors or personality traits that are derived from how it normally operates; the series begins with a neurotic, overly needy alarm clock and a dutiful-yet-exhausted coatrack that just wants to catch a short break.

By giving personalities to these objects, I’ll playfully invoke a new way to look at and think about the myriad commonplace, “boring” tools that quietly contribute to our lives.”

I’ve been interested in the idea of personifying objects since my beginnings at ITP; my physical computing final, The Embarrassed Book, was based on the idea that a book may not always be necessarily interested in divulging the information it contains. It also fascinates me how, out of the large variety of objects we use everyday, a select few are extremely predisposed to become status symbols while the vast majority have no chance to ever really capture our attention or imaginations. I want to help our largely unconsidered tools become more interesting to us.


The Alarm Clock:
The alarm clock consists of the shell of a real alarm clock fitted with a seven-segment LED display, two piezobuzzers, and capacitive sensing controlled by an Arduino Pro Micro. It will be extremely needy, desiring constant touch, and will count down to a specific time at which it will cry out for attention and express its disappointment with you. If you happen to touch it independently of its time limit, it will chirp pleasantly and display its satisfaction.

The concept for its behavior is based on the idea that a normal alarm clock is essentially already a highly neurotic object that goads you into touching it regularly at a very specific time every day. Users depend on alarm clocks to wake them up, but they never consider what the clock’s needs might be in this relationship.

Pictures of construction:

Video of an early prototype in action – no sounds yet, but displaying positive messages:

The Coatrack:
The coatrack is interested in performing its duties as a coatrack well, but gets physically tired from holding up bulky coats all day. Thus, when it thinks you’re not around to watch it, it likes to slouch over to take a small break. The concept is based on the idea that a coatrack stands perfectly straight and bears a heavy burden for its entire existence, performing its duties admirably, and yet nobody ever really notices or appreciates that it’s doing so. It must be a thankless lifestyle.

The coatrack will consist of segments of PVC pipe with 3-D printed caps at the end that will allow 3 cords to run through them. At the base of the rack are three high-torque servos that will hold the cords taut for a straight appearance, or selectively allow slack in different areas to let the segments lean in a specific direction. Photocells under the three hooks will let the Arduino know when coats are hanging and decide which servo to let slack. The rack will detect if people are approaching using two IR rangefinders.  Some concept/testing pictures:

And a video of the most recent prototype with the full-size PVC segments:

Development & Documentation

The Alarm Clock:
Since the prototyping phase, I’ve refined the clock’s behavior to make it more believable and engaging as an object. Beforehand, it started out with a countdown to when it wanted to be touched; now, it acts as a normal clock for a random amount of time, and it switches to the countdown when it starts to get impatient with your lack of attention. These behaviors are both present in the documentation video, just shortened to keep the video at a reasonable length.

You can see the basic behavior from the video, but not the variety of messages it displays. Ignoring it will always trigger a regular alarm clock beep, but the clock will choose from a pool of guilt-tripping messages including “don’t leave”, “deserter”, and “you’re cruel”. Appeasing it will trigger one of a variety of happy chirps and messages such as “again, again” and “ahhh, so good”.

The Coatrack:
The coatrack is still a work-in-progress, as it is more physical/mechanical in nature and thus a harder problem to solve. The idea I had from the prototyping phase was that when it sees you, it stands up straight, but when it thinks you’re not around, it slowly starts to slouch so that it can relax a little bit. I have encountered some mechanical issues that have slowed progress – namely, putting even a light load on the hooks inhibits its ability to stand up straight.  You can see a short clip below with a sampling of its different movements both with and without a coat on its hooks. I hope to continue working on it over this summer to improve the design and advance it to its original planned state.

The Presentation

Here, you can witness a view of my slides and listen to my discussion regarding my thesis that I presented for ITP Thesis Week. It’s roughly 14 minutes long and includes both the video segments shown above.

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