In spring 2007 interaction design students at AHO participated in a research-driven course called Tangible interactions that investigated themes around RFID, NFC and the Touch project. This is one of the projects that emerged from the course.
Bowl is a project by Einar Sneve Martinussen, Jørn Knutsen and Timo Arnall and investigated two design briefs: RFID and the everyday and Playful RFID. The concept, technicalities, process and results are described in detail in the paper at the end of this post, read on for a summary.
Simple access to media
The Bowl is a simple media player that can be used by people of all ages, particularly young children. A bowl sits on the living room table and range of physical objects can be placed within it. When an object is placed in the bowl related media is played back on the TV.
For example a physical Moomin character like Little My will play a sequence from the Moomin cartoon where she is featured. Through this simple interface, Bowl encourages new, engaging and playful activities around the media experience.
The project draws on a long history of research into ‘tangible interfaces’ for media (some examples). But it is distinct from other projects in that it applies the idea of tangible manipulation of media to the very specific context of the home. It also disregards complex editing, browsing or manipulation of media in favour of providing simple interactions that work for young children.
There are very few products which allow access to media in a way that can be used by children younger than four. Although it might be argued that children under four shouldn’t have access to media, there is no doubt that they do and in fact there is an enormous amount of content designed exclusively for this audience (see Teletubbies).
Existing media interfaces are overly complex, allow access to unsuitable content and encourage extended viewing habits. By creating a space for physical and playful engagement where screen-media is only a part of the experience, the Bowl intends to create constrained but self-directed activities that are not only passive, lean-back experiences.
Einar’s daughter, Anna – who features as our main user in this project – was 2 years old at the start of the project. We saw an opportunity here to design, evaluate and iterate an interface aimed particularly at children of that age.
The prototype has been developed through an extensive user-driven process where the product was tested and developed in-situ. The interface has been refined and the content re-edited as we learnt about problems and opportunities through a series of tests.
A standard platform was built very early in the project, from which many bowls and tokens could be evaluated. It was important for this set-up to be lightweight and dynamic so that important interaction parameters could be tweaked and altered. The early prototype was constructed in wood from a simple 2×4 with existing bowls as the interface. This allowed rapid modifications to the setup and although not aesthetically pleasing, didn’t disrupt the home environment or introduce any explicit new ‘gadget’ to the living room.
Through the development of the physical prototype the technical possibilities and challenges were rapidly discovered. Interestingly many technical limitations inherent in the RFID system that we used for prototyping turned out to be non-issues. Some of these limitations actually turned out to be opportunities in the interaction design of the interface. See the paper below for more details.
This study has been rich in both the details of physical interactions and conceptual possibilities. We have come a long way towards realising a suitable home media interface for children, using everyday objects and containers. The interaction is simple, natural and works seamlessly as a media experience. The interface can be immediately satisfying without guidance or instruction. As a simple interface rather than a ‘gadget’, it doesn’t depend on changing media infrastructures, standards or platforms. We have designed it as a ‘front-end’ that can be adapted to any kind of home-media system, thus its requirements are likely to stay the same over the lifetime of it’s use and even be adaptable to future technologies.
The initial planning involved five user-test tasks but due to the richness of the process, we ended up conducting about ten discrete topics and twenty different tests. We regard this sustained, rich access to relevant people and contexts and essential part of developing new interactive products.
One of our goals was to examine the effects of the changing role of digital technology and content in the home as a result of new interfaces. The long-term testing has offered us an insight into this changing television-based experience. We see increasing connection between playing and watching and more physical activity around media usage.
Beyond this testing process we are in the process of building the next prototype. It has been designed as a durable product that fits within the home context by using standard components and high quality materials.
Here the project is being extended to look at how it might be turned into a product. How it might be ‘shelf explanatory’ and how it might relate to existing media products and services.
More about Bowl
This paper contains a full account of the background, the design process, the testing, technicalities and a discussion of the results. The paper from ‘Designing For User Experiences’ in the Proceedings of the 2007 conference on Designing for User eXperiences are available at the ACM digital library. You can also download the full PDF here.
See more student work from the Touch project.