This paper examines the generative design process of a “smart” vest embedded with sensor technologies for air quality analysis and data visualization. By reframing our knowledge of air safety in industrial and agrarian contexts, my co-designer and I generated human-centered design relevant to everyday air quality issues. Pairing contemporary themes of reality mediation with wearable technology, the design addressed current concerns on air quality through new mediums in interaction design. This paper emphasizes user-centric methodologies in the development of human-computer interaction design.
The initial inspiration for Detectair came from a highly specific contemporary issue: Indian cotton farmer’s exposure to dangerous airborne particulates when using super-charged pesticides. These incidences of pesticide poisoning have been linked to a number of factors, including illiteracy and lack of training in handling agrochemicals (Mancini, Jiggins, & O’Malley 2009), as well as inadequate and illegible precautionary information on the pesticide labels (Dhere, Prahcee, & Mahesh, 2010). The original intent was to bridge the gap between illiteracy and risk information in the products’ labels; creating a product that enabled a more intuitive way to recognize the risk could abolish the borders created by language and illiteracy. Preliminary research into the surrounding socio-economic and political issues involved, revealed a scenario too complex to undertake as a design problem within the time limitations for the project.
Considering the underlying conceptual framework of air quality, information literacy and reality mediation, my design partner and I reframed the opportunity by placing it into an everyday use context instead of an industry specific context such as agriculture. We borrowed from technologies traditionally associated with industrial, high-risk environments and adapted them for use in everyday environments.
My co-designer and I conceptualized and constructed a vest embedded with sensor technology that could read ambient air quality data, and send relevant signals to light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and vibrators sewn into the vest. Detectair enabled the design team to see the potential of translating ambiguous data into meaningful information through visual feedback, which is embodied by the user wearing the garment.
In its early stages of development, wearable computing prototypes were characterized by heavy and obtrusive computing gear literally strapped onto the body, as exemplified by Steve Mann’s “WearComp” developed during the 1990s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Mann, 1997). Mann’s “WearComp” consisted of a series of computer clothing, which, if worn regularly, “could become a ‘visual memory prosthetic’ and perception enhancer” (Mann, 1997). Over the past twenty years, human-computer interactions (HCI) have become technologically increasingly complex, and a greater emphasis has been placed on user experience. Additionally, the recent explosion of peer-to-peer networking, DIY resources, and the open-source movement has made the field of wearable computing more accessible to designers, artists, and hobbyists. In Fall 2009, a fellow industrial design student (Pamela Troyer) and myself contributed generative design work to this new medium, combining current health and social issues with sensor technologies, and approaching reality mediation through the visual display of data in a wearable artifact.
The success of technology ultimately depends on how it relates to its users. In the essay Beyond the Human Eye: Technological Mediation and Posthuman Visions, Peter Paul Verbeek (2005) outlines the ‘post-modern’ relationship between humans and technology:
Contemporary technologies like radio telescopes make visible realities to us that cannot be perceived without these mediations. That is to say: the realities revealed by these mediating technologies do not have an equivalent to the naked eye. Such technologies necessarily need to translate what they ‘perceive’ to something that can be perceived by human beings…The concept of realism does not make sense here, because the ‘original’ which has to be represented cannot be known directly at all, but only through mediation. What ‘reality’ is, is co-shaped by the instruments with which it is perceived” (Verbeek, 2005).
Following Verbeek’s concept, Detectair uses technology as a means to mediate a reality that goes undetected by our human perceptual system. Like Mann’s “WearComp” the Detectair was comprised of generally non-wearable electronics, sewn to the inside of the garment, that could identify invisible gas molecules in the air and translate the numerical data produced into visual and haptic feedback.
The current state of human-computer interactions is undergoing a thorough and critical reassessment. Design thinker and advocate John Thackara outlined the need to reframe the relationship we have to technology in his paper, “The Design Challenge of Pervasive Computing” in which he stated that:
…we are looking down the wrong end of the telescope: away from people, toward technology. Industry suffers from a kind of global autism. Autism, as you may know, is a psychological disorder that is characterized by ‘detachment from other human beings.’ (Thackara, 2001)
Thackara’s reference is to a schematic in design thinking in which desirability or human needs take precedence over feasibility (technological limitations) and viability (the business model). This model of meeting latent human needs is the foundation for user-centered design.
Reframing the Opportunity
The design of Detectair represented an attempt to shift preconceived notions of why air quality sensors and safety awareness devices are used, and by whom. The notion that a paradigmatic shift might occur through reframing of the design problem was described by reflective thinker Donald Schön in the paper “Designing: Rules, Types & Worlds:” “But when a type shifts—when, for example, it comes to be seen as mismatched to its changing environment—then the codified rules collapse…” (Schön, 2009).
What Schön (2009) was describing were the conditions under which generative design happens; because the parameters of any given rule are a “derivative construct” (Schön, 2009) of the objects that fit within its type, the rules are mutable and dependent on the kinds of objects that are created within it. The transformation of a type and its corresponding rules evolve through the use of methodologies like reframing design situations.
Reframing the use of gas-detecting instruments in heavy industry to facilitate a meaningful interaction between user and technology gave my co-designer and I the chance to think laterally and leapfrog into the realm of the technology-user interface of interactive wearables. Furthermore, by re-contextualizing the use of air safety devices from industrial to everyday environments, the monitoring tool could reach and empower the larger demographic concerned with air quality conditions.
In “Design Serving People,” author and pioneer of participatory design research, Elizabeth Sanders (2006), refers to philosopher Ivan Illich’s theories on conviviality versus industrial tools as arguments for user-centered design methods:
Convivial tools allow users to invest the world with their meaning, to enrich the environment with the fruits of their visions and to use them for the accomplishment of a purpose they have chosen. Industrial tools deny this possibility to those who use them and they allow their designers to determine the meaning and expectations of others. (Sanders, 2006)
Through the employment of a user-centered design methodology, a previously highly industrialized technology was transformed into a convivial tool that placed emphasis on awareness and empowerment. Detectair attempted to readjust the control balance between user and technology, providing a tool that was not prescriptive of behaviour nor closed in purpose, but rather adaptable to the user’s unique needs and goals regarding the monitoring of air quality.
In an effort to produce a design solution that would give agency to the user’s experience, a co-creative workshop was set up. The workshop included six young adults, all between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-seven, of varying cultural backgrounds and gender. The scope of user profiles was relatively narrow, which could account for the similarity of responses to the workshop experience.
During the co-creative workshop, participants were asked to respond emotionally and open-endedly on the subject of air quality. Participants responded to the questions, “What is good air?” and “What is bad air?” by making drawings. Through storytelling, participants gave an account of past experiences where air quality had directly affected them. Finally, using building exercises, participants made visualizations of air using materials such as dowels, Styrofoam™ balls and yarn. The purpose of these exercises was to tap into the latent knowledge that our users had about air. Elizabeth Sanders describes this type of design as “participatory design”, in which the key take-away is the ability to design for experience. “Make Tools” (Sanders, 2002) are toolkits that invite and induce users to create artifacts in response to a design probe, and are used as a mechanism to help create designs that resonate with users. Sanders speaks to the problem of designing for communication by stating:
Knowing about users’ experiences, then, becomes vital to the process of designing the communication. If we have access to both what is being communicated and what experiences are influencing the receipt of communication, then we can design for experiencing. (Sanders, 2002)
From the co-creative workshop we converged on the background quality of air, a constant we remain unaware of during normal circumstances, and which only makes itself manifest in a situation of risk through difficulty in breathing or visible as smog in heavily polluted environments.
My co-designer and I decided a wearable, not an autonomous artifact, would best answer the desire for an object capable of responding to the subject in a personal but non-invasive manner. Additionally, the background quality of air was integrated into the design through passive responses to the environment in the form of light signals that mimicked the breathing patterns of humans.
Preliminary sketches aimed at defining the most appropriate garment type for both carrying the air quality sensor, and visually displaying the collected data. From this initial stage, it was concluded that a vest with a high collar would be an appropriate choice. The high collar affords an extra responsive feature, allowing the user to cover his or her mouth and nose in a toxic air scenario.
When working with new technologies and in a medium with relatively few precedents, the risk of making erroneous presumptions during the design development requires a highly iterative process of trial-and-error.
The majority of the iterative process happened within programming the code itself with Arduino©. We used an MQ-135 sensor for air quality control as it detects carbon dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, ammonia, sulphide, benzene, acetone and alcohol. These are the most common air pollutants found in engine exhaust, urban pollution, and household products; and all are found in cigarette smoke. Using Arduino©, we mapped the sensor range to four different outputs categorized as follows: “ambient” for normal indoor air, “toxic” in presence of a heavy pollutant, “dirty” for residual presence of pollutants, and “urban” for the normalizing to “ambient” category. Finally, fade values of LEDs were adjusted to convey hierarchy of information while the “toxic” and “dirty” categories were given extra haptic signals using two cell phone vibrators.
Further development of the Detectair vest would include transferring to Lilypad™, a wearable translation of the Arduino© system. Adding a carbon filter to the high collar of the vest would increase its functionality, while reducing the garment bulk would make it more comfortable to wear. In terms of data visualization, diffusing light sources would soften the appearance of the signals and better connect with the circular appliqués’ area. Finally, providing a way to output collected data to the Internet, i.e. Twitter©, would provide a new range of options for users monitoring air quality.
User-centered design and a critical approach to the relationship between users and technology were core aspects in the development of Detectair. Through user-centered design methodologies, like co-creative workshops and reframing traditionally industrial tools for design, my design partner and I were able to effectively produce generative design in the emerging medium of wearable technologies. Human-computer interaction as an ever-growing field of interest must look to design thinking; using technology as a means to mediate reality for the human user will benefit from user-centric design methodologies.
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