Creative Assignment 2: Ambient Affect

tl;dr: Design an ambient object that represents intimate personal data in a (semi-)public space. As part of this project, you should negotiate issues of abstraction, ambiguity and legibility to identify a strategy for data-embodiment. Prepare a conceptual design and realize a working prototype of an ambient object that presents personal data in a physical space.

  • Type: Collaborative
  • Due: Thursday Feb 8, 10.30am. No late work.
  • Submit to: Ambient Affect
  • Team Assignments: Will be shared on Slack

Note: There is a discovery attached to this project. This is due on 5th Feb 2017 midnight.

Outcomes: View Inventory of Ambients

Learning Objectives

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

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

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

  • Work collaboratively to develop a conceptual design and translate that into a working prototype with the Particle platform;

  • Explore design for IoT through hands on exploration and by developing a prototype connected solution.

Context / Problem Space

Ambient objects aim to make data glanceable. They connect us to complex information like weather and traffic in an extremely accessible format. They don’t intrude like our phones which buzz and whirr to demand attention, instead they subtly nudge us to act when we happen to glance in their direction. They are calm and they distill information from the broader world into the minimum we need to know in order to act.

For more read the background section on Ambient devices

At its core, ambient objects are about embodying data in the real world. They enable us to engage with digital information in a physical space. They allow us to perceive the conditions of the world beyond where we are at any moment. They are specific, purposeful, elegantly simple abstractions of data placed around us to give us value. They can nudge us to good or desirable behavior or reveal information we might want to attend to.

Take for example this scenario. Imagine we wanted to spend less money or loose some weight. An ambient device might be a good way to physicalize and embody that goal, as well as our progress towards it. To get the most benefit from the ambient device, we want to place it promiently within the home where we can encounter it. Perhaps on a mantlepiece, a console table or a coffee table. These shared spaces in the home are open to visitors and perhaps other residents of the home. What happens when I’ve splurged at the mall, overspent at the end of the month, or ate a little more than I should this week? I could be embarrassed to find my data revealed to all.


As such, you’re challenged to explore these ideas directly, and :

Design an ambient object that represents intimate or personal data in a (semi-)public space.

As part of this project, you should negotiate issues of abstraction, ambiguity and legibility to identify a strategy for data-embodiment. You will need to find a mechanism to convey intimate data (sensitive but a useful nudge or cue to change) in a way that is transparent to the data-owner but opaque for other viewers. You should also navigate issues of responsible design, privacy and embodiment as you identify a context, dataset and use case for this project.

The device itself should:

  • embody specific information in an ambient way (e.g. weather, traffic, calendar, transporation, environmental, situational, etc.);
  • be designed to operate in a specific context (on a desk, on a shelf, in the kitchen, on the wall, etc.);
  • can notify an end user of relevant information (e.g. it changes state and this change is recognizable and relevant);
  • relays that information in a way that it is not immediately transparent to others who may view it; and
  • leverages material embodiments in a way that is well suited with the information and with the context.

Food for Thought

In their work, Consolvo, McDonald, & Landay reflect on designing persuasive technologies for behavior change. Drawing on their experiences of a peripheral display for mobile devices (an animated background that responses to user activity), the offer several strategies that are important to consider in this context. Four of them are offered as food for thought in this assingment:

  1. Abstract & Reflective. Use data abstraction, rather than raw or explicit data collected from the user and any technologies, to display information to encourage the user to reflect on his/her behaviors by showing the user what s/he has done and how those behaviors relate to his/her goal.
  2. Public. Present and collect the data, which is personal in nature, such that the user is comfortable in the event that others may intentionally or otherwise become aware of it. Because the data needs to be available whenever and wherever the user needs it, it is likely to be something that s/he wears/carries, resides in a shared/common space, or uses while in the presence of others. The technology should not make the user uncomfortable in those situations.
  3. Aesthetic. If the display and any accompanying devices function as a personal object(s) that may be used over time, they need to be inquisitive and sustain interest. The physical and virtual aspects of the technology must be comfortable and attractive to support the user’s personal style.
  4. Positive. Use positive reinforcement to encourage change. Reward the user for performing the desired behavior and attaining his/her goal. When the desired behavior is not performed, the user should not receive a reward nor a punishment, but his/her interest should be sustained.

S. Consolvo, D.W. McDonald, & J.A. Landay. “Theory-Driven Design Strategies for Technologies that Support Behavior Change in Everyday Life,” Proceedings of the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems: CHI ‘09, (2009), pp. 405-14.

Project Requirements

Your project is to create a device that supports ambient information awareness. In addition it must meet these requirements:

  • The device must connect to a remote (online) information source and make use of that data to create value for a user.

  • The device must represent that data in physical space using sound, light, movement or other formats.

  • A user should be able to clearly recognize changes in information or information which requires their action. In other words: you should design a clear mapping from the digital information to information presentation.

  • The final outcome should be close to a product, it should be integrated into some designed physical form (casing, object, etc.)

  • You should “live” with the object for a few hours and evaluate its usefulness and recommend iterations. Use this to document the transition in states (e.g. with a timelapse.)

Hint: IFTTT makes it easy to connect to lots of online content and is really useful for ambient explorations. There’s lots of tutorials, guides, code samples and ways to access / use this data.

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

Note Light is low hanging fruit. You’re strongly encouraged to push beyond this and show creative applications of haptic, vibrotactile, movement and sound in designing your ambient outcome.

Planning your project (i.e. discovery)

The first phase of your project is planning. This is a quick assignment designed to help you gather some inspirational resources and assets you’ll need to complete it.

Precedent Discovery: Each person in the group should research and report on one ambient device. Try to explore exciting, new or compelling way to interact with data through objects or spaces. Create a Post in the #discoveries channel on slack that includes the label “#ambientdevice” for grading purposes e.g. AirReal by Disney Research #ambientdevice. For more details, see discoveries.

Constraints: No two students may submit the same work. Claim early.

Links and Resources

To start your search, look at the following aggregators, feeds, and forums:

Note: This is by no means an exhaustive list, there’s many more in the Resources section too. You should explore beyond these!


  • Conceptual Design: Provide a high level design overview that considers and describes: what context it operates in (is it a personal device, site specific, etc.); 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.

  • Prototype: Deliver a functional mock up of the ambient device prototyped using Particle.

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

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

Outcomes should be reasonably well developed and documentation should be submitted to the Gallery on or before the deadline.

Final Documentation:

Projects should be added to the Gallery. 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.