Creative Assignment 4: Critical Objects / The Cutest Chainsaw

tl;dr: Develop a critical proposal for a near future issue around the IoT. Design and propose an enchanted object. It must delight, surprise and be lovable, but should never be used by anyone, ever. Showcase the broader social, ethical, moral and surrounding issues through a short video.

Team Assignments: Will be shared on Slack

  • Type: Collaborative
  • Due: Tuesday 20th February, 10.30am. No late work.
  • Submit to: The Cutest Chainsaw
  • Team Assignments: Will be shared on Slack

Note: There is a discovery attached to this project. This is due on Thursday, 16th Feb 2017; directly before class.


We want our objects to be enchanted, magical and to be joyful. This is our goal in designing for the Internet of Things: to make our products desirable and lovable.

There are, however, many stakeholders, actors and needs to be considered in designing for the internet of things. The different needs and value opportunities can potentially conflict with the ideal of making the best product for the end user or, indeed, in placing the best intentions of the end user firmly at heart.

When we design for the Internet of Things, we imagine a utopian scenario where objects seamlessly integrate, empower and enrich our daily experiences and routines, and through playful, subtle interaction enhance our homes, workplaces and cities by imbuing our objects with information, intelligence and awareness.

But there is a dark side to the Internet of Things (cue: Imperial March). The potential for harm when the ‘connectedness’ of internet appliances is not fully considered can be truly terrifying.

Some, but not all, of these are speculative possibilities. Nevertheless, we need to be mindful of these potential scenarios when we begin to design connected systems which have the potential to expose personal data (directly or indirectly; publicly or privately) to other stakeholders in the service network or more broadly to anyone on the internet.

This is what you’ll explore in this exercise.

Learning Objectives

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

  • Explore and identify the personal, social, moral, ethical and other concerns around the Internet of Things;

  • Work collaboratively to develop a conceptual design that explores these issues;

  • Reflect on these issues and propose ways to address them in how we design for the internet of things.

Project Brief

Brief: Develop a critical proposal for a near future issue around the IoT. Illustrate this issue from the perspective of as single device that you conceptualize. It should be an enchanted object but have a darkside. Showcase a social, ethical, moral and surrounding issues using your ‘critical object’.

Your project is to create an ‘enchanted device’ based on Rose’s characteristics (see Readings from Week 1 & 5); however, there’s a twist.

In addition to being a desirable, lovable and delightful internet appliance, the product must have one of the following characteristics: it should also be dangerous, nefarious or malicious.

Note: The product must still be an internet-connected device - i.e. use some online data, share sensor information with other devices or communicate with online services / other devices, etc

Basically, you are designing the cutest toy… chainsaw, but for the Internet of Things.

Once you have developed a conceptual design, next reflect on the outcome. In creating this unsettling device, what have you learned about designing for the Internet of Things? Use this design exploration to develop a series of general design recommendations for others who might design for the Internet of Things. What might you recommend they avoid and why?


1) design a critical ‘prototype’ that is both delightful and dangerous;

2) articulate how that prototype embodies an issue surrounding the IoT; and

2) reflect on this outcome to develop some general design recommendations related to the ‘danger’ this product creates.


You should develop:

  • Critical Object: Prepare a design (form, features, etc) for a near future object that is desirable but has a downside. Note: A working product prototype is not a required component

  • Video: Create a short (1-2 minute) video illustrating llustrating the desire/danger concept. This should illustrate the intended scenarios, interactions, etc. and articulate your chosen issue through the lens of the object. Maximum duration is 2 minutes.

  • Narrative: A short description of the concept, why you chose it and how it considers/demonstrates a potential concern for the Internet of Things.

  • Recommendations: A series of design recommendations for other IoT designers that you believe would be generally useful to others preparing IoT systems and which directly relate to the desire/danger concept you designed.


Before you begin

As part of this exercise you’ll need to engage in ‘critical design’. What’s critical design I hear you ask. Good question:

Critical Design uses speculative design proposals to challenge narrow assumptions, preconceptions and givens about the role products play in everyday life. It is more of an attitude than anything else, a position rather than a method. There are many people doing this who have never heard of the term critical design and who have their own way of describing what they do. Naming it Critical Design is simply a useful way of making this activity more visible and subject to discussion and debate. Its opposite is affirmative design: design that reinforces the status quo. Credit: Anthony Dunne & Fiona Raby

I’d recommend reading there whole FAQ on Critical Design before you dive into this project. Their book Speculative Everything is also a great read on the topic.

Things to chew over.

  • What are the questions or ideas around the IoT that you find interesting or provocative? How are these embedded in your vision?
  • What are the opportunities for interaction (with information, other people, or places) that the IoT creates in your mind?
  • Decide what scale your future deals with: is it an individual person or device, a small context or scenario (health and wellness, the workplace), a specific community (elderly, children, etc.) or the world? Do you want to design a provocative device to explore ethical, moral or societal implications or consider the broad ramifications of tangible technology in how our day-to-day interactions unfold?
  • What are the questions or ideas around the IoT that you find interesting or provocative? How are these embedded in your vision?
  • What is your horizon? Is it 2, 5, 10, 50 or 100 years? Think carefully about why you choose the timescale and how it relates to the technologies we have today
  • Do you want to be utopian or dystopian and why?

Tip and Tricks

  • Make it familiar. The most convincing speculative and critical designs are the ones that are grounded in familiar contexts. Going too far into the future or moving beyond known everyday contexts makes them less plausible and often undermines the goals.
  • Don’t set the horizon so far out that nothing is relatable and don’t make the world so different that you can’t quickly access the ideas, contexts, and domains you’re working with i.e. don’t set it 300 years in the future
  • Don’t throw everything and the kitchen sink in. Don’t feel the need to build an entire world for your design and don’t try to tackle all of the issues together…
  • Streamline! Focus on a narrative between a person and the object. Make it familiar, relatable and human. Then pepper in little hints of the issues around it. It doesn’t need to be heavy handed; just enough to raise the questions and get people thinking.
  • Show don’t tell. Try to avoid captions, backstory, narration, etc. especially if it’s lengthy backstory. It gets in the way and makes things clumsy.


While you’re asked to raise provocative questions about the future of IoT, please also be respectful and mindful of others in the learning community. Be responsible with your subject matter and your approach to it and show professional conduct towards your peers in engaging topics especially if they are, or have the potential to be, sensitive in nature. If you have a concern, let me know as soon as possible.

Planning your project (i.e. discovery)

Due: Thursday, 16th Feb 2017; directly before class.

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 a critical reflection on one IoT concern. Explore and surface an article, report, speculative fiction, a real-world instance, example, or case study that raises a concern about the IoT and that could help inform your project. Reflect on the example and consider: is it a valid issue or knee-jerk reaction? is it solvable? if so, what needs to be considered to make that happen? and if not, why is it so difficult to fully design away?

Create a Post in the #discoveries channel on slack that includes the label “#ambientdevice” for grading purposes e.g. AirReal by Disney Research #criticalissues. For more details, see discoveries.

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

Precedents and Possible Approaches

Below is a list of possible resources for your project. As always these aren’t exhaustive and you should go beyond them.

Starting Points

There are lots of examples of design fictions, speculative prototypes and concept videos which explore privacy, ethics and issues surrounding the IoT vision. For example, Postscapes hosts a set of annual awards which includes a design fiction category. This is a great starting point but I’ve included some other examples below too.

  • Future Drama provides an extensive collection of corporate concepts of the future. These are typically utopic scenarios which imagine idealised solutions realized through industry-led technology innovation.
  • Channel 4’s (and now Netflix’s) Black Mirror is a perfect example of techno-futurism at it’s finest.
  • Mat Honan’s ‘The Nightmare on Connected Home Street’ written for Wired explores a dystopian future scenario of the smart home which erodes human agency and abdicates daily decision making to machines. See also Ray Bradbury’s The Veldt or

Examples of Speculative/Conceptual Design Videos

Ethical Things is a speculative prototype where a fan when faced with everyday ethical dilemma’s will consult an online crowd in order to make decisions of what to do next. It grapples with notions of automation, decision making and ethics can collide:

If a “smart” coffee machine knows about its user’s heart problems, should it accept giving him a coffee when he requests one?

They explain: “When it comes to discussion around the ethics of machines, the focus is often put on extreme examples … where human life and death are involved. But what about more mundane and insignificant objects of our everyday lives? Soon, “smart” objects might also need to have moral capacities as “they know too much” about their surroundings to take a neutral stance. Indeed, with fields such as home automation, ambient intelligence or the Internet of Things, objects of our everyday lives will have more and more access to a multitude of data about ourselves and our environment”

SuperFlux’s Uninvited Guests grapples with the questions surrounding the introduction of ‘smart’ objects designed to monitor human activities. How will they be regarded? What conflicts will they create and how will we circumvent them? It askes these questions through the lens of Thomas, who lives on his own after his wife died last year. His children send him smart devices to track and monitor his diet, health and sleep from a distance. The video explores “the frictions between an elderly man and his smart home” which result.

Parasitic Products consider the future of networked objects. It “examines the idea of an alternative route for product design development, where competition, and product interdependence shape the design of the objects in our environment. The work questions if processes which have evolved in nature, such as parasitism, can be used to influence an alternative paradigm of product design ‘evolution’. Using biology to inspire design is in no way a new approach, but it is often viewed as a heroic discourse, neglecting the aggressive, predatory, and often ruthless lifestyle typical of most organisms. Parasitic Products highlights the importance deviance as a way to instigate paradigm shift in design.”

The Selfie Plant asks what would happen if an smart object became narscistic. Playing on the recent ‘selfie culture’, this speculative prototype explores if a plant could choose to record moments like blooming of a flower or a new leaf, and then share these moments on the social network. It “is an attempt to provoke some thoughts in the above genre of expression. The Selfie Plant expresses itself in the form of a nice-looking selfies, which it clicks according to its mood, weather or occasion. It mimics human behaviour, by giving it’s best pose and adjusting the camera angle to take the perfect selfie. Undoubtedly, the plant posts these photos on social network via it’s Facebook profile.”

Addicted Products explores ideas around ownership of connected products and asks what would happen if a product could not be owned but has to be ‘hosted’. This places a duty of care on the ‘host’ to maintain the relationship and make sure the product wants to remain in their home. It asks:

If we take the perspective of a product, it’s main pleasure should come from being used. But when a product is suddenly connected to others it might be able to compare itself and hence be subject possibly to some sort of peer product pressure. As it happens with people, peer pressure is one of the major forces behind behavioural changes and addictions. So if we model a similar behavioural model of an addiction, What could a product do to try to be used? What limits could it break? What would be its ultimate extreme decision? Stop working? Sell itself? Suicide?

Corner Convenience takes a broader approach and introduces a range of possible near future technologies. Prepared Julian Bleeker, the Near Future Laboratory and students at Arizona State University as part of the Emerge Conference, it explores the familiar landscape of the convenience store but speculates on the possibilities for future products which might one day exist within it.

Corner Convenience from hellofosta on Vimeo.

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.