Sprint 6: Device Prototyping

Helping pet owners monitor their pets’ health with smart technology

When first introduced to littleBits, figuring out how to put the power, input, output, and wire components to form basic circuits was relatively straightforward. The challenge arose, however, when trying to use the simple technology of littleBits to prototype design solutions for complex user scenarios.

My partner and I building a simple littleBits circuit with a button as the input and a buzzer as the output

Going From Basic littleBits Functions to a Prototype

The first major step towards building a successful prototype was narrowing our focus within the user scenario. Our user scenario involved pet owners who worked long hours away from home and were worried about their pets becoming overweight. This scenario presented the daunting challenge of designing technology which would help these pet owners keep their pets healthy while they were away at work. To help us with the design process, we first identified what pet “health” entailed, generating two general tasks that our prototypes could potentially address: exercise and diet. To narrow our focus even further, we ideated different technologies within these two categories before finally building our prototype.

The ideas we brainstormed before we decided what task our prototype would perform

In the end, we decided to address pets’ exercise habits by prototyping a robot arm which would throw a ball or toy after a pet has been sitting on the couch for too long.

Complications and Other Important Steps

Even after identifying a specific purpose for our design within our user scenario, we still found it difficult to build a prototype that precisely represented how we wanted our device to work. For example, our interaction flow indicated that a robot arm would throw the ball after the pet had remained motionless in front of a motion detector for more than 30 seconds.

Our scenario sketch plus an early version of our interaction flow

LittleBits does not have a motion detector, so we decided to use a button input instead, which was meant to represent a pressure pad. However, littleBits outputs do not depend on the duration of the inputs, which complicated how we were going to incorporate the “30 second” time aspect of our design. Our solution was to include the littleBits timer into our prototype to delay the output from the moment the button was pressed. But even this solution did not accurately represent what we wanted our actual device to do, since there is a difference between having a delay between an input and output, and having an output be determined by the duration of an input. In any case, due to the limitations of the technology we were working with, we had to accept the fact that we were building a low-fidelity prototype. The most important step to building a successful prototype was acknowledging the fact that our prototype needed to only represent our concept loosely, just enough to evaluate its feasibility, desirability, and usability. We used the rotating motor piece to simulate the robot arm, and the LED light to simulate visual feedback to the user showing that the system was turned on. Here is the final product:

Video of the final product

Reflection

After taking the methodological steps described above, the physical assembly of our prototype went fairly well. What could have gone better was the tweaking on the inputs’ settings. Unfortunately, littleBits doesn’t have a lot of feedback when it comes to tweaking the settings of its input pieces. For example, when increasing the delay on the the timer piece there is no indication of how much time you’re adding. This results in a tedious trial and error process. In addition, I feel as though our user scenario invites us to consider monitoring systems that could help owners interact with their pets from a remote location. In the future, I would like to see how the Cloudbit feature could be incorporated into our prototype so that one could interact with the motor arm over the Internet. This would simulate how a user would monitor and interact with their pet at work and would increase the feasibility, desirability, and usability of our concept considering the current popularity of similar smart home technologies.

What did I enjoy about this project?

It was somewhat intellectually challenging to build a prototype by assembling different pieces of hardware. Though littleBits is fairly simple, it does require that one has a basic understanding of inputs and outputs in circuits. Furthermore, because different settings on the input pieces have different effects on the outputs, having to think about the arrangement of these elements is a fun and challenging logical puzzle. This experience of prototyping with littleBits has made me excited to apply the skills I learned to more sophisticated forms of hardware and software like Arduino.

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