Light Engine

Goal: Create a light engine that utilizes a tilt switch and paper as its primary material. It should be pleasant in both its on and off states.

A tilt switch is a small plastic cylinder with 2 prongs sticking out of it. There is a mercury ball inside that turns things on and off when tilted (in our case a light).

This was my first exploration — during orientation week, I went to the night market on Craig Street and saw a vendor selling paper animal headstones. I really liked the way he turned something that is normally seen as cruel into a fun and light decoration piece. I felt that it was fun and light because of its material, cardboard. I wanted to imitate this fun and light feeling by creating a reindeer with lights as antlers.

The tilt switch was located in the ear. When the ear was tilted, the antlers turned on.


Peers say: 1) red nose is confusing, looks like a button, seems like it’s the interaction

2) “so cute!”

Steve says: 1) looks like demonic bull

2) no clear interaction; form doesn’t indicate

3) maybe play with the idea of light cutouts (like the antlers)

4) paper is not happy; this form doesn’t make sense with paper

From these comments, I think what if:

  • Instead of the cutouts being one aspect of my engine, my engine focuses on emitting interesting light shapes.
  • I test out different cuts to get something similar to the weird stretchy foam things around pears.


  • the light’s form should tell you how to interact with it
  • don’t focus on the novelty of ideas; focus on function
  • remember the materials being used; think happy!!
This was my first cutting test. It did not stretch out to create the net shape I was hoping for because the vellum was too rigid, especially with all the folds. It also tore when I tried to pull it out. Light can’t penetrate and make shapes.
I tried making thinner cute in the same material (vellum) to see if that would help stretch it out. Conclusion: it did not.
The cut still seems promising so I tested it with regular copy paper. This worked much better. The form it takes when I pull it is different than the form it naturally takes. Maybe this could be the interaction.
Form it takes naturally.

After experimenting with the net-style cuts, I felt like they were too flimsy to be interactive lights. I always felt like I was about to rip something whenever I played with it.

What if I try a different style of cut with less fragile paper?

This was my first non-net paper cutout iteration. I like the organic shape it takes, and it works well with a light inside. However, I am not sure if it has interactive qualities. I put it on my desk light just to test how it would look with a light inside. I do not intend for it to be used this way. I want its organic form to be handheld.


  • focused on the function of the light
  • focused on a more natural, happy paper form. My reindeer forced the paper into that shape, but this one is organic and makes sense with paper.
  • peers’ first reaction to the net is to pull it, which was my thought as well, so interaction is much clearer than reindeer
  • peers’ first reaction to the organic form (when it is on a desk and not over my desk light

After experimenting with so many styles of cuts to form interesting shapes like the antlers, I felt like I was getting lost making lampshades and losing focus on the lights.

Talk with Steve:

Problem I am facing: getting lost making lampshades. Feeling stuck and out of ideas for interactions and engines.

Steve says:

  • have fun with it
  • think of the things you enjoyed as a child and now
  • why do you enjoy them? is it important to know why?
  • can you enjoy things without understanding them?

After talk:

Over Thanksgiving break I went home, which was the perfect place to think about things I enjoyed growing up.

  • cheap Chinatown fans
  • phonebook smells
  • drawing on foggy windows in the car
  • reclining seats

Also, I am now much more aware of when I enjoy things/interactions and am thinking about why.

What if: I make an engine that focuses on an interaction I personally really like?

I love the satisfaction of snapping a fan open. I used to buy a billion in a billion different colors in Chinatown whenever my family visited. I loved the rippling snapping sound it made as it opened and the satisfaction I felt whenever I flicked it open correctly.

What if: What if I use the fan’s satisfactory opening feeling in my light?

The idea!

A handheld light that mimics the form of a fan. The tilt switch and light(s) will be activated by flicking the fan open. The user receives two forms of satisfaction: 1) flicking open the lamp and 2) turning the light on.

Pretty excited about this idea.

Since it’s handheld, what if it serves as a pointer of sorts? Like a flashlight maybe? Idk, food for thought.


  • sometimes changing the paper is really important because it can affect the light’s form. I am going to test a couple different things I bought: milk jug, vellum, bristol and regular copy paper.
  • the interaction is more enjoyable; I like the snapping open satisfaction. The satisfaction of turning on the light will parallel the satisfaction of snapping the fan open.

Testing peer interactions:

  • when the fan is placed flatly vs. on one side (i.e. the battery side), people understand the fan form more when it is placed flatly
  • a couple people tried to open it like an accordion instead of snapping it open, but most people who know how to snap it open were able to understand its function
  • something to decide: is it ok that people do not snap it open and get the same satisfaction as people who snap it open? the light turns on either way.

Materials, folds, methods tested:

First material I tried: milk jug. Way too rigid. Hard to fold. Would never be able to snap open.

Testing handheldness with regular paper + accordion fold with copy paper. This is a good size and fold thickness.

Testing binding with bristol. Folds and functions fine but I don’t like the feeling of it. Too hardcore for a delicate fan.

I strung the wire through all the panels and twisted it at the end, but this didn’t work out really well because the panels can’t extend all the way. WHAT IF: I twist it on one side and mangle it to be a stopper (like a wine stopper) and then string it through and do the same to the other side?

My paper prototype works! Now it’s time to build it with the materials I selected: vellum for the accordion folds and small wood strips for the panels

Wood panels are too grainy and get caught against each other. This ruins the smooth flick to open the fan. I ended up covering them in vellum.

The final product!!

The fan’s off state. Held in its closed, unfanned position. The magnets guide users’ hands to hold it in the right direciton.

Once it is flicked open, two lights shoot out of the top. Since my light is handheld, the lights have directions instead of just illuminating the lamp so the hand can direct the direction of light.

I attached two lights: one as a “high beam” and one as a “low beam.” The tilt switch is on the last panel so that when you flick it open like a regular fan, the mercury ball shoots down and turns the lights on. The magnets were added to keep the panels in the right order to guide the user to know which way to open it. It also helps as a bind the fan to an “off” position.

Fan light is used to point things out. Creates spotlight/focus.

What I learned:

My process was a little unconventional since my final product was so different from my prototypes. However, an important lesson I learned was that process is present when you learn things from each step and apply them to the next. There are various ways in which process can appear. Sometimes it is not visually obvious, but as long as I inform each step by the last and learn/apply lessons from each iteration!

Like what you read? Give Amber Lee a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.