Day 217: They Come in Threes

With the development of my final product falling into place, and the final components all coming together, I feel that there are three major hurdles between me and the finish line. After prototyping and testing extensively with cardboard to understand what my product needs to look like, I began using my final materials to find out how they would actually work in conjunction with the design that I have mocked up. Learning from my progress so far, my three challenges are as follows.

Challenge 1: Signhead

After getting both my operating unit and signhead created with welded metal sheets (thanks to the help of Graham!), I realised quickly that my choice of material for the sign’s head was a tad audacious.

The operating unit works really well in metal, and after testing out what a painted finish looks like after finishing my metal (on an offcut of my aluminium pole), I have decided that I want my operating unit to be clad in a bold, attractive orange. The reason for this is that it is quite distinct in the environment of Discovery Point, yet it is not too flashy and is even fitting to the sunny, bright feeling of a fresh cycle down the Waterfront on a summer’s day.

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The metal finish protects the inner casings from damage and conveys the idea that this operating system on display to the public needs to be resilient to damage, yet it is also quite trustworthy and strong. This is all fine and well for the front casing – it’s necessary even. However, for the actual arrow, the other bit cast from metal, it’s just unrealistic.

The stainless steel pointer is simply too heavy. This is an issue for two reasons – one, if I intend to almost balance this on a pole, then it will just topple over and fall. Two, the servo that is rotating the arrow will certainly strain under the pressure and become useless, or at best extremely inhibited in it’s movement. This, however, has not bothered me – it’s better to fail fast and learn quickly rather than wait till the last minute to learn that actually, Jack, you should’ve paid more attention to the structural design lectures given in 2nd year.

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I have opted to alter my signpost to a smaller, more refined design with a few design elements added in. I will now strip back the metal, and make the sign head purely out of 3 sheets of acrylic formed together. The edge of these sheets of acrylic will be orange to hint at that metal outline that I was originally going for. With three sheets, I also guarantee a level of structural stability in the event of heavy winds or even vandals trying to break the arrow.

I have also developed the brand of the product to align with the sign head. I loved the idea of the brand being all about a directive, about Dundee, and most importantly about the joy of discovery through cycling. Because of this, I have decided to embed in the sign head an aluminium cast emblem that reflects both cycling and the area in which a signpost is found.

This is the type of modular design that I wanted to achieve with the signpost. I wanted to be able to alter each signpost to fit the environment of each individual location. However, because of restrictions (cost, manpower) with achieving an entirely different aesthetic with other potential signposts, having a different emblem embedded into each sign is a minimalist and viable way at hinting at the location in which the user finds themselves in. Not only that, but this emblem can tie back into the holistic brand identity, with an emblem/logo for the entire experience denoting Dundee as a whole.

The idea is in place, however I need to thoroughly think it through and create prototypes of how this would look in future, beyond simple sketches. The final thing that I can do to ensure the structural stability of the signpost is placing the servo into a more secure binding. By ensuring that part of the tension is removed from the servo, I can level the balance of the sign head more onto the top of the pole – this too is something that I need to explore further.

The sign head is almost complete, and with a little bit more exploration, I am confident that this problem is one I will quickly overcome.

Challenge 2: Dial

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My next two challenges sort of go hand in hand. I know the interaction that I want my user to take. The imagery of a telephone dial, alongside the hint of imagery towards an old fashioned mobile phone, is suggestive of the communication qualities that I want to convey. Placed inside of that is a great, big button that is begging to be pressed – the user will make no mistake in knowing how to activate my product.

However, whilst this is something that is thoroughly refined in terms of interaction, the inner workings are quite tricky to work out. I am completely set with the big arcade button that not only invokes feelings of suspense and surprise, but an exuberant call to action, but it is the potentiometer inside that I am concerned with.

Because the dial operates on a wide circumference, with a button slap bang in the middle, the potentiometer needs to be embedded underneath the button. This is problematic – a great deal of consideration needs to be given towards the inner workings of the dial; how the spinning of the user’s finger reaches the potentiometer, how it all actually fits into the metal casing of the product, how it is constrained so that people don’t spin the dial 1080 degrees and break the product, and finally how that interaction feels and matches up to the bodacious arcade button.

I am going to have to 3D print the dial. I’m not especially keen on this. 3D prints can come out, for want of a better word, crap. I prefer to use them for smaller, more excusable details, such as the joins between concrete base and metal pole. However, to achieve the level of intricacy under the hood, I can’t really see another way.

I remember after visiting New Designers last year, Sheffield Hallam University’s degree show was almost exclusively 3D printed. Yet they’d spent a lot of time sanding their prints down and applying layers of primer and finisher to give them a really nice aesthetic. It is precisely this kind of finishing that I’m going to apply to ensure that this interaction doesn’t come across as tacky.

As for the inner workings, after a couple of failed iterations, I feel that I’ve found the solution. With carefully crafted CAD models, I’ve found a way to reach the bottom face of the dial. With that, I intend on laser cutting a clear cast dial, with which one clearly insert their finger, but also see the other possibilities with which they can select.

I am going to achieve a refined interaction with a rotary switch instead of a potentiometer to give a sensation of clicking instead of simply turning. This will be effective not only for the refined feel that it will give my user, but also in constraining the selection of possible points on the dial. By having ridges on the potentiometer, the user will be able to clearly feel with their finger where they can select to receive a print, and where they cannot.

The user will receive feedback when this action is completed in the form of blinking LED’s embedded under the dial. These LED’s will correspond to the direction in which the signpost is facing. This interaction is important in establishing that it is suitable to press the large button on the face – the button itself even has an LED embedded into it that will be able to mimic that flashing too.

Challenge 3: Code

The final challenge segues quite nicely from the discussion about the product’s dial. As far as the code is concerned, it is feeling quite disparate at this moment in time. I have the choice between Arduino or Raspberry Pi to execute it, both with their upsides and downsides.

Arduino is my preferred code of choice. I can do pretty much everything using it – the servo, the potentiometer, the LED’s, the thermal printer. The Twitter connectivity would be a challenge – but I’m sure it wouldn’t be a large one. The problem here is that compared to the Raspberry Pi, the Arduino is a bit of a pussycat. I don’t have a lot of disk space on the Arduino to be able to convey exactly the imagery on the face of the prints that I wish to. This means that I am limited to basic wording – and even then, I am very constrained with the content that I can actually convey through these forms.

If the Arduino is a pussycat, the Raspberry Pi is a mountain lion. This is all fair and well, but you wouldn’t really want a mountain lion for a house pet would you? It’s a bit overkill. I’ve managed to code the Raspberry Pi to print off tweets – but only tweets outbound from a Twitter account – not inbound as I so desire. This, however, is a problem I’m sure I can overcome.

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Yet I can only print out tweets at the moment. That means that LED’s, potentiometers, all that are going to be a very steep learning curve in what is already limited time. Not only that, but the Pi has only digital pins, meaning that instead of the plug in and play functionality of the Arduino, I’m going to have to work around that problem using some online tutorials.

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Not to mention, finally that Python is a completely new language for me that I really do not understand. This final challenge is the one that I will likely struggle with the most. However, if I overcome it quite quickly, then I will be a lot more confident going into the final stages of the project.

What else?

Apart from these three challenges, there is a couple of other updates to inform you all about. Firstly, I have trialled concrete casts for the base of my product, which I am fairly happy with. I have decided that when I make my final cast, I will place the signpost directly into it to ensure the best structural stability possible. This means that I won’t have to faff around with placing a pole into a hole that is slightly too large, reducing the effect of the concrete around the pole. I will also screw in the pole to the concrete to ensure that it really will not budge.

The pole itself is… well, a pole. I ordered it from Metals4u, and all I need to do now is sand it down. Dependent on what conclusion I reach with my coding, I will need to consider how my DC jack fits into the pole, and whether for the purposes of degree show and New Designers, I just plug the mains electricity straight into the pole, or sneak it under the concrete, which could be quite a difficult task.

Finally, I have decided that, when I have completed this, I will distribute my percentages accordingly – 45% People, 35% Technology, 20% Design. I will lead with people, considering that a large majority of my work this year has been focused on the needs of people, and closely working with a large pool of participants to deliver the most effective solution possible. I believe I have done some really awesome work in the People section – not to mention attending various events and even having the honour to talk at Make/Share in February.

Technology gets a slightly smaller slice of the pie for two reasons. Technology is the motivator for me approaching the project, and a lot of the desk research and reading I completed acted as stimuli for the development of the project. So on a conceptual level, technology almost led the way for this project. In terms of the delivery of the product, that is reflected a lot in what I have completed in comparison to design. A large part of this project is how the Internet of Things can be embedded into the city to enrich the lives of it’s citizens. I have backed up on that research, and if I indeed manage to deliver on the promises that I have placed upon my coding skills, then technology is the second most important facet of this project.

Design comes last, simply because I didn’t follow any exact design philosophy, and creating a beautiful, bespoke product (like a really nice chair, zzzzzz) isn’t high on my list of priorities.

Infact, this has been the year that I realised all this high-culture design nonsense is simply not for me. I’ve embraced my inner geekiness and accepted the fact that I just love computers, not chairs, or tables, or lamps. After all, I own all that stuff, and it came from Tesco, not Alessi.

Forgive me for the rant aimed at any design gurus within the class. Design has served an important purpose in my project. I have adopted Supernormal principles with my technology and design. Coined by Naoto Fukasawa and Jasper Morrison, Supernormal is the theory of creating the most ordinary things possible. Ordinary design languages are easily understood – ordinary design languages are efficient. They are good design. But most importantly – and I’m unsure if Fukasawa and Morrison were intent upon this as their book focuses more on spoons, ashtrays and the like – it translates beautifully into technology that has never before been seen or used before. Supernormal design allows me to anchor what is a very muddy, complicated idea of mine into something that is immediately easy to grasp. Perfect.

Not only have I picked up on these philosophies and uses, but I have done a mother load of cardboard modelling to discover what the actual hell I am making. I can hear Fraser Bruce in my head as we speak, with unforgettable words of wisdom such as “It’s not the Mona Lisa” and “Think with your hands”…

But seriously, cardboard, blue foam and 3D printing have led the way to help me discover what and most importantly, why this thing needs to exist. As I enter the final stages of this project, nerves are running high, and there is a continual worry that nothing will get done. Nerves, however, cannot get the best of me. From now until the VIVA, it’s simply a case of head down, a**e up and work, work, work.

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