LightMate

Year 2011
Production Design + Interaction Design + Programming (Arduino Platform)

Thesis project
Exploring new forms of communication over distance through physical objects and ambient information.

Project Overview
LightMate is a pair of interconnected lamps capable of conveying a number of emotions through action and movement. It was born in pairs for interpersonal communicating, connecting family members or friends who live apart.

Objective
We check emails and Facebook, keep each other company over Skype, and show that we have an enormous need for social contact while staying at home. But there is no way for us to physically feel the connection and touch communication. LightMate is built to provide a fun and interesting way of communicating, and to serve as an interactive toy for people who spend most of their time on-screen in the virtual world, allowing them to relax and have fun with a physical object in the real world.

Technology
The working prototype was programmed on the Arduino platform and used ZigBee technology for communicating between two “LightMates.” Inside, one servo connects to the lamp’s head and another connects to the body. The two servos join together in a way that lets the head move in three dimensions.
There is a built-in button for turning the light on and off, and a built-in joystick for controlling the head’s movement. Ultimately, the lamp’s head can play the role of a joystick as well, letting users directly manipulate and change the angle of the head and create motion.

Scenario (System)
Two “LightMate” lamps are set up in different rooms. John and Mary sit in front of a “LightMate” while working separately. The two lamps are both turned on. John turns the light off and on to get Mary’s attention, showing that he is nearby and wants to interact. Next John turns the lamp’s head left, and Mary’s LightMate’s head turns left as well. At this point, there are two reactions Mary could perform. She could turn the lamp’s head back to its original position or even move it right, left, and right to convey the message ”don’t bother me John.” Alternatively, she doesn’t move the lamp’s head, but moves herself to the lamp and keeps working on her project.
The system is open enough for users to choose whether they want to interact with the other side or not. Both kinds of response convey messages and form communication between the two lamps (no response is also a response). They are free to communicate their thoughts (messages) by manipulating the movements of the lamp head. For instance, up-down movement conveys the message “yes” or “I agree.”

Process
The development process was broken into three phases: programming, physical form design, and building. I first worked on the code to make the two servos listen to the commands from the joystick. Then I took the light-control code from the “LightOn” project and combined it with the code I was working on. Finally I worked on the function that made the servos connected to two Arduino chips control each other remotely via the XBee chip.
I sketched and prototyped different shapes of lamps that tested the extremes between the overly functional and the overly cute. Finally I settled on the lamps’ current form – cute but not losing the feeling that it’s a lamp. Then I worked on putting electronic components – servos, a joystick, and a custom Arduino board – inside the cardboard prototype and adjusted the position and the setting of those components.

Conclusion
“LightMate” conveys more than just light. It serves as the last case study because it combines all the aspects of ambient information explored in the previous projects: light, sound, motion, physical objects, and lamps. Through light intensity the lamp provides soft feedback that someone is thinking of you, and represents someone’s presence as well. Slapping or repeatedly toying with the lamp’s head triggers movements in another paired lamp, forcing your partner to react, adjust his lamp, maybe slap it back, or other actions. The noise from the servo also conveys messages, for example, I am here or let’s play.
“LightMate” is more than a lamp. It accomplishes my goal of creating an object that can stand in for a person in other location. It is a substitute for that person. The object becomes live and active. While the shape of “LightMate” is not that of a person, its actions and reactions make you feel that the lamp is alive. The highlight of this project is the success with which personal emotion can be performed through the motion of the lamp’s head.
People using the system felt that it was actually someone interacting with them because of the robotic feeling of the “LightMate” and the movements of lamp’s head. They were fascinated by the emotion conveyed by the head’s movements. You feel sad when you see LightMate’s head down. When you see the head nodding you know it’s saying “yes.” The motion enriches the experience of communication.
My next step for this project is to explore more emotional expression and actions. In addition, I hope to refine the prototype by replacing the current servo with an advanced servo that will remember its current position and send feedback to circuit board. This will simplify the interaction, allowing users to directly manipulate the lamp head to turn it to the angle they want, without requiring a joystick controller.

LightMate Prototype Demo

This is the prototype showing you how the LightMate physically works. By manipulate the lamp’s head, users can convey different emotional message, e.g. sad as lamp’s head down or saying “no” as lamp’s head shaking horizontal. In the final product you can directly manipulate lamp’s head to convey message to your loved ones in the other side. But in this prototype, you have to manipulate the joystick on the lamp base to do so.