July 21-22, 2021 / Online

Designing Meta Products

September 2, 2015

Speaker - Haig Armen


As Steve mentioned, I'm going be to talking about a merging of product design and what I know more, which is software design, the web - a whole bunch of things - a kind of a mashup of disciplines and approaches to Design and Content. So I'm going to start by showing you where I work. This is my full-time gig right now, I'm a professor at Emily Carr, the design school here in Vancouver. I helped them build an interaction design program, which really explores where interaction design, user experience, interfaces, where is that going. So when I started there, I was really working primarily on the web and moved towards mobile apps and now I'm very happy to be moving outside of the screen and that's what I'm going to be talking about today. So I also in the past have run my own design studio called Lift Studios, we called ourselves a boutique design studio. We worked primarily on high end websites and also a few kiosks and interactive things for, you know, the Vancouver Aquarium, places like that.

So I want to quickly tell you a little bit about my background because I think it's interesting. It's kind of also talks about mashing up of disciplines. I have a background as a professional musician, I have a degree as a jazz guitar player from McGill and I also have a degree as an architect, and my opening joke for my students is what do you get when you take a jazz musician and an architect and you mash them together? You get an Interaction designer and most people get that joke. Thanks for laughing.

So here's what I'm going be to talking about, my plan is to define what a meta product is. You probably haven't heard that term so I want to talk about what that is. I want to tell you about a project that I've been working on for the last year that's near and dear to my heart and how it represents meta products. I want to talk about how meta products are different than just smashing electronics into a handheld device. I'm going to talk a little bit about how our design process changes now - some new considerations. And then I want you to get into it. So I'm going to try to provide a few low barrier entry points for you to start getting into playing around with hardware and software and coming up with your own ideas so I'm going to give you a couple of bookmarks there.

So first off, what is a Meta Product? Any idea? Probably -- a slight inkling of maybe what it is? Everyone's heard the term “Internet of Things”. I think it's a meaningless term, kind of means just everything in our everyday world/physical world and embedding electronics into that. You may have heard the scenario of your milk talking to your refrigerator, that kind of “Internet of Things”. So a Meta Product is subset of the larger Internet of Things. I didn't make up the term Meta Product. It comes from a great book written by three grad students in the Netherlands. This is just the cover of the Meta Products book and they worked very hard at defining what the actual value proposition is of a meta product, and it's really about the network that the product provides. It's not about the physicality of the object, although that is important. I’m going to talk about the physicality of that object later, meta products have a physical manifestation to use a fancy word. they also have controllers, sensors or actuators. And finally, you have the web or the cloud, and what does that represent? When you put all those things together, you get a Meta Product. Let me just quickly break down what you get when you look at these things. A physical object gives you location, location can be a value. If everything is up in the cloud what I realized is when I was building my ‘block’ is that people want to have something that's location-aware and that the service moves with the object. I'll talk more about that in a minute. There's a physicality to it so that its’ attributes also, you know, communicate its brand attributes, and maybe key messages.

There's ergonomics for wearables. They need to fit our bodies. So that's the physical part of it. Next we have inputs and outputs, think about things like detecting temperature, light, also things like detecting motion or vision. These days we're getting very sophisticated with computer vision. You can point a camera at something and it obviously can detect faces in pictures, it also -- there's newer technology that will detect an animal and know what kind of animal that is, so that's getting -- that world of computer vision is becoming available to even small devices now. And its’ own orientation, so the object itself, the way it's oriented can inform its mode of use, for example. What is the cloud? This part is what you’re all experts in. What does the cloud give us? It gives us things like real-time data, things like networks and APIs, so quickly I want to tell you a story about a friend here that lives in Vancouver, Shawn Bergman who has a very rare South American lizard and he was telling me that this lizard has very specific needs when it comes to environment so he built this amazing tank and he took a piece of electronics that I'm going to talk about, the Raspberry Pi and he made this control the environment for the lizard and knows when the sun was setting in the rainforest in South America and that's when the lights would dim in his tank. I know. It's going to a certain length. I don't know if the lizard is any happier. I didn't ask. I imagine it is.

So I'm going to quickly go over a few examples of what I think are really amazing examples of meta products. Anyone know about Wii things, so they have a whole ecosystem of electronics devices that talk to each other, they do an amazing job, mobile interfaces or web interfaces that all have this beautiful service design consistency across all of it. Definitely worth checking them out. So it's not in my slide but they actually are all about kind of personal health.

Next up we've all heard of Nest. Who's got a Nest? Kind of curious here. Not that many. Actually surprisingly. So Nest for me is a really great example of a device that hasn't been reinvented for decades and decades, the thermostat and these smart folks basically put a -- they put a whole bunch of effort into making the UI, well, not just the UI, but the whole interaction design around this object has been really clearly thought-through and again its main core value is the network it provides. And finally a local example, one that I had a chance to work with last year, this is Recon that I worked on designing some software for, and I'll come back to this, because I think when we talk about how the design process changes, I've got some notes about how, you know, that -- this could be quite differently approached. So now I want to talk about Mineblock. I've got one here. I don't want to give it out but if you're interested in having a look at it, please come I'll show it to you.

So it started with a problem. I have a son who is bananas about Minecraft. He's 9 years old. And so about a year and a half ago, this is him entranced in Minecraft, that's why he's not looking up up at the camera. So anyone that has kids knows about the world of Minecraft and even if you don't have kids you've probably heard about Minecraft. It's the third highest grossing game of all time. And so my son does a lot of creating, building stuff in Minecraft and he spent hours building this roller coaster and loved watching these carts go through the roller coaster and while he was playing in a multiplayer game - so that was a game that he had logged into online, other people came along and just basically burned his roller coaster down to the ground and he came to me, he was in tears and he was like why would someone do that to me and I really didn't have an answer, I was just, the internet is filled with jerks.


That's my big answer, but it's true. But I was like OK, so this was a problem and I started talking with other parents at his school and they were all like, oh, yeah, that happens all the time, all the time, so so that you know, this is one of the things that my son built and you know, someone poured lava on it. It's not a small problem. It happens on a large scale. People build cities, people burn them down, so there's, you know, there's people that create and there's people the haters that want to destroy stuff. So I'm not saying that we shouldn't let those people destroy stuff, but I think that if we can just make areas for people that want to design, give them a bit of a safer area to play. So that was my proposal to my son. What would it be like to have your own place to play where you could play with your friends, create stuff, but not have those jerks around burning shit?

So I looked it up. It's got its own term. It's called griefing. It happens on a huge, huge scale and I'm not proposing that my product is going to stop people from griefing at all, but what it will do is because there's such a great range of people playing it. People play it from five years old anyone here play Minecraft? Yeah, a couple people, some of my university students that are in their early 20s, they play Minecraft, so that's a huge range of ages and when you're in a game you don't know whether you're playing with a 5-year-old or a 45-year-old, so it's hard to be appropriate in the language that you use and your behavior, so it turns out that this is not a new problem to solve. I found this interesting, not interesting, it's just a quick little comic for you to read that's really about human behavior. A kid that kicked over your sand castle. He's now on Minecraft kicking over your sand castle in a whole new burning-lava kind of way. So it happens, I'm not going to stop it again, but what I did do was started hacking around with a little Raspberry Pi, it's a little -- I'll show you a blown-up picture of a Raspberry Pi. It's a $35 computer. It's easy to add new hardware onto it, it's very easy to get in there and configure, so I took one and put a Minecraft server on it and gave it to parents about a year ago and they came back and said can I keep it? I love this thing and so I said maybe I should put a case around it and so I started designing a case and so last year I took off a year off from teaching and I went to school again, became a student and I went to the Centre for Digital Media here in town which is a combination of an MBA, a Game Design program and a bunch of coders all together in one cool masters program, and I pitched this as one of my projects to do, and they said, we love it, just go for it, so I kept building it. I built a pile of prototypes, so this is fast kind of mission statement early on, it was this kind of safe sandbox for kids to play with, having interviewed a pile of parents, I realized it was definitely going to be hitting a pain point for them.

So I'll talk to you a little bit about the process of designing it. These are early sketches, you can see that they're kind of cube-like, these early ones, kind of the toaster in the middle is kind of funny, so yeah, it started as an exact cube and the reason for that is I wanted to kind of tap into Minecraft’s visual language. Everyone knows Minecraft is all about big pixels, so I thought it would be really cool if I just made this big pixel, and right from the beginning it had to be made out of wood. I don't know if that's because I live in British Columbia-- so I looked back at some of my old sketchbooks dating back 15 years and a lot of my sketches had wooden computers in them, and I was like, whoa, that's really interesting, I like this idea of mixing high tech and low tech and I think when people touch wood -- touch wood, haha


No pun intended. Yeah, so there's something especially with kid's toys that are made out of wood, there's something that's really organic and kids like it. I can also drop this on the ground -- I won't right now, but I can drop this and it will continue to work, so there's a durability there, as well, so a tactility that I really like. The first prototype. I'll show you the lineup of the first 16 prototypes. Starting with the first one, and so my note about this is that every single one of these prototypes represents a different problem or a question that I was trying to solver.

So some of them are software problems, like that little box called a cubox, that's a little Android box that I was like can I make this in Android rather than Linux? But it didn't perform like I wanted it to. This guy here what I called the meta cube is basically a box that you can change modes by turning it so every -- there are 6 sides to a cube, every side would turn on a different light, so I'd have -- I thought, OK, maybe I could use that as a server that has different modes based on how you turn it, so lots of just kind of thinking as I'm making and that's going to be something I'm going to come back to is it's hard to come up with ideas like this, until you have actually started tinkering and playing in the space.

So the very first prototype, this one I made with my son. We obviously love our Lego, and we thought, OK, let's take this Raspberry Pi, that's the board in there and build a cube around it and it turns out to be kind of a little bit too big, you can barely hold it in your hand. One of my early design constraints was that this thing could be easily thrown into a kid's backpack so they could take it to their friends' house and that didn't cut it. So another cube - trying to make it smaller, turns out it's mostly an empty box and I thought, eh, I don't like this idea we're going to have to let go of the cube idea. So I got into SketchUp, amazing free Google software, slowly moved away from the cube, but wanted to continue the cube motif. And so I went to the Emily Carr woodshop and started hollowing out blocks of wood just to see if I could get the right feel for this object and I found that a solid block of wood, turned upside down so it just looks like it's a block of wood, you'd never consider there to be a computer in there, that was kind of the look I was going for and that was what I continued to this final product. This is me playing around at MakerLabs. Makerlabs here in Vancouver. They have a huge warehouse and let people just walk in and tinker with all their power tools. Does that sound fun?

It did for me, too. So this is their CNC machine for those who don't know anything about this is a computer controlled routing machine, so it empties out wood and it can be incredibly accurate. So I ended up using that a lot. Went back to the computer and I figured out the how to build this thing, so it's durable and also you know, something that I can build.

Played around also with brand, the idea. So I tested the name with a bunch of parents and kids, they all totally understood it right from the beginning and this is me playing with a laser cutter to see if I can kind of much in the brand into it. Not quite the look I wanted yet.

And this is the final look. So it's this kind of like a glass ice cube in the corner, just acrylic, and laser cut name in it. And acrylic bottom piece, so it comes in this colour which is kind of a neon red and a neon green and also a smoky black colour, as well.

So I want to talk about the user experience part of it because this is the part that I think you guys will be really interested in and it's definitely where this project meets the web. So the thing about the -- a lot of these kind of “Internet of Things” projects don't have an interface. How do I know this thing is on? How do I know what its address is so I can actually connect my game to it. So there was a huge challenge of having to kind of build an ad hoc way of getting you to be able to look at what's going on here from a device. And so the first thing that this thing needs to do to be able to provide a gaming environment is it needs to connect to your WiFi network so at home everyone has WiFi networks, all of them pretty much these days are password protected, this little guy doesn't know that password, so how do we tell it how to connect? So it took a little bit of doing, but I was able to get Mineblock to first scan for networks, if it couldn't connect to any of those networks, it would then run its own web server using Node.js for those of you that are tech-oriented and it would basically publish its own little web app that would -- you'd be able to get to from a mobile app or a desktop, just through a browser you'd be able to get to this page and you'd see a list of WiFi networks, so these are the ones around my house. And then you can connect to it. It was responsive obviously, so it could be used on a mobile app or a desktop you'd give it a password and say reboot and when Mineblock reboots, it connects to your WiFi network and then it's given an IP address, not to get too technical but an IP address is just an address that you need as the gamer that's going to connect to this thing. The way that you find about that IP address is from that same web page so it's published the number so you take note of that number and when you're going to play you just put in that number and you connect to Mineblock, that's the user experience. To be honest, I looked at how Nest does it because Nest also has to connect to your network and they did this amazing seamless job of publishing its own network and allowing people to quickly configure it and you never have to do it ever again so if this seems complicated, you do it once and you really never have to do it after that.

So this brings me to what I think the bigger challenges are with Internet of Things, it's not technology based. It's actually the user experience part of it. There's a lot of people out there that are in the Maker Movement that are building devices like this, a lot of them are under the do-we-really-need-one-of-those category, and so I think user experience of actually solving problems is what needs to be applied in this space.

Or I like that quote so as far as content challenges and design challenges, you have to wrap your head around the idea that data is our raw material now. Wood isn't the raw material, the thing that people really need is data and that data is totally meaningless unless it's given the right context and to basically transform it into information that's useful for people and then once you do that, you realize that underlying all of it is privacy and it's the thing that most people don't -- we certainly don't teach it in design schools necessarily, but privacy is a design principle and it needs to be -- it's not the thing that you think about after when a lawyer goes, wait a minute, are we liable for, you know, whatever? Which is when most people start considering privacy issues, so I'd like you to start thinking about, especially in this kind of realm of personal objects, that we can track everything, privacy just becomes this incredibly important piece.

Everyone knows this kind of squiggly line, this is the description of how the design process goes from very ambiguous and messy to this fine point. I think most of you guys are used to that messiness, but what I found out, having dealt with people at Recon and other is that not everyone is used to this ambiguity and a lot of people find it uncomfortable so when you add on the blue being the developer's messiness and the magenta being the marketer's “how we going to sell this thing” If they think there's ambiguity or messiness they're going to freak out. I put this up because I think we should find ways of embracing that messiness and at least communicating across these disciplines and the thing that was a big moment for me when I was, working with Recon, so this is just a snapshot from Recon's marketing video for their Recon Jet and this is all fiction, by the way. So the actual screen that's shot into your eye is 320 by 240 pixels, which if anyone he has designed for mobile apps of the pre-smartphones era you’ll remembers that size, there's very little you can do in that space. There's no way that you can fit this kind of density in that screen, so the biggest challenge was, OK, we have one chance to shoot some data at someone while they're going 400 miles an hour and make it relevant for them, without them crashing their bike. And so it was an exercise in not giving them interfaces for most of it.

And so I want to talk quickly about the makeup of the team, so Recon -- and I don't want to pick on Recon, because I think they're a modern company, they're fairly new, definitely engineer-driven -- and when I started trying to integrate within their team, I realized that the product or industrial designer that's actually designing the glasses, they don't talk to the software engineers, and she or he doesn't talk to the web team, who doesn't talk to the mobile team, none of them really talk to each other, so my role as the interaction designing was to try to be the glue amongst those things, because I had to know how they were trying to sell it because the expectations that were built up around these $700 glasses is it's going to turn me into terminator or it's going to give me all kinds of cool kind of Ironman real-time data as I'm flying along the road. It didn't do that. And so how do we realign those expectations. Also, most product designers know nothing about the software world and that's why I think us as a software designers, we know how to talk to the engineers, I think. Most of us do.

So I'm going to move on to the tools. This world has become incredibly accessible. It all kind of started with this Italian company that 14 years ago put out Arduino. It's pretty popular now. It is a programmable chip or board that has inputs and outputs so you can add lights and temperature gauges, all kinds of things. And then I mentioned Raspberry Pi, this is also an incredibly popular board. So the thing that's great about Raspberry Pi is out of the box it's got its own operating system. It runs Linux, it's a computer. This has an HDMI port so you can plug it into a monitor and use it as a full computer. It also has its own USB ports, it has ethernet so it can connect to the internet without you having to do much. To get Arduino to connect to the internet is pretty involved. So this is $33-34 for one of those, and then one of my favorite new thing is LittleBits, it's a woman from Montreal that went to MIT that started this project a couple years ago and it's now really seems to be taking off and it's basically a combination of Arduino and Lego - mashed together into one thing. They're magnetically connectible, you can't connect it the wrong way because the magnets will actually push you away if you've got it flipped around and my son's got a little kit. There's synthesizer kits, it's just incredibly easy to just anyone of you, I would imagine, could easily be able to within ten minutes of playing with this, build something, like one of their fun things is to build shoes that light up when you stomp and my son did it in about 7 or 8 minutes and all of a sudden he's saying “Wow, I'm an inventor.” It's cool, on the software side, because these kinds of objects or products need to connect to some kind of cloud service, a platform, there's a bunch of open-source platforms, and the ones on this side are the open source ones, Node-RED and Contiki are two open open-source platforms. And then there are people trying to become ‘the’ proprietary system, and there's a lot of settling that needs to happen here before I would say you have to go with this one platform. But they're out there, people are realizing that there's a projection that in the next five years we're going to have something like 60 billion Internet of Things objects out there. That's a lot of zeroes. That's many, many objects around. So I’d like to just conclude here, summarize, by saying that again, you can't really start coming up with ideas like this until you start tinkering with the stuff. That's when you actually start thinking. The first few versions of this, as you saw in my presentation, they were just bare skeletons of the final product and I just kept adding or tweaking something, and so there's a lot of thinking and design that happens while you're making something. And so I want you to consider that. I want you to maybe look at how you can transition from just designing for screens to designing objects because there's a huge amount of opportunity there. And just to give you a quick update on what's going on with Mineblock, so I built the first 100 units over the summer, with some help from a friend who's a longboard designer and manufacturer in North Vancouver called Rayne Boards, they helped a lot, at least with the wood part of it, figuring the production side of that, and it looks like I've got some interested investors that are ready to have me go from the first 100 units to 500 units, so excited to have this kind of continue even though it's a Grad project that has kind of gone wild. Yeah, so, if you have any questions about this or anything else about what I've been talking about, please come up to me during the break, I'm happy to talk to you, and that's my talk. Thank you very much.


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