Hacko

A new ecosystem for electronics

Hacko is a modular electronics system with reconfigurable electronic components. Its inner flexibility enables unskilled end-users to build the gadgets of their needs and extend the lifespan of electrics.

Time

April 2019 - October 2019,
as M.A. thesis project​

Supervisor

Prof. Carola Zwick & Prof. Lucy Norris

Tools

Android Studio, Rhinoceros, Adobe Suite, Sketch, 3D Printing

In a nutshell

Problem

When we throw away an electronic device, most components inside are still in good condition. Yet, the devices are usually designed as a closed system that users can hardly hack, repair, or reuse them.

Goal

The objective of this project is to change this cycle by empowering non-skilled users to configure gadgets from a systematized collection of electronic modules that can be reused across an array of devices.

Target Group

People who would like to take the initiative of the product they are using.

Solution

A modular construction kit for electronics that makes technology changeable, updateable, and reusable. By configuring the module on tablet application, users can create functional products for their own purpose and reconfigure them once the original purpose is not needed.

Motivation & Ideas

Electronic wastes

In a time when technology develops rapidly, electronic devices are generally considered as semi-disposable consumer products which can be easily discarded as soon as the next shiny object catches our eye or when a single element inside is broken. However, when we throw away a gadget, the components inside are rarely past their prime —they are perfectly reusable and deserve a second chance.

The close system of electronics

Take a closer look at electronics, it’s not surprised to find that many of the them we are drawn from a small pool of functionally similar hardwares. Take door intercom, baby monitor and webcam for example, these three seemingly unrelated devices are actually all made of camera, speaker and microphone.

Despite of that, the vast majority of the electronics are designed as closed systems, that users can hardly fix or reuse them without professional knowledge.

User Hackings

I’ve been incidentally collecting the cases that users challenge the original intention of the designs, hack into them, and use them for an undesigned purpose. I was astonished at how creative the users are, as well as how “tolerant” the products could be.

As long as users are hacking our designs from time to time, why not we enable them to hack electronics? This way, they can continuously design and redesign the electronics and expand the life span of electronics. 

Open Electronics

I would like to create a new ecosystem of electronics. This system will:

01

Embrace users’ critical sense, creativity, and practical sense, and enable non-professional users to their own creating technical solution.

02

Expend the lifespan of electronics, and make the components changeable, updatable and reusable.

03

Include users to be part of the design process, and give them the voice to define the end-form of technology.

Ideation

To achieve the goals, I would development model that allow users to create the applications with the product during use time.

Design for flexibility

This requires products to be flexible in their design so that it can be adapted or extended to fit different usage contexts and be responsive to any future change. There are two major design conditions for flexible products:

01

The product is built in a modular way, that it has the capability to be configured and reconfigured.

02

Utilizing modularity, the product’s functionality is distributed and exposed through an interface which supports expansion and adaptation.

Concept Development

Modules

I listed out the common electronic components and sorted them in 4 categories: controller, sensor, actuator and infrastructures. I saw two critical points here:

  1. There are some overlapping functions, especially in the sensors class. For instance, the camera could supplant the light sensor or the motion sensor when real-time analysing system is applied.
  2. Some technical terms, (e.g. PIR sensor) could be confusing for novice user.

So a predigestion would make sense here. Inspired by human’s five senses, I tried to organize them in a more intuitive way. Camera, motion sensor, light sensor and color sensor are integrated into the “vision object”, as their functions are all related to human sight and can be done with a camera. Likewise, the microphone and the sound sensor are combined as the “hearing object”. At the end, I finalized with 9 essential objects for the starting.

Interaction

The goal is to enable anyone of any background to design functional electronics, so computing logic is not the prime here. Instead, the system has to stay as simple as possible to reduce user’s learning time. At the same time, however, it should remains a certain degree of complexity in order to create more diverse outcomes. I designed different interaction methods using different carriers:

#1
Assign functions to the objects through physical interactions. For instance, putting two objects together is “connecting”, while putting apart means “disconnecting”.

#2
An added layer of a smartphone screen to display necessary information. When composing the objects beside the smartphone, they would appear and could be programmed on the screen via Bluetooth.

#3
The tablet screen identifies the objects when they are put on to it. Then, they can be programmed graphically by drawing arrow from one to another on the tablet.

Method #1 turned out unable to carry enough information, and method #2 is counterintuitive in having to deal with two interface at the same time. 

After several trials, I came up with the idea of the combination of tablet and physical programming. The modules can be place on the tablet for configuration. Utilizing the idea of concept mapping, drawing a line between two modules would define the relationship between them and eventually create a functional project. This version fixed the inadequacies of the previous two the digital and the physical are combined into one coordinated interface.

Object sensing on tablet

To realize physical programming on tablet, the objects has to be sensed and recognized by touch screen. There are several ways to do so:

Method 1

Add a protruded camera (or a mirror to reflect, e.g. Osmo) and analyze/recognize the image in real-time.

Method 2

Attach a hall sensor grid to the back of a tablet to sense the magnet-embedded objects.

Method 3

On the base surface, there are three conductive touch points forming an isosceles triangle. When placing it on the tablet, the conductive points would get charged, and thus be sensed by the capacitive touch screen. 

Method 3 was chosen for the project because it meets the functional requirements without extra hardware add-ons. Based on openFramework resource, I created an Android app detecting all touch points and looking for isosceles triangle. When sensing a triangle, the app would display it on the screen by the position of the triangle and the degree of the vertex angle. In my experiment, I was able to detect 10 different objects.

The Objects &
Configuring Them

Objects

Objects

Click Objects

Adjustment Object

Vision Object

Hearing Objects

Envrionment Object

Speaker Object

Indication Objects

Power Object

360 Object

Sensing Spots

Under each object, there are three raised points made of conductive foam, which could be charged from the hand when contacting. So when an object is placed on the tablet, the capacitive touchscreen could sense the different vertex angles mapped to different objects and thus define what and where that object is.

Interface

With the tablet application, users can

  • create a functional project, either DIY or using a template provided by others. (see following sections)
  • view, edit, and manage the created project.
  • share and discuss with the community.
  • browse and purchase the objects and accessories.

Configuring on Tablet

On the ‘create’ page of the tablet app, the objects can be program graphically. By putting the objects on touch screen to activate them, draw lines linking two (or more) objects to define the relationship between them, and further modify the details, users can customize a working electronic device based on their need.

Template

If the user don’t like DIY, there are many ready-to-use template available on the app. Just simply place the object on the on the corresponding icon to activate it. And if desired, further modifying the details or adding extra Objects and actions are also possible.

Use The Objects In Real Life

Multifunctional Stand

After the objects are programmed, the can be placed into the niche of the stand  for daily use.

Adaptability

The bracket on the back of the stand can be rotated to different angle to fit in different usage context: standing, hooking, or hanging.

Standing on a surface
Hanging on a holder
Hooking on a rail

Charging

Furthermore, the stand also work as a charging hub for the objects to keep them always alive.

Socket Adaptor

The socket adapter is designed to bring about the connection to other appliances. For example, creating a remote controller to turn a lamp on and off.

CMF Strategy

The objects are designed in grayscale to stay neutral for future recomposing; the more distinctive color and material are applied to the accessories so that the user could choose the one that is suitable for their usage context.

Hacko CMF Strategy

User Flow

Application Examples

Baby Camera

The baby camera consists of Vision Object, Hearing Object, Sound Object, and smartphone. All together, they can help with remotely watching and listening to the infant.

Intercom

When the baby get older, and the baby monitor is no longer needed, the original Objects can be recomposed into an intercom system by just adding an extra button.

Speaker System

It’s also possible to use several same Objects in a Project. Connecting a smartphone to 3 Speaker Objects and place the them in different locations, so that they could automatically play the music once user enter that certain location.

Weather Clock

Embracing the maker culture, it’s possible to create a DIY project using Hacko. For example, map the tempreture sensed by the Weather Object to the 360 Object. The motor would rotate to display the current tempreture.

Lessons learned

Literature Research

In this project, Paola and I went through research from mind-map to user journey to interviews to testing. The study helped us set up the directions and informed us of the possible solutions.

Prototyping

Prototyping is an iterative process. We made paper models to present the idea and the form, 3D printed models to test the mechanism, and a final model made with real materials of oak and ceramics.

Programming & Computing

We made the interactive prototype in C++ (hardware) and javascript (software), and played with light patterns. Learning programming was a lot of fun for me and completed my design toolbox.

Reaching out the possible users

This project was exhibited during Milan Design Week, which provided us with the possibility of introducing it to a wider audience, directly speaking with them, and getting feedback for future improvement.