Saturday, July 13, 2013

A Small Companion

This past year was a year of design research for me and the following posts will be about some of the work I have been doing at the Institute of Design at IIT in Chicago. The first project is one that has not gone as far as I would have liked. The potential for this device has wide spread implications and I have seen variations both theoretical and actual but neither perfected. We call it 'Jiminy', after the cricket in Pinocchio who plays the role of reason, conscience, advisor, and friend to a wanna be 'better human'. Some have described Jiminy as a friendly drone but with some natural language processing improvements we could see it as that and more. Imagine a helpful device that hovers quietly by your side as you go about your daily routine. If asked, it can go and find your keys or your phone because it can communicate with other devices that send out signals Jiminy can interpret. It can send video or photos back to your phone from distances that make texts more readable like a street sign or menu or a bus around the corner. When you need some extra light Jiminy is there or when you need to send a message he can send it but when you need to get on the train, Jiminy is small enough and close enough that you can reach out and put him in your bag. Jiminy also is equipped with some security features for you and in case someone else wants to put him in a bag.

Currently, we have designed and built a model with a mini quad copter in place. We are also well into developing the control mechanism which uses micro sensors to triangulate and determine the location of the device relative to the sensors. These sensors are built into a jacket running at 2.4 GHz on a two signal frequency in order to maintain location and constant connection over a 2-3 foot distance. Anyone wearing the jacket can control the device by just walking around or with safety controls built into the garment.

Our research will determine the viability of operating and maintaining such a device but also consider the social as well as practical implications, particularly if there are a number of these devices in the same space. Is this really a device for the home or can it be used anywhere in the wild? Many questions arise when we consider potential uses including caring for the elderly, to physical gaming (think new forms of keep-away) and how this device could be used. If Jiminy were equipped with cameras, lights, and audio recording or controls, what new uses each of those features potentially bring?

One common reaction to the device is, "that is scary" and "why would I want a machine following me?" These comments become genuine concerns if it is thought of as a tracking device however, as an assistive device people seemed less reticent about its purpose. Potential unease people have with a device hovering over them is a design concern that can cast Jiminy either as a companion or a drone? Preliminary studies will begin to look at some of these questions starting with a simple version filled with helium and attached to potential users. Once we have completed development on a working prototype we hope to move onto more of these questions over the next few months. 

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