Thinking by making

Telos is a prototype for a home control and monitoring system. We built it over about four weeks last autumn with some funding from UAL.

I think the most compelling part about Telos was that we focused more on the ways people could use it, rather than focusing on the well-trodden route of “home monitoring”. The result was a gesture-based interface that really helped us understand the way we make things.

Thinking outside the pocket

Telos has an interface that’s very different to the kind of interface most Internet of Things devices are controlled with. Instead of an app that lives in your pocket, it lives on your wall. Rather than being an ornate piece of product design, it’s a simple touch surface.

At 10cm by 10cm, it takes the same form as the familiar household light switch. The idea is that everybody in the house can use it; they have their own gestures. LEDs illuminate the path of your finger. It’s extremely customisable, and it gives you a more natural, physical way of interacting with your house.

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Making Telos helped me reflect on my practise in physical computing. I’ve found that in prototyping you have to build something physically verbose at beginning and gradually refine it until it takes the form you want.

You make a functional caricature of what the final thing should be. Partly to have a better understanding of how the different parts of a prototype come together. Partly as a reality check to know the parts work as expected and to make quick fixes easier. Anyone who has tried soldering a hard-to-reach joint will understand what I mean.

Understanding materials is as important as understanding people

Physics is a difficult adversary. We had to really understand how electricity and conductivity works, in a way that is more like what you’d learn on an electrical engineering course than a design course. It’s this stuff that uncovers the science behind how we interact of a lot of physical things in the digital age.

We needed to find a touch sensitive surface that was square, a very exact size and would be delivered to us very quickly. These constraints meant we needed to build something ourselves.

The first two weeks were spent trying out different approaches to making a touch sensitive surface.

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We settled on a grid of diamonds etched with acid onto a piece of copper-plated fibreboard. We can work out the part of a surface which is being touched by working out the row and column a finger is touching using a capacitive touch sensor.

Thinking by making is really important to us

I think if you’re a small studio it’s much easier to play around with software than hardware. It’s such a laborious, complex, expensive kind of endeavour. But if we ignored hardware, it would have really limited the way we could think about interfaces.

As Richard Pope wrote: “If you don’t understand the materials you are working with, you can’t build the right thing, even if you go about it in the right way. You can’t build what you can’t think of in the first place.

By really getting into the electrical components of the touch screen and the programming of its’ software, it helped us learn about the processes usually reserved for big industry. It reminds me of Thomas Thwaites’ Toaster Project: you do it to appreciate the complexity of making something like this.

That makes us better designers.

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