Interactivation Studio – Final Project (and OMG I’M STILL ALIVE!)

This blog post is an overview of the research and development of “the creation of a dialogue between a person and a designed artefact” (Wodtke 2013) through the use of weather, light and touch.

Taking into account long distance relationships; the fostering of connection; idle chit-chat, including weather; and simplicity of form and function; my project goal was to develop an object that subtly displays real-time weather data to open the lines of communication, encourage a further connection and grow the frequency of connecting.

My prototype was two matching objects connecting two or more people who live far apart from each other. The peripheral interaction involves the display of weather in each other’s country; this would present itself as light and colour for basic conditions such as sun, rain, cloud, etc. The direct level of interaction would be through touch; whereas at any time a user could interact with the object and it would send a flashing light notification to the others’ object in conjunction with a text or email message in case they are not around to receive the message (Diagram 1). The last visual cue would come from a simple light notification for incoming Facetime, phone calls or email from the connected users to each other.


My research encompassed the necessity of nurturing the grandparent-grandchild relationship; ambient interaction through gentle light displays; phatic communication and the reasons we talk about weather; social presence, awareness and connectedness; and finally touch messaging.

Relationship grandparent/grandchild
“Long distance grandparents are challenged to be more creative, make the most of every physical visit, use everything within their power to establish a connection with each grandchild and then stay connected” (Parent Giving). This experience is very common, I lived through it during a time of zero internet access. The affordance of email, and applications like Facetime have enabled a variety of possible mediums to stay connected, be involved and build relationships even with geographical distance.

A study was done examining the impact of communication on relational quality between grandparents and grandchildren (Holladay & Seipke 2007). The assumption was that face-to-face contact was more important in the connectedness of geographically separated grandparents/grandchildren. However the findings proved that it is not the richness of the media used (Facetime, email, telephone), moreover it was the frequency of interaction that contributed to more meaningful relationships.

It has always been a challenge to connect as opportunities to do so were limited by day-to-day life activities and time zones. My project goal included the ability to further communication and grow frequency in order to build connectedness between users. Understanding that visual cues, availability of feedback, varying options to interact and initiate contact without imposing, generated more feelings of involvement irrespective of the content being communicated (Holladay & Seipke 2007).


Ambient interaction/intelligence
My project used objects as representations of people through the subtle yet meaningful display of weather information. This peripheral interaction contributes to the mood both within the space and with the participants, as well as being a useful tool for the preliminary assessment of the users connecting with each other. “People can interact with peripheral interactive devices without focused attention, while they can also easily focus their attention on them when this is relevant” (Bakker 2013). The weather display in one moment could be no more than a slightly abstracted night light – the next it would provide awareness of state of being of the other user: sunny day = happy.

Therefore, the object acts as an initial trigger for communication without getting in the way of day-to day routines, and yet becomes a meaningful part of their lives without turning into a sole focus. The LED light display is an ambient interaction that facilitates the user to engage in thought regarding the other user or even to connect with them further. This could include the touch function or a direct call/email/text to connect in a more profound manner.


Phatic communication – Weather
Pear Analytics (2009) described phatic messages as “pointless babble”; much the same as anthropologist Malinowski who claimed that phatic expressions don’t have any practical purpose or meaning. However, others believe the content itself may not be relevant but the “keeping in touch” signal it delivers is crucial (Radovanovic 2012).

Phatic communication is more well known as ‘small talk’, it describes both verbal and non-verbal cues to indict the lines for communication between two people are open or closed. This includes topics such as the weather, although mundane, it acts as an ice-breaker. “Phatic communication refers to trivial and obvious exchanges about the weather and time, made up of ready-made sentences or foreseeable statements… Therefore this is a type of communication that establishes a contact without transmitting a precise content, where the container is more important then the content” (About Education 2016). My project will be using weather to ’break the ice’ between two people in order to encourage opportunities that foster deeper engagement.

Weather is a popular topic of conversation; it’s everywhere and easily relate-able. It also provides reference and connection to those friends or family members who live far away. It gives context to our day-to-day experience and sometimes security as related to well-being; whereas nicer weather usually improves one’s happiness.

Moreover, weather is an easy topic to start with and a natural conversation starter; I believe it also gives a sense of caring or interest in the parties involved. This is especially true when it comes to opening dialogue with strangers, as well as with varying ages groups. Weather is an easy concept to grasp at its base level – “Talking about the weather leads into a whole lot of other subjects. But if you never get started with a “basic” topic like the weather, you might not get a conversation going at all – and thus you’ll never get to other more substantial topics at all” (Perman 2009). In the simple exchange of talking about the weather, my mother can gage her grandson’s interest in moving on from the topic or whether she’ll need to work harder to open the lines of communication.


Touch in this instance is a form of non-verbal communication and acts as a powerful conduit for emotional connectedness (Smith & MacLean 2007). Any form of interaction involving touch is call haptics; the haptic feedback conveys information through gentle light displays for both the sender and receiver to enhance the experience.

Sensors within the object make it clear to the sender that upon touch, the object’s LED flash would denote the release of the message ‘I’m thinking of you’ to the receiver – whom in turn is given a similar visual cue of flashing LEDs to know they’ve “been touched”. The touch functionality will increase emotional engagement, whereas the sender loses “touch” of the physical object entirely and moves towards a more emotional journey of sending the message of ‘I’m thinking of you’ or ‘let’s keep in touch’.

The touch interaction is akin to the Facebook ‘poke’ which is the equivalent of tapping someone on the shoulder to say hi. It is a way to let other people know that you are thinking of them without going through all the trouble of an email of phone call (Weiss 2012). This function is especially useful in time zone based communication when you would like to connect but realise it’s too late to call, therefore leaving the recipient with a message for when they wake.

Social presence, awareness and connectedness
The focus on the flow of interaction between the users and the objects centre around the perceptions of social presence, awareness and in turn, connectedness.

The physical object itself gives the participant an initial comfort of the other users’ existence. The theory of social presence relies on the level to which the user feels the company of the other they are interacting with (Rettie 2003). Building from the material form; the visual and tactile modalities increase this familiarity, and aim to promote supplementary connections.

Awareness indicates an understanding of the activities of others, which provides a context for your own activity during the interaction (Dourish and Bly 1992). For example, a grandparent might see the object denote a sunny day and therefore wait to call knowing the grandchild was most likely outside playing. The grandparent could then touch their object to send a subtle notification to let the grandchild know they are thinking of them. The grandparent is aware the child may be busy and is cognisant that there is no obligation for a reply.

Connectedness replicates the feeling of being in touch. Nardi, et al., (2000) suggest that even when no direct information exchange is taking place, people want to maintain a connection with others. The illuminated weather cues coming from the object can increase a relational connection, therefore enabling the user to overcome geographical distance.

In summary, the object facilitates the feeling of the participants’ presence; awareness and the emotional belief of connectedness. Moreover, the ability to touch the object allows the users to connect without feeling imposing and can be both carried out and received in one’s own time. In regards to the grandparent/grandchild relationship, this interaction encourages both parties to initiate contact equally and without parental influence to develop the relationship. Harwood (2000) advocates that it is the frequency of contact that is positively related to relational closeness – for which the object fosters the regularity of connections.


Design ideation
My design concept is based on Russian nesting dolls – babushka or matryoshka dolls as they’re known. The term ‘babushka’ refers to ‘grandmother’ and the nesting of the dolls represents family or generations within. Even though the objects are open to many users segments, it seemed apt to configure the piece to the originator of the idea – grandma.

The construction of the Russian nesting dolls is said to be carved from the same block of wood, much like children and grandchildren are said to be ‘a chip off the old block’ Matryoshkas are also used metaphorically, as a design paradigm, known as the “matryoshka principle” (Jacobovici 2016). Similarly, the onion metaphor whereas the outer layers holding much of the seemingly non-relevent details must be peeled away in order to reach the more important centre. If we draw our attention to the layers, they becomes a form a storytelling the deeper we go – a discovery process until the core or the heart.

This is reflected within the interactive object whereas details of weather, light notification or touch eventually lead to the core of the interaction – a connection.


Final prototype
The final prototype was constructed using the Philips Hue Lights; a simple lamp base; and paper mache to create the Babushka form of the lamp. The photos below depict a few of the colour light display settings for the object; this includes weather colours, as well as flash notifications.

During the testing of this prototype; many respondents described their ‘awareness’ in relation to the weather light display – knowing they would be more successful calling if the lamp denoted a rainy day as we tend to stay in if it’s raining. The majority of the users were ‘touched’ with the touch function and wanted to reply even if they were busy (as simple as an SMS smiley face). Many agreed that it was simple without being intrusive yet emotive for them with each interaction, as it brought with it memories of the person on the ‘other side’.


Flow charts of interaction
Flow Chart A. provides the details regarding the flow of interaction for one of the objects, including the general settings. Of course the options to change colours etc. are limitless with the Philips Hue Light applications, and can be swapped depending on the users preferences.


Flow Chart B. describes the flow of interaction between the objects. The weather data for Sydney is read via API and displayed in the object in Victoria. A touch done in Victoria is then displayed on the object in Sydney. And lastly, the notifications dependent on the communication channels (Facetime, email SMS etc.) used by the sender are reflected through gentle light flash notifications on the receiver’s object. One of the main outcomes for the project is an increase of the normal behaviour not to necessarily turn the touch into an everyday affair – sometimes just the weather light display is enough to feel connectedness.


Flow Chart C. describes the flow of interaction between the emotions and motivations of the user. I have noted a possible journey in steps 1-6; but the user could deviate between all or few depending on factors such as their mood, the weather colour display, time of day, etc. Another example could be upon seeing the weather display, the user immediately feels the need to send a touch notification – the growth of the loop and variations of interaction are endless.


The final prototype concluded that the lamp provided a window into the day-to-day of the other person; every interaction brought about warm feelings; the weather display acted as a ‘mood ring’ and encouraged connections whether they were subtle with the touch function or richer Facetime calls. I didn’t realise until this phase how much the users took into account their awareness of the other person – knowing what they would usually do depending on the weather, and even how they might be feeling.

In conclusion, the project goal of developing an object that subtly displays real-time weather data to open the lines of communication, encourage a further connection and grow the frequency of connecting – I feel were achieved. What I wasn’t expecting was how much relational emotion, awareness and the feeling of connectedness would be apparent. Making sure the object is meaningful and a positive communication experience was a pleasant outcome; including the ambient interaction which proved to be just as valuable as the direct interaction – even if some referred to it as a ‘nice BB8 night-light’.

About Education 2016, ‘Phatic communication’, 29 July, viewed 5 September 2016 <http://>.

Bakker, S. 2013, ‘Design for Peripheral Interaction’, PhD thesis, TU Eindhoven, Netherlands.

Dourish, P. and Bly, S., (1992), ‘Portholes: Supporting awareness in a distributed work group’, viewed 10 October 2016 <>.

Geddes, L., 2015, ‘Why do Brits talk about the weather so much?’, BBC, 17 December, viewed 26 August 2016 < about-the-weather-so-much>.

Harwood, J., 2000, ‘Communication media use in the grandparent-grandchild relationship’, Journal of Communication, viewed 20 September 2016 < grandchild_relationship>.

Holladay, S., & Seipke, S., 2007, ‘Communication between Grandparents and Grandchildren in Geographically Separated Relationships’ Communication Studies Vol. 58, No. 3, September 2007, viewded 5 October 2016 < file:///Holladay%20Seipke%202007%20 gp%20gc%20geographical%20dispersion%20Com%20Studies.pdf>.

Michalowicz, M., 2016, ‘Why people talk about the weather’, Mike Michalowicz blog, 17 February, viewed 26 August 2016 < talk-weather/>.

Nardi, B., Bradner, E., 2000, ‘Interaction and Outeraction: Instant Messaging in Action’, Proceedings of CSCW 2000, Philadelphia, viewed 20 October 2016 <http://www.>.

Parent Giving, viewed 5 September 2016, < grandparent-grandchild-relationship/>.

Pear Analytics 2009, ‘Twitter Study Reveals Interesting Results About Usage’, 15 August, viewed 13 October < interesting-results-about-usage>.

Perman, M., 2009, ‘Why Talking About the Weather is Smart’, What’s best next blog, 24 September, viewed 26 August 2016 < why-talking-about-the-weather-is-smart/>.

Radovanovic, D., 2012, ‘Small talk in the Digital Age: Making Sense of Phatic Posts’ University of Belgrade #MSM2012 Workshop proceedings, 16 April, viewed 12 October 2016 < #MSM2012>.

Rettie, R., 2003, ‘Connectedness, awareness and social presence’, 6th International Presence Workshop, Aalburg University, Denmark, 30 June 30, viewed 19 October 2016 <,%20 Awareness%20and%20Social%20Presence.pdf>.

Smith, J., MacLean, K. E., 2007, ‘Communicating Emotion Through a Haptic Link: Design Space and Methodology’, International Journal of Human-Computer Studies (IJHCS), vol. 65, no. 4, April, viewed 30 September 2016 < node/275>.

Weiss, R., 2012, ‘A Poke and a Smile: Relationship Intimacy in the Age of Social Media’, Psych Central, viewed 24 October 2016 < intimacy-in-the-age-of-social-media>.

Wodtke, C., 2013, ‘Interaction Design with Personas and Scenarios’, Linkedin SlideShare, 14 December, viewed 5 September 2016 < interaction-design-and-goal-driven-design-using-personas/2-INTERACTION_ DESIGN_IS_THE_CREATIONOF>.

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I’m the non-traditional stream ‘guy’ – call me an outlier or anomaly; my background is in project management, marketing and a whole lot of design. I bring creativity, logic, abstract thinking and a methodical and organised approach to project ideation, production and completion. I can also pretty shit up quite nicely. I’ve worked within architecture, ad agencies, music, festivals, events, and community projects. About a year ago, I decided to go back to school; starting with an intensive course in data analytics and some short courses in computer science, stats and R (most likely enough to be dangerous). I also enjoy baking and will exchange sweet goods for tutoring along the way. I’m hoping to tread water or at least stay afloat during my time in MDSI – I keep questioning whether I have a mild case of impostor syndrome; but then again, it’s just as easy to think BIG and fail; than it is to think small and fail – so I might as well be bold and try changing the world one data point at a time.

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