A Ludic Internet of Things

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Masters thesis in design, 2017-2018

Can IoT systems for the home be designed to support ludic communication?

context

During my year-long master’s thesis, I designed, and built with my family, two unique IoT systems for our home. The systems were unique because their designs were intentionally unconcerned with productivity and functionality like smart home devices typically are. Instead, they encouraged ludic interactions—those designed for pleasure and/or play. The Thought Projectors and the Inter(net)coms—our bespoke IoT systems—embrace the principles of Ludic Design, a concept introduced by Bill Gaver.

The term ludic stems from the concept of Homo Ludens, denoting that people are innately playful creatures.

The concept opposes common assumptions about technology, that computers should be practical, unambiguous, and help us be as efficient as possible, even at home.

A ludic design approach instead introduces domestic technologies that encourage curiosity, reflection, and simple delights.

As homes grow more into ubiquitous computing environments, it is critical that people envision new ideas around how we want to live and interact with computers in our everyday lives. This project, though seemingly playful, presents real opportunities and serious questions around connected devices at home. It draws on the traditions of critical and speculative design by purposefully calling on the need to think intentionally and deeply about how we should and want to live in a “smart home” environment. Every home is different, and every family has unique needs which call for a wide and diverse variety of future smart home visions. By diving deep into one family’s home life, the tensions around researching and designing for the dynamics of the home are brought to the surface in a nuanced and rich way.

This research provides alternative visions, beyond efficiency and productivity, of how we might weave computing more deeply into the fabric of the home while supporting the activities traditionally found there—like rest, reflection, and interpersonal connectedness. 

[view thesis document, gallery installation]

Committee members: Audrey Desjardins, PhD; A.J. Brush, PhD; & Michael Smith

The Thought Projectors

Thought Projectors: a network of video projectors that continuously plays one YouTube playlist collectively curated by the family members.

Thought Projectors: a network of video projectors that continuously plays one YouTube playlist collectively curated by the family members.

The Inter(net)coms

Inter(net)coms: a refurbished intercom system functioning like a private whole-house chat-room.

Inter(net)coms: a refurbished intercom system functioning like a private whole-house chat-room.

“By focusing on how users react, rather than on the internal content of the software, a simple computational artefact can be used to communicate a rich and complex idea.”
— Will Odom et al. 2009

Design Process

Conducting research in intimate spaces—like the home—is complex, requiring a deep ethical sensitivity.

This project gave me the opportunity to be both a research participant and an observer. I felt first-hand how vulnerable being a research participant can feel—especially in the home—and balanced the need to protect my family’s privacy, while understanding and communicating the nuanced details of our every day interactions with the IoT systems.

Research methods

Diary studies, personal inventories, observations, environment analysis, semi-structured and informal interviewing, participatory design, co-speculation, and technology probes were used in this project.

Data Collection

Data was collected in the form of photos, videos, written notes, reflections, and co-design artifacts.

findings & future work

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This project is alive and ongoing as we continue to live with, and learn from, the Thought Projectors. The Inter(net)coms were installed and stayed in our former house when we moved. The original intercom (its hub is shown in the image above) was installed in the house in 1974. It was partially functional in 2017-18 before we rebuilt it. I hope the new owners will appropriate it in their own way. Findings for this project are still in development, though I can share some brief insights below.

Legacy and bespoke systems raise interesting questions for smart home environments. For example, who will maintain and repair them over time, and how do we leave behind the personal touches of our lives as our artifacts become less tangible and less permanent?

With internet-connected devices in our homes, there are opportunities to recall moments from our individual and collective pasts. These recollections are made especially prescient through video. The Thought Projectors prompted reminiscence on our family members’ lives and fostered expressions of their unique interests, and sense-of-self through the sharing of YouTube videos. Other bespoke design has also explored expressions and affirmations of the sense-of-self using IoT capabilities, including the Self Reflector by designers/researchers at the University of Dundee.

There are further opportunities to consider how domestic IoT systems can serve as both calming attributes of the home and functional ones at other times. Calm and slowness (slow TV) were unexpected favorites on our family’s Thought Projector playlist.

Finally, the project made tangible the kinds of interactions we had experienced in our home but had not yet named: ludic communication between family members—that is sharing thoughts, ideas and curiosities through ludic engagement. Now that our awareness has been raised, we are purposeful about making space for, and sharing, ludic behaviors at home.

Next steps for this research include projector field deployments in other homes, and outlining design attributes for other designers and researchers.