By Martin Skelly

Martin Skelly in-house Creative Technologist, talks to Prof Jon Rogers at the University of Dundee, to explore how we can bring the physical web closer to clients we work with.

ULAB is Uniform’s R&D platform. It explores new ways of connecting brands with consumers. This first post on Kixl gives you a glimpse into the conversations and secrets behind the activities of ULAB.

Martin Skelly in-house Creative Technologist, talks to Prof Jon Rogers at the University of Dundee, to explore how we can bring the physical web closer to clients we work with.

Can light call us to Twitter?

Jon - “The pioneer of Design Thinking, Tim Brown, says many clever things. One of the cleverest is:

“Thomas Edison created the electric light bulb and then wrapped an entire industry around it. Edison understood that the bulb was little more than a parlour trick without a system of electric power generation and transmission to make it truly useful. So he created that, too.” Brown, T.,(2008), Design Thinking, Harvard Business Review, 86(6), 84-92, 141.

What’s not to be marvelled at with the creation of artificial light? The beauty and powerful magic of a light draws us in. What must it have been like to see electric light for the first time?

We are now facing a similar revolution in what a light bulb could be. What happens when a light bulb is connected to the internet? As soon as it does it changes from a light to a pixel. It follows that if we are controlling a light with a computer then it becomes a pixel that we can write behaviours to. Which means that we can harness light’s ability to connect us to new things.

If we can do this, can we connect a light to the internet and then have a pixel that responds to social media? Can a light call us to Twitter?  

What meaning can we take from a twitter-connected pixel?

Martin – “One thing I’ve been thinking about is how would it feel to glance into a data cable that is powering a Twitter conversation, what could each of these tweets zapping around cyberspace actually look like.

I also wanted to explore a sector that Uniform already completes a lot of work in – football. We already work with The FA and Liverpool Football Club. I wanted to combine match day excitement with Internet of Things geekery.

Football grounds have a completely unique atmosphere on match days, but for days before and after matches, the beautiful game is the topic of millions of individual contributors on social media. We wanted to explore these colossal metrics, to visualise the social media buzz in between matches. It’s a bit like standing outside a stadium on match day – hearing the chants, and the near misses, and the goals - but you are staring into the depths of an online conversation instead.

A large number of people discussing a certain subject or theme can act as an early warning indicator of immediate, big news. We’ve called the project Kixl, a mash up of kick, and pixel. Kixl is a physical object that visualises the number of tweets on a certain hashtag with simple colour changes.

At its simplest, Kixl is a glanceable object that tells us the state of a specific conversation on twitter. In the same way that we use a clock as our visual check-in with time.”

What are your thoughts on the meaning that physical pixels can provide? 

Jon - “Think about it. A light bulb. All pervasive and everywhere. Could they subtly inform us that our morning bus is delayed? Could they excite us that our bid on Ebay is approaching a crunch point? Could they relax us that granny’s gone to bed safely? What would you want a light to be if it was a pixel? The meaning really is extraordinarily broad, scalable and writeable in any direction. And as creative technologists, it’s a great space to play in.”

And now for the techie bit. How did you bring it to life?  

Martin - “I began by using an Arduino, and some high voltage RGB LED strips, to experiment with light behaviours and get the colour balances right. For a design as simple as Kixl, it’s important that each part looks amazing. So before touching Twitter or hooking the device up to the web, I explored the design of the casing and the layout of the LED’s with dummy data. I needed maximum daylight brightness, but a wide viewing angle to allow groups of people to be able to glance at the device.

When I was happy with the design, I started exploring methods for getting it connected to the internet. Arduino Ethernet shields are my go to treatment as they are mega reliable, but can be clunky when taking it out to client meetings. Calling ahead or hoping that they will have wired Ethernet, isn’t ideal. So we ruled this out. 

When we started exploring wi fi, we knew that building the one off prototype would be relatively cost effective with arduino. However we knew from previous projects that unit costs and development time would spiral if we wanted to scale the project up in the future.”  

You thought that this was a perfect project for playing with the Electric Imp. Why?

Jon – “What I love about the Imp is that it provides a prototyping platform that is a direct link to a marketable product. Which means that although you can treat it as prototyping platform for playing with ideas, you can also use it as a delivery platform if one of those ideas starts to head down a potential mass-market route. I love Arduino. It’s amazing. But one of the limitations is that it’s very hard to go from an experience prototype or concept model, to anything more than a one-off.

There is no data model behind it. There is no direct way of connecting it to the web and providing a web-service to power it. There is a very long runway between concept and product. With the Imp that runway is very short, they have the business models in place to enable you to have a data-enabled product connecting to the web. They have the supply chains in place to make that happen if you want to release a product. That is a very seductive proposition. But actually that’s just half of the story.

What I love is the technical platform. How shall I say this in a simple way? It’s basically a platform that is super easy to connect an object (let’s say a light) and have it’s behaviour controlled over the web. It’s super easy to create a pixel from an LED (or collection of LEDs) that is both programmable (you program the Imp to dim the LED over the web and it dims the LED, over the web). But that’s not all! You can also have it connect to another cloud-based server that allows the web to control the light, over the web. You can do a whole load of cloud based heavy-duty processing that then talks to the light over the web and does complex and beautiful things.

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