Twenty years ago, building your own website was something only specialists could do. Today anyone can set up their own blog or personal or professional website with a simple CMS system. Great technical expertise has long since ceased to be needed to do this. Computational Design and Fabrication aims to make it easier to construct sensor systems in a similar way, so that in the future anyone can easily build his or her own sensor system.
Can any user today perform photo edits on a smartphone that are as impressive as those done by a professional photographer? No. The basic package of filters clearly isn’t sufficient for that. And are those basic filters good enough to create large-scale advertising campaigns with? Perhaps not, but that’s usually not the idea. What is important is that everyone with a computer or smartphone now has access to the core of that technology. Just like anyone today can build their own website, without much IT knowledge. With my research I want to also make this possible for sensor-based systems in the near future.
My research group focuses on the accessible development of sensor-based systems for individual end users with their own specific wishes and needs. A doctor who wants to make a wristband for a particular patient to continuously measure and monitor his heart rate. An interaction designer who wants to develop a prototype of a product that will be made more interactive with electronics. A teacher who wants to make her paper exercise materials more interesting for her pupils. Or a care provider who wants to redesign a rotary knob for his client into a push button because that particular client has difficulty with rotary movements. The application possibilities of sensor-based systems are endless. And the added value is immense. If everyone is able to build their own sensor system, we will generate a great deal of social impact.
What if an interaction designer has an idea for a new sensor-based product and wants to produce it on a large scale? That’s fine, but large-scale development is not our main focus. In the first instance we want to develop software and hardware techniques that enable an individual designer, without technical expertise, to develop a first prototype. If the designer can manage this phase alone, he or she will be able to react more quickly throughout the development process.
The Expertise Centre for Digital Media (EDM) is of course a research centre. We are researching and developing a new generation of manufacturing technologies and techniques with which we can easily and quickly build a sensor system in the future. How can we enable end users - despite a lack of specialist knowledge - to work with the system as smoothly and simply as possible? And how do we ensure that they find their way almost intuitively in the complex world of sensors? Human-computer interaction: this is essentially what it is all about.
Of course, this research also involves a lot of development. Using computational methods, we try to automate part of the design and development process, in order to compensate for a lack of technical and specialist knowledge. We create, as it were, a package of bite-sized building blocks that anyone - based on their own concrete needs and requirements - can fit together to develop and produce a personalised sensor-based product.
How can we help non-engineers to make paper, plastic or any other material interactive? When we look for solutions for this, we go well beyond pure programming. From design to manufacturing, we want to encourage and empower end users to start using sensor-based technology themselves. We look for accessible, low-cost solutions for non-experts.
We regard design as extremely important in this context, because the way an interface is designed is always a factor in its ease of use. People have to be able to find their way easily in the solutions we devise. We conduct frequent and thorough tests to ensure this.
When will I feel satisfied? Obviously, I hope that other researchers internationally will continue to build on the research results that we have achieved at EDM in the years ahead, and that our research in this field will receive academic appreciation. At the same time, I also hope for more impact. I will not be really satisfied until we succeed in effectively bringing this complex sensor-based technology closer to people. When children, teachers, doctors and marketers can start using this ingenious sensor technology themselves and no longer let their creativity be held back by the limits of their technical knowledge.