Sketching in Hardware

This year Sketching in Hardware was held in the historic Detroit Masonic Temple and was the first year of attendance for Isobar. The Sketching conference focuses primarily on tools for physical computing/Internet of Things prototyping.

Curated by Mike Kuniavsky, author and PARC researcher, this year’s participants were asked to explore the question “How do we make tools that make it easier to have a positive impact on the world than a negative?” Simply making technology easier or cheaper does not necessarily make it better, and good design is not the same as design for good.

Day One:

ALASDAIR ALLAN — “Teaching smart devices to lie to one another”

We saw a presentation from Stanford researcher, Wendy Ju, whose team is looking at autonomous cars. Their findings confirmed that autonomous vehicles will be a massive lifestyle change, in that they will give most people a lot of free time. Currently, because interfaces in cars, both physical and digital, have not changed, people are almost immediately bored. The Stanford team in looking at what people do with that time and what can be done to maintain their attention.

Another of the presentations came from Camille Moussette & Madeleine Cordier — haptic designers at Apple. They demoed advances made in linear actuator technology (Taptic engines) that create the illusion of an almost infinite variety of clicks. I was surprised to learn that even with an actuator that is moving horizontally, it feels like vertical movement beneath your thumb. It’s clear that haptics will be an increasingly more important part of UI design as technology continues to get thinner and move away from mechanical movements as Apple has done with the Home button on iPhone.

Steve Hodges from Microsoft Research in the UK demoed the BBC’s Micro:bit, a small, cheap development hardware aimed at teaching code to kids. The technology can be programmed by almost any web capable browser, including phones. The boards include an array of LEDs to give visual feedback and bluetooth for connectivity. The Micro:bit was given to every school-aged child in the United Kingdom and it was noted that studies have shown that interest in programming greatly increases when it is paired with a physical object.


Another interesting haptic project was demoed by Noah Feehan, who used “Electrovibration” to change the perceived texture of a conductive pad. The effect goes from a smooth surface to feeling sticky and finally coarse, like sandpaper.

It’s easy to imagine how this could be used in wearable electronics to let a user quickly feel status changes, rather than have something vibrate intrusively.


Day Two:


Julien Bleeker shared his experience starting up a hardware company called Omata. The product is an analog faced, smart speedometer for bicycles. It uses digital components, like GPS, to capture data, and displays them in a classic radial form factor. It was very interesting to hear about sourcing parts from unrelated products to complete the vision of the product.


We then heard from Kazuhiro Jo who demoed an innovative way to produce records using a desktop vinyl cutter. The method allows for cutting the waveform on audio on a surface without prior audio input.


Lenore Edman from Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories spoke about the role of toys in prototyping, which I found entirely refreshing. The playfulness inherent in toys often translates into the work they inspire. This segwayed well into my talk the following day on including humor in design.

Closing out the day was Nathan Seidle, founder of Sparkfun. He and his team who had just flown in from presenting at DefCon in Las Vegas where he and his team demoed a safe cracking robot they had built from cheap parts and open source software. I found this to really be a perfect example of what sketching is — the quick and dirty attempt at something in pursuit of an answer.


Day Three:

On the third day of the conference, it was my turn to present. Instead of talking about products or engineering, I focused on the process of creating. Specifically, my talk was about applying humor and irreverence to product and why this approach is beneficial to everyone.

Sketching in Hardware is an important event where designers, engineers and artists convene on the future of hardware and the many ways it changes our lives for the better. Its structure is designed to provoke thoughtful discussion from differing opinions with the hopes of inspiring the direction forward.