Meet VIRT-EU’s Design Challenge Finalists

VIRT-EU’s Design Challenge has invited working professionals in the field of design and technology to address the question of how we might use connected Internet of Things systems and products to re-imagine collaborative and communal living that is sensitive to differences between members of these living spaces.

Watch an interview with two of the judges part of the challenge (Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino and Dawn Nafus) and the winner (Thomas Amberg). 

We thank all participants and congratulate Thomas Amberg (winner), Emeline Brule and Charlotte Robinson (runner up), and Fahmida Azad (honourable mention), who have been invited to VIRT-EU’s workshop hosted at ORGCon 2019 in London – taking place tomorrow, Saturday 13th of July. We are looking forward to meeting the finalists. But first, we would like to briefly introduce them to you.

From left to right: Thomas Amberg (winner), Emeline Brule and Charlotte Robinson (runner up), Fahmida Azad (honorable mention).

  • Thomas Amberg (@tamberg) is a software engineer, professor for IoT at FHNW, founder of Yaler.net and organiser of the IoT Meetup in Zurich.
  • Emeline Brulé is a designer and Lecturer at the University of Sussex. Her research focuses on inclusive design and technology’s impacts on society, especially education. Charlotte Robinson is a Lecturer at the University of Sussex, specialised in Animal-Computer Interaction. Charlotte works on improving interfaces for working dogs or developing new technological means to support them.
  • Fahmida is a Bangladeshi-American Interaction & User Experience Designer, based in New York and Copenhagen, with a background in teaching, social advocacy and human rights work. She is a people-first type of person, passionate about crafting meaningful experiences that are accessible and joyful. 

How did you hear about VIRT-EU’s Design Challenge and what motivated you to participate?

Thomas Amberg: “During a recent ThingsCon conference in Berlin I got a flyer. Usually, I hear about these things on Twitter. I’m @tamberg, btw. My motivation to participate was the challenge to design for communal spaces rather than individual users.”

Emeline Brule: “We heard about the VIRT-EU Design Challenge through Prof. Ann Light at the University of Sussex. We were at the same time working on a research project exploring how to design smart home technologies for people with disabilities and their assistant dogs. This was a great opportunity to show some of the progress we made!”

Fahmida Azad: “I learned about the VIRT-EU’s Design Challenge through Annelie Berner, who is a colleague at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design (CIID). She encouraged my team and me to submit our project, Neighbor-ly, which we worked on for a course last year. At the time of developing the project, we were students in the Interaction Design Programme at CIID. Our motivation to participate in this design challenge was to share a provocative idea about how a connected home device can influence the behaviours of urban-dwellers and consequently affect social relationships. Through the development of a tangible, physical prototype of a concept, we wanted to both challenge and understand the role of an IoT product in the domestic space to explore when the promise of convenience and personalization could result in the potential degradation of social relationships – especially between neighbours. How do we catch ourselves when the injection of emerging technologies in products to make them “smart” borders on the line of being reckless or even unnecessary? We want to continuously ask the question to ourselves, and to others in the space, what kind of future do we want to create for society and why? ”

How did you become interested in working with IoT? What are your thoughts about the current IoT products available in the market?

Thomas Amberg: “I became interested in working with IoT at work as a software engineer. We started connecting hearing aids to the Internet around 2008, for remote fitting. Shortly after, I built a Web-controlled Arduino LED as a demo for Yaler.net, our service for secure remote access to IoT devices. Since then, I did quite some professional and DIY IoT projects.Many connected products are physical manifestations of surveillance capitalism. Or they are optimised for cost rather than security. On the other hand, I think it’s worth pointing out good examples and principles, which we try to do with the BetterIoT.org initiative. Going offline should not be the only way to domesticate IoT.”

Emeline Brule: “We came to IoT through different paths: I worked as a UX designer from 2010 to 2015, which was the time of experiments like Little Printer, and generally when IoT exploded and people were trying to imagine what interactions with these technologies would look like. I experimented quite a bit back then and am now back to IoT for research. Charlotte has long been working on how to help assistant dogs do their jobs, within academia. There’s now a lot of connected products for dogs, but no one really knows how to best design for them! As an animal expert and a computer scientist, she has these unique insights into how we could design for our pets and animal companions.

Emeline Brule: “Overall, I’m really excited about the opportunities to support inclusion and accessibility. However, the fact there is no strong open source alternative and that privacy and security risks are posed by available devices are sources of concern. Furthermore, I am looking forward to seeing how the industry will design with ideas such as maintenance and recycling in mind.”

Fahmida Azad: “I became interested in working with IoT through slow explorations with small machine learning and data-heavy projects while I was a design student. My fascination stems from being curious about what kinds of patterns, timelines, and realities we can expose through connected products, through the exchange of different data points being captured by products that are talking to one another. I am constantly thinking about my role as a designer and asking the question, who does this technology benefit? Who might it harm? Who might it leave out? I think the promise of more and more IoT products and services come with a heavy responsibility to consider both potentials and consequences (both intended and unintended) of them existing in the homes of people of different demographics and circumstances.”

Could you briefly describe your concept submitted for the Design Challenge?

Thomas Amberg: “The proposed system lets household chores draw attention to themselves, depending on who’s there, for example, the trash can will tell me when it’s full, but not my partner – who emptied it the last three times already. It’s a “domestic AI” based on face recognition and edge computing, personal data stays at home.”

Emeline Brule: “We submitted to the design challenge a concept for a flexible open-source eco-system for accessible smart home technologies. Current smart home technologies only offer one mean of interaction – voice for instance. We focused on a toolkit that would make it easier to make custom smart home solutions and design a treat-dispenser, which supports bonding between a person and their assistant dog as an example.”

Fahmida Azad: “Neighbor-ly is a smart home object designed specifically to be in urban homes. It’s designed to both externalize and provide a light bit of humour to a common experience that many people in urban spaces experience: hearing annoying sounds that they can’t pinpoint coming from their neighbours. The product uses machine learning to be trained on picking up noises coming from neighbours, classifying them, and then reacting based on that classification. When it hears a sound, it also produces a phrase or a sentence guessing at the source of the sound — just like a person does when they hear something out of the blue, providing a little bit of humour to the situation to soften a moment of tension. It learns over time which noises are classified as nuisances by the owner. The reaction from Neighbor-ly, a knock against a wall, occurs only after the object has been trained to understand and realize that this is a noise that the owner does not like. The knock is a signal to the neighbour to be quiet.

What are you most looking forward to experiencing at ORGcon 2019? 

Thomas Amberg: “I look forward to meeting people who share a critical view of IoT and are still optimistic about a future where this technology serves humans, not the other way around.”

Emeline Brule: “We’re looking forward to meeting people who are trying to make tech, as an industry, better, and in particular to understand what are the upcoming challenges for policy folks.”

Fahmida Azad: “I am incredibly excited to hear Edward Snowden speak. I am very moved by the line-up of speakers and am very excited to hear about their work, their perspectives, and thought-leadership in this space. I am passionate about an intersectional approach to design and technology, to center the experiences and realities of those who are most marginalized, and to keep those realities at the forefront of conversations around technology. I was not aware of this conference where people who care about the intersection of human and digital rights will gather together, so I am very happy to have come across this! Connecting with those who care about the intersection of digital and human rights, and are taking action to protect people’s rights, is of pressing interest and importance to me both as a designer, but also as a person living in the 21st century.”

We thank all participants for their submissions and we look very much forward to ORGCon 2019 tomorrow!