Friday, October 17, 2014

Beyond 'Beyond Ethnography'

This once I said to one of my friends "Hey you know my supervisors have won the best paper award in CHI this year." Then my friend replied "So have you read that paper?" Oops! So while on the train to Gold Coast I decided to surf through that piece.

The paper was written about the importance of reciprocity and engagement in research that are main building blocks of participatory design approaches. They discussed lessons from a project that concerns Indigenous Peoples of Australia. Popular methods such as ethnography becomes irrelevant in a society where people are extensively researched often without thinking of appropriateness and benefits in-return.
"Indigenous people world-wide have often been researched with little thought given to culturally appropriate methods of engagement, what will happen to the resulting knowledge, who really benefits from the research and how the community will benefit from the engagement."
They identify reciprocity as a key element in an effective and ethical research activity. The paper highlights the importance of conducting culturally suitable and beneficial research especially in contexts such as Indigenous communities. I could not agree more. Researchers are not an alien entity from the society. It is often easy to loose the touch of the society when we work with numbers, documents and technologies. The result can be research projects that are disconnected from the real world.

Reciprocity means 'a situation or relationship in which two people or groups agree to do something similar for each other, to allow each other to have the same rights, etc. (Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary). This paper provides a strong account for providing benefits for research participants. I began to wonder what is there for the researcher in a research project? (I know a stupid question!) Of course he/she can complete his research which is a rewarding experience. But, do we reward our participants so that we can get our research done?

I see three types of development for the researcher. Knowledge, Mental and Spiritual. The reports, presentations, etc. showcase knowledge development. Mental rewards that happens mainly through achieving targets are, though not much visible, are inherent. The authors of the paper discussed forms of mutual learning that took place in their project. It is the spiritual development, however, that is quite difficult to see and not often discussed (at least in more technical fields). While in my opinion all forms of research should result in spiritual development, I think Participatory Design (PD) provide better opportunities for growth. PD takes a stance both in pragmatic and political viewpoints to engage with people who will get affected by the research. I believe when researchers engage more with participants, there are better opportunities to grow.

While my research is far from PD (at least at the moment), I do sense the perks of working closely with people. I have been attending maker communities, disability services organizations (DSOs) in the local region, conducted interviews and observation sessions with the members. I sense these activities reveal new insights that can change me as a person. I should warn you that what you are going to read next is based purely on my experience as a PhD student. I will discuss how building a good rapport with people helped me to grow.

What I saw...

People were busy when I visit the makerspaces. But, they had no one to report. No deadlines to meet. Then why (the hell) they design stuff? Then I began to realize they are just being honest with their conscience.  I began to ask myself "Why don't I read when I can, why don't I write?" and all sorts of other questions which I am beginning to find answers for.

The people I met were friendly and helpful. They were not hesitant to have a chat, give a hand anytime, for me or any other person. The people at the DSOs are mostly volunteers who help empower people with disabilities. Why they waste time doing that? Why just don't do their stuff? But then I realized they were just being just human. That is what humans did for thousands of years and exactly what we are beginning to forget as humans.

One of the most important things I saw was the bravery of makers. The courage to go ahead and hack something you have never seen. I kept asking why can't I be like that? Why don't I do more experiments?

I worked and saw work of people with disabilities. Often people think they are 'disabled'. I do not agree with the word itself. I believe they are abled in different ways. They are abled to compose an email in couple of seconds, type in lighting fast speeds, they are abled to do computer programming, they are abled to make scooters. The disability really lies in our attitudes!

What I heard...

Whenever I interview or have a chat I receive advices that I could not read from any book.
"Make a mess and go ahead..."
"Get on with it..."
"My design has my blood and sweat on it, that is why I build them"
"People with disabilities want to play ANY game, not some games"

When I saw the work of makers, I realized there is much more than money to doing something.In fact money becomes a controversial topic. They do it because they love to do it - and that's pretty much it. They see other people use them and become happy. That is the biggest reward they are after.

People were so passionate about their inventions. People with disabilities did not sound like they have an impairment. If we have passion we can conquer. 

What I did...

Volunteering in activities, seeing new places, helping people do things taught me a research should have a single aim - betterment of planet earth. We are surrounded by many things that are affected by what we do. Researchers are not a privileged entity to do experiments on the world to complete some degree program. We should keep in mind that our responsibility is to help others.

So, I really don't mind taking long rides to meet people or spending hours with them instead of staring into a computer screen. When we know better about people, we learn new things that ultimately help for a better research agenda. Research should happen in the wild, not in the office cubicle.

What I felt...

Working with people in past dozen or so months changed my thinking patterns. In other words my brain got somewhat re-wired. Some of the things I felt:

- You are responsible for what you do. Ignore deadlines. Just be true to you.
- Talk to people, listen to what they have to see, watch what they do. You can learn loads.
- We (researchers) are servants of the Earth. We are not different from any other worker.
- Let's get on with it, never be afraid of making an error.
- Disabilities lie in our attitudes.

In a nutshell, working closely with people helped me grow. That is why I believe PD has more potential not only in rewarding 'end-users' but also researchers especially spiritually. Participatory Design (PD) > Personal Development (PD) = PD Squared. I am not saying that I am a good person now! I am just saying that I can feel a positive change. I had fun working with people. It was no way tedious. I think I felt enjoyable as I was receiving opportunities to grow through working with people. I believe that should be an integral part of a research - spiritual growth. I believe only then we can have a truly 'engaging' research.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Why Make at all?

This is one of the questions I keep asking myself when I visit makerspaces. I have seen toys, lamps, digital scoreboards and so forth. Why not buy them from the market? Yeah cost is an issue for some gadgets. But a lamp? a toy boat? Why do they build them instead of just buying?

Now I begin to realize that it is a way of life. According to David 'It's an attitude thing'. When there is a requirement they find a way to build it themselves. Market is their last resort. To build this kind of an attitude one needs to start somewhere. You need not invent a robot at the first go. Even lighting up an LED using a circuit would do. How I know this? Because it has happened to me! I was stimulated by the work by makers, by the pride they describe their innovations, by the fun they have working on hacks. So, I attended a soldering workshop at my uni and ordered an Arduino UNO start-up kit on eBay. Now I am thinking of making an automatic light system for my front yard.

Revisiting my teens - Soldering after a long time!

If we time travel back all the way to the stone age, we would see humans making things they required on their own. Then our requirements became complex. We saw some people are better at developing somethings than us. So we began to exchange things we made narrowing us to some especialities. Then we invented money, so we can exchange papers for artifacts. This continued for centuries to the point where we seek commercial market to buy each and everything, where we left with almost no especiality in design. At makerspaces what I see is a combination of the spirit of the stone age with resources of the technology age. This spirit is the courage and willingness to do experiments and make mistakes. Resources can be kit technologies, 3D printers and online tutorials. 

Makers are largely driven by their desire to hack than any other thing. I asked David 'How was the feedback for the Maker Faire?' His response sounded:

'We did our best on the day. We just wanted to show our tech to other people. We are not much interested about feedback. We had a great day!'

He said that it's not the numbers that matter - number of people of attending an exhibition or a meetup. It is the activity of making something that inspires them that matters.

'If someone feels like hacking a tech, just start working on something may be with one of your friends. People will come. But, even if they don't does not matter'

Making things for intrinsic rewards means that the completed artifacts do not necessarily address a requirement as such. When they feel like hacking something, they just go ahead and do it. Rod has found an eScooter by the street and has taken in to the makerspace. He and Alex were hacking it when I went there (in the video). I asked 'What is your plan with this?'. The reply was 'ahh just trying to take this apart and see what we can do...'
"When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb."
-Robert Oppenheimer

People tend to think the technologies that makers use are easy to handle. I do not agree with it completely. While using a kit like Makey-Makey is quite straightforward, tasks like programming an Arduino kit, creating a 3D model require some learning. But, it is this learning process that is not so difficult now. You can find heaps of resources online and in makerspaces. With a shot of courage you can learn many things. When you learn the basics, the rest is walk in the park if you stretch your creativity muscles.

I don't know how to design the light system. I don't have any plans or sketches with me. I am no technician by any means. I did some electronics when I was in high-school and I was no good at that too! I just have an idea. I trust myself that I can do it (of course I know there is help online). I believe that it is this courage one requires to start developing things that can ultimately create a 'way-of-life'. As David say 'Spoon-feeding times are over, let's create our techs on our own'. It is courage than expertise that matters. I know I am bound to do some mistakes in the process. That is how I plan to learn new things and improve my design.
But why am I going through all these 'troubles'. Why don't I just buy it? Why I want to make it? Hope you know the answer now!
"We are more likely to fail as craftsmen,... due to our inability to organize obsession (for perfection) than because of our lack of ability"
-Richard Sennet, The Craftsman, 2008
My Arduino kit has arrived, so it's time to start hacking!

Hacking time!!!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Kid Hacks at Hack'n Show

Let's have a look at some of the hacks made by kids at the Hack'n Show competition. I was awed to see kids taking an interest in gadgets in a world where video games and social media dominates childhood. These kids looked like 8 to 15 years old.





One of the kids who participated in the competition was a child of a techspace member. He (and his friends) looked very excited and knowledgeable about the gadgets. Habits get inherited. It's nice when they are good ones. I noticed that the kids were more conscious about eco friendly innovations.

"I think this [the Solar Powered Car] is cool cause it uses solar power. I get excited about making things that can use clean energyto keep save our environment"

"It [the Eco Pop Boat] is cool because it is made from recycled parts and is steam and solar powered"

The winner of the Kids Competition received a pack of Arduino kits, circuit boards and sensors, while all the competitors were awarded 200$ worthy of similar gifts. After the faire Steve talked with the winner and told 'You may not need all the stuff there. You can share them with your friends' reminding me that sharing is one of the key values in a makerspace!

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Gold Coast Maker Faire - Hack'n Show

Waking up early on a rainy Saturday morning! That does not sound good, does it? But on the 16th August I was very excited to do so. It was the annual Gold Coast Science and Tech Fair where Gold CoastTechspace will be showcasing their hacks at their faire – Hack’n Show! I have already seen some gadgets at their workspace. But, this faire would be a great chance to see all the hacks they have made. Plus there was a competition for kids to show-off their talents in hacking. I had to catch the train from Brisbane at 7.00 as I was volunteering with the set-up of faire. I will try my best to give an account of the exhibits I have seen there.

Following couple of videos are snaps of a Rubik’s cube Solver and an auto closing switch. Unfortunately I haven’t found much information regarding them. There were some other interesting hacks as well (some of them will be at the end of the 2nd video).



Caroline was busy with a 'beacon' project. She managed to deploy some Bluetooth operated beacons near the exhibits. If you had an iPhone with a Bluetooth connection you were able to see descriptions of nearby exhibits through a mobile app. So you don’t have to disturb everyone around you for info! Smart idea!

A 3D printer was busy all the day printing some plastic objects. Mark was enthusisticly explaining all about 3D printers. Many people seem to be excited about the possibilities of 3D printing.


It was not easy to catch Steve and David who were busy with organizing things and it was a good crowd despite the rain. David told me that this faire is all about making awareness amongst the general public about the makers and encouraging them to hack. It certainly has inspired me. I am thinking of couple of hacks for my home. I am no technician. But I am willing to try out something. It was the ripe fruit of those try outs of hackers I saw at Hack’n Show.

I am keen to learn what motivates them in doing these hacks. What kind of difficulties they face and so on. All the lovely makers I met there agreed to talk more with me. I was also fortunate enough to meet the president of HSBNE which is the hackerspace of Brisbane whom I will catch for a coffee in few days.

I realize that this post is getting too long. I don’t want you to stress your fingers with too much scrolling. So, I will leave the details of the Hack’n Show competition to the next post. Despite the rain it was a shiny day for techos in Gold Coast. And an inspiring ray of light for those who attended there, including myself!

It was a shiny day!!!

Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Build First, Plan Later"

"This is you know..."
"I am trying to..."

These are some of the responses from some makers when I asked them "what are you working on mate?". I was puzzled at first. They develop stuff - but they don't know what they are doing??? Then David filled me in when I visited Gold Coast Techspace once.
"We build first, plan later"
That is what they do in makerspaces. They scavenge for gadgets - some they get as donations, some they seek out. One of the guys brought in a box full of computer casing fans. David asked:

"Can we control the speed of them?"
The other guy replied
"Yes you will have to alter the voltage"

I would never have thought about changing the speed of a fan. Breaking stuff creates new affordances that were hidden before. New affordances leads to new designs.

Looking out for things inspires creativity. You begin to think of appropriating them to your purpose. But, you don't have a manual to do so. You need to challenge your own mind. Makers make a mess of objects around them. And they find a way out of the mess. They become naturally creative. Why as humans we are distancing from creativity? We are not messy enough! We use calendars, notepads and planners to plan stuff. In fact we plan too much. In a planned world we don't need to find new paths. Path is written. We just need to follow the script. Makers differ from this. They standout.

How do they improve creativity? They make errors. They are not afraid of doing things wrong. This is not something unfamiliar.
    "Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep"
    - Scott Adams
It's just that we don't use them in our lives, let alone design. We are so used to manuals and how-to videos. Makers like to take risks. They allow themselves to be challenged. Results are awesome - techs that are useful yet aesthetic. Why aesthetic? Because they let some of their mistakes be. That is in fact the whole idea of a hack. Useful and unique to the context.

Makers make errors, they make a mess. So, how do they come out of it? They don't waste time planning. They start 'making'. They accept the challenges and come out on the winning side. They build first which leads to errors. They solve errors using creative thinking - plan. They continue to do this. They harvest ripe fruits in the end. Intrinsic satisfactions of building something valuable to serve you and others. Extrinsic satisfaction of possibly reaching out new markets. 
“When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Some of their 'fruits' will be showcased on 16th August in a Science and Tech fair. I will volunteer there! Makers inspire me. And will continue to do so. Can we adopt their practices not only in design, but also in everyday life?
"There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting"
-Lord Buddha

Monday, July 21, 2014

Meeting Makers

In the quest for acquainting with makers and makerspaces I was able to attend another couple of meetings. One of them was centered at a makerspace in a location little far from Brisbane (I won't mind, I like traveling). The other was a casual meet up at Brisbane CBD for people who are interested in accessible designs.


The makerspace in focus here is a community with around 15 members who develop mini-projects mostly as hobbies. This makerspace is located in Gold Coast. Travel time nearly 1.5 hours. I hopped onto a train after work and began reading couple of papers on makerspaces. After a little hassle I was able to find the place. I was surprised to see the room which was small, unlike the other makerspaces I have been. As meeting host - Mike welcomed me to the discussion he noted:

"Little more space will be much helpful here!" 

However, the room was filled with all sorts of 'techie' gadgets like 3D printers, laser cutters, Arduino kits, which have been mostly donated by people and scavenged from discarded items.  There was another person who was a high school teacher at the meeting. Mike walked us through some of the projects and prototypes.

I felt that each member in the community was specialized in a certain area such as robotics, Arduinos, toys and so forth (something I read in one of the papers - makerspaces and makers are often defined by the stuff they develop). Most of the members are experts in "techi-stuff". They like to get on with the development without worrying too much about a proper design. They add or remove features as they go on - this is also called 'opportunistic design' (something I have read on the way). They change the design on the go! Mike told me that although the members are techos, they lack knowledge in other aspects of development. As an example even a person is good with Arduinos, he is not much capable of printing a 3D design on his own. This makes the design efforts little difficult.

"Our members develop stuff in pet steps"

I was excited to know there are couple of current projects on people with disabilities. A member who suffers from quadriplegia have attempted to build a prosthetic hand for himself using resources in the makerspace. However, according to mike he was not much successful in developing anything usable because of the lack of knowledge and difficulty to operate a 3D printer. The other project was aimed at developing accessible wheelchair, but I could not gain further information on that.

This particular makerspace maintains connections with couple of other makerspaces around the Brisbane region. But, I could not find any information regarding any long term and large scale collaborations amongst these communities. I felt such collaborations can benefit all the parties especially in sharing of knowledge and resources. Mike also mentioned that children in particular are interested in developing gadgets with the makerspace. He noted they are not only enthusiastic to develop 'new stuff' but also are quite knowledgeable on technical aspects. As I left the place to catch the train back to the city, I remembered one important thing Mike said:

"Developing something useful for you on your own can mean the world to you!"


The casual meeting group was held on a misty morning of Brisbane winter. A software developer interested in accessibility (Nick) and two ladies who are working in a university to help students with disabilities (Kate and Alice) were the others in the group. The key point raised in the discussion was the need of individualized technologies for people with disabilities. Even if two people have the same disability, they may have very different requirements in terms of both hardware and software. Both Kate and Alice mentioned that lack of awareness amongst the people about technology advancements excludes them from benefits. Kate noted that while technology making things easier for many, it also creates barriers for people with disabilities. As an example while more graphical items in a web interface is good for a typical user, a person with visual impairments will be disadvantaged.

"Technology ease stuff, but at the same time creates barriers for people with disabilities"

Kate said that often students she work with like to try out new technologies even if they are prototypes. They have some prototype level applications running in their labs at the university as well. But, surprisingly involvement of other students in developing these prototypes is low according to both Kate and Alice. Although there are number of students who require customized technologies, it is often difficult to find help to realize those requirements. I feel this is where makerspaces can be of a huge help. With my previous visits I feel that there is an intrinsic motivation to develop gadgets. The problem is that these gadgets are mostly outcomes of their hobbies. There, are not many examples of makers reaching beyond the boundaries of their makerspace to collaborate with external parties to help people in need. I think as makers are not driven by financial return, there is a huge potential of such collaborations. The challenge is to finding ways in motivating them to take part in such collaborations.

Nick was particularly interested about incorporating accessibility in software design. It seems that although there are number of design guidelines out there, designers are often not aware and consider them negligible. Nick said that accessible interfaces ensure not only the basic right of access to information, but also provides opportunities for improved financial gain.

All of the group members were interested in my undergraduate project where a prototype social networking desktop application was developed for people with visual impairments.

Kate and Alice said that most of the projects are dissolved after initial prototypes because of reasons such as financial issues, time concerns, etc.

"Brilliant ideas die right after they are born!"


I am hoping to keep in touch with this makerspace and discussion group as I see there is a potential where I can contribute for something useful. The next step in my research is to compile a comprehensive literature review of maker communities and work closely with the identified makerspaces in search for potential collaborations.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

The Seacrh for Maker Spaces

There has been a little twist in the path of my research! The focus now has changed into investigating maker communities and exploring the potential to develop technologies for people with disabilities. So let the hunting begin for maker spaces! I have been turning the spotlight in to the space of maker communities especially around Brisbane. I noticed that these communities go by different identifications such as maker space, hacker space, maker group, maker community, etc. But, more or less they do the same stuff. They get together regularly and develop stuff! What are these stuff? ANYTHING they are curious about!!!

"Hackerspaces are community-operated physical places, where people can meet and work on their projects"

I found a hacker space which happens to be based in the Brisbane. They meet regularly at the State Library on every Thursday evening. So, I thought why not have a sneak peak. I hopped into my (renovated) bicycle and rode there. When I entered the room what I witnessed was an unorganized lab space filled with computers, 3D printers, electronic kits, etc. I was not surprised by this scene as I knew this is the nature of maker spaces from the experience.

I was able to have little chit chats with some of the people around - there were around 10 people. The person who was in charge of the meeting described me what is going on. This is a community initiated about 3 years ago. They allow people to turn up as they wish and work on various projects. There were mainly 2 projects going on. One was a development of a 3D printer. It sounded very unrealistic to me. How a person with limited facilities could possibly develop a 3D printer? But, they explained the basic mechanism of a 3D printer and said it is not that difficult to replicate it with some effort. Another team was working on a computer aided multi-purpose cutter. Their idea was to design a cutter that can be operated by a software application using a laptop. It looked like some other projects are also running along. But, I thought may be the people who work on them were off on the day.

I asked one of the people about how to work in there. His response sounded like:
"Hey mate, this is a very unorganized bunch of people. You can have look at any of the projects and give a hand. There are no restrictions around here!!!" 
However, it was not that easy for me to blend into the environment. Most of them were so involved on the projects. I did not feel like disturbing them. it certainly looked like they are having much fun from what they do!

While I was hovering around, one of the guys asked me to sign on using a sheet. When I was trying to put my signature down, I was surprised to notice that there is a section for "Under 18" people. My curiosity was answered in couple of minutes. Bunch of school kids hopped in to the lab. They began plugging in Arduinos to the computers and programming them. Technology has advanced. When I was a kid the labs I knew only had things like chemicals and clay! These kids looked so comfortable with the environment and the electronics. They were accompanied by couple of teachers from their school. When I had a chat with one of them, they told me that these kids are very enthusiastic in developing gadgets. They have arrived there from quite far from Brisbane. So yes, that made sense!

Before I left the place I told about my PhD and the prototypes we built. They were interested to have a look. So maybe I can visit them again next Thursday. I was thinkking that this kind of practices are not so popular in developing countries like my home country - Sri Lanka. What if we can promote these practices there? There will be huge advantages in terms of financial benefits, knowledge sharing and technological advancements. With these thoughts I came out of the lab only to find out that front light of my bike gone dead. I had to leave the bike there as it was too risky to ride in night. On the way home I thought maybe I could piece together a light by myself, it will be FUN!!!

Monday, March 3, 2014

Demo of Cushions at TADQ

I have decided to visit TADQ with the latest prototype. I have demonstrated the ability to move objects using an object drawn in a MS Power Pont slide. The development officer, occupational therapist (OT) and two technicians were there during the demo.
They appreciated the flexibility with the cushions compared to the earlier prototypes which used lids. The OT stated that very low or no pressure switches are ideal for people disabilities with spastic limb movements. All of them said that placing cushions alongside the head of a person will be ideal as most of the people with motor disabilities still have voluntary movements of the head unlike limbs. Use of capacitive sensors can eliminate the issue of spreading of saliva or sweat as they work based on the proximity. A protective cover can be used to place the cushions inside. OT stated that this is a significant advantage as opposed in using Makey-Makey.

They mentioned that it would be great if the number of wires can be reduced further by having wireless connections between cushions and the controller. To do so it will be necessary to install some electronic gadgets inside the cushions which can result in a higher cost and an extensive design effort. While this kind of an effort is difficult, it will be feasible to hide the wires where they would not disturb the user.

We have discussed the possibility of having a switch that will turn on with a single touch and remains turned on until the next touch. This type of a switch will be useful to control objects in a game as people with weak hand movements may find it difficult to apply pressure on a button for a longer period.

They were extremely happy with this new prototype and said they will help me to trial this with some of their clients. It will be easier to reach people with disabilities with the collaboration of TADQ as they possess a very strong client base. Another successful visit! This time I decided to have a little nap on my way back to city in the train...

New Prototype - Cushions and Capacitive Sensors

It was time to move on from the first prototype that used metal lids and a hardboard. In this prototype cushions stitched with conductive fabric were used as the buttons. However, any conductive material can be used here instead of the fabric as the fabric can be costly. Instead of using Makey-Makey as in the previous prototype, Adafruit’s Bluefruit EZ-Key controller has been used to map inputs to keys in a typical computer keyboard.
Adafruit’s Bluefruit EZ-Key controller
Connectivity from EZ-Key to the computer is wireless (Bluetooth) unlike Makey-Makey which allows more flexibility. Two capacitive sensor modules have been deployed to receive inputs from cushions which then were transferred to EZ-Key. It is possible to emulate twelve (12) keys in the keyboard using this setup. My associate supervisor and one of the grad students helped to fix capacitive sensor modules, EZ-KEY and the batteries which power them in to a small plastic box.

Knbos to recieve capacitive inputs

Inside the plastic box
Wires with a pin on one end and a crocodile clip on the other were used to connect cushions with the capacitive sensor modules using knobs on top of the plastic box (see Figure 4). Unlike Makey-Makey, there is no requirement for the person to be grounded as a capacitive sensor can detect the proximity of a moving object and trigger a switch once it reaches a given range within the sensor. A simple GUI based software application is also available to customize key mappings of EZ-Key, if required.

Cushions with conductive fabric connected to the capacitive sensors

 Instructional video for the prototyope
Next step is to take this set-up to the people who I had discussions with and recieve their feedback. Fingers crossed for positive and constructive feedback...