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Sketching ‘Peripheral’ Innovations

Shigeru Kobayashi (Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences [IAMAS])
Location: Fire House
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Japan is a so called developed country with many highly skilled manufacturers, but there are many restrictions especially for product liability issues. This has the tendency to restrict the creation of provocative products in main stream manufacturing such as the automobile industry. Furthermore, a sense of sectionalism among department functions (engineers, designers, marketers, etc.) can limit the range of people’s thinking to parts instead of the whole, missing the big picture and blocking chances of synergy. I ask the question “How might we unleash people’s inner passions and skills, empowering them to generate integrated ideas to facilitate creating innovation?”

To tackle the design challenge head-on, I collaborated with Yukai Enginnering, loftwork, engadget Japan, FabLab Sendai – FLAT, Fandroid East Japan and Softopia Japan. We held 5 make-a-thon events in 3 cities (Tokyo, Sendai and Ogaki) in Japan from June to October in 2013. Each event consisted of two separate one day workshop held one week (or a few weeks) apart (e.g. First workshop on a Saturday, then the second on following Sunday) accommodating the participants busy schedules. Around 20-30 participants including; software developers, hardware engineers, UI/UX designers, artists and local factory engineers, joined each event (about 120 participants in total).

While working the common design challenge; “How might we make our daily life pleasant with smartphone gadgets?”, the participants were encouraged to think of the whole (big picture) and break out of their comfort zones. Each team took advantage of Bluetooth Low Energy (BLE), which made easy work of creating companion devices, without requiring any heavy investment.

To further facilitate the development of companion devices, we utilized konashi by Yukai Engineering (an engineering farm for robots). Konashi is a physical computing toolkit to create wireless devices for smartphones & tablets. Technically it consists of a BLE wireless module and software libraries for Objective-C and JavaScript. It isn’t promoted as a BLE evaluation kit, but as a physical computing toolkit to communicate with designers and artists, in order to expand the possibilities of wireless products and services.

At the beginning of each make-a-thon, in order to generate diversity we divided participants into teams consisting of 5 to 7 people according to skill, gender, age, and institute. Then we held idea sketching sessions to externalize and share ideas in a common format by following the same sketching rules. This method proved to be hugely productive, for instance producing over 230 original ideas from 30 participants in 2 hours. Moreover, idea sketching is not only a form of visual brainstorming, but also a practical way to understand each other in a common language.

In addition to the idea sketching sessions, we introduced the konashi software library for Objective-C or JavaScript and practical ways of utilizing basic sensors and actuators. Following this we asked participants to narrow down or generate one idea per team to be presented at the end of day one. These selected ideas would then be prototyped by the end of the second day.

A great amount of enthusiasm was generated during the first day, which continued as many teams kept working together online and offline throughout the week. On day two, all members of all teams got together to integrate components such as exterior parts, electronics circuits, smartphone applications and web services. In the end of the second day, all teams demonstrated their hardware sketches in front of all participants.

Through make-a-thon events, participants were able to realize so many ‘peripheral’ ideas, that usually struggle to survive in the typical PowerPoint planning meetings within large institutes. In many cases these events were a huge positive step in the right direction, with a few teams continuing to collaborate and further developing their hardware sketches into commercial realities.

(Since we’ll hold a few make-a-thon events by May 2014, I’ll introduce latest cases and findings.)

Photo of Shigeru Kobayashi

Shigeru Kobayashi

Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences [IAMAS]

He worked for a digital musical instrument company as a sound designer and a software engineer. Now teaching interaction design and prototyping at Institute of Advanced Media Arts and Sciences [IAMAS]. He designed Open Source Hardware such as Gainer and Arduino Fio (with SparkFun Electronics) and wrote books on physical computing and prototyping (published in Japanese, Korean and Formosan).