Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Bonobo, Error Messages & Food Jammers

Weekly Update 2017-35: Riding a smooth wave of sound by Bonobo, crafting the perfect copy for error messages, and DIY food culture on Food Network's old show Food Jammers.

Music: Bonobo
Aka Simon Green, Bonobo is a musician/producer/DJ from England and based in Los Angeles. It's rare that I write about downtempo music because I usually like high-energy tunes, but I really do prefer softer beats when I'm focusing on high-brainpower work. Writing especially requires music without lyrics, that I can float on as I organize my thoughts. This definitely hits the mark.

Migration, which came out earlier this year, features some really nice tracks like Bambro Koyo Ganda and Ontario.

Bonobo graces the stage of Danforth Music Hall for the second and final show tonight.

Finally, I have begun organizing and publishing my Arduino work. I do love to write and absorb my thoughts that way, so I'm sure new ideas will sprout from the formal journalling of my informal exploration of Arduino. 

I also had a lovely chat with Stefanie Fiore and Rondie Li of Crrumb, a digital creative agency in Toronto that really injects heart and soul into what they do. We talked about their journey (separately as well as becoming an awesome team), the importance of breakfast, and how the best projects rely on the collaboration between designer and client.

This week, I'll be preparing for camping and enjoying the last drops of summer. I'd like to get out another Arduino post if possible, or at least get all the assets together to finish it after Labour Day when I come back from camping.

Random Thought: Empathy in UI Elements
In life, sometimes things go wrong. When they do, wouldn't it be nice to see a succinct message that explains what went wrong, and how to fix it? Life isn't always as cut-and-dry as that, but at least form inputs can be. Take this error alert for example:

It works in a few simple ways:

  • it blocks your ability to move forward without expressly dismissing it (there's important info you need to read!)
  • the use of colour (red, but not too harsh) and icon (simple X meaning you're blocked) clearly note that something is wrong
  • the message copy “Change a few things up and try submitting again” provides the user with a clear understanding of how to fix the problem
But I think it could actually be improved a little:
  • the title copy “Oh snap!” is not descriptive enough, and also might seem flippant to a user who does not enjoy casual language
  • the message copy doesn't actually specifically explain what needs to be changed beyond “a few things”
  • covering the entire screen might be necessary, but more likely just placing a smaller error inline with the content that is causing the error might be better and more contextual for the user to understand
I usually use a recipe that creates as little friction as possible and helps the user complete their task quickly.
Title: this is what's happening
Message: this is what you can do
Tell the user why the error happened, so they know not to do the same thing again. Give them the tools to fix the issue, so they can get back to their regularly scheduled program. And only block their path when it is 100% necessary. Otherwise you might have an angry user on your hands, and no one wants that.

Inspiration: Food Jammers
Back in the days when I would consume cable television, I was really into HGTV and Food Network. When we didn't really have YouTube or Pinterest to bask in the deliciousness of DIY, hacking, recipes and tutorials, these television stations were the place to see all the cool things going on. At least the food and home-reno related things.

I specifically remember glueing my eyes to the screen for many episodes of a show called Food Jammers, which featured three young guys inventing fun gadgets from scrap metal and wood and old washing machine motors, all in the name of making/cooking/preserving food in fun ways.

Micah, Chris and Nobu are the Food Jammers.

From dehydrating slices of a whole turkey to rehydrate and reassemble on a camping trip to making an entire meal complete with an oven on a raft in Lake Ontario, these guys will honestly try anything. I love the way they think of ideas without any reservation for feasibility or labour, everything is just for the sake of seeing if it will work.

A quick group sketch to design a dehydrator that can fit a whole turkey in it.

Making a meal in a working oven on a raft in Lake Ontario.

Special thanks to a YouTuber with the username Evelynne for posting the first two seasons to share with everyone! This show might seem a little dated in film quality but the content is just as relevant now as it was then. DIY and maker culture are at a high in North America, and I hope they continue to grow in popularity.

Check out the full pilot episode below (20 mins):

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Arduino Tinkering vol.1

Have you ever felt that a little everyday thing you do could be improved? I am always trying to make my life more efficient like rearranging furniture, finding new places for kitchen utensils, and automating digital processes so I don’t have to do them.

Some processes in the name of efficiency require hardware to do the job properly. Hardware will mean physical machines that can sense the world around them, interpret information, and communicate with other devices to carry out tasks. You might think it would take a mechanical engineering degree and a lot of intelligence to create such a machine, and probably isn’t worth anyone’s time to focus on solving such small problems.

That’s where Arduino comes in. For those who don’t know, Arduino is an open source computer hardware and software company (and blossoming user community) that designs and manufactures simple, single-board microprocessors (computers) for building digital devices and interactive objects that can sense and control objects in the physical world.

This is an Arduino board - the "Uno" model.

In other words, Arduino provides kits that are extremely simple to use to build out the hardware needed for these processes. Arduino provides the ability to manufacture at a small, precise and personalized level, and the ability for the user to truly DIY and take ownership of the product and therein their own life. Which is what I love about maker culture. And so, I reveal to you, dear reader, the beginning of a series about my exploration into the world of Arduino.

When I was first introduced to the world of Arduino in my later high school years, I was struck with the fact that it was so simple, you could do it yourself with very little research or previous knowledge. The sheer accessibility of it was wonderfully mind boggling. Along with accessibility to create, there was lots of accessibility to connect with other makers in the world. If I ever needed to look online for resources, I was immediately enveloped in the magnitude of the online Arduino community. I especially liked reading other opinion pieces like this one.

Along with that, there were many other good reasons, like:
  • Building something with my hands
  • Gaining immediate feedback from the machine - a very trial-and-error, experimental environment
  • Making something that I thought was difficult but at its base, can all be explained through code and connections
  • using physics and math (gotta keep the logical side sharp as much as the creative side)
  • easy to tinker with, lots of inspiration
  • it's COOL
And so, I hereby begin my journey of learning to use Arduino for my evil bidding. Before I can really commit any lasting mischief, I need to learn the basics! As I mentioned above, Arduino is open-source and has a really great online community of people and resources to get you started. I decided to begin with the Arduino Tutorials, which can be found right on their website and are baked into the download of the Arduino software.

Experiment 1) Blink
The first project I completed was a simple bit of code to get an LED to blink on and off every second. Not much going on here, but it was really cool to get the parts all working together for the first time. And just imagine what I can do if this could take me only a few minutes to work out!

  • the long leg of the LED is the positive leg, called the anode
  • the short leg of the LED is the negative leg, called the cathode
  • It matters which way you plug the LED into the system, which I recall from my high physics class
  • Using a “delay” in the code between turning the LED on and off is a useful, simple little trick that could be applied to future projects: allowing various actions to take place, but spaced out over time instead of all at once
Experiment 2) Button
From Blink, I graduated to Button. This project is much the same as Blink, except that a button controls the LED turning off and on like a light switch. This was my first foray using input and output, and what a magical time it was! Having the ability to control an LED with the touch of my finger was really cool.

  • Buttons are really powerful things - you can use them to control lots of things far beyond LEDs, and make changes to the outcome of the project
  • Furthermore, it feels more like having a two-way conversation with a robot friend! You tell it something (by pressing the button) and it responds to you. That’s pretty cool.

The ideas are already brimming in my head from what I’ve learned and how much I still have to learn! Stay tuned for the next instalment, when I explore the button’s more complicated (and therein cooler) cousin, the potentiometer.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Hermitude, Reflexes & The Solar Eclipse

Weekly Update 2017-34: Australian electronic/hip hop duo Hermitude, how to improve your reflexes in every part of life, and looking at the solar eclipse (indirectly, of course).

Music: Hermitude
Another electronic/hip hop act out of Australia, Hermitude is Luke Dubber (a.k.a. Luke Dubs) and Angus Stuart (a.k.a. El Gusto). The two have been making upbeat and bright electronic music together in various formations 1994, finally landing a particularly interesting musical style with Hermitude in 2000. They've since been promoted to stardom in part to partnering with Flume (which is how I found them originally).

Check out Ukiyo and Flume's remix of HyperParadise.

I've got my first introductory Arduino post mostly complete, it just needs a few finishing touches before I'll be ready to post it. I've also been practicing like crazy for my Chai Mitzvah ceremony in October, I have a lot to memorize before then! I must admit it's really fun to sing, especially in a language I only sort of understand. It makes me focus more on the sounds and how they mix together.

I also caught some fish on my fishing trip last weekend!

This week I'll be publishing my first Arduino post in the series, and working more on FriendCanoe in preparation for the next meeting.

Random Thought:
I've been biking around the city for another summer, and this year I find my reflexes have improved greatly over last year. Even in other parts of life, like the many clumsy moments I experience throughout my day. When I accidentally knock something over, I seem to continually catch it right away. I've been pondering this and have decided to call it improved physical reflexes.

I think there are other forms of reflexes as well, that I'd like to somehow focus on improving. Like emotional reflexes, for example. Being able to recover from hearing something upsetting, or from getting angry or sad. When something bad happens to me, I am practicing an approach of finding a bright side as quickly as I can. Even if it's something small, being about to bounce back from negativity to positivity is a skill I'd like to sharpen.

Additionally, there are mental or intellectual reflexes. This makes me think of Jeopardy, in which contestants have a very short amount of time to connect the lines of thought in their brains and make some semblance of an answer from tidbits of information they have collected over the years. This sort of reflex is important to keep sharp into old age.

As a small first step, I've started to play more word games and Sudoku, which I used to do a lot but have forgotten about for a while. Sudoku is really relaxing while also quite challenging at times, and makes my brain feel super satisfied when I complete a puzzle.

Inspiration: The Solar Eclipse
Today, from about 1:10 to 3:40pm, was a solar eclipse. The moon slid between the earth and the sun, causing a brief “nighttime” in the middle of the day. It actually did get a little dark out during the maximum around 2:30, and we felt that the difference in temperature between the sun and shade was remarkably closer than usual. Or maybe it was all the snacks we ate as we waited for the eclipse to happen.

I took this picture through my phone camera, with a special pair of eclipse-safe glasses in front of the lens. It kind of worked!

Gotta have eclipse snacks.

The eclipse is very dangerous to look at with the naked eye. Some magazines mailed out free eclipse-safe glasses (which were what we used to see the eclipse). My friends all posted their cool images of the eclipse and different ways that they created to view the eclipse. It was pretty cool to see how industrious everyone was.

AJ made a cool pinhole camera for her fiance and worked from home so they could see it on their balcony!

Edward made his own as well, and viewed the eclipse from Yonge and Rosedale on his lunch break.

An image of the eclipse on his viewer.

Loris made his own as well!

An image of the eclipse from Loris' viewer. Really clear!

An image of the eclipse from Halifax reflected on Ikea instructions (taken by Peter).

Lens flare will catch the eclipse on a camera, though apparently the eclipse has the power to melt your phone camera lens so be careful (taken by Manuel).

Sarah takes the cake, though, managing to show the eclipse through the small holes between her fingers.

I love how a natural phenomenon makes everyone so crafty and industrious. Good job, guys!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Prosthetic Reality

There’s a new hub for virtual reality in town, and it’s pretty cool. Just west of Queen and Bathurst sits a funky new spot called House of VR, featuring by-the-hour usage of their VR stations and a wide variety of games and experiences.

The walls are all modular so that the space can change to accommodate different sizes of groups, as well as open up to a big, airy space on the second floor for the current art show.

It’s called Prosthetic Reality and features 45 artists, illustrators, animators and sound designers all experimenting with the field of augmented reality.

 You may be wondering, what is the difference between AR and VR? For those who don’t know, AR or augmented reality consists of overlaying sound, image or video overtop of what you normally see in front of you. A good example of this is the forever-popular game Pokemon Go.

Pokemon appear by happenstance in the wild, which also happens to be the very sidewalk you are standing on. With the help of some sort of hardware (in this case, your phone), it seems like Pokemon are literally all around you in the real world of Earth.

VR or virtual reality will still make it seem like that Pokemon and you are standing on the same physical ground, but that physical ground is completely different from the real one you see in front of you. That’s why VR almost always requires a headset (digital goggles that enclose and cover your entire eyesight). You can’t see anything of the world around you, which is why some people (myself included) experience feelings of dizziness or nausea when using VR.

This is one of the reasons that VR is considered the “Wild West” as an industry; there are no rules or best practices for use so everyone is trying to set standards from scratch. Obviously the big players like Google are doing their part to make their research open source and accessible for small developers, but it can certainly be difficult to calibrate a fully immersive, completely fabricated world so as not to be disconcerting to users. Perhaps as we become more used to the technology, younger generations will be quicker to adopt it, much like the internet and smartphones for millennials. 

Anyway, suffice to say that AR is somewhat easier to understand and interact with for the current user (who probably doesn’t know much about the technology when they use it for the first time).

The entire second floor of the House of VR is currently covered with beautiful posters and illustrations of various kinds. Each one contains a hidden 5-10 second animation loop (complete with sound) that brings the image to life off the wall through an app on your phone called Eyejack.

The lovely Marj checking out a particularly spooky piece. The AR turns the woman's face into the lid of a giant eyeball.

You can see that the beauty of AR lies in the merging of our known, real world with an unknown fake one. The grounding in reality makes the new part more exciting to me than being dropped into a totally new place where I have no base understanding of anything. But maybe that’s my nausea talking for me. The centrepiece of the exhibit is a lovely mural of jellyfish which come to life through the augmented reality screen.

VR certainly also has its place, and will probably become the future of how we spend our leisure time and communicate with others over large geographical distances.

The exhibit also includes a VR headset with which visitors can test out Google’s Tilt Brush, a virtual reality painting program that reminds me of KidPix from way back in the day. Painting in 3D space is a lot of fun, and I can see it being used as a prototyping tool for who knows how many professions. The program does come with a built-in dressform upon which users can draw clothing. Here's a video of me doing that:

Today is the last day of the exhibition, but you can visit House of VR anytime as Queen Street is its new permanent home. They also sell an art book of all the works, which you can view with the Eyejack app on your phone. Check out House of VR’s website here.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Mounties, iDays & Meow Wolf

Weekly Update 2017-33: Mounties and the magic of supergroups, how to inject innovation into your agile design process, and Meow Wolf, an alternative Disneyland for people who like things a little weird.

Music: Mounties
Supergroups are both a blessing and a curse for music lovers. This very Canadian supergroup comprised of Limblifter's Ryan Dahle, Hawksley Workman and Steve Bays of Hot Hot Heat has only put out one album so far, way back in 2014. I had the extreme pleasure of seeing them perform the album at Riot Fest in 2014 and again at Lee's Palace, but I get the feeling that this band, like many other supergroups, will never surpass the one-album norm. It seems that they find each other in interesting ways like award shows or recording with other bands at the same studios, make one amazing album, and then lose interest in favour of the original bands from whence they came. I'm bitterly thinking of the supergroup Divine Fits as I type this.

If one album is all we ever get from Mounties, I will suffice to be happy with that because three years later, I still listen to it at least once a month. Check out Guaranteed Blonde Enough and Headphones.

This week has been an exercise in fitting a month of summer activities into a quarter of the time. I went waterfall hopping in Hamilton, got naked at the nude beach on Toronto Island, went to Osheaga in Montreal, jammed with my band on a rooftop patio in Kensington, saw a great documentary about Native Americans and the history of rock music in the 1960s, and visited the Pickering Food Truck Festival.

I also decided that I would display my Arduino research as a series of blog posts, each one about a different experiment and what I've learned from each one, as I build knowledge toward my dream project of a ping pong table sensor that tells you when the table is free to play!

That said, this week I'd like to publish my first Arduino post of the series. Many people are unfamiliar with the maker community, so I'll be outlining a bit of the history and background as a primer as well. I'm also going fishing this week FINALLY so I'm keeping the goals light for now.

Random Thought: iDay
Working as a product designer, I have found that the beginning stages of the design process are always the most important. Know your user, understand their processes, needs, problems, and experiences, and find creative solutions for those problems. This all sounds easy, but how do we access the part of our brains that contains the “aha” moments? How do we foster an environment that will allow us to find the innovative solutions?

In comes a concept called the “iDay”. Short for innovation day, an iDay is a specialized, hyper-collaborative ideation session that takes places in that beginning discovery phase of the software development life cycle.

iDays are different from brainstorming sessions in a very important way: they involve different project teams, stakeholders, users, and any other involved parties. An iDay can consist of designers, researchers, developers, members of the client team, and end-users. I have always been a big proponent of the fact that anyone can be a designer, given the right scenario. Different perspectives are key factors in understanding a problem from all sides, and so designers should have constant access to the brains of everyone involved in the problem.

So you've got all these wonderful minds together in a room. What comes next? The design team should be prepared with a series of prompts to present to the room, giving everyone 2-3 minutes to jot down any blue-sky ideas they may have regarding that problem. Then, everyone is given a chance to present their ideas. Each idea is written down on a post-it note, and after a few different prompts have been run through, the collection of post-its might look something like this:

Image courtesy of InVision

This may look like a lot of post-its, but it's actually the starting point of an affinity map – something from which the designers can extract key takeaways, draw conclusions, validate assumptions, and even re-define requirements.

Innovation can sometimes seem like a black box, but these sorts of formal processes that allow more voices to be heard will in turn foster an environment of openness and collaboration, perhaps even inspiring non-designers in a company to start thinking in new ways and uncovering new ideas.

Inspiration: Meow Wolf
Formed in 2008, a group of young residents hoping to supply Santa Fe with an alternative arts and music venue have come together to provide the public with an immersive experience for all the senses.

Over 100 artists and makers came together to become Meow Wolf.

Their biggest project and the only permanent exhibition is House of Eternal Return, a huge installation housed in what used to be a bowling alley. Lovingly referred to as “Bizarro Disneyland”, this 20,000 square-foot series of rotating art installations is an amazing tourist destination in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Ever open the fridge door and forget what you were looking for?

The project was funded in part by George R.R. Martin, and allows visitors to explore freely without any instructions or guidance. Simply interact with whatever you want, in whatever order, and see if you can solve the mystery.

From Meow Wolf's website:
House of Eternal Return is a unique art experience featuring an astonishing new form of non-linear storytelling that unfolds through exploration, discovery and 21st century interactivity.
The House is a 20,000 square foot art exhibit designed by the Meow Wolf collective. There are dozens of rooms, secret passages and interactive light and musical objects with which guests can play for hours or investigate the mystery of the Selig family, who disappeared one night after conducting a forbidden experiment inside their Victorian mansion. Who were the Seligs? Where did they go? and why is their home overrun by figures in white lab coats?
 I love the idea of a sort of Choose Your Own Adventure immersive experience. There's so much to do, it's like sensory overload!

Move through the glowing dinosaur skeleton into another dimension?

14 real, working arcade games straight out of the 80s.

DO NOT pee in this toilet. Visitors are invited to stick their heads in the bowl for a clue. The water is actually solid polymer...there's no toilet paper left anyway!

It's really wild. I hope to visit someday soon, but in the meantime I am really happy that such a place even exists. The fact that over 100 artists and makers from all walks of life could come together to create something so wonderful, unexpected and just plain weird is mind-boggling to me.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Death From Above, Design Thinking & Fiesta Gardens

Weekly Update 2017-32: Headbang and shake your butt at the same time to Death From Above, pinpointing what exactly is design thinking, and finding my happy place in a garden centre.

Music: Death From Above
Epic synth-rockers Jesse F. Keeler and Sebastien Grainger have been making music on-and-off as DFA for the past fifteen or so years (but who's counting). I got into their music during what was thought to be a permanent “off” period, but luckily for us all they decided to make more music. And since then, I have seen this band in all sorts of strange venues from Wakestock 2013 in Collingwood to a secret show in Sonic Boom in Honest Ed's (RIP) to a free show at Nathan Phillips Square as part of Panamania 2015.

If you like fast beats, craaaaaazy bass riffs, a little bit of yelling and a really good time, you'll love this band. And they're from Toronto! Check out this amazing solo by JFK at Osheaga this year. They've still got it.

And that lighting is insane.

Well, I went to Osheaga and made it back in one piece. I'd say that's a big enough accomplishment in its own right! Between the extreme amount of rain, severely long and narrow layout (the normal festival location is currently under construction) and staying in an Airbnb boarding house in a suburb, I am happy to report I made it out alive. The festival was quite fun, but I'd definitely do it differently next time. On the plus side, I ate a delicious raclette from a food truck! I wish Toronto had these.

Eating Oka raclette on a bed of mushrooms and potatoes while watching a band called Foxygen. This was a weird mix.

This week, I'd like to combine my Arduino tests into a new portfolio piece so I can show the world (and you) what I've been working on so far. From there I'll collect my thoughts and hopefully finish the final project. It's also FriendCanoe time again, so I'll be working on that for our next meeting.

Random Thought: Design Thinking
An oft-misunderstood section of design, I've been trying to describe the profession of design thinking to my friends lately with some difficulty. To me, design thinkers are the unspoken superheroes of making things happen. They can see a problem from all angles, and have the ability to bring people together from different areas or walks of life who wouldn't normally interact but together are more capable of positive change than apart.

Design thinkers solve fuzzy problems with both sides of their brain. I found an interesting chart online that illustrates the intersection between business thinking and creative thinking (mind the typos):

Image from Pinterest.

You might think of design thinking as a problem-solving methodology that allows you to create solutions by taking into account human factor, design, technology and business.

Take an example: there are so many different kinds of chairs. Depending on the space a chair may occupy and the needs it is required to meet, its functional and aesthetic design will vary greatly. One might ask; will the chair be used in a residence? In which room? Or perhaps for commercial use in a restaurant or bar? A restaurant chair is optimized for about 45 minutes of comfy sitting, after which you might get a little uncomfortable, your back or posture might need repositioning and you start to wiggle around a bit. One must also consider who will be sitting in the chair and what action or task they will perform while using it. An office chair will be different from a waiting room chair. With all these options, it takes someone who can see the problem from all sides to determine what type of chair is best for the use case.

Inspiration: Fiesta Gardens
Whenever I am feeling down, I go for a bike ride. On such a bike ride, I usually subconsciously bike by Fiesta Gardens (the garden centre of environmentally-friendly supermarket Fiesta Farms). And if I'm biking by the garden centre, I'm going into the garden centre.

They have such lovely plants, I could walk around there forever. It's outside but well-shaded, has lovely things to look at, and even plays soft classical music on speakers throughout the store.

Plants that attract cool garden friends!

These cacti are so cute, they look plush or crocheted. But trust me, they don't like to be touched.

I must admit I was a little surprised at this Barbie-themed gardening display, which I can only presume is for girls. I don't know if we need to use Barbie as a role model to get girls (or any children) interested in gardening and plants, but whatever gets them in the door, I suppose. The Nickelodeon version (presumably for boys) is a little less inspired.

Did you know about these crazy things? They can die and come back to life forever! Plus, I didn't realize the song of the same name by Iron & Wine is probably named for this plant.

It's lovely to be around plants, and the little typed notes about caring for each one are nice to read. I especially love how closeby the centre is during bonfire season because they have lots of firewood and are pretty close to Christie Pits.