Enhancing human experience using smart materials

The creation of new, highly engineered and responsive smart materials increases the potential for engagement with our surroundings. Massimo Micocci & Marco Ajovalasit discuss how to maximise that potential.

The world of design continuously delivers new technological innovations. Whether we are charmed by it or indifferent, technology has become deeply embedded in our ordinary everyday experiences. This evolution has produced a very interesting mix of available product experiences that are improving the way our environment helps and entertains us.

Disciplines such as ambient intelligence, the Internet of Things and pervasive and ubiquitous computing foresee that the environments of the future should be ‘intelligent’ and products should be connected together through computing capabilities so as to be sensitive to us. Researchers and designers are then motivated to augment everyday objects and environments with intelligent capabilities to provide a significant support to our daily life.

Following this trend, changes in product design are currently enabling products to be aware of the user, using mainly sensors to detect information from the body. These intelligent products are uncovering new ways to interact with users so as to engage, entertain and inform them, coding new languages of communication and interaction. This novel approach to consider consumer products combined with endless growing technological possibilities, creates a world saturated with stimuli from which users struggle to untangle themselves. Tapping the screen of a device to make a phone call, pinching a picture to zoom in and grabbing the handle of a treadmill to check our heartrate are gestures and actions we had never used a few years ago. The essential discovery of these languages of interaction could be often frustrating and demanding. Even though we all want to take advantage of the great benefits new devices disclose to us, we don’t always feel comfortable with such non user-friendly language. A process of simplification is then necessary to understand how technology can be supportive rather than oppressive in our day to day lives.

Breakthroughs in interaction design are important to develop products whose functions are easy to learn, easy to use, easy to understand and effectively enhance the way people work, communicate and interact. A human-centred approach requires needs, motivations and user expectations to be converted to understandable product features. The aim is then to allow the user to focus on the task, not on the technology for specifying the task. The way people and machines exchange information and actions should be enriched by simple and understandable gestures and effective actions embodied in the product itself.
Materials are now a major focus in the identification of different languages of communication to provide user information in a more intuitive and natural way. Highly engineered materials that respond intelligently to their environment, called smart materials (SM), can be used to enhance the way we interact with products. ‘Smart materials’ is a relatively new term for materials that have changeable properties and are able to reversibly change their shape or colour in response to physical and/or chemical influences, such as light, temperature or the application of an electric field.

Their ability to react is not intrinsic in the material, but is an engineered property, whose features and characteristics must be designed beforehand. Each individual type of smart material has specific properties which can be altered, such as shape, volume, colour and conductivity. Those properties can give a different dynamic pattern to our products or can be specifically designed to be blended completely into the surroundings. Hence, even though SMs are well known as sensors and actuators in different sectors such as transportation, food packaging, construction, healthcare and biomedical engineering, their potential could be expanded to design the interfaces of the future. Bringing those materials from a purely functional to an interactive level could expand design freedom and unlock new modes of communication between product and user. The interfaces those materials shape are then used to make changes in physical and material properties, creating channels for new input/output modalities.

Consider a specific target group of users - elderly people, who are potential beneficiaries of this study. This growing group of people could use technological devices to improve their life but they are often wary of using those devices. Smart materials can deal with this concern by taking advantage of all the sensorial properties the user can experience.

People with a minimal use of their senses could benefit from a product with a dynamic and responsive interface where there is no need for a keyboard, for example a piezoelectric film could convert the touch of the fingers to a changeable light response to detect the grip of a hand in rehabilitation tools; a glowing fabric could be used to design smart clothes that communicate information, through dynamic light effects, about the environment or the walking performance of the user; or thermochromic polymers could transform temperatures of objects into colourful effects to avoid burning with household appliances. The new interfaces can provide a considerable enhancement of the way we use products and how we understand their features and functions in order to limit errors.

As a part of the Light.Touch.Matters (LTM) Project, the ongoing research at Brunel University aims to study how designers can embed the physical properties of SMs in the everyday environment to support human activities and provide an efficient product experience. Since SMs have changeable and design-on-demand properties, the objective is to set a rigorous model that enhances the potential of the engineered material as dynamic interfaces. An initial exploratory study was performed to find out how SMs can be applied in consumer products and what usability benefits they can achieve. This process required an accurate investigation of hundreds of relevant existing cases of interactive devices and academic design samples. The results highlight issues associated with the adoption of interactive properties of SMs into product design and the resulting interaction pattern we should build with them:
Design for multi-sensory engagement. Electronic devices have essentially the same shape and can be activated by performing different finger gestures on a square screen. The human body contains an undefined set of possibilities that SMs can exploit for different purposes. Why should the inputting be performed exclusively with hands and fingers? Information from devices can be delivered in different modalities (change of shape, change of colour, change of pattern, dynamic light effects, etc.), taking advantage of hearing, sight and touch of the user. The time of reaction of the user speeds up and the product creates an immediate and clear response.
Consider every surrounding surface a potential interface. Every object around us could be embedded with different dynamic properties. Matter is everywhere and that matter could be designed to be responsive, adaptable and able to convey different qualities of information. Responsive devices are less invasive and are more likely to be socially accepted.
Consider interaction as behavioural encouragement. Simplification of the product-user interaction will reduce the frustration commonly felt by elderly people while interacting with electronic devices. The user will go straight to the task, will save time and will enjoy the interaction.
This vision is the first step towards a big picture that aims to create consumer products that can be adapted to human needs and expectations. Through this approach the interactive parameters elicited by the materials work as a connection point between the product features and the user expectations from a consumer product. The possibilities we have to shape and engineer materials based on our requirements is a great opportunity designers should consider. But there is a strong need to organise the potential of SMs in a method that designers can easily adopt.

To enrich products with material properties that can sense, reason and act, could be a powerful approach to providing greater user friendliness of the product, more efficient customer support and user empowerment that can be adapted for different users in a range of contexts.

By Massimo Micocci & Marco Ajovalasit

Massimo Micocci is a PhD student at Brunel University, London within the Human-Centred Design Institute.
Marco Ajovalasit is a Senior Lecturer in Human Factors and Programme Director of the BA Industrial Design and Technology at Brunel University London.

This article was first published in issue 531 of The Ergonomist, September 2014