Awareness of Things: Designing Systems of Data Enabled Objects

June 27, 2023

Yu-Ting Cheng defended her Phd at the department of Industrial Design on a new proposed vision called 'Awareness of Things'.

Yu-Ting Cheng

As everyday objects become increasingly integrated with sensing and connected technologies, they are transformed into ‘Data-Enabled Objects’ that can capture and deliver contextual data to stakeholders, including researchers, users, and designers. While this data can provide alternative perspectives on people’s behaviours, routines, and whereabouts, relying solely on sensing and connected technologies is insufficient for these objects to capture relevant contextual data and form meaningful collaborations. To address this issue, data-enabled objects must also be capable of defining and distinguishing changes in different contexts and interpreting the captured data with relevant contextual semantics.

To achieve this goal, this work proposes a vision called Awareness of Things (AoT). In AoT, ‘awareness’ refers to a series of information processing capabilities, including sensing and capturing data around the situation, scoping and processing context-relevant data for further interpretation, and generating an understanding of a situation at present. By adopting the concept of awareness from humans to objects, the AoT vision provides a designerly perspective into connected system design that has not yet been fully addressed by the IoT vision.

While the IoT vision has been embraced by many designers and researchers for designing future object collaboration, its implementation of connected technology alone does not provide objects with sufficient capabilities to capture meaningful data and enact autonomous collaboration. The proposed AoT vision builds on top of the Internet of Things (IoT) vision, engaging designers with additional values such as contextual data semantics, data-sharing #ow, and data privacy to design object’s awareness abilities that facilitate their collaboration with others. Driven by the AoT vision, this work explores system design with the vision, aiming to construct a framework that supports the design of a heterogeneous collection of objects through object-oriented perspectives. These objects can share data locally and collaboratively across object boundaries, gaining a contextual understanding beyond what a single object can know.

This thesis applies the Research through Design (RtD) method by creating a series of prototypes, from a single data-enabled object to a data-enabled connected system. Cheng revisits each design exploration and construct the AoT framework through an iterative reflection on the design process, addressing the main research question: How can designers create 1 a system of data-enabled objects that capture meaningful context-relevant data while respecting people’s privacy in the !eld?

This dissertation explores AoT in three separate parts

Part I, Awareness of Things Vision, consists of two chapters that investigated the current connected system designs and identify missing design qualities. The goal of this part is to introduce a new connected vision that shifts designers’ attention from connectivity to data semantics when building a connected system.

For example, Chapter 2 presents Internet of Things (IoT) Vision, which guides designers to prioritise connectivity when building a connected system of internet-enabled objects, resulting in (1) data sharing with object boundaries, (2) cloud data sharing #ow, and (3) centralised data aggregation.

Chapter 3 reflects on this IoT vision and proposes an alternative vision on top of the IoT vision called Awareness of Things (AoT) Vision, which includes three aspects:(1) data sharing across object boundaries, (2) localised data sharing flow, and (3) decentralised data aggregation. By shifting the focus from connectivity to data semantics, this AoT vision offers a more designerly perspective on the significance of contextual data semantics and local data sharing, enabling data-enabled objects to collaborate more meaningfully.

Part II, Design with Awareness of Things Vision, consists of three chapters that presented three different design explorations through building different research and design tools in supporting designers to shape an AoT system at different stage such as object observation, system implementation, and AoT design ideation. For example, Chapter 4, When People Vanish, presents the first exploration in building a research camera to capture ethnographic data for exploring potential contextual semantic meanings that emerge from existing daily object-object interaction. This research camera supports design researchers in conducting object observations to investigate how existing objects shape meaningful data-capturing interaction and collaboration.

Chapter 5, Seeing through Things, shows the second design exploration on developing a connected toolkit that enables several designers to turn a single data-enabled object into a connected system of multiple data-enabled objects. This connected toolkit supports AoT design implementation and allows researchers to reflect on multiple cases and identify the design space in building data-enabled connected systems. Chapter 6, Constellation Design, offers the third design exploration on developing a novel tool for designers to explore and speculate about collective awareness that could be constructed from systems of everyday objects. This novel tool provides designers and researchers with an alternative object-oriented perspective for shaping an AoT system.

Part III, Awareness of Things Framework, consists of two chapters that showed an iterative reflection on the overall explorations in Part I and Part II for building a framework in supporting AoT system design. Chapter 7, Awareness of Things Framework, presented the AoT framework that consists of six bottom-up elements, including coupling node, coupling link, scoping group, scoping #ow, interpreting constellation, and interpreting cognition. By applying the AoT framework to analyse two additional existing system design cases, the result shows that the framework can assist designers and researchers in communicating 2 the design of object collaboration for data sharing, and identifies new design opportunities and patterns in advancing the existing connected system to an AoT system.

Chapter 8, Reflection and Discussion, offers a reflection on the overall research journey including the vision, explorations, and the framework. Additionally, she reflects on how the hybrid roles as a product designer, HCI researcher, hands-on maker, and discussion facilitator and how they conflicted with each other during the PhD research journey. Finally, Chapter 9, Conclusion, concludes the contribution of this PhD project—with the AoT framework, this thesis support design practitioners and researchers in designing and working with an ecosystem of data-enabled objects systematically and practically.

Title of PhD thesis: Awareness of Things: Designing Systems of Data-Enabled Objects. Supervisors: Mathias Funk, Lin-Lin Cheng and Rung-Huei Liang


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