Sharing Senses with onemile

Sharing Senses with onemile

How cool would it be to see through someone else’s eyes, or to sense how fast they’re breathing or how loud their location might be? We can’t really do that yet, but that doesn’t stop people from experimenting with technology to at least get a taste of that goal.

onemile is a Master’s project by Maz Ghaderi, Hudson Pridham, and Yuxi Wang of Ontario’s OCAD University. It’s a wearable electronics project consisting of sensors that record the environment around a hoodie, creating data that is uploaded wirelessly to a central node, which in turn transmits another hoodie’s data to the first one, allowing–in a limited fashion–to share each other’s experiences. It’s a fascinating look at the ways in which wearable electronics can network us together.

The hood consists of a hoodie equipped with an Arduino, a microphone to record sound levels, an accelerometer to detect steps taken, and a photo sensor to measure ambient light. The data is collected randomly while the hood is down and uploaded to the base station when it comes into range, using XBee wireless modules to transmit the readings.

Hood On

Once the data is uploaded, the onemile hoodie downloads another hoodie’s data and triggers a solenoid to correspond to the steps the other person took; it shines LEDs to correspond to the light levels of the other user; and it blows a fan to represent the breaths the other person took. The replay is activated by raising up the hood, simultaneously shutting out the current “input” (the wearer’s real senses) and activating the recorded ones.

A reader’s first response to the project might be to question how meaningful and realistic the experience played back would be. Technological limitations aside, would feeling a fan blowing on you in response to someone else breathing in another place and time be meaningful? The project reminds me of people who implant magnets in their fingernails to “detect” magnetic fields as if they were perceivable by touch. When creating new methods of experiencing the world, who knows what might happen?

The onemile team explained:

What we are providing is a means of experiencing another in a unique, unfamiliar method. New experiences have the power to open our eyes to other possibilities; perhaps onemile can provide such opportunities.

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A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Hudson to learn more about the project:

JB: Tell me about the program you’re enrolled in at OCAD U.

HP: I’m currently enrolled in OCADU’s Digital Futures program pursuing my masters of design. Digital Futures is an interdisciplinary program focusing on both research and practiced based work; bringing these together is an especially strong focus on collaboration, hence the three person team for onemile. There are just about 20 of us in the masters program coming from very diverse backgrounds. I have a background in architecture while others have experience in industrial design, electrical engineering, and animation.

I’m just about finished my first year of the two year program. First year involved a lot of ground work: becoming familiar with programming, electronics, as well as design and research methodologies. Second year focuses on thesis work and industry partnerships.

JB: I’ve seen a number of projects that involve the sharing of sensory feeds. What about these projects seems to appeal so much?

HP: I think sharing is an intrinsic property of life. Whether from the point of view of an animal or a human we all do it to some degree. It has a way of fortifying us; it puts a smile on your face to share something with another person. The sharing of sensory data is an extension of this. We live our lives building up so many experiences and unique narratives, it’s only natural to want to let other people experience them, to share them.

JB: What would you see as being a practical use for this method of sharing experiences?

HP: When Maz, Yuxi, and I began conceptualizing onemile we focused a lot on the narrative around its use. One prevalent theme was that of emotional support. I’ve heard of architectural installations that sense the mood of a city and display it outwardly. Although visually interesting and engaging, I would propose that such work isn’t very emotionally engaging. I think onemile or projects like it can allow for individuals to tune into their friend’s moods or experiences like cycling between TV or radio stations. Such opportunities may become increasingly important if our technology (cellphones, computers, cars) continue to place physical and emotional barriers between us. I can’t imagine how such a system would actually look but there is a growing need for it.

JB: You mentioned in the blog post that you were forced to use a full-sized Arduino and an extra battery pack, rather than a Lilypad. What happened?

Circut Diagram_MarkupHP: There were a few factors that contributed to the use of the Uno over the Lilypad. I’m rather new to programming and working with the Arduino environment, so when I set out to build onemile within the limited time frame I was afforded I knew I would be doing a lot of learning in a short period. As a result I had to prioritize or scale back areas of development.

One such area was the total memory allotted to the experience recording function of onemile. Ideally I would have used an external memory device hooked to the Arduino such as an SD-card but as I didn’t have time to implement this I had to save all the experience data to the Arduino’s built in memory. That’s a very small space on the Uno (32KB) and even smaller on the Lilypad(16KB). The operations sketch for onemile was 13KB alone. The Lilypad just wouldn’t work without an external data store.

Another area of prioritizing was the application of a low-pass filter to regulate and smooth fluctuations in voltage caused by onemile’s fan cycling on and off to simulate breathing. Without a low-pass filter the data captured from my sensory input devices, particularly the accelerometer to measure steps taken, was unreliable. To save time I simply put the fan on its own dedicated power supply. It made for a heavier hood but cleaner data.

JB: I saw from the site that you split up roles with your partners. How did that work out?

HP: The experience of working in a team and splitting up roles went surprisingly well. I’m sure you’re aware that’s not always the case with this kind of work. What helped was that each member of the team had a unique area of interest which contributed valuable insights and skills. Yuxi spearheaded the whole wearable initiative, Maz had the data visualization, and I took charge of the hardware construction and code. We consulted with each other on overlapping elements but there was a lot of trust that we each understood the vision and goals of the project and would therefor make the right development decisions.

JB: What other means — temp, actual voice, compass direction, etc., did you consider?

Data VizHP: We had intended to use a pulse sensor but didn’t see any practical way of implementing it in the hood. Also, returning to the theme of emotional support, we had wanted to use a pressure sensor as a means for recording hugs. We cut that from the hood though because the means of replaying a recorded hug that we identified, using air pumps, were clunky and loud.

JB: How do you intend to build on this project?

HP: I think that the onemile team would like to explore other wearable form factors. The hood was very appropriate for the winter but summer requires other considerations. Could it become an undershirt or an armband? This is an interesting question beyond simply the form; there are implications in creating a device that is discrete versus something as obvious as hood.

To learn more about the project visit the project page. Leave a comment with your thoughts!

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My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal

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