Imagine a man with his head bended down onto a smart phone screen, checking Facebook activities since ten minutes ago. And there he goes, banging his head into a street light. The scene begs the question: Are smart phones really the best user interfaces we can have?
There is a whole research field trying to answer this question. Our group is part of it. The field has many names (creative people like to come up with new names). It is called pervasive computing, ubiquitous computing, tangible user interfaces, etc. We use the last one, tangible user interfaces (TUIs) for our smart jacket. Simply because it is so tangible.
Our smart jacket is a case study in creating more natural ways of interacting with computers and the internet. A jacket is something we wear in the morning without even thinking about it. So it is potentially a user-friendly “device” that can be used for more than just wearing.
We started working on our smart jacket idea around three years ago when I was assigned group 10 from NTNU’s project course IT2901. A wonderful group of students (thanks to prof. Monica Divitini, the teacher) with a lot of creativity. The idea was to create some form of “connected piece of cloths”. Facebook was the obvious choice when it came to connecting. We had different choices regarding the garment. We started with the idea of a t-shirt displaying the number of your Facebook friends etc. At the same time we got involved in the EU project SOCIETIES (Thanks to Kevin Doolin for inviting us!). In SOCIETIES we were involved in a scenario around crisis management. So, we decided to go for a fireman’s jacket.
We are supporters of open source software. We adopted Arduino. Arduino is not software, but it is open source. It is an open source hardware prototyping platform. The internal “smartness” of the jacket is implemented using Arduino.
So, what does the jacket do? The jacket’s collar has a vibration device and a speaker. The jackt’s arm has an LCD screen. When a message is sent to the user on Facebook, the jacket plays a tune, vibrates the wearer’s neck, and shows the message on its screen.
The jacket was born as the “Facebook jacket”. We got a lot of publicity around it  (Thanks to SINTEF’s Åse Dragland for the first article). We then developed the jacket further in SOCIETIES. We connected the jacket to SOCIETIES social computing platform, developed the UbiShare social middleware , and evaluated the jacket’s usefulness with rescue workers in Norway and elsewhere. In the progress we also made a network of colleagues, cooperated with some other projects, organized a workshop, published some scientific papers, and demonstrated the jacket in the ICT Event in Vilnius last year.
SOCIETIES is ending this month, when the jacket will also do its last duty. It will be demonstrated during SOCIETIES’ final review meeting in Edinburgh. In these three years we have all become fond of the jacket, spent hundreds of hours of work on its software, fixed its bugs, carried it in our bags from city to city and country to country, got mad at it when it didn’t work, and loved it after every successful demonstration. It is with a touch of nostalgia that we arrive at the end of the road. Maybe this is what tangible means after all.
What have we learned?
The future of computing is tangible. The jacket is a case study in “extreme user-friendliness”. The concept can be applied in many other domains, especially for including people with special needs. This is an already well-known application area. The jacket itself is probably not a novelty anymore (its functionality is supported by many of today’s commercially available smart watches). What the jacket experiment has thought us is to be aware of a number of challenges for our next experiment in the TUI area:
- TUIs are a mixture of software and hardware. There are always technical challenges when software meets hardware. It takes time to make a TUI work in the first place.
- TUI prototypes are not generic technologies. They can do only one or few things. They cannot be reused with ease.
- TUIs need to be prototyped. Prototyping is not only for software. Arduino provides a good platform for physical prototyping. It needs to be combined with design-related insights. Maybe we will invest in a 3D printer.
- Evaluating the usability of a TUI is not easy and there are no well-established methods for this. Most usability testing methods focus on on-screen graphical user interfaces (GUIs).
- It is extremely fun to make TUIs. TUIs are easy to understand and use by non-technical people. You get feedback from anyone who lays a hand on them.
The SINTEF team working with various aspects of the jacket included Jacqueline Floch, Thomas Vilarinho, Bjørn Magnus Mathisen, and myself. We thank group 10 of 2012 class of subject IT2901 at NTNU, and Simone Mora and Monica Divitini for cooperation.
 Your jacket can now talk to Facebook! Blog post from UbiCollab.org.
 UbiShare, a social computing middleware developed as part of UbiCollab.org.