by Dries De Roeck on January 16, 2016

I like to hold on to a lot of physical stuff. Postcards, birthday cards, the drawings my daughters make, magazines, etc.

I take notes in a paper notebook. I love to write with a fountain pen.

One major downside of all this non-digital stuff is archiving. After a birthday in my family, I always wonder what to do with the birthday cards. Do I just throw them out, do I keep some of them, if I keep them – where do I put them? I probably won’t look at them anyway … but still …

The above has been the origin of Archivatr. Inspired by the way Nick and Alex communicate conceptual ideas – I thought I’d try something similar.

Introducing Archivatr.


The holiday season is over. Time to get rid of the christmas cards … I’m having a hard time just throwing them out.



The Archivatr service sends me pre stamped envelopes, which I can use whenever I have non-digitals artefacts I want to archive.



This envelope is mailed off, and Archivatr does the rest. I do not need to care about formats, recto-verso, glossy/matte paper, 2D or 3D creations…



Depending on the complexity of the artefacts. I receive a digitally indexed folder & files containing high quality scans. I can choose to leave these on the Archivatr servers or download them to my personal storage.

Wait, this isn’t new at all.

This probably isn’t. I could imagine that most copy centers might actually do this when requested. Also, there are quite a few related services that do something like this;

  • MOD Notebooks (buy blank notebook, use it – mail it back to them – get it digitally)
  • Evernote Scannable (I currently use this to scan all ‘artworks’ my children make at school – thanks, Brick! – but it takes time and the resolution is not always optimal)
  • Desktop scanners like Doxie or Neat (works fine for standard sizes, but greeting cards or drawings are often non-standard)
  • Picplum (not around anymore, but this was the reverse service – select digital pictures, send printed versions to your loved ones in weekly batches)

Currently, I have no idea about the viability of this service idea. Perhaps it has been done and failed, perhaps it exists but I don’t know about it. Or maybe I should go ahead and explore this further in more detail.

Why do I blog this?

I’ve been toying around with this idea for a long time now. It was time to get it out. If you have any pointers, feedback or comments – I’d love to hear them!

Bye 15, hi 16.

by Dries De Roeck on January 6, 2016

Another year, another issue of the Bye Hi post (2015, 14, 13, 12). Overall, I have gone through some major changes – mostly related to the way I now think of my work and how I approach it. Perhaps for the first time in my professional career I am starting to develop some form of focus. The boat seems to hover around less and is slowly lowering more anchors.

On a non-work related level, it it mostly all about children and the marvel of seeing them grow up. As a parent I constantly question myself on how I need to change/adapt my own attitude towards life. In 2015 we took care of two foster children. One of them stayed for 5 months, the other is still staying with us now. This is intense, and sometimes draws a lot of energy out of me and my wife. But seeing the impact of bringing some peace and harmony to the complex situations these children come out of is very rewarding.

2015, the year in which I thought I would:

Know if my PhD can be rerouted / rebooted

Yes! Rerouted it is. This has been my personal major achievement the past year. I managed to get a ‘Baekelend’ funding grant at Studio Dott to continue my research. The focus has been altered, and is now much more on design processes for products that consist of digital and physical parts (ie. hybrid product service systems). I’m really happy how this has turned out, for the first time in years I feel that people are actually supportive instead of sceptical – which changes a lot of things, mostly mentally.

Build at least one other example of a meaningful connected product

Failed (and not failed…). It would be lame to say that I didn’t build anything ‘new’ because I don’t have the hardware yet. I have a concept ready in my head, but need to sit down and actually make/craft/code the thing. Having the Particle Electron at hand would make this a lot easier though 😉

Will put together a publication on meaningful connected products (and hope to distribute it at thingscon 2015)

The publication I started working on resulted in a IOT Ideation Toolkit, which I worked on together with my excellent Studio Dott colleagues. We’re currently doing initial sessions with this set of tools, but it should be released to a broader public before the summer.

Own a GoodnightLamp (!)

Yay! I even wrote a longer post about it here.

Actually read the books I buy.

Failed, drastically.

Somehow get involved in my father’s CNC business

Yep, we’ve been doing some small projects on the side. Over the last year my father managed to build closer contacts with the people at OpenDesk – I hope this will take off at some point. We attended a larger interior objects oriented trade fair last year, where we showed some pieces of the OpenDesk collection. We had an advert in Charlie magazine. But ‘selling’ the whole CNC thing to a mainstream audience is not straight forward.

Do more geocaching with my wife and children

This was good. But I think my wife and I are enjoying it more than our children. Nevertheless, geocaching has been a good mechanism to get us out of the house and explore places in the neighbourhood.

2016, the year in which I will:

  • Work more focussed. Set up partnerships with people I enjoy working with.
  • Close my facebook account (started doing that on Jan 1st)
  • Revive my Little Printer
  • Co-organise Fri3d Camp
  • Organise a new humans & things event
  • Run PhD related workshops in London and Rotterdam
  • Go skiing with my daughters (ie. their first time on ski’s instead of sleds)
  • Finish a project that has been catching too much dust

We know the world is lost.

by Dries De Roeck on January 6, 2016

Out of all ‘2015 year ending’ posts, the closing paragraph in the tale of tales one stuck with me most. I can totally relate to this, and really look forward to their work in the days, months and weeks to come.

We know the world is lost. We don’t believe humans can fix it. Because they don’t want to change the system that causes the problems. We’re longing for the apocalypse. But in the mean time, we want to really look at the world. Perhaps with the eyes of a lover saying goodbye. The beauty, the joy, the sheer magnitude of life. And pay tribute to all of it in our work. A prayer. A wish to experience beauty each and every day of the entire year.

—Michaël & Auriea, 31 December 2015.

#thingsconAMS notes

by Dries De Roeck on December 5, 2015

Thingscon is turning out a very nice place for me to reflect on IoT in a non technical and business dominated mindset. I took some quick notes during the talks. Not intending to be coherent, but pointers that stuck with me.

Iskander Smit :

  • “the function of a product is defined by the use”


The whole idea of scriptable product is starting to make sense. I do think we need to get rid of the term platforms. Currently I’m trying to figure out what a physical product would look like if it were created just like an Angular.js website is ‘generated’.

Matt Cottam :


Another indication that the type of products we are moving towards do not need to have a specific end result. They should leave space for interpretation. Note : this does not equal customisation.

Nadya Peek:

  • Designerless creation of Shanzai phones : why do we not all work like that?


Prototyping and making in low quantities while designing a product seems to make more sense.

Paul Hekkert:


There was a clear clash going on here between the traditional way of thinking about the design discipline and the ‘maker’ approach.

Marcel Shouwenaar:

  • Commoditisation of IoT : connected doorbells in Gamma


The whole ‘IoT transition’ will probably just happen in front of our eyes. This was also shown by the talks of Van Berlo and KoningsKappelhof. Products just suddenly happen to be partly digital. It could be debatable whether we should think about it too much (altough that the recent VTech happenings might show that we do need to think about it)

Claire Rowland:

  • Arcane interaction
  • System latency as a feature, embrace it and do not try to design around it.


Arcane interaction seems to relate with my thinking about meaning and next generation alchemy. Also, I just like the term.

Tina Aspiala:

  • Early adopter crack


What has early adopter crack looked like in the past? Makes me think about the TBD catalog.

Ross Atkins:

  • We can’t opt out of using our cities
  • people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans. (Jane Jacobs)
  • The clever city manifesto


By using the term ‘clever’ instead of ‘smart’ city, the humane dimension of it all skyrockets. Ross’ examples on how to actually think about this is rather spot on.

Why do I blog this?

The prime reason I visited thingscon in Amsterdam was to talk to some people about the IoT ideation and design processes for IoT work which I’m working on at Studio Dott. I met several known and new people, which was exactly what I wanted to get out of the event.

Since I was at the previous two thingscon events in Berlin, the general ‘content’ was mostly a confirmation of previous insights. I had the feeling there were a lot of ‘new’ people begin introduced to the people/social/design oriented thingscon content. This is excellent, but at the same time I felt the need for a more in depth track.

Nevertheless, the thingscon family is rather unique – which I am glad to have experienced once again!

Braided products and wickerwork.

by Dries De Roeck on November 24, 2015

Suppose that you’d put 10 knowledgable people in a room, chances are high they all have a different understanding of ‘the Internet of Things’. Someone working for a startup company will think totally different on this compared to someone working at a larger company. Someone working in a B2B dominant domain will think about different ‘use cases’ than someone who primarily works on B2C products. I have the feeling that these semantic discrepancies are a source of confusion and unnecessary discussions.

Personally, I am very wary of using the overhyped ‘Internet of Things’ term. I tend to refer to network connected or connected products. More recently I’ve been using hybrid products or hybrid product service systems. Yet, I haven’t landed terminology I feel comfortable with. There are a variety of reasons why I feel this way;

  • In the term ‘Internet of Things’ the focus is very much on technology (the internet) and things. It all feels very much driven by efficiency and functionality, whereas I believe we should strive to create products with emotion and meaning.
  • When using a term like connected products, I feel that I am artificially trying to split products into categories. The ‘connected’ ones versus the ‘not connected’ ones. I think it is important to not make this difference, increasingly often we are creating digital and physical products at the same time. It seems to make little sense to keep distinguishing between them.
  • Using ‘hybrid products’ somewhat solves these issues, but the term doesn’t take a stance. It is neither fish nor fowl, and might even make it more hazy to understand what we are actually talking about.

Turning in the bottom
I recently started thinking about Braided Products. Metaphorically speaking, it holds a lot of value to me:

  • Braiding always involves various ‘strands’ which are interwoven. To me, this is exactly what we are doing within the ‘internet of things’. We combine digital, physical and services to create one ‘combination’ thereof.
  • The focus is on the humane. Technology is not explicitly referred to, but is regarded as something taken for granted.
  • When braiding something, you go through a process in which expertise of ‘the braider’ can impact the end result. It refers to a process of creation, something which needs to be well thought out before it achieves what it is intended to do.

I’m not sure wether coining new terms for old concepts will help the field in any way. But when reflecting on ‘braided products’ I get the feeling that this ‘type’ of wording comes a lot closer to how I would like ‘the internet of things’ to be interpreted at the moment.

Why do I blog this?

Initiatives like the IOT design manifesto, thingclash and human things show that there is a need to approach the tech dominant internet of things world. I wonder to what extend terminology can have an influence on this, although that I realise that introducing new words for old concepts is not what we need, I enjoyed the thought exercise. Who knows where it might lead…

Living with a GoodNightLamp

by Dries De Roeck on September 16, 2015

Ever since Alexandra announced the GoodNightLamp as something that was going to happen ‘for real’, I have been a #lampfan. Since the beginning of summer I’ve been living with an actual, functioning, GoodNightLamp and I wanted to share some insights and general thought of how I’ve been experiencing it.

Should the GoodNightLamp not ring a bell at all, I suggest you read up over here or watch the video below.

Currently I think I have gone through 3 stages of use. Starting from getting acquainted with the product, to actually using it ‘for real’.

Phase 1 : ok, this is alpha stuff

My GoodNightLamp story started rather bumpy. I won’t go into too much detail, but initially it just didn’t function in a reliable way. Luckily communication with Alex and her team is very transparent, so we managed to arrange for sending my initial set of lamps back for technical maintenance. When they came back from surgery, things were looking a lot ‘brighter’.

Phase 1 reflection

The GoodNightLamp has only one interface element, being the button on the chimney. The nice thing is that the interface is so simple, but when something goes wrong it is (as a user) almost impossible to figure out what is happening or going wrong.

Being a designer interested in technology myself, I wanted to try to understand the system – how does it work? Can I open this lamp to fix it myself? But once I got over these thoughts and behaved like a ‘regular’ user, it started to make more sense. Embrace the magic of the lamp.


Phase 2 : maybe I’ll keep it for myself

Initially, I wanted to place one lamp in my parent’s house and one lamp in my own living room. But after thinking this through together with my wife, we concluded to that we’d see how we could use it to enhance social contact within our own family. It seemed to make more sense to inform each other about presence between work and home instead of knowing if one of our parents is home or not.

Phase 2 reflection

I think the aspect of distance played a role in evaluating who would receive the lamps in the first place. Both our parents live very close, and we tend to be in touch at least a couple of times a week. Another aspect which is playing a role here is that we wanted to experience the product ‘first hand’ first, before handing it over.


Phase 3 : looking for max. meaning

So we initially started out with placing the large lamp at my office near Antwerp and have the little lamp at home. The idea was that I’d light the large lamp when I arrived at work and switch it off when I left again. After doing this for a bit over a week, it was turning out to make very little sense. No-one was looking at the little lamp at home, and I was having all the fun at work because I could at least press a button. It was nice, but became monotone very quickly.

After that first week-and-a-half, I decided to switch the lamps. At that point, I realised that my children could play a crucial role in this whole lamp experience. It made much more sense that I would know when someone is home while I am at work, especially when my children are home. Also, my children would be the perfect subjects to assign the ‘switch the lamp on’ task to (as my wife would probably forget about it most of the time).

Currently this setup is working out wonderfully. We’ve been using it for over a week like this, and compared to the previous setup – this configuration is actually enriching. I’m psyched when the little lamp pops on while I’m working, and my children love to push the button on the large lamp. My 4 year old has started to see it as her ‘duty’, and takes it serious (perhaps a little too serious). Since the time that the lamps are on and off can vary quite a bit, it arouses curiosity – triggering conversations at the dinner table about what happened during the day.

Phase 3 reflection

The journey of figuring out how to maximise the meaning of the lamps has been an interesting one. Initially, I was a little disillusioned. But after trying things out iteratively, I’m really enjoying living with the GoodNightLamp. The critical thing will still be the evaluation over time, will it become a routine, or will I keep enjoying it?

The ‘hunt for meaning’ should not be underestimated, and I can imagine that it might put people off – turning the lamp into an overpriced paperweight at some point. I wonder to what extend people should be guided in finding meaning in products, in what way(s) they can be inspired to endeavour on a journey of exploration.

To conclude, by using the goodnightlamp I’ve figured out that the aspect of ‘temporality’ in Verganti’s definition of meaning might go a lot deeper than I thought (cfr this post on connected products and meaning). The meaning of a product is temporal, initially I thought about this related to products that ‘hype’ and fade away later. But by experiencing the goodnightlamp, I realised that one product can convey a type of meaning at one moment in time and evolve during use.


Why do I post this?

Over the years I’ve been working on connected products, and how they can become less technology centerend. The goodnightlamp is one of the examples I like to use when talking about connected products and meaning, but in order to keep using it as an example I feel obliged to use it myself and (critically?) reflect on my experiences.


The work of tomorrow.

by Dries De Roeck on August 17, 2015

There are too many good quotes in this Medium answer by Esko Kilp on this post by Tim O’Reilly. I suggest that you just read the whole thing.

Yes, platforms are the most modern iteration of the firm but the impact of the Internet does not…

The long tail of internet of things things #thingscon

by Dries De Roeck on May 11, 2015

During #thingscon 2015 I talked about meaningful connected products. I wrote about some central concepts of meaning on this blog before, but consolidated some of that thinking in a new model : the long tail of internet of things things.


Note : this model is not validated in any way. I put it together in a rather arbitrary way in order to understand ‘meaning’ better within the connected product context.

Note 2 : I used an ongoing Studio Dott project (DIOTTO) to illustrate this model. The origin of the model resulted from previous research which was conducted at the University of Antwerp, department of Design Sciences. I plan to write an extended post on the case used and how it relates to ‘meaning’.


This is the ‘classic’ long tail power law graph. The graph shows that a small amount of popular products serve a substantial amount of people. As you move to the right of the graph, the popularity becomes lower – but however small the niche, a product can be found. An example of this can be found in music, Justin Bieber would be on the far left – an obscure black metal band would be on the right.


When you map connected products on the long tail, something interesting happens related to the type of use of this product. I was able to identify three categories. Firstly, products that have a predefined use. An example here is the Nest thermostat, it controls the temperate of your house. You can interact with it in a predefined way, the expectation of this product is very clear.


A second category are products with a personalised use. This means that they can adapt themselves to the person using them. This is often achieved using modules or building blocks. Little printer is (was) an example of this; it offers a list of publications which you can choose to print on regular intervals. As a user of such a product, you are free to do things within predefined boundaries.


The third category is when the use of a product is self defined. These type of products typically offer a platform for interpretation. There is no specific expected use, there are no paved pathways. You assign the function of this product in your own way. What these products do provide are cues for interaction, like the GoodNightLamp, it looks like a lamp … so maybe it is something domestic … but it doesn’t have to be that if you don’t want it to.


Using these three categories, the potential level of meaning rises exponentially as you move to the right of the graph. A connected thermostat has a rather distant ’emotional’ relationship with the person using it. Products that allow people to define the function themselves can go much deeper regarding meaning. For example, the GoodnightLamp is a product that focusses on social contact. The product is merely the mediator for emotions and thoughts that go much deeper than turning a lamp on and off.

This is what the model is about, in a nutshell. When I saw Claire Rowland‘s talk at thingscon later that day, it became clear to me that there probably a difference whether a connected product is a ‘tool’ or a ‘product’. Claire used a Belkin network controlled plug as an example of a tool. The use of the plug is not really predefined, it requires someone to define what it is used for. I do wonder if someone could get emotionally attached to a plug though. So perhaps I should distinguish between a tool and a product in a future iteration of the long tail of internet of things things.

Thingscon was an excellent place to present this model for the first time. If you’re interested in chatting about this, have reflections or thoughts – I’m very open for critical constructive discussions!

Bye 14, hi 15!

by Dries De Roeck on January 27, 2015

Continuing what I started in 2012 (13) (14), it is once again time to look back and forward. The past year has been rather turbulent, the year ahead holds a lot of (uncertain) potential…

2014, the year in which I thought I would:

Start writing my PhD thesis

I’m not going to spend a lot of words on this item. I wrote about it here somewhere in May last year. To cut a long story short, the plug has been pulled from the PhD.

Plan to submit my first journal article as a first author

See above.

Will visit my sister in Berlin

Yes! This actually happened. Well, kind of. The plan was to stay with her during thingscon2014. In the end, she had a very last minute work opportunity abroad – so I ended up staying in her Berlin appartment while she was away. At least I was there, and thingscon was probably the best conference I’ve ever attended.

Hope to create more prototypes and mockups instead of ‘thinking’ about them

I think I managed to do this more. A very recent example of this is my tinkering with connected christmas lights, which I wrote about on the blog. Also, I’ve been putting together some prototypes for an ongoing project at Studio Dott. It feels very good to create some working things, it also feels like the enthusiasm and interest I’ve been putting into getting to understand Arduino and others is starting to pay off.

Will be a CHI Belgium boardmember and co-organise all kinds of cool activities

Very much so! We’ve been running a couple of google hangout sessions with the CHI Belgium board, which has been very nice to set up and coordinate. The highlight of these activities was, without any doubt, setting up the Humans & Things event early December. Setting this up, both organisation and contentwise was a blast.

Plan to write a collaborative paper which originated from a chat during a conference

I didn’t manage to write the collaborative paper I referred to, but we are still planning to do a collaborative writing effort. To certain extend, the reason that this has not happened yet relates to the first point in this list.

Hope to participate in at least one make or hackathon

For sure this happened! Probably Apps For Ghent was the most memorable, had a lot of fun with an awesome team! (and won some things as well, hurray!)

Plan to somehow communicate my thinking and research more to an international public (by posting more on this blog for instance!)

I’m not sure if I managed to post more, but I was more conscious about getting a more consistent message across regarding my research. Throughout the year I had the opportunity to give some talks on meaningful connected products, which really helped to get my point across and get some focus on what I have been doing, where the boundaries of my research and interest are, etc.

Will own my first decent audio setup

Yes! Yamaha R-N500 and a decent pair of Focal speakers, very happy with these – mostly during weekends.

Will turn our front garden into a vegetable garden

Yes! Well, we only managed to get the vegetable garden finished at the end of August. So we haven’t been able to plant a lot of things – so the grand harvest will be for the year to come. We do have some onions and garlic planted right now though … let’s see how that turns out.

An item which I did not add last year, but which has had a significant influence on how I ‘see the world’ today has been the decision of becoming a foster parent (pleegouder / pleeggezin in Dutch). During September – October – November, the 1.5 year old S. stayed with our family. Reflecting back, this was an emotional rollercoaster and very intensive period – but I can’t think of anything that has enriched me more last year. Becoming a parent already made me realise that a lot of things in life are relative, becoming a foster parent is rooting this thought even deeper. It has been a though step to take, but a very much rewarding one. I hope our family can continue to sustain the decision made.

2015, the year in which I will…

  • Know if my PhD can be rerouted / rebooted
  • Build at least one other example of a meaningful connected product
  • Will put together a publication on meaningful connected products (and hope to distribute it at thingscon 2015)
  • Own a GoodnightLamp (!)
  • Actually read the books I buy. I want to, at least, read:
  • Somehow get involved in my father’s CNC business
  • Do more geocaching with my wife and children

On meaning and connected xmas lights

by Dries De Roeck on January 7, 2015

Over the past couple of months, I have done some talking and thinking on how digitally connected products can be designed with meaning. The problem I framed in previous writings comes down to the fact that a lot of ‘internet of things’ products that are being created and released to the market focus on things that are technologically possible instead of things that focus on the humane aspects of these products.

Instead of crunching on and writing about my musings, it seemed inevitable to start making things in order to explore the topic further.

Aspects of meaning – a little background

When it comes to creating something meaningful, I tend to turn to three aspects of ‘meaning’ defined by Verganti:

  • Transformation from the functional to the emotional – a meaningful product goes beyond functionality, it is about the whole experience that comes with it.
  • Understanding context of use – in order to create the above transition, it is crucial to have a good understanding of the context of use.
  • Temporality – meaning changes over time, something that elicits a strong emotion today might not tomorrow.

Creating with meaning contrasts creating with features or possibilities. There is much stronger connection to the people and environments involved. Meaningful products are therefore not ‘new products’ or offer ‘new functionalities’. They are more about how possibilities are offered to people that benefit from them.

All theory left aside, let’s talk about how I attempted to explore this further.

The Context

The initial idea came about somewhere during the last months of the year. This is a typical time of year during which people are preparing for Christmas, decorating their houses with whatever kind of ‘festive’ decoration. I started to wonder why people actually make the effort of decorating their houses for a couple of weeks. In the end, when someone decorates their house they only see their own decoration when they are outside. Since people spend most time inside, the people seeing the decorating are those outisde : neighbours, visitors, passers-by.

When I was thinking this through, I realised that this was one of the reasons that I have never put any decoration outside of my house. It seemed to make little sense to put a bunch of lights outside of your house, knowing that you don’t see them yourself. However, from a more emotional point of view, if no-one would put any festive decoration outside, the ‘cozy christmas feeling’ in the streets would not be present either.

So, in the end it came down to that I thought it would make sense to re-think the christmas lights put outside houses in order to make them more meaningful. And because of before mentioned reasons, I wanted to explore what could be done to let those lights not only have a meaningful relation with the owner but also with the neighbourhood they are placed in.

Related projects

During the exploration and creation of this case, I came across several related products and projects. Since nothing in the world is new, it makes sense to list the ones that stuck with me most.

  • Moorescloud Holiday – An internet connected festive light strand, specifically focussed on creating your own ‘custom’ christmas moods. You could regard this one as the Philips HUE version of the christmas lights.
  • Streettalk – A research project by Niels Wouters, in which one of the elements was an RGB light strip that visualised the noise level of the street.
  • GoodNightLamp – A network connected lamp-duo, consisting of a large and small lamp. When the large lamp is turned on, the small one turns on as well. The lamps can be in two different locations, anywhere in the world, allowing people to sense each other’s presence through light.
  • Noisenap – A small device used to track sleep patterns of people. The interesting thing here is that the device combines a continuous measurement with a user invoked ‘reporting’ function.
  • Anthony’s Flying Spagetti Monster LED display – An RGB led installation made for christmas, containing plenty of LEDs and loads of fun.

The making

Based on inspiration from related projects and tools I had lying around my attic, I decided to built an RGB led strand of 100 RGB LEDs (about 7 meters long). The plan was to attach this strand to my front garden’s wooden fence. The eventual goal was to use these ‘meaningful christmas lights’ as a communication medium servicing the neighbourhood. Because I wasn’t too sure how that would happen and what would be needed, I decided to not only attach the LEDs but also add a sound sensor and an illuminated arcade-style pushbutton. This would at least provide me with some flexibility to try things out, and explore the aspect of temporality mentioned before.

So in the end, I ended up with following components:

  • Spark Core – wifi enabled microcontroller to control the RGB LEDs and read the inputs from the sound sensor and pushbutton
  • 100 RGB LEDs – WS2811 type LEDs, usable with the rather amazing Adafruit ‘neopixel’ library
  • 1 Pushbutton with LED inside – I replaced the default white LED with a flickering multicolour one
  • 1 Electret sensor – Allowing me to monitor and react upon sound levels
  • Small 5V, 2A, 10W power supply
  • Breadboard, some wires, plastic casing, wire shrink wrap and hot glue to make everything as weatherproof as possible.
  • The whole setup was installed at the bottom of my letterbox, which was conveniently located right beside the wooden fence to which the LEDs were attached.
All wires hooked up

All wires hooked up

Positioning in the letterbox

Positioning in the letterbox

Mounted LED string running the 'strandtest' default example.

Mounted LED string running the ‘strandtest’ default example.

Interaction and state of tools

During the gathering and assembly of all hardware, my main focus was trying to define what could be a ‘meaningful’ interaction to provide to the neighbourhood. Initially, I discussed this with my wife quite a bit whilst doing the dishes. Before any coding was done, these were some of the initial plans:

  • When someone walks along the fence, the lights follow him/her
  • Depending on the weather forecast, the lights would change colour
  • Depending on the time left before christmas and/or new year, the amount and colours of the lights would change (aka the digital advent calendar)
  • When a car passes by the lights, they react and give a festive greeting
  • When the postman opens the letterbox he is greeted with a random animation
  • A big button is placed on the fence, which passers by are invited to push for a random, colourful, festive greeting
  • On new year’s eve, the LEDs would be a visual countdown. When the new year strikes, it would show RGB LED ‘fireworks’

All of these ideas seemed pretty doable, until I started to attempt creating them. At that point, I was again reminded that I am not a coder and not an electronics engineer. For example, the sound sensor turned out (and still is) a very obscure thing to me. The outputted values are very odd, and I was not able to get anything reliable out of it. On another level, the same goes for the weather forecast integration, although that I truly enjoy working with the Spark core, having it making calls to other web services looked nice on paper but I did not succeed in getting it to work just yet.

Luckily, I did get some of the more lightweight things to work. I should give a major shoutout to the people of the Open Garage maker/hackerspace (Christophe in particular) for giving me a kickstart with some of the code. In the end, the button worked, the countdown to christmas and new year worked and the fireworks did their job too.

Regarding building and learning how to create a system and code that does what you want, this project was excellent. I learned a lot and had of lot of fun. On the other hand, as I have been studying a variety of digital prototyping toolkits, I came to the conclusion that over the years the ‘coding part’ remains a high barrier to overcome when you do not have a solid technical background. This observation reminded me of an article I wrote together with Robert Paauwe, on the good and the bad of digital prototyping toolkits. Funny enough, Dan Saffer published a write up of a connected teapot he made with Arduino and pretty much came to the same conclusion.

But what does it do?

Since I wanted to have the LEDs be of value for my neighbourhood in some way, the main thing the lights showed was an indication of how close to new years day we were. I put the LED string up around December 10, with just a couple of lights turned on. The closes we got to December 31, the more lights that would illuminate.

The 'default' program

The ‘default’ program, rather close to new year here

I included three other ‘features’ to explore the aspect of meaning. Firstly, the button. I placed the button below the letterbox – mainly aimed at providing something ‘fun’ for my children, which they could reach easily. Also, by placing the button below the letterbox – I didn’t need to worry too much about it being waterproof. When the button was pressed, a random animation would happen – which came down to lots of flashing and lots of colours.

Button placement below the letterbox

Button placement below the letterbox

Secondly, there were 2 ‘special events’ planned. The first was on christmas eve and christmas day. During these days, the LEDs would colour red and green. A second planned event was an animation mocking up some ‘LED fireworks’ on new years eve (at 24h00). For this the spark core turned out to be ideal, since it can directly get the current time from the spark cloud. So no need for timers or other ‘difficult’ stuff. I was pretty happy that both triggers actually worked at the right times.

The LED string on christmas day, showing only red and green colours.

The LED string on christmas day, showing only red and green colours.

What did I learn?

Regarding meaningful products

As I did expect, the whole system was probably too obscure for anyone to actually grasp. I intentionally didn’t explain too much to my neighbours when putting it up, leaving the ‘discovery’ up to them. As it turned out, the ‘advent calendar’ function was too subtle to notice. Well, if you paid attention it was noticeable – but for someone who didn’t know there was something going on, it was not distinct enough.

What did work were the timed moments. I was pleasantly surprised to hear my neighbours telling me after christmas day “Hey, where are the red and green lights? They really made it very Christmassy here!” Also, on new years eve, we came outside and gathered round the ‘LED fireworks’ with some neighbours and friends. At that point, my neighbours knew there was something going to happen, they even started texting me 20 minutes before that they were going to take visitors they had over to come and watch ‘the show’. So from that point of view, my little LED project did contribute to the social environment of our neighbourhood (well, at least with one neighbour).

The button also did its job pretty well. My children put it through a serious stress test, in the meantime it has actually fallen off.

So if I were to repeat the project, I would most likely focus on more clear and obvious interactivity. I already got the suggestion to move the button up and put a big ‘push here’ arrow on it – things like that would perhaps engage people more (thx Bo). In the meantime, my nextdoor neighbour said that he wanted to extend the LED string to his front garden too. So, let’s see what the year brings and what we can come up with.

Regarding making network connected product prototypes

For me, this project was one of the first digital projects that I actually managed to ‘make’ in a way that it was intended. What I really enjoyed was that I thought up the concept first and then actually made it work (instead of getting inspiration from a pre-created tutorial).

By programming the LED string, I managed to understand some very basic programming concepts a lot better. I intentionally did not copy-paste too much code I didn’t understand this time – which allowed me focus on getting things to work that my puny brain could handle by itself.

To finish, some practical things that come to mind

  • Remember that once the LEDs are outside, people in the neighbourhood probably do not like flashing colourful LEDs at 1AM when troubleshooting some coding issue
  • Interrupt functions are odd, I need to learn to understand this better
  • Metal letterboxes (like mine) are not the most ideal place to put a WiFi dependent microcontroller
  • Make wires long enough for troubleshooting and moving things around if needed


Over the coming months I plan to make some more experiments to explore how the whole meaning thing and connected products can be approached. I currently have two things lined up, one with buttons and lights and another involving audio.