A more personal way for digital communication
Tags: Hardware, Design
About the project
HomeLog proposes a new way of digital communication; one that doesn’t rely on a smartphone and is designed to bring us closer to ourselves, our families, and our loved ones in a more personal and less immediate way.
Google Firebase + PubNub
I2S Amplifier + 3W Speaker
A connected, yet lonely world
We live in a time where everyone is a few taps away. Ironically, when looking at current studies, data shows that we are one of the loneliest generations ever. So how come the promise of an always-connected and immediately-reachable world makes us feel so dissatisfied, facile, and alone?
While loneliness at large is a socio-cultural and political problem, I just can’t help but wonder how the tools we use to communicate every day contribute to it.
Reported loneliness of different age groups in England. Millennials and Gen Z feel more alone than older generations.
Smartphones: the ultimate symbol of productivity
Smartphones started to become the mainstream symbol of productivity when the iPhone was introduced in 2007. These wonder machines are great for a lot of things, but it seems to me that as technology evolves, putting people together in authentic ways is less of a priority for the technology ecosystem.
Most apps thrive primarily on transactional relationships and user engagement but not necessarily on meaningful connections.
Can this impact our most important relationships?
Can technology impact our most important relationships?
I'm very close to my family, but we now live in different countries. Sure, we talk on the phone and use many apps to text regularly, but I always feel like we're not really connecting as well as I hope to. The nature of our busy lives doesn't really allow for thoughtful remote communication, and the tools we have at our disposal are not designed with this in mind.
Think about it: Instagram, instant messaging, memes, and "likes" are great but are they allowing us to speak from a more personal place with our friends and families? or are they diluting and normalizing our conversations, feelings and fears?
HomeLog: a more personal way for digital communication
Over the course of 13 weeks, a product and different social dynamics were designed, tested, and implemented to strengthen the remote communication between my family members and to explore a future where we don't depend on our smartphones so much to talk to the ones we love the most.
A device designed for the home with gamified constraints to better connect families by using only their voice
Designed for the home, the device records and plays audio, doesn’t have a screen and is connected to the internet. There are different constraints around it which add a dash of gamification to the interaction.
Once a week, at a time that is convenient, people from the same family or close group, no matter where they live, record a message through their own device, with perhaps a summary or reflection of their week. And every Sunday night at 9:00 pm local time, each home receives the messages that were sent that week in chronological order. This model of non-synchronous communication lets you balance your personal life and the time to listen to what your loved ones are up to.
Send a message once a week, whenever you can
Each home receives the messages on Sunday at 9:00 pm
Interaction Design: Keep it simple, base it on research, and test things with your users
The rules for this way of communication were tested using our smartphones from the second week of February 2020 to the last week of May 2020. Every week, they all sent me a voice message through WhatsApp that I manually sorted, ordered, and gave back to them on Sunday night.
I got my family on board with this experiment early on and we naturally felt like it was opening a new way of talking between us. In parallel to these experiments, I conducted research in industrial design, technologies, and platforms to create a physical device that would ultimately free us from doing this with our smartphones.
The 4 devices were finished by mid-April, but this way of designing and testing in parallel allowed me to develop the constraints together with the device, instead of waiting until it was built to do so.
Main books used as a resource during the industrial and interaction design phase
Different prototypes and my COVID-19 friendly home studio. No access to my school's shop was available.
The Industrial Design of the project had to be quite limited due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I was committed to making something based on research with whatever tools and supplies I had at my disposal.
Both books mentioned above were great guidance when designing the physical device. Concepts like affordance and feedback were particularly important in this project, mainly because the device has no screen but can be doing a number of operations and be in any of multiple states. Communicating these states was extremely important, especially when doing lengthy operations such as uploading a recording. Keeping the user informed of what's happening can make the difference between something that is perceived to be working and something that is not.
Recording Gesture → A simple press will start the recording sequence, and pressing again will stop and upload the message. All devices are updated live with a counter of how many messages are in the "time capsule".
Listening Gesture → When the time to listen comes, holding the button will play the messages for you in chronological order.
Respectful Notifications → In contrast to the smartphone model, HomeLog is designed to be a passive element in your life. A subtle light will turn whenever someone sends a message, but it won’t ring, vibrate, or interrupt you in any way.
A video would paint a better picture, right? So why use audio for HomeLog?
If we compare the different mediums that could've been used for HomeLog we see that audio beats video, photo, and text in a crucial factor: the ratio between personal privacy and content fidelity. Audio lets you be in your pajamas when sending a message, while video will require you to "look nice". I think this messes with your communication and makes you worry about meaningless things when recording your message. Audio lets you be more personal than a text, or photo, particularly because in my opinion, the human voice is one of the most personal things we have.
Medium comparison: personal privacy and content fidelity
Why would anyone use another device? Why not just make an app for this?
That's a great question.
During the first weeks of the project, my brother was having a really hard time getting involved. We have a really good relationship so I knew that apathy or not wanting to help out was not it. After a few weeks of trying different interaction constraints to try and nudge him into participating more, I interviewed him to find out why he was acting this way. To me surprise, he mentioned that when he gets home, he simply doesn't want to look at his smartphone anymore. And even if he did, WhatsApp has all of the unanswered work messages waiting there for him, and this gets in the way of unwinding after a long day of hard work.
Could I design another way? Or are we doomed to depend on our smartphones to communicate with the people closest to us?
Engagement comparison between my family members. My brother was not feeling it
Testing the devices with real users
Once the devices were finished, I got ready to take them home to Mexico City and start using them with my family. Sadly, COVID-19 had different plans, so I asked some of my closest friends in New York to help me test them.
Arnab Chakravarty, Defne Onen, and Veronica Alfaro were incredible users to test with. I mailed a device to each one of them and we used the devices for 10 days in a row. Their constant feedback made its way into the project, and it will continue to shape it.
The different experiments that I conducted in the course of 13 weeks, both through smartphones and the home devices, revealed five interesting insights:
A Dose of Reality
1. Lateral Communication
Most of the things that my family shared through this method of talking didn’t come up in our regular phone calls or texts. The content was more personal and less transactional; you’re not calling your sister because you need something from her. Instead, you are having a monologue with yourself that is meant to be heard by others, and this really creates a different space for personal communication.
The habit of listening was formed on week #9. That specific Sunday when I lost track of time and I forgot to send the messages, my mom and sister got particularly annoyed that they didn’t finish their week hearing our voices. This was the first time in the whole project where the motivation to listen didn’t come from me or from a push notification, rather it was an internal expectation on their part.
3. Uninstrisive Engagement
A dedicated product at home made it easier to talk to each other. When you walk to the kitchen and pass by it, you see how many messages are waiting for you, and they invite you to send yours if you haven’t. With the added surprise of not knowing who’s messages are from, you naturally feel compelled to engage without needing the be interrupted by a push notification or an ad campaign.
4. A Dose of Reality
A message that is sent at the beginning of the week lets you compare how it happened versus how the person recording their message said it would. A strange time artifact, that feels like an alternative reality is created, and reminds us that life rarely unfolds in the same way we try to control it. There is no pause button, edits, filters, or anything else like that, only simple, real, authentic communication.
This form of social voice journaling prompts us to re-live and remember the highlights and lowlights of our week and offers us the opportunity to be more present during our days to have more to share when recording. I felt more in tune with my actions, and time appeared to slow down when reminiscing, at least for a few minutes.
How does it work under the hood?
Inside every HomeLog device there's a Raspberry Pi 4 and connected to it, there is a 3W speaker, a USB Microphone, an I2S DAC for higher audio fidelity, 6 LEDs + resistors and a button.
The backend follows a server-less architecture that uses Google Firebase (Realtime Database and Cloud Storage) and PubNub, a realtime lightweight notification service. The device's main program is a Python script that was written from scratch, and it uses different native Linux command-line commands (such as 'arecord' and 'aplay') to record and play .wav files.
I also used a Python wrapper for Firebase called pyrebase. It has most of the features you might need in a classic Python CRUD app with Firebase, so I definitely recommend it.
Remote access: troubleshooting from home if something goes wrong with the device or a software update is needed
I'd never deployed code in a physical device into the wild before. There were a couple of different challenges that needed to be solved before being able to actually ship the devices to my friends: remote access and session management.
I basically needed ssh access to each device from my computer to be able to troubleshoot and control the devices if I needed to. I looked at different options such as nGrok but ultimately went for Dataplicity. This tool helped me manage my devices and I was able to continue the development of the main program remotely and distribute the code changes using GitHub.
Session management was needed for a simple reason: I needed to be able to start the devices remotely and have them run on their own without depending on my computer's terminal session. A great command-line tool called byobu was used to solve this, and it even allowed me to connect back to the already running script whenever ssh'ing back into the device
Personally, the best part of this project is how much we enjoyed doing this. With a total of 59 recordings, a little over 2 hours of total voice time, and our constant feedback calls, I grew even closer to my family, and we created a ritual that will continue even after the end of this project.
I ask you reader, to always be conscious of how you decide to digitally connect with others and pay attention to what we give up when we don’t challenge the tools we have at our disposal; the chance to slow down and be more intentional with one another.
Instead of living to get more followers we don’t even know, and deciding to live constantly interrupted by things that don’t always matter, why not also use technology to be closer to the few we appreciate the most?
I think there is so much more to be done here, and although our world is filled with a ton of fresh apps to connect with others, I think we’re not quite there yet. Through this journey, I learned that I’m not alone when it comes to expecting more from our digital communication.
And I learned that sometimes, waiting for a little to say more is a great thing.