We live in a time when our everyday products have just begun to become enchanted. Even objects as seemingly mundane as coffee makers and toothbrushes can sing, glow, buzz and pose in ways that make us smile, gasp, get annoyed, or otherwise feel the temptation to relate to them with emotion, as if they are somehow alive. When well-designed, animated objects have the potential to tug at our heartstrings, making us feel connected, engaged and, ultimately, understood.[1] Designing such objects is the focus of my work.

While I love crafting the static form of a sculptural product, my fascination lies in harnessing the power of computing to bring a rich, temporal element to physical forms in order to connect with people on an emotional level. I enjoy designing for both future visions as well as present day scenarios, while always keeping in mind how advances in technology can inform and enrich the work. My craft includes drawings, 3D models, electronic prototypes, installations and video scenarios of designs that have realistic technical and material aspects. I use 3D forms as both physical objects and virtual objects, and believe that engaging experiences can be created from a combination of the two.

The behaviors that these objects display may express function, networked data, or even a pre-determined “personality”, turning the object into an entity that invites ongoing interaction through somewhat playful exchanges.[2] They are chosen to communicate in a natural or “human” language that is sometimes musical, sometimes visual, often tactile, and always crafted to invite people to intuit a product’s role and meaning through use. For example, the color of LED lighting on a robotic vacuum cleaner has the potential to share information about what’s going on inside: green, slow pulsing indicates “All systems go!”; rapid red flashing pleads, “Help! Something is amiss here.” Sound and movement can enhance and reinforce these messages. A jubilant melody at the end of a washing machine cycle says, “Everything went well and your clothes are ready!” A video conference camera repositioning its head expresses “Bye! Going to sleep now.”

In addition to expressive outputs, I am interested in how tangible inputs relate to the larger product-user conversation. What does it feel like to stroke the object’s surface to wake it from a sleep state? If you shake a music player, should it randomize my selection? What does it mean to pull, twist or kick a product, and what kinds of responses are appropriate? My work is based on poetic product design semantics [3] while also drawing on the study of Human Robot Interaction and Social Machines. I explore experiences through both my design work as well as experimental art installations developed to get a first-hand sense of emerging interaction technologies.

While there is a good deal of exploration in tangible interaction and mixed reality in academic work, the application of that work to product design is fairly new due to previous barriers in the price and availability of embedded electronics. Because of this, dynamic physical-digital product design lacks the deep history of semantics that exists for more traditional elements such as form, materials, color, and graphics. I’m excited about the potential for pioneering work to be done in this area where electronic behaviors represent a brand new palette for expression.

As an accomplished professional product designer/artist who has also been involved in exciting academic work in design, I know both sides. I understand the somewhat harsh realities of bringing a product from concept to production (brand, materials, cost and technical constraints); I also respect the importance of rigorous academic exploration in pushing the boundaries of design, technology and human understanding. Because of this combination, I feel perfectly poised to harness opportunities for developing original research in the area of animated physical-digital products.

Over the past decade, I have worked with teams of talented designers and technologists to design a wide array of interactive products and artworks, both physical and virtual.

I begin my work with user research, through a combination of in-person conversations and prototyping exercises, and then continue the design development with an iterative process of prototyping and design communication. A staunch believer in the importance of experimentation as a means of discovery, I am an obsessive tinkerer, taking advantage of the wide array of electronic prototyping tools, methods and communities that exist today as a means to propel my knowledge forward and share my discoveries with others.

The following is a selection of projects that were the result of taking a product-as-expressive-entity approach to design:

  • Simon robot head shell [http://www.athomaz.com/?p=116], part of an upper-torso, humanoid-like robot with two arms, two hands and a socially-expressive head
  • Robotic vacuum cleaner for Neato Robotics [http://www.neatorobotics.com/] with expressive interface
  • Connected home concepts, a suite of wi-fi-enabled connected appliances that communicate with the user as well as with each other
  • Compact camcorder which translates natural gestures into camera controls
  • “Lumi” platform for expressive light behaviors in products, a sub-surface array of RGB LEDs that can be easily programmed by designers to exhibit any combination of animated color and intensity [http://vimeo.com/32941586]
  • “Happy toast”, a future vision scenario for a food appliance that takes emotion into account [http://vimeo.com/24862591]
  • Melody Man, a human powered electronic toy that features an animated LED matrix “face” and electronically-generated music that is revealed through the play activity [http://vimeo.com/32887624]
  • “Nest” and “Fragile” RFID-enabled sound sculptures where users place objects in certain positions in order to dynamically change the sound in the room [http://vimeo.com/13834494]
  • “Père Ubu”, a virtual object installation where a projected image of a camera object emerges from its shell based on the viewer’s actions [http://www.uberobjects.org]

Last year, I created an interaction lab within the prestigious award-winning firm Smart Design in order to maintain an ongoing exploration of design at the intersection of the physical and the digital. The lab is currently in the midst of examining several aspects of dynamic behaviors in product design such as how LED light behaviors can communicate different states of mind, and ways that input mechanisms (such as a leash for vacuum cleaner control or rotating cube as a means of menu navigation) can relate to contexts of use. Last year I also housed my personal studio in the very public Museum of Arts and Design Open Studio every Friday for four months as part of their residency program in order to delight visitors with a series of ongoing experiments in interactive objects.

Many design researchers envision a future where different types of robotic technologies will be introduced to the domestic landscape.[4] We have already seen robotic floor cleaning devices such as the Roomba become nearly commonplace household objects. [5] We will continue to see the creation of all sorts of new “smart” product archetypes that are built on interactive behaviors. Gone will be the days of the “flashing 12:00” on a consumer electronic device waiting to be programmed. Our new devices will be constantly listening for sounds sights and touches to translate into meaningful inputs for use. They will have the ability to “learn”, refining their behaviors over time, and they will be connected to the internet as well as to one another.

I am interested in continuing my explorations of the aesthetic and emotional aspects of the design of these dynamic objects in order to create vocabularies of expressive design elements. I seek to develop methods for 3D design that are focused on communicative product personalities and help designers to create products that will offer a meaningful relationship with their users and their environments.


[1] Turkle, Sherry. Alone Together, Basic Books, 2011. Chapter 4, “Enchantment”.
[2] Gaver, W., Bowers, J., Boucher, A., Law, A., and Pennington, S.  Electronic furniture for the Curious Home: Assessing ludic designs in the field. International Journal of Human-Computer Interaction, 2007, 22(1-2), pp.119-152.
[3] Aldersey-Williams, Hugh, Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse, Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1990 pp. 20-26.
[4] Norman, Donald, The Design of Future Things, Basic Books, 2009.
[5] Forlizzi, J. How robotic products become social products: an ethnographic study of cleaning in the home. Proceedings of HRI 2007, ACM Press, 2007.