What if IoT technology facilitated a sense of presence and connection?

Nelson Notes

Nelson Notes is an interaction design project that links two similar devices, one in Los Angeles, CA and the other in Shanghai, CHN, via a cloud-based environment, to facilitate a sense of connection and overcome a feeling of isolation. In addition, these devices provide a fun and playful way for two people to maintain a remote relationship.  

Teammate: Miaoqiong Huang
Role: Co-creator
Timeline: 6 weeks
Advisor: Phil Van Allen
Tools: ESP32, Python, Adafruit.io (cloud services), Premiere Pro and Photoshop



The project brief required a device that senses, acts and serves as a bridge between two people living in different contexts. During the research phase of the project, we found that online study groups, facilitated by Zoom, served as a key form of companionship and emotional comfort for people during the COVID-19 pandemic. To build a sense of connection between the two users, the symbol of a light was utilized, indicating to each user whether or not the other user is present. The devices were designed to be placed on a desk so that the proximity sensor could detect whenever a user was working, thus triggering the light. Also, the light signals to each user that the other might be willing to engage in an interactive game. We built the device on the breadboard platform using an ESP32 and developed the software using Micropython. In the end, we created a device for people who work from their home and want to maintain a remote relationship with someone else. The key phrases that informed the design were: building a connection, interactivity and a sense of enjoyment. 

During the research phase of the project, we found that online study groups, beyond active assistance, served as a key form of companionship that people have been seeking out during these unprecedented times.
Ideated with Miaoqiong on different aspects of remote collaboration.
The device is built on top of a breadboard with a ESP32, a proximity sensor, lights and buttons.
Sketches of the enclosure.





The Adafruit cloud environment provided some challenges to the project, including data frequency limitations and latency with respect to continuous flow of data from the proximity sensor. Also, the goal of developing an interactive game was quite the hurdle, especially ensuring that the correct data value patterns were being sent between the two devices. The approach of working on small prototypes and testing those in order to inform design decisions proved to be a great strategy as the strategy allowed us to prioritize the most important features and incorporate secondary features thereafter. In addition this approach provided moments to pivot and re-allocate time and effort on tasks that continued to progress the project forward. Collaboration across the time zones of Los Angeles and Shanghai was a challenge but careful planning and preparedness ensured that each meeting was productive. Once we have access to our studio and a 3D printer, we plan to construct a more finished product, using plastic instead of cardboard.

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