Sensitive designs, holistic solutions

Xin Yuan demonstrating the tilting keyboard on a smartphone, where by tilting the phone to one side, the letters on one half of the keyboard become bigger than those on the other half

Kitchen tools that help the visually impaired to prepare meals safely, a smartphone app which improves readability and facilitates keyboard usage, a lamp and speaker that increase in luminance and volume respectively upon squeezing. These were some of the design projects showcased by graduating students at NUS Division of Industrial Design (DID) Graduation Show 2017, which opened on 2 June at National Design Centre, graced by Guest-of-Honour Professor Lam Khee Poh, Dean of NUS Design and Environment.

At the opening of the Graduation Show, Associate Professor Christian Gilles Boucharenc, Head of NUS DID paid tribute to DID students, alumni and faculty for garnering multiple awards locally and overseas.

Prof Lam highlighted in his address that a very important part of the education process at DID are the platforms which provide their students and faculty opportunities to collaborate with the real world. “We want our students not only to learn about theory but also to be able to make sure that their theory can be translated into practice and into useful products for the industry,” he said.

Graduating student Kevin Chiam was moved to develop Folks Kitchenware for the visually impaired after volunteering at Touch Homecare Services. “I realised that scabs and scars are common for individuals [suffering from visual loss] who cook due to unfortunate attempts. I was thus motivated to help these individuals such that they can have the necessary confidence to overcome physical and mental barriers and appreciate cooking as a joyful ritual,” he said.

Kevin’s solution — which won the NUS Enterprise Practicum Award in 2016 — is a series of five kitchen tools consisting of a knife, chopping board, stove ring, pot lid and teaspoon. These were selected as they would be familiar to the visually impaired, ensuring that the learning curve is kept low and potentially resulting in a higher adoption rate. The knife, for instance, sports a retractable and detachable guard which protects the user’s hands during cutting, while the stove ring allows the user to recognise the burner’s boundaries, at the same time centralising and securing the cookware. Kevin shared that he was currently in talks with interested parties keen to push the project commercially.

Graduating student Lim Xin Yuan observed that baby boomers with long-sightedness often have difficulty using their smartphones, so she developed three solutions that dealt with the readability and hit area of small interfaces and eliminated multistep interactions typically required to activate assistive features.

The “tilting keyboard” feature leverages a smartphone’s built-in gyroscope and accelerometer to achieve single-step magnification of the keyboard, while “tilt to zoom” lets users control text size by tilting the smartphone forward or backward. By magnifying a portion of the screen, the “scroll to focus” functionality enables users to concentrate on a particular text message.

Xin Yuan shared that current modes of text magnification usually require users to memorise and navigate through several layers of settings in a smartphone, which the older generation may not be able to easily recall. Most of the baby boomers who tested her solutions found them intuitive and beneficial, with users locating their desired text message 40 per cent faster when using the “scroll to focus” solution.

I was thus motivated to help these [visually impaired] individuals such that they can have the necessary confidence to overcome physical and mental barriers and appreciate cooking as a joyful ritual.

Much of the tactile interactions in our daily lives centre around tapping and sliding, graduating student Edmund Zhang shared. “I wondered if I could propose an alternative and ’softer’ way of interacting with everyday objects through squeezing, which though familiar and instinctive seemed to be relatively undertapped as a product interaction.”

Edmund has developed a table lamp which increases in brightness the more it is squeezed, and dims when a plug at the rear is pulled out; as well as a portable speaker which increases its volume the more it is squeezed, and gradually quietens when it is set upright.

Edmund picked a combination of materials — resin plastic for the product body, and a flexible silicone outer skin covering a soft foam core for the squeezable parts — which he believed was optimal in “squishiness” and comfort. Edmund hopes to explore contrasting colours in line with the playful spirit of the objects as well as applying the concept to a wider range of products.

The annual event, now in its 15th edition, challenges students from NUS Design and Environment to venture beyond aesthetics and function to develop holistic solutions that take into account human perception, behaviour, emotion, psychology and culture. On display are projects by 34 graduating students, as well as 24 projects by undergraduates. The exhibition is open to the public from 3 to 8 June.

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