Breathing helps to self-regulate stress levels because of what happens in the body’s nervous system, which consists of two opposing forces. These forces work to speed up or slow down processes in the body. When a deep breath is inhaled, blood from the body is directed into the lungs. This action causes the heart to speed up and deliver more blood to the rest of the body. This process continues on a loop as breathing continues. The lungs also contain receptors. During this period of continuous breathing, those receptors send a signal to the brain causing it to slow down the forces that speed up during the breathing cycle, resulting in calming, relaxing effects.
By surveying the current landscape of stress relieving mobile applications, I recognized how saturated the market is with products that focus on mindfulness or require a large amount of user input. I envisioned a disruptive solution when observing the behavior of air dancers.
Air Dancer is a mobile application that focuses on the benefits of deep abdominal breathing to reduce stress. Users breathe into the microphone to make an air dancer move and dance.
As a platform, Air Dancer links with your social media accounts, so you can connect with your friends to breathe together.
Air Dancer also lives beyond your phone. As a campaign, it exists in the form of large-scale, interactive installations. Participants are empowered with super human abilities when they breathe into a tube that triggers the inflation of giant air dancers.
*credit to Jenil Gogari for helping me write the code
Most people experience a warm, enjoyable feeling in the act of giving or receiving a hug. This feeling is created by more than just the physical connection of a hug, for hugging has been proven to release certain hormones, lower resting heart rates and reduce the fear of death. Scientists have likened the effect of a hug to taking any of a number of recreational drugs.
This led to The Huggy Dougie, a chair that contains expandable cushions and alleviates stress by providing the user with a gentle squeeze meant to mimic the feeling of being hugged. The user sits in the chair and activates the expansion of an internal cushion system. When the level of expansion has met the user’s desired level of snugness, they can turn off the expansion process, and make adjustments with another valve, thus deflating the cushions as desired.
As a form of direct user testing, I brought an early functional prototype onto the sidewalk of New York City and in a manner that attempted not to cause feelings of fear or unease, approached random strangers to sit in his chair.
Even though this project focuses on designing for stress, I realized I was also indirectly designing for happiness. When you think about how our bodies are designed to relax through things like hugging and breathing, our bodies are also designed to be happy.
What's Your Superpower?
Almost every superhero story has several ties to real-life issues, which can be used as clinical metaphors. Superman leaving his home as a baby can be used as a metaphor for adoption or early childhood trauma; Batman witnessing his parents being murdered can relate to adoption. Superheroes have traumatic life stories, yet they overcome adversity and develop beyond-human abilities. Although children cannot develop superhuman powers, identifying with the characteristics of a superhero can help children overcome unfavorable circumstances and issues associated with their emotional difficulties.
These insights are what led to the What’s Your Superpower co-creation workshop that encouraged students to redefine how they perceive emotions. It took place at the Reece School and Sage Day School, both of which have a population of students with emotional, behavioral and/or learning difficulties. Having previously worked at the Sage Day School, I had a direct contact and was able to set up the workshop easily. I had no affiliation with the Reece School but took the initiative, cold-called them, pitched the workshop and they said yes! The two workshops occurred on the same day. Since the Reece School is located on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and the Sage Day School is located in Rochelle Park, New Jersey, it was an adventurous day given that I conducted both workshops by myself. I traveled between the two schools by train and by bus, carrying all of my materials and a camera for documenting the events.
The What’s Your Superpower workshop was developed in a project-based structure, and incorporated activities that would be engaging for the students. I provided students with workbooks and guided them through a series of instructions. First, I asked them to identify an emotion; second, to envision that emotion as a superpower; and last, to construct a wearable design based on their superpower. Designs ranged from hats, arm sleeves and capes to full body suits, all meant to be worn on the body as a way for the students to metaphorically wear their emotions and carry with them the ability to cope with their difficulties wherever they go. The goal was to develop insights that would inform future work by observing how the students interpreted and engaged in the assignment.
A common fixture in cities are the “canners” who scavenge through trash for used cans and bottles. Canners are the invisible workers that help ensure that recyclable materials get reclaimed: they return the discarded containers to recycling centers for money. It is not easy, especially for new canners, to identify which containers are of value: less experienced canners waste time and energy collecting containers that are later rejected at the recycling centers. We conceived Sift as a platform that helps canners quickly figure out which containers can be returned for money in their state, while establishing a stronger connection between recycling center and canner. The same platform can be expanded into a system for education purposes: to help educators inculcate an awareness of reclaimable materials in children.
Canners are a huge part of the invisible economy in every city. Even though recycling has now become a permanent fixture in the city resident’s vocabulary, alot of reclaimable material still gets thrown out. Thankfully we have canners who help ensure that as much of these containers get reclaimed as possible. Canners (also “waste scavengers”) roam the streets, picking up discarded containers and returning them to recycling centers for money. They move quickly in the night, racing to get to containers before sanitation trucks or before other canners. Canners exist in major cities worldwide: the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers lists 318 waste picker organizations from 31 countries within its databases. New York City alone has an estimated 5,000 canners, from all walks of life: immigrants who speak little English, people who lost their jobs in the recession, or even elderly canners who want to stay busy after retirement.
The canning job is not easy, for many reasons: it is back breaking work in the depths of the night, it involves carrying heavy loads, and it is competitive. But it is particularly challenging for less experienced canners because they find it difficult to identify which containers are returnable and which will be rejected. It takes time to learn which containers cannot be returned, and this list can change as beverage companies release new products. Many canners do not read English, so they also find it hard to differentiate between similar looking cans. Only the seasoned veterans know which ones are returnable.
Not being able to identify the containers to avoid leads to several issues. There is the wasted effort from the canner picking out containers that cannot be returned. This increases the already heavy load that they have to carry to the recycling centers, and wears them out. Bag space is money: a container picked up could mean another valuable one sacrificed. This all adds to the overhead on the recycling centers’ part of rejecting containers that cannot be returned.
Our solution: Sift
Sift is a platform that helps canners quickly figure out on-the-job which containers can be returned for money in their state. The platform consists of a network of handheld scanners for the canners, who scan barcodes of containers to figure out if they are returnable. These scanners are loaned out by the recycling centers. We see Sift as a system that one, increases the efficiency of recyclable materials being reclaimed; two, helps an invisible community that already finds it hard to integrate into society and work; three, increases efficiency for recycling centers by reducing the amount of rejected containers; and four, strengthens relationships between recycling centers and canners.
Even more than a way to onboard and help canners, Sift is a platform to encourage reclamation and recycling of materials that are thrown out. We see it as being most applicable to education, where teachers and parents can teach children about recycling.
Here’s a quick walk-through of how the Sift system works. A new canner shows up at recycling center. The staff at the center recognize that she is new, and loans her a scanner for a nominal deposit. The canner then wears the scanner on her daily canning runs. Much of the time, she easily eyeballs a container and recognizes that it is returnable. Occasionally, though, she encounters one that she’s unfamiliar with and cannot read the label. She points the scanner at the barcode, presses the button, and instantly learns that the container cannot be recycled. This saves her bag space and bag weight for other valuable containers. Over time, the canner gains a strong intuition on which containers cannot be returned. She gives the scanner back to the recycling center, which reimburses her monetary deposit
The scanner is the main device that helps canners determine which containers to discard. A single button serves as an on/off switch and also the scanning switch. The canner uses the device to scan the barcode on the container, and the color of the light (green versus red) and the tone of the sound confirm if the container is returnable or not. The functionality was deliberately kept simple because the canner works fast in the early hours, screens tons of containers, and just needs to know in the moment if it is returnable or not. They pick the containers they know are returnable, scan the ones they are unsure about, and move quickly on to the next trashcan.
Behind this yes/no scanning interaction lies more complex technology. The scanner needs to have a built-in database of recyclable containers to check each new barcode against. This database is maintained through the management system described in the next section.
The form of the scanner is designed to fit the highly mobile, all-action nature of canning. It is to be worn around the neck of the canner, easily accessible at anytime while the canner is bent over rummaging through the trash. It is hardy to accommodate any kind of banging. The form is utilitarian, non-flashy: making it something not worth stealing but instead is meant to be returned.
Instead of being just a handheld scanner, Sift is a broader platform that includes the canning centers as stakeholders. The distribution of scanners is done through the center, and this is where the databases within the scanners are kept up to date. Through an easy-to-use web management console and a charging strip, the center tracks their network of scanners, and updates all scanners for new containers or changing state rules.
Today, canners and the recycling centers they go to do not have much of a relationship. The distribution system of these Sift scanners allows canning centers to establish a stronger relationship with its community of canners. The scanners help onboard new canners and make their learning process easier, while the canners see the recycling center as being more supportive. By ensuring that canners only bring in recyclable containers, the Sift platform also reduces the costs of recycling centers checking, rejecting, and discarding bad containers.
The idea of Sift was born out of an extensive research effort. The team did interviews and desk research to fully understand the canning ecosystem. We visited Sure We Can, a canning center and community in Brooklyn, where we interviewed the founder, Ana, and her staff, who showed us how they received containers and managed inventory. We observed canners in action, and talked to canners such as the “King of Cans.” We also spoke to others who interacted with canners regularly, such as the doormen of NYC apartments.
Many insights emerged. We learnt about the ways and the tools of the canner: shopping carts to make it easier to move large loads, gloves for hygiene, and separate bags for different container types. We also learnt about their hardships: having their “stolen” carts confiscated by merchants, the pains of canning in the winter, and the canning center’s own difficulties coordinating with beverage distributors to hand over the containers. We learnt about how complex the entire container recycling system is, and we also had preconceived notions of canning dispelled.
The particular observation that led to us conceiving Sift was one where we learnt that canners had trouble identifying which containers to discard. To address this problem, the canning center had a giant poster tacked up with pictures of returnable containers. The poster could not be carried with the canners though: this led to canners wasting their efforts picking up non-returnable containers, only to realize their mistakes when they arrived at the center.
Sift for Education
Beyond just being a system for canning centers to onboard new canners, we believe that the Sift platform can be leveraged to educate children on what can be returned. Instead of using physical scanners, the scanning interaction could be built into an app and released on the App Store. The app would utilize the mobile device’s camera to scan barcodes. Teachers and parents could encourage children to scan the containers they use, identify the ones that can be returned, and return them for money. They can then educate children about the canners, who do this as their daily jobs. In the process, children learn about the value that can be found in trash, and build empathy for the invisible economy of canners.
Team Contributors: Gahee Kang, Kohzy Koh
Barcode scanner prototype
In 2012 I started a small production ceramics studio making functional and decorative objects and had a line of products featured for sale on Gilt.com.