Student innovations at Made In Brunel

Marek Pawlowski, PMNThis article by Marek Pawlowski, founder of MEX and Editorial Director at PMN, highlights the mobile innovations on display at the annual Brunel University graduate show in London.

Brunel University is hosting it’s 4th annual ‘Made in Brunel‘ exhibition at the Islington Business Design Centre this week and there are several mobile innovations on show. The event highlights the final projects undertaken students before they graduate and it is a rich source of new ideas and talent.

Fergus Bisset’s Mobile Immersive Learning

One of the most interesting exhibits is an immersive mobile education system designed by Fergus Bisset. The prototype service engages the user in a virtual reality environment where they can learn the techniques of Nordic skiing. It is powered by a Nokia N95 linked to Vuzix digital eyewear and makes extensive use of the N95’s motion sensing capabilities.

Fergus Bisset's Mobile Immersive Learning

The ski lesson is displayed through the Vuzix digital eyewear and the user performs the ski training exercises while holding the N95 in their hand. The phone senses how accurately they are mimicking the technique of the instructor and coaches them through the basics.

Bisset settled on the Nordic skiing example for two reasons: firstly, many newcomers to the sport suffer from injuries because it requires unfamiliar muscle usage and, secondly, because he is also a professional ski instructor. However, the technology could theoretically be applied to any sport or even developed into a pure gaming experience.

I spoke with Bisset at the show and was impressed by both of his understanding of user experience requirements and his genuinely innovative usage of new technology.

Fergus Bisset's Mobile Immersive Learning

The Vuzix digital eyewear was short-listed for a 2008 MEX Mobile User Experience Award, but commercial usage of the product has not yet extended beyond fairly passive examples of content consumption. Bisset’s solution adds an engaging layer of user interaction and should appeal to the emerging ‘Wii generation’ of gamers looking for a more active experience.

Andrew Kent’s Smart Tag

Andrew Kent is showing his Smart Tag system. This uses electronic paper technology to create intelligent product tags for the in-store environment. Rather than displaying a simple paper price tag, the Smart Tag system is able to show more detailed information and can be updated over-the-air using Bluetooth technology. This allows for instant discounting and special offers, as well as providing additional information about the products features and provenance through the tag interface.

Andrew Kent's Smart Tag

The Smart Tags also double as security devices, sounding an alarm if someone tries to remove the product from the store without paying for it at the checkout.

Kent’s other project is My Bug, a small Bluetooth accessory which turns a user’s mobile phone into a remote control for PCs and other desktop devices.

Matt Collins’ ‘Here are our journeys’

There are several location-based services on display at the show. The most innovative is Matt Collins’ ‘Here are our journeys’ project. Collins’ system keeps track of where users are listening to particular tracks and enables members to receive music suggestions based on their location.

Matt Collins' 'Here are our journeys'

The prototype employs GPS receivers connected to iPods to collect data, but with a growing number of GPS-enabled mobile phones on the market, I suspect a commercial version would concentrate on this wider user base.

The concept of linking music to a location is not new: every city has street corners where particular musicians can be found busking or clubs which are know for a specific sound. Collins’ approach extends this behaviour to every part of the map, allowing users to tap into an invisible layer of music experiences overlaid on the city grid.

We are seeing more and more of these kind of services emerging and I find them fascinating. The best generic description I have heard of this type of application is ‘The Layer of Enchantment’, a term coined by Kevin Slavin of New York-based mobile agency Area/Code when I met with him in July 2007. The ‘layer’ to which he was referring comprises the growing body of digital information linked to particular geographic co-ordinates. In the future, we will increasingly find that everywhere we go, we are surrounding by an invisible layer of digital enchanment, with the potential to provide entertainment, information and services – the handset, by virtue of its mobility and ubiquity is the natural choice for tapping into this.

Max Butcher’s Forget-me-not

Max Butcher, another of the students, has developed a system to address a rather more tangible requirement – preventing theft. Butcher’s ‘Forget-me-not’ project uses Bluetooth-based identity tags which can be attached to a bag, laptop or pretty much any other valuable object. The tag is paired to your mobile phone, so as soon as the item is moved outside a user-specified distance, an alarm sounds on both the tag and the user’s phone.

Max Butcher's Forget-me-not

The designer has implemented some neat touches, such as making use of existing Nokia chargers to power the tags, eliminating the need to carry yet another power cord with youy. Butcher has also recognised the role of aesthetics, producing the prototype in a variety of attractive colours and with a cool design which gives the ‘Forget-me-nots’ a collectable quality that will encourage users to purchase several at a time.

Mayo Nissen’s cable tidies for tethered nomads

Mayo Nissen used his graduate project to tackle the issue of cable management head-on. He recognised the pain felt by many mobile executives when they open their laptop bag to find their mobile charger tangled with their computer cord and their audio headphones knotted with their USB cables.

Mayo Nissen's cable tidies for tethered nomads

Nissen’s elegant solution is a multi-coloured series of plastic ‘cable tidies’. At first glance, they look like stylised sharks, with fins and a central spine. These protusions are used to safely wrap your cables, ensuring they don’t become tangled in your bag.

Nissen believes them to be the solution to the irony facing so many mobile workers – technology has enabled them to work from anywhere, but there are still restricted by physicality of their power cords and wireline connectors. He coins the term ‘tethered nomads’ to describe this group.

Nissen also participated in one of several brand-inspired projects organised by Brunel, developing a prototype electronic ink-based roll-up newspaper for The Guardian. (PDF portfolio)

Brand challenges

Other brands challenging Brunel’s talented students to come up with new innovations include The Times newspaper, JCB industrial tools group, the Levi Strauss fashion label and Skype.

The Skype project led to some interesting mobile innovations, with an entry from David Bottom using biometric sensors to add human feeling to Skype instant messaging. Bottom looked at how instant messaging conversations often cause confusion between the participants because simple text messages can be easily mis-interpretted. His concept uses a special keyboard to sense a variety of biometric information about the user and translate it into a format which adds an emotional dimension to the conversation.

The ‘Made in Brunel‘ exhibition runs is running until 17:00 today, Thursday 12th June, at the Business Design Centre in Islington. If you have an opportunity to visit, I’d thoroughly recommend doing so. In addition to the mobile-themed projects mentioned above, there are also a much larger number of general innovations on show, which are both inspiring and a testament to the talent emerging in the next generation of British engineers.

Harry Osborne’s Mr Chips chair

Harry Osborne's Mr Chips chair

A particular favourite of mine was the eco-conscious and stylish ‘Mr Chips’ chair, which uses chipboard – a material previously shunned by designers as cheap and unattractive, to produce a remarkably cool looking product. All great designers produce a chair at some point during their careers and student Harry Osborne has grabbed the bull by the horns and done so right at the beginning of his design journey.

Calling all student designers

On a related note, we were amazed and delighted by the quality of innovations submitted to the Student category of our 2008 MEX Mobile User Experience Awards (the Student prize was eventually awarded to Chris Browne for his MyView augmented reality application). I’d love to hear from any other students out there who are doing innovative work in mobile, so please drop me an email if you have some new ideas you’d like to share with the MEX community. Also, pre-registration is now open for the 2009 MEX Awards.

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