Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Reily Storyteller: Background Research

This week's assignment asks us to "de-technologize" a product, or in other words, design and build a product using appropriate technology for the rest of the world. I have been driving myself crazy for the last 5 days tossing around "non-technology" product ideas. My approaches to this point, including some preliminary results, are included below.

Background Research: Designing a new product is not difficult, but designing one that people may actually need is. In an effort to get a better understanding of what people actually need, I took to the internet! Early on, I discovered what I think is a very important point (from bread.org link below), which is that I as an American (or Westerner) need to be careful that I don't look at a problem from the developing world with a Western frame of mind. Just a few notable links...

Goal-Directed Task Analysis: This is a common Human Factors Engineering technique used to abstract a person's mental model by analyzing their goals, sub-goals, tasks, and informational needs associated with a workflow. I took this approach because it essentially ignores tools and technology as it aims to extract the person's mental picture and objectives. My hope is that it will prove successful in revealing gaps or opportunities for non-technical solutions. To this point, this approach has been helpful, but it has not provided the idea that I'm looking for. Sketches from the GDTA will be uploaded and posted soon.

Some results from the GDTA work include:

  • Wooden "Video Game" System for enjoyment of children (Sketch to be included)
  • Mechanical "Movie" projector for entertainment and story-telling (Sketch to be included)
  • Mechanical News, Weather, and Sports projector (Sketch to be included)

Ethnographic Research (Sort-of): While I have not had the opportunity to immerse myself in the daily life of a person in a developing country, I have attempted to illicit similar insights by observing people in my own environment and then "de-technologizing" the observations. For example, I have been keeping a keen eye on the types of activities and chores that my wife is doing around the house (and helping out too, of course). Every dial, button, or handle she touches, I try to think about the alternative approaches or tools that could have been used to complete the same task.

Some results from the ethnographic work include:
  • Washing Machine + See-Saw
  • Fruit Collector + Juicer 
  • Mechanical Blender
and on the 8th day...
After a week or so of throwing around ideas and sketching (designs to be uploaded), I decided to go forward with a wooden animation projector (i.e. a "de-technologized" movie projector).  Given the popularity of story-telling around the world, and my experience as a professional animator, this seems like a good fit... plus, it sounds like fun to make.

When I started designing this product, my intention was for it to be a wooden animation projector. Half of the design included a simple vertical wheel made of wood of which I could affix a wide roll of makeshift film. The other half of the design was a flashlight mount that would sit inside the wheel, aligned to shine light through the film and onto a wall.

The plan for the movie was to create a single looping animation, say a running dog, where spinning the wheel would simply play the animation over and over again on a loop. In addition to the primary animation, I wanted to attempt to build a second horizontal wheel that could contain a background image that would add the illusion of the character's running motion.

On Sunday, September 18, 2009, I got up at 8:00, made myself a cup of coffee and went directly into my workshop to start production on my wooden animation projector. Little did I know that I would be down there until 4:30 in the afternoon, leaving piles of sawdust and wood scraps in my path (pictures below). By the end of the day, the entire product was built, from initial cut to final coat of stain and brass knobs. Little did I know that on Day 2, the animation projector would evolve into something very different.

On the evening of Monday, September 19, 2009, it was time to begin movie production. I had a dry-erase marker and roll of painters tape to plot out my animation manually on the film before advancing to permanent marker. I started around 8:00pm, but work went on long after Beck (and even the dog) went off to bed. Despite my 2 1/2 years producing 2D medical animations for pharmaceutical companies, I just couldn't get my scribbles to animate. I knew this was a problem with the speed of the wheel, distance of the light from the film, and scale of the images, but I just couldn't nail it. After a few hours of tweaking, attempts at animation were done.

It was midnight, my animations were awful, and I had given up on this idea of this movie projection working... until it dawned on me: people across the world care about storytelling. it crosses cultural boundaries, transcends language (if told visually), promotes creativity, and most importantly, doesn't require animation.  It was this revelation that made me realize that the dry-erase marker I was using for sketching and planning was EXACTLY how the stories should be built. Once I thought of the wheel as a dry-erase carousal for projecting drawings, the wooden product took on a whole new purpose. At that point, it went from being a rather pointless looping animation to a customizable story-teller with scene-by-scene images. I figured a good traditional fable would be an appropriate story to start with, so I drew up Aesop's The Tortoise and The Hare.

Introducing the Reily Storyteller. Pictures below (note that my workshop is usually organized... like I said, it was a long day)


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Ironically, I am most impressed with the successful fabrication of a wooden ring for this project. Do tell. What methods did you use? It looks great.