Grandma's Magical Computer | MIT MEDIA LAB Design Workshop

Research Areas

  • Tangible User Interaction
  • Human Computer Interaction

My Role

  • Defining and designing interactions
  • Hardware and software programming
  • Communicating Arduino to Server
  • Implementing Google API's
  • Defining Use-cases


  • Anirudh Sharma (Masters, MIT Media Lab)
  • Valentin Huen (PhD. Student, MIT Media Lab)

Tools And Technologies Used

  • Arduino
  • .NET Framework
  • RFID Sensors and tags
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Paintbrushes and cardboards

The Problem

Novice computer users, especially old people have difficulty in interacting with computers due to lack of familiar affordances.


The Goal

Define new interactions which aid novice users to use computers by leveraging familiar affordances.



We explored alternative interaction techniques pertaining to traditional desktops. Due to desktop's limited form factor with attached keyboard and mouse, humans cannot utilize their full capabilities. The non-tangible nature of these devices further alleviates the issue. To tackle these issues, we created tangible artifacts providing familiar affordances, which humans have known from a long time. By interacting with these tangible objects placed in the physical world, users can perform basic operations in the digital world. We call this operation tangible mapping. A perfect use case of tangible mapping is sending e-mail. Just write the content of email on a notepad and insert the note into the tangible post box, bring the ID of the person near the post box and Voila! The physical note is sent as an email. 


Design Process

1. User research, ideation, individual and group brainstorming.



    2. Deciding user interactions and prototyping strategy



    3. Designing real world look-alike tangible artifacts using cardboads, paints and brushes



    4. Hardware assembly and software coding (Arduino)


    5. Embodying RFID into tangible artifacts


    6. Final Protoype


    Use cases and usage

    Sending e-mail:  We designed a tangible post box which looks like traditional post-box:

    Email is sent in 3 steps:

        1.    User can write/ draw/ sketch any content on a small sized notepad.

        2.  Then they place their note as shown in image.

        3.   Then the user has to bring RFID card of the person whom they want            to send the mail to.                                           

    Voila! The mail is sent.



    How this works?

    Internally, the postbox has a camera facing the opening of box. Post box also has a RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) reader. Whenever a user places the note inside box and brings the RFID of the person whom he wishes to send mail, the RFID reader identifies the tag and camera captures the picture of note. This information is sent to centralized server or Desktop via Arduino Board connected to the post box. The server identifies the person and sends the image of note to the person using Google mail API’s.


    Play music/ browse gallery:

    Older generations are used to file/folders and cd/dvd players to watch pictures and play music. We designed a fake music player containing RFID sensor, which looks like a real one. It also supports forward/rewind and volume control. We also designed tangible CD’s, which can be inserted to play music and watch images on their desktop without exploring the complex file system on the desktop.


    Skype calls using magic ball/ Abracadabra!!

    To tackle the problem of Skype calling, we designed a tangible ball, which provides a element of surprise, but gets the job done.

    Skype call is done in one step:

        1. User has to bring the ID of the person they want to Skype with near            the magic ball.





    How this works?

    Internally, the magic ball has a RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) reader. Whenever a user brings the RFID of the person whom he wishes to call, the RFID reader identifies the tag. This information is sent to Desktop via Arduino Board placed inside the ball and connected to desktop. The server identifies the person and Skype calls the user using Skype API.