ITP411: an SMS-based phone directory

It’s often lamented around ITP that there isn’t a master phone directory that allows students to contact each other easily via phone. Email addresses are usually simple to find, but sometimes email is neither the fastest nor easiest way to reach other students directly.

In the past, students have attempted to create a Google Doc, or master list, to which all students can add their phone numbers, but this solution has proved ineffective in terms of participation because such web-based solutions make the phone numbers both accessible and inaccessible at the same time. When one is using a computer to access the Google Doc, all the numbers are easily accessible in an open-book format, making it easy for someone to sit down and copy all the numbers at the same time. However, such documents prove inaccessible when people are on the go, accessing the web from their phone. It can be difficult and time-consuming to dig up a web-based document, let alone trawl through it, when all you’re looking for is a single phone number.

With this in mind, Noah King and I created an SMS-based ITP phone directory that allows students to search for specific names and phone numbers via text message.

We called our service ITP411 and launched it last night. ITP411 utilizes PHP, MySql and TextMarks, and enables users to do the following:

  • Add their name and phone number to the directory.
  • Search for names in the directory. They can do this by putting the “@” symbol in front of the name they are searching for.
  • Edit their listing in the directory. To edit a listing, users put the “!” symbol in front of the new name.

About 25 out of 230 ITP students have already signed up for ITP411 – not bad for the first 24 hours! We’ll continue to improve the service as we receive feedback.

Cabinets of Wonder: The Bronx Zoo

My first exhibition trip for Cabinets of Wonder was the Bronx Zoo.

I walked into the Bronx Zoo through the Asia Gate, the closest zoo entrance to the subway. That entrance, I later discovered, is nowhere near as grand as the main zoo entrance by the parking lots. Families with young kids accounted for most of the visitors that day – so assuming that most of these travel via car, the hierarchy of entrances seemed to make sense.

Entering via the main entrance feels like one is approaching the largest metropolitan zoo in the United States; entering through the tree-lined, slightly disheveled Asia Gate feels more like one is meandering through a national park.

The Zoo is basically two huge loops, one long loop around the outside and a shorter one within that for visitors to walk around (or shuttle or monorail ride, if you pay extra – and I’m sure a lot of families do). While there’s lots to see along the way, designated stops occur along the trails by way of benches, clearings, different types of fences and all kinds of media. These stops provide a gathering place for visitors to relax, read, interact and learn in their groups, and create opportunities for catch-ups. Unlike what I observed in the museums, visitors tend not to leave these spots until everyone has arrived.

Each stop at the Bronx Zoo is a different experience, and this works really well. I felt a sense of information overload by the end of many exhibits, but I was never bored in the next exhibit as a result.The tigers exhibit was awesome, and people stayed in there for a long time. Here’s why:

  • It enabled visitors to get super-close to a real tiger. A tiger was sleeping right up against the hip-level glass, not two inches away from our fingertips, and a toddler’s dad plonked her on a ledge at the visitor side of the glass where she “stroked” the tiger as it slept.
  • It encouraged interaction. Once you get close to the tigers as the toddler did, there’s a ton of education to be had via a number of interactive exhibits – jump on the poacher’s truck and explore; watch a video of prominent public figures (Bill Clinton, Mayor Bloomberg, Jerry Orbach, Glenn Close), along with kids, discuss why they love tigers and why they must be saved; a donation area where you can donate a coin and hear a tiger growl, or donate a bill and hear a tiger ROAR!

For most, I think, the Bronx Zoo is a full day out. That’s good, because it’s kind of expensive – $16 per adult for general admission, and $27 for the “full experience,” which includes the monorail and entrance to attractions like the gorillas and Dora the Explorer’s 4D (?!) experience. There are numerous cafes, restrooms, seats and stops along the way for tired families to relax, chat and be educated.

Sensor Readings, In and Out

This week, I plugged myself into my Arduino and monitored a number of readings to see how my body reacted to events over a period of one hour.

I turned off the air conditioner and monitored readings from the following three sensors while sitting with my laptop:

  • Galvanic Skin Response Sensor, consisting of two pieces of copper soldered to wires, that I held my left index and middle fingers on to measure how much I sweat. I was pretty surprised and amused to see how the readings changed over time.
  • Temperature Sensor, to record temperature in my environment. These readings increased while the A/C was turned off.
  • Photocell, to record ambient light. Unsurprisingly, this didn’t change much. I didn’t move, it was dark outside, and the indoor lights provided a stably-lit environment.

The info was all fed into Processing to create a graph, and all the readings were recorded into a text file over the course of the hour. It wasn’t the most exciting experiment in the world, but it was good to get back into the swing of using an Arduino.

Next, I’d like to play around a bit with a heart rate monitor to see what gets me (or someone else) going. Or maybe I should get myself to the gym…



Once upon a time, I lived on the Upper East Side…

I’d been meaning to visit a museum or three for some some end-of-summer inspiration before returning to ITP. This semester, Cabinets of Wonder provides a second chance, along with a gentle, much-needed kick in the posterior, to do this.

On Monday, I headed to the Upper East Side to check out Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum, Smithsonian Institution and The Jewish Museum.

Cooper-Hewitt, housed in the grand mansion of Andrew Carnegie, is described on its website as “the only museum in the nation devoted exclusively to historic and contemporary design.” At the museum gate, a sign announcing the National Design Triennial: Why Design Now? exhibition greeted me in Clearview Hwy typeface, along a circular steel NYC bike rack that I would soon see on display inside (which may or may not have been for show). The building’s exterior and interior details appear well-preserved, save for a conservatory area housing the museum’s cafe.

A guard said “good morning” as I walked into the building. The receptionist’s words were “ten dollars” and “no maps, there are only two floors.” In the first exhibition room, I was startled by a loud yawn from the guard in the doorway. The other guards were pleasant.

The information plaques at Cooper-Hewitt are placed about a foot above the floor, which made it super-easy for children to read. I was the youngest visitor I saw that day, though – the other visitors, groups of 2-6 people 60+ years of age, along with a few middle-aged women walking around by themselves, were hunching over to read the information pertaining to each piece. The pieces were accessible designs that I think made connections with people who might not ordinarily recognize design in daily life – Etsy, ClearView Hwy and NYT information graphics are all part of the current exhibition.

One piece stood out, perhaps because I could see my reflection in it: a huge solar panel made of mirrors. It was the largest item in the room, beautifully shiny and looked nothing like any solar panel I’ve ever seen. Granted, the thing isn’t supposed to be mounted on a wall indoors, but I was glad that it had been, and it made me want to stare at it. Big, shiny objects get me every time, especially if I can see my face in them.

There was an interesting interaction between a tour guide and a group of three visitors, an Australian woman around 30 and her parents who left the guided group and walked into the room where I was standing:

Guide: Come back! We’re discussing one of the items you just passed.

Visitor: I think we’ll just deviate for a little bit. (guide leaves the room)

Visitor (whispers to parents, who appear very happy to peruse without the guide): I feel like she has a very different take on some things.

The Jewish Museum was a block away. Upon entering, I underwent a bag check and walked through a metal detector – and received three warm welcomes. The receptionist chit-chatted for a few minutes, where are you from, what are you studying at NYU, have a great time, et cetera.

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at the Jewish Museum – perhaps religious objects? Also, having been raised in a corner of Ireland, I figured I’d probably feel a little lost there. I was wrong.

The entire first floor of the museum housed South African Photographs by David Goldblatt. This place was busier than Cooper-Hewitt – several over-60′s milled around in small groups, along with a number of female individuals, some of who appeared to be students. Despite this, it seemed calmer than Cooper-Hewitt.

I was interested to see how the Holocaust would be presented. That area of the museum seemed still, and the lighting seemed dimmer. No-one spoke, and I forgot to take notes for a while. The only sound I remember hearing was that of an air-raid siren in a video depicting the 2-minute silence that takes place in Israel on Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day).

Onto the feminist painting exhibition, where I overheard a snippet of a couple’s conversation. The woman was sitting on a bench, looking at an oil painting. The man stood beside her, urging her to hurry on.

Man (pointing to the painting): That looks like what happens when I’m cleaning my brushes.

Woman: I don’t care. It’s pleasing to my eye.

Intrigued by a dark room with a few things glowing inside, I stumbled upon my favorite exhibition of the day: Fish Forms: Lamps by Frank Gehry. It’s a somewhat absurd exhibition of eight lamps, and I loved it. The darkness contrasted beautifully with the carefully moderated lighting in the other rooms, the glowing fish sculptures made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, and I saw Gehry from a fresh angle that I’d never considered. The plaque on the left-hand-side near the doorway informed visitors how Gehry had come to design these lamps (Formica Corporation asked Gehry to make something with the company’s new laminate product, and he broke a piece and came up with the lamp design). We were then left to ourselves in the intimate, dark space. The visitors around me seemed content to stay a while, looking at each piece. On the way out of the room, a video showing Gehry’s buildings pointed out how fish forms, structure and movement have informed his architecture.

Visiting Cooper-Hewitt and the Jewish Museum was a great way to spend Monday afternoon. I learned a ton. I was surprised that I enjoyed the Jewish Museum as much as I did. I think that Cooper-Hewitt might be interesting for kids and people who know little about design, but I feel that they have some work to do in terms of engaging their visitors a little more, as it felt a little like reading a design magazine at times, flipping from one page to the next. By the end of this class, I hope to figure out a few ways in which museums can better engage and encourage visitor interaction.


There’s a certain feeling of discomfort that I get when I stare at something, or in some cases, even think about something, for too long. I spent some time looking through optical illusions the other day and found myself feeling rather queasy by the end of it. At first, I viewed the illusions with a clear mind, seeing the illusions as they were intended to be viewed, allowing them to play with my perception.

Knowing that I was looking at illusions and allowing my mind to play tricks on me made me determined to see things as they truly are, and not as intended. I began to push myself to see the images as they were, to see past the illusion.

After spending a few minutes trying desperately to see past the illusions, I had to take a break from looking at the screen, because illusions felt like the kind of things that could drive me a bit bonkers. How can our brains slip up this easily on optical illusions? I suppose I was a little frustrated – but after looking at several optical illusions, I wondered how we might use such illusions for good, rather than using them to play with people’s minds. For many reasons, it’s uncomfortable to sense that you are being controlled by an external source.

As much as illusions might put me on the edge of my seat, I hope to find some interesting uses for them over the coming weeks.

Dan Ariely’s TED talk suggested that we might want to look a little further into how our minds are wired. It also made me consider how we, as interaction designers, can frame things to assure individuals of their autonomy and free will while they have, in fact, just a couple of choices. Or, maybe, no choice at all?