E-mailbox

bridge the information gap between two generations.

Technology changes life, but not all of us can enjoy the convenience and unique services brought about by technology. Internet and mobile phones have become the major means of communication among the new generation, yet the elderly are still accustomed to the traditional letter-writing style. So, how can design bridge the generation gap brought about by the development of technology ? How can humanity find its way in the forms of hi-tech products? "E-mailbox" is one trial ...

Project Process

  • 1.Understand
    Understand
    Understand the problem
    The initial stage mainly focused on the needs of the elderly that were not well supported by existing technology, and pinpointed those that this project wished to design for and to research.
  • 2.Study
    Study
    Develop a deeper understanding
    Stage Two involved fleshing out the details of how the elderly pursue and achieve those particular aspirations discovered in the last stage. In this stage, I conducted several interviews to find out their behaviours in particular contexts.
  • 3.Design
    Deisgn
    What should the goals be?
    The third stage was primarily a design or creative phase. I wanted to associate the two ways of communication, old and new, using existing technology. The output involved the overall logic of the system, technical solutions, as well as the design for the exterior appearance.
  • 4.Build
    Build
    Quick prototyping
    This phase was making ideas tangible. It involved development of the software and the hardware. Furthermore, it involved the process of manufacturing the “form” of the product.
  • 5.Evluate
    Evluate
    Test and collect feedback
    The fifth stage involved evaluation of what has been built. I invited several people to try the prototype and examined whether a useful value has been delivered. Feedbacks and suggestions were collected for later iterative process.

Understand

Project Challenge:

Well-being of the Chinese Elderly

Background Research

China is now facing the challenge of an aging society with a quickly increasing elder population.

Efforts are seen to improve the living conditions for the elderly from the government, companies and NGOs. Useful products such as medical devices and motorized wheelchairs are gaining popularity.

However, these efforts are mainly focused on the basic needs of the elderly, to ensure their physical well-being and safety. Few products/services are designed to meet their desire for emotional expression and communication.

Study

To have a deeper understanding, I spent a week interviewing a group of seniors and their children. Here are the summary and key finding.

Interview Summary

16 participants were divided into two groups by age.

Information gap formed by adoptions of different technologies

The internet and mobile phones have become the major means of communication among my generation, yet the elderly like my grandparents are still accustomed to the old ones – the traditional letter and the telegram. Therefore, an information gap is formed by the different communication technologies we adopt.

Design

My objective is to create a product that can bridge the information gap between two generations. That is, to create a new communication method by associating technologies they get used to.

Opportunity
Phone Call

Phone call is the major means of communication between the two generations. Although it’s immediate, it has several drawbacks:

1. Expensive

Most of the elderly live in the downtown far from their children. Long-distance calls charge a lot.

2. Time Issue

It is sometimes hard to coordinate a shared period of time for both generations.


E-mailbox

My idea is to connect the traditional letter form with email, so that to create a form of slightly delayed communication.

Build

Electronics

The hardware configuration is based on the open-source electronics prototyping platform – “Arduino”. There’re two major components needed in the hardware. One is the Ethernet component, which will automatically check email. If there’s a new email, the micro-controller will pull the data from the Internet and send it to the printer component. The printer component is the second component which will print whatever passed from the MCU. So it’s not so difficult to hook all things up:

Arduino + Ethernet Shield

The Arduino Ethernet Shield provides a perfect solution. With the Arduino Ethernet Shield, an Arduino board can connect to the internet easily.


Terminal Printer

For the printer component, lots of in-expensive terminal printers are available in the market and can be driven by the micro-controller. Most oftenly seen is the kind of printer that print shopping receipts (POS). They use heat instead of ink or a cartridge of any sort.

Fabrication

The process of manufacturing included two parts: wooden shell fabrication and CNC mockup.

Wooden Shell Fabrication

I found a local DIY wood fabricaton workshop and spent two days producing the wooden shell by myself.

CNC Mockup

The inner box was made by CNC modeling. I provided Pro-E model files and specifications to a small company which offers rapid prototyping services.

Evaluate

After building the prototype, I invited several people to try it. The functional features work well and they were impressed by this kind of tangible communication. My work was shown at the graduation exhibition and also received lots of positive feedbacks.

Feedback& Future Work

“ Can I reply to your letter?”

The communication of the current design is one way only. That is, people can get new email printed from the box but cannot reply to the letter directly. So the future version may allow people to reply to received letter.

“ It would be great if it’s wireless!”

The wireless solution is viable and has been considered in the design stage. However, the cost of wifi or 3G network is high. But I’m definitely sure that the wireless technology will become affordable in near future.

“ Is there a market?”

Some people are concerned about the fact that more and more seniors in developing countries are encouraged to learn how to use computers and the letter system would be outmoded ultimately. As a result, the market demand of this product is decreasing. I agree with that. On the other hand, I think the information gap between generations is a lasting issue and there should be a sustained effort towards it.