This project aims to bring transparency to so-called 'smart’ objects. It is a theoretical product, a smart-speaker (like Google Home or Amazon Echo), that is completely frank about how it’s made and how it operates, and therefore its environmental and social impact.
THe project critically highlights the darker side of our current ‘black box’ gadgets, while offering a near-future glimpse of a more responsible product...
Firstly, it has been designed to be disassembled easily and intuitively, without tools and with clear instructions embedded on the device. This encourages repair, upgrade and recycling – all essential for longevity and sustainability.
Secondly, it is transparent in what it is actually doing for us: it is honest about giving biased advice or targeted advertising, and blurts out a warning when it is listening in on our conversations.
e-Waste is the fastest growing waste stream on the planet. It is estimated that we dispose of around 50M tonnes of electronic products per year, worldwide, and only 10–30% of that is recycled. This problem is, in part, caused by the pathetic lifespan of most consumer electronics, which is turn is caused by (planned) obsolescence. Most gadgets of today are designed as impenetrable ‘black boxes’ that consumers have no idea how to open to repair or recycle. So when a screen cracks or a battery wears down, the whole device goes to landfill.
The product aims to ‘close loops’ by being repairable, upgradable and recyclable. The key to this is a quick and easy disassembly. This is achieved through clear instructions labels and being able to take it apart without any tools. All components have been designed to be securely fastened with either rubber bands or snap-fit slides. These intuitive gestures are playful and inviting, encouraging repair – the exact opposite of the black boxes. To start, simply remove the first rubber band.
Today’s smart speakers have numerous hidden issues that most consumers are not aware of. In some ways they are sensor-filled Trojan Horses that we invite into our homes in exchange for convenience. Perhaps the most obvious concern is privacy. By definition the devices must always be listening to everything. Even if you trust Google or Amazon to ignore everything but the intended commands, do you trust those that could hack into it?
On that note, the Internet of Things has serious privacy concerns due to cheap thirdy-party devices (e.g. smart lightbulbs or cameras) that lack security and function as an open gateway into the wider network. Another hidden problem is that all responses will be inherently biased towards the small subset of society who engineers this kind of device.
In the spirit of transparency, I wanted to make it totally clear when Frank is able to listen to you and when he is able to speak. The simplest way I could find to do this was to use large rubber stoppers that would physically block off the speaker and microphones without any doubt. These could activate electronic switches so Frank knew when to digitally switch off. Simple details like this give the user peace of mind and trust in the device.
Unlike other smart assistants, Frank acknowledges the darker side of these technologies by giving friendly reminders to the user. Some sound sarcastic; others more practical. See the video (near top of page) for examples of these.
I started the project by critically examining a Google Home, from a sustainability standpoint. I fully disassembled it to get a sense of how it works, and in doing so realised how unlikely it is that it would ever be repaired or recycled. So I took the basic components that made it funtion (PCBs and speaker, pictured below) and started designing my new device around these.
This provided some decent limitations as all of my new parts and fastenings had to actually work with these real components. It also meant the device would always function as a Google Home, so I then explored how to ‘hack’ the responses with Google Actions, effectively changing its personality from ‘Google’ to Frank.
The project has consumed hundreds of sketches and dozens of physical models, then hours of CAD refinement. It was crucial that all the mechanisms worked well enough to present a convincing argument. At the same time, the overall form and aesthetics had to convey the personality of Frank.
Once the design was finalised, I made a full prototype using the RCA workshops. The inner housings were 3D printed and then sprayed. The outer ‘glass’ casings were cast in epoxy from a silicone mould that I made (from a CNC’d master) in the Resin workshop. The rubber plugs were cast in silicone (with black and white pigments) from 3D-printed moulds.