Part II: Future Health, Future Cities – Intel Physical Computing Module at IDE

by Chiara Garattini & Han Pham

In the first of our Future Health, Future Cities blog series, we posed questions around the future of health in the urban environment. Today we look at some of the projects undertaken by students on the physical computing module on the Innovation Design and Engineering Masters programme run in conjunction between Imperial College and the Royal College of Arts (RCA).

Health and Safety in the Workplace

The first group of project is related to the important issue of health and safety in the workplace.

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Figure 1. Circadian Glasses


Christina Petersen’s ‘circadian glasses’ considered the dangers of habitual strains and stressors at work, particularly for individuals in careers with prolonged evening hours or excessively in light-poor conditions, which may have a cumulative effect on health over time. Although modern technologies allow for the convenience of working at will regardless of external environmental factors, what is the effect on the body’s natural systems? In particular, how does artificial lighting affect the circadian rhythm?

Her prototyped glasses use two LED screens that can adjust the type of light to help users better adjust their circadian rhythms and sleep patterns. The concept also suggests a potentially valuable intersection of personal wearable and personal energy usage (lighting) in the future workplace. Unlike sunglasses, the glasses are also a personal, portable source of light – an interesting concept in workplace sustainability, given the majority of energy expenditure is in heating/cooling systems and lighting.

While there is room to make the user context and motivation more plausible, the prototype literally helps shed light on meaningful, and specific, design interventions for vulnerable populations such as nurses or night shift workers for personal and workplace sustainability over time.

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Figure 2. Smart Workplace Urinal


As we often see within our work, a city’s hubs for healthcare resources and information often are informally ubiquitous and present within the community before one reaches the hospital. Jon Rasche’s smart urinal was created to decrease the queue and waiting time at the doctor’s office even before you arrived, by creating more personal, preventative care via lab testing at the workplace.

The ‘Smart Urinal’ created an integrated service with a urinal-based sensor and a display unit, QR codes, and a mobile application (Figure 2). The system also considered concerns around patient privacy by intentionally preventing private patient information from entering the cloud. Instead, each of the possible results links to a QR codes leading to a static web page with the urinalysis information.

While the system might be perceived as too public for comfort, it connects to the technological trends toward for more personalised and accessible testing (Scanadu’s i-Phone ready urinalysis strip is a good example). It also raises the consideration of how to design for the connected ecosystem of responsibility, accountability and care – how can different environments influence, impact and support an individual’s wellbeing? How can personalised, connected care be both anticipatory, preventative, and immediate, yet, private?

Pollutants Awareness

The dynamic life of a city often means it’s in a state of constant use and regeneration – but many of the resulting pollutants are invisible to the naked eye. How do we know when the microscopic accumulation of pollutants will be physically harmful? How can we make the invisible visible in a way that better engages us with our environment?

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Figure 3. Air Pollution Disk


Maria’s Noh’s ‘Air Pollution Disc’ (Figure 3) considers how we can design for information to be more physical, visible and intuitive by creating a mechanical, physical filter on our immediate environment driven by local air quality data using polarised lenses.

It’s a very simple mechanism with an elegant design that ties to some of our earlier cities research into perceptual bias around air quality substituting numeric data for physical feedback (e.g., although pollutants may not always be visible, we equate pollution with visual cues). Noh suggested two use scenarios – one was to affix device to a window of a home to understand pollution at potential destinations, such as the school; another was to potentially influence driver behaviour by providing feedback on relationship of driving style to pollution.

While there are some future nuances and challenges to either case, the immediacy of the visualisation for both adults and children, may make it interesting to see the Air Pollution Disc as a play-based, large-scale urban installation of physicalizing the hidden environment of the city.

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Figure 4. Ghost 7.0


The pollutants category relates to the prototype for ‘Ghost 7.0’ by student Andre McQueen, a smart clothing system that addresses how weather and air quality affect health. The idea tries to tackle breathing problems, e.g. due to allergies, associated to weather changes. The device (Figure 4) embedded in the running clothing is designed to communicate with satellites to receive updates on weather conditions and signal warnings under certain circumstances.

When a significant meteorological change is signalled, the fabric would change colour and release negative ions (meant to help breathing under certain conditions). The student also investigated oxidisation to fight pollutants, but could not overcome the problem of the releasing some small amounts of CO2.

What we found interesting in this project was the idea that a wearable device would do something to help against poor air quality, rather than just passively detecting the problem. Too many devices currently are focusing on the latter task, leaving the user wondering about the actionability of the information they receive.

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Figure 5. Dumpster diving 'smart glove'


The last selected project for this section is a project on dumpster diving by student Yuri Klebanov. Yuri built a system to make dumpster diving safer (by creating a ‘smart glove’ that reacts to chemicals) and more effective (by creating a real time monitoring system that uploads snapshots of what is thrown away on a website for users to monitor).

While the latter idea is interesting but presents several challenges (e.g. privacy around taking pictures of people throwing away things), what we liked about the project was the ‘smart glove’ idea. The solution device was to boil fabric gloves with cabbage, making them capable of changing colour when in contact with acid, liquids, fats and so on (Figure 5). This frugal technology solution made us reflect on how smart is ‘smart’? Technology overkill is not always the best solution to a problem, and something simple is always preferable to something more complex that provides the same (or little incremental) results.

In the third and final blog of our Future Cities, Future Health blog series we will look at the final theme around Mapping Cities (Creatively) which will showcase creative ideas of allocating healthcare resources and using sound to produce insights into complex health data.

Read Part I

Read Part III

*Concepts described are for investigational research only.

**Other names and brands may be claimed as the property of others.