The Interactive Product Design Lab (IPDL) is a purpose-built lab designed to support both teaching and research by providing students access to investigate, explore and experiment with an extensive array of new technologies. Central to this concept, the School of Industrial Design has placed a high priority on the need to foster and develop interdisciplinary team-based collaboration with other educational and research units from across the campus including School of Interactive Computing, School of Mechanical Engineering, the Graphics Visualization and Usability Lab (GVU) and CATEA, the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access. The Interactive Product Design Lab was built in the summer of 2011 and opened in time for the Fall Semester 2011.

The Lab was partially funded by a competitive grant from the Institute Tech Fee Fund that is generated by a tuition surcharge to support the acquisition of advanced technological resources for the benefits of the students. Our lab is in fact part of a cluster of Invention Studios across campus – the brainchild of ME Prof Craig Forest – who has been working to provide technology clusters operated by the students for the students. Other parallel labs across campus offer capabilities ranging from water jet cutting and injection molding to wave soldering, laser cutting and CNC matching. The goal is to provide a comprehensive unified infrastructure that is readily available.

Unique Features

The Lab was specifically designed to support team-based collaboration – This lab features six workstations designed to accommodate 6 teams of 4 or 12 teams of 2. Each workstation is fully equipped for electronic design and fabrication with two sets of dedicated power supplies, soldering stations, meters and hand tools. The installation is designed around the award winning Steelcase media:scape system that serendipitously happened to closely match the design spec for the original lab concept.

The media:scape system provides videoconferencing and is capable of handling any resolution from Skype to Hi-Definition. Each workstation has been set-up with two-32 inch monitors that can be used to support a shared videoconference for the entire class or independent video links from each team at each workstation. In a teaching scenario the instructor can deliver video from a laptop or from the high-resolution overhead camera on the instructor station direct to each desktop… or conversely any one of the students can share their work direct from his or her desktop via the webcam at the workstation. Each workstation has a resident computer equipped with the basic instructional software, conferencing software and a range of bookmarked web-base resources. In addition, the media:scape system provides 4 ports at each workstation that allows any student to plug in his or her own laptop and share one or both of the 32” monitors.

We have already begun to use the conferencing capabilities to link project teams directly from the lab to the sponsor companies in other locations. This level of accessibility is encouraging more regular ‘in person’ discussion and more regular project reviews that all in all leads to a more fluid level of collaboration.

People in the Lab

I suppose we have taken quite an unconventional approach to lab access and lab use. As opposed to considering the Lab as an exclusive space for a particular group or task we have taken a more inclusive/shared approach and leveraged the lab to foster an integrated approach to research and exploration from the undergraduate level on up.

One of the first goals for building this lab was to bootstrap the skill and knowledge base of the Industrial Design students in the combined areas of sensors, electronics and programming in order to put them on a solid footing to enable them to effectively work collaboratively with computing and engineering students. A second goal was to attract faculty from other units across campus to begin to use our Lab to teach their classes with the proviso they would admit our students into their classes. This strategy has paid off and we will have at least three external initiatives led by faculty from other units leveraging our lab and involving our students – one led by Dr. Ali Mazalek from the Graphics Visualization Lab focused on the relationship between cognition and physical interaction; a second led by Jon Sanford the Director of CATEA, the Center for Assistive Technology and Environmental Access heading a project focused on universal accessibility for voting machines; and a third led by Dr. Thad Starner from School of Interactive Computing and Clint Zeagler from Industrial Design focused on the Wearable Swatchbook project.

A Day in the Lab

The Lab can be a busy place…

Mornings are prime time for dedicated research initiatives. The Lab has sufficient space to support several research teams working in parallel…and it seems our students typically aren’t too active in the mornings…so this tends to be the quietest time in the Lab for focused investigation. Mornings are also dedicated to maintenance, software updates and installation plus any special preparations for classes that might happen to be in session. (The lab is equipped with six rolling tool boxes (one per workstation) that can be equipped with parts kits for special assignments.)

The scenario changes drastically once we get past the noon hour. Afternoons are typically reserved for classes and studio support. Student lab assistants monitor the lab in the off-class afternoon hours to ensure access during the day. The evenings on into the wee hours of the morning are the prime working times for the students. We are building a team of student volunteers who are knowledgeable in electronics and who are given supervisory authority to staff the lab in the off-hours to assist their colleagues as needed in exchange for near-unlimited access to the facilities. …And so far that approach is working well.