This project was completed during my time working at Panasonic Beta, Panasonic's R&D skunkworks studio in Silicon Valley. Our main project was a smart home platform called Home-X. I was part of a small team of engineers and designers who worked together to build prototypes that showcased the possibilities of IoT appliances in the home. Our task was not simply to build working prototypes, but to experiment with how the nature of IoT could transform and redefine both the functionality and the design of home appliances. The purpose of this project was to serve as a catalyst and paradigm for IoT appliance development at Panasonic's appliance company in Japan.
In our search for an experience that would take advantage of the connected nature of IoT appliances, I realized that the mechanical wind offered by current fans left something to be desired. I had long been interested in research about biophilia - the idea that being surrounded by natural elements improves people's wellbeing and productivity. The practical applications of this concept had thus far been mostly limited to increased natural light and greenery in office spaces, but I believed biophilia had more potential.
By connecting multiple fan modules and using nuanced algorithms to individually control them, we could offer a more natural-feeling breeze. Wouldn't it be nice if you could experience a refreshing forest wind or an ocean breeze right from your own living room? It was easy to imagine how we might eventually tie in other elements besides wind, such as scent, light, and sound to produce a holistic user experience inspired by the concept of biophilia.
Firstly, we tried to pinpoint the characteristics of a natural breeze:
- Constant fluctuation of strength and direction
- Multiple points of origin
- Indirect, curved airstream
Using these principles as a base, I worked with our software engineers to create various "wind programs" inspired by natural settings to test with users.
In order to validate the desirability of the more natural "surround wind" enabled by IoT connected fan modules, we conducted blind A/B testing with several users. We conducted the tests with various existing fan products as well as our own module fan arrays, which we made with IoT connected PC fans.
As a founding member of our small team, I expressed my vision of home appliances that blended seamlessly into the home. With a background in furniture design and an admiration of traditional craft, I wanted to bring that beauty to modern technology. Through my research I found that this concept, known as invisible tech, was actually starting to trend in the tech industry. Some great recent examples are Samsung's Frame TV and Google's Softwear exhibition at Milano Design Week in 2018.
Modern Japanese Interior
I was entrusted with crafting of a new brand identity for our connected appliance prototypes at Panasonic Beta. I wanted to bring the Japanese heritage of Panasonic to the forefront of our designs and ensure that our appliances would blend seamlessly into modern Japanese homes. This would be achieved by using the unstained wood material currently featured in Japanese home interiors as well as offering additional furniture-like affordances, such as being useful as a shelf or a side table.
As for the particular design of the fan prototypes, I was inspired by koshi, a vertical slatting motif found in traditional Japanese architecture. Koshi offered a refreshing and functional take on fan vents that celebrated the company's Japanese heritage.
After leading the development of a general aesthetic direction, I started sketching out ideas of how a modular fan design blending seamlessly into a Japanese modern interior might look.
I created some 3D model explorations of a design that could be mounted as a wall shelf or placed as a standalone model on a surface, experimenting with different proportions to see which would look best aesthetically. I then designed and 3D printed a model to encase the PC fans we were using as modules for our prototypes.
Other designers and engineers on the team iterated on my initial explorations to create a rotatable standalone design that we could place freely in order to test various wind programs.
Design for manufacture
IoT Fan Hub
Wireless IoT connection would have required installing a space-consuming raspberry pi device and power source in each separate module, which would have been a waste of cost and technical effort in this proof of concept stage. In order to address this technical constraint, I was tasked with the design and 3D modeling of a casing for a hub that would connect all the fan modules via LAN cables so that they could be controlled via wi-fi. Using the printed circuit board (PCB) created by an engineering team member as a base, I designed the outer casing considering usability, aesthetics, and manufacturability. For this task I used Autodesk's Fusion 360 software to model and render my design. Some adjustments were necessary in order to offer the best balance of these factors, so I worked together with my engineering partner in order to optimize the PCB design.
Throughout this process I 3D printed iterative prototypes of the casing to test out before arriving upon the final design, which we had manufactured by a partner at Panasonic.
My initial design had rounded corners, but after consulting with our manufacturing partner, it became clear that this design would be too expensive to manufacture in the small quantities we needed (requiring injection molding or 3D CNC machining). For this reason, I adjusted the design to be completely rectangular so that it could be more easily manufactured from sheet plastic.
Functional Appearance model
Fan as FurnitureBuilding upon my initial aesthetic concept and prototypes of invisible tech inspired by furniture, a senior designer in my team created two manufacturable designs - a standalone side table-like design and a wall mounted shelf-type design. These two models served to represent the different seamlessly integrated forms modular fans could take in a home interior setting. By setting up the different fans in the desired layout, we were able to realize our "surround wind" user experience.
Our IoT fan prototypes were showcased at Panasonic's annual internal symposium and garnered much interest from other technical divisions at Panasonic Japan. Panasonic also publicized our Connected Homeware concept at Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in 2020.
Our work on this and other connected appliance prototypes continues to influence and inspire the development of user centered IoT connected appliances at Panasonic Japan.