Open PIP | ParaDocs

Re-examining ubiquitous technology through open design with novel, integrated visual documentation.

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Inspired in part by Fallout's PIP Boy computer, this project explores the making of robust, sustainable, ubiquitous electronics while demonstrating new ways to aid and document open design work. It develops around two core threads:
1) OpenPIP: design and prototyping of a versatile portable computing device;
2) ParaDocs: networks of concept maps that run parallel to typical documents and design activity to create an accessible, integrated documentation space.
With this combination, OpenPIP provides meaningful information space content while ParaDocs supports rigorous open design and communication.
Throughout, the project looks at how we support everyday life with ubiquitous electronics, exploring common issues like energy dependence, attention management, design for repairability and versatility trade-offs.
Ultimately, this is about exploring ways to take ownership of how we augment both ourselves and our abilities to solve complex problems as global communities.

The Personal Information Processor (PIP) Boy is a fixture of Fallout games. As a rugged, wearable, personal computer, it is a constant companion throughout your game character's life and harrowing post-apocalyptic adventures. IRL, however, it begs broader disruptive questions. Consider the computing devices around you right now: How many still work after even a day away from a wall plug? How many fewer will survive more than a few years of aggressive hardware release cycles, design for obsolescence and everyday wear? What does it really take to make robust, sustainable, ubiquitous technology? Shock and water resistance might be a good start but what about energy independence and repairability? When might the pursuit of umpteen extra GHz of computing power be less beneficial than a simple flashlight?

These are complex issues with multifaceted factors. Our ephemeral, disposable miracles of plastic, silicon and lithium are just the tip of enormous icebergs of decisions made by thousands of people around the world. In the face of very real environmental and societal problems that come with modern electronics, it's easy to be cynical about profit motives and to criticize one detail or another. It is difficult, however, to drive real change without data and concrete examples. This project aims to chip away at that iceberg via two interwoven threads:

1) OpenPIP: the design and prototyping of a robust, portable computing device as a way to explore issues in sustainable, ubiquitous computing;

2) ParaDocs: networks of visual concept maps that run along side typical documents and design work to create an accessible, integrated documentation space.

The technical project provides meaningful content for the integrated information space and the mapping work helps to improve the rigour and communication of the design. Throughout, the project explores critical questions about how we can and should support everyday living with electronics.

Of course, this project can only scratch the surface of such a complex set of issues and design tasks. The electronics work will heavily depend on off-the shelf components and DIY-level prototyping facilities. The concept mapping work will be performed in software that remains in intermittent development and lacks consistent support. With these limitations in mind, the specific objectives of the project are to develop:

1) A robust, versatile, wearable, self-powering technical prototype with features that at least complement common portable devices.

2) Hypermedia map-based documentation of the design process including multiple views focusing on: background research, decision rationale and templates for typical systems engineering issues (electronics, prototyping, integration, ergonomics, etc..).

3) Wider awareness of issues and potential solutions around sustainable, ubiquitous computing.

Ultimately, this project is about finding ways to develop broader ownership of the processes by which we augment ourselves, manage our attention and collaborate on complex problems.

  • 1 × ESP32 Dev Board Initial pick for a computing core with lots of I/O and spare processing power (32bit dual core) paired with Ultra-Low Power co-processor that can keep things humming under 1 mA
  • 1 × INA219 Breakout Board High-precision power measurement for doing energy harvesting data collection
  • 1 × 128x32 OLED Display Just something to serve as self-contained display, ultimately probably use eInk.
  • 1 × LTC3588 Energy Harvester Breakout Board For harvesting from low-power sources like small solar cells and thermoelectric generators
  • 1 × 40*40mm Thermoelectric Generator

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  • Mapping and Design Work

    Nathan05/01/2017 at 02:41 0 comments

    (A preliminary collection of non-editable maps in .html form has been uploaded as a .zip to dropbox while I figure out the project files area)

    Where can I find one of these?

    (screenshot of Iron Man 2 from

    The first time I saw the design and prototyping montage in Iron Man (2008) I nearly jumped out of my seat... Where can I get one of those!? (A reaction probably shared by many of the folks who would be found skimming build logs on lackaday. :P ) Living in the future hasn't yet provided us with flying cars but a holographic prototyping lab sure would be nice...

    Most of us also have more concrete problems than building powered armor. At a minimum we have our own projects to sort out, with hundreds of files across dozens of programs. At worst, we need to make sense of what someone else did from their repository. Some variation of "auto-maps" are ubiquitous in adventure games, why don't they exist for actual work? Fortunately, it turns out they already kind of exist.

    Mapping in Design Work

    It's not enough to just dump images or application windows into an empty canvas. A massive, animated display is a trope in movies but wouldn't necessarily be useful on its own. The most important question to ask when building a new medium is: "What can I do here that wasn't possible (or easy) before?" In the case of a big blank canvas, being able to put down a mix of things is indeed part of the solution, but remember the scale problem above. The organization of bits being worked on has to make sense of anywhere between a few dozen and a few thousand elements. Consider how we do this already with text information. Books can contain millions of bytes of text but they are made meaningful and approachable through layers of structure: chapters, sections, paragraphs, sentences and phrases. What's needed is a sort of visual language for composing "sentences and paragraphs" with pictures.

    A bunch of visual languages, like mind maps, circuit diagrams and flow charts, may already be familiar to you. This project will focus on a few less common ones referred to as concept maps and rationale diagrams. They help to understand complex concepts by “sketching” networks of ideas and their relationships. While they are useful in paper form, you can do even more with the help of dedicated mapping software. These tools emphasize simplified interfaces and linking in ways that drastically enhance map creation, navigation and scalability. For example, after nearly ten years, my database of working diagrams contains over 30,000 interconnected, searchable elements.

    While the 2D maps in this project aren't as flashy as Tony Stark's holo-displays, they are a way to make that kind of content meaningful. It's not enough to just put more windows on a desktop, there needs to be a focus on what assists thinking in the face of lots of design issues and information overload. The software itself is just a sort of "fancy pencil": a streamlined interface for quickly adding words, images or data into a map. The value of using the maps isn't in the simple drawings on screen but in the kinds of interactions that they enable between people and information.

    Mapping Design Rationale

    This is all hard to understand in the abstract, so let's look at the example of “rationale mapping”. Its structure is based on Horst Rittel's “issue-based information system” (IBIS) for working on “wicked problems.” That is, problems with no single, clear answers, where each solution is a single-shot experiment and where the very definition of the problem is ever-shifting. IBIS works by clarifying problem structure and mitigating non-constructive "political" behaviors like rhetorical repetition. The diagramming technique uses three types of elements: questions (issues), answers and arguments (pro or con). In an IBIS diagram these may be visually represented as question marks, light bulbs and “+” or “-” signs. The...

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