2 weeks in Spring 2014 for Form Workshop 1 at Umeå Institute of Design (Year 1) together with Mady Torres, Jost Siebert and Peter Alwin.

The Food Radiation Scanner is a kitchen appliance that helps people determine if their groceries are safe to consume. The target audience are Japanese households affected by the Fukushima incident living in areas where elevated radiation levels can be observed in fresh food at local markets.

 
 
 
 

The Food Radiation Scanner improves on handheld Geiger counters in that it offers more accurate and understandable readings in a shorter amount of time. This way we hope to make customers feel safe about buying locally grown food again.

 
 
 
 

The Brief

The effects of nuclear incidents (e.g. Tchernobyl, Fukushima) persist over decades. They have huge implications on local food suppliers. This is exemplified in the food wasted after the Fukushima accident occurred: if a single fish in a fisherman’s catch shows signs of elevated radiation levels then the entire catch needs to be discarded.

Nuclear incidents also left an imprint on people’s piece of mind. The meltdown of the Daiichi Power Plant resulted in a massive evacuation of the surroundings and the following measures taken by the responsible organisations in Japan. There were reports of operational mistakes and concerning levels of radiation in the water in the media. This triggered mistrust in the government capabilities of dealing with the crisis. This is why NGO financed food radiation measuring stations have appeared in Tokyo over the last few years. Their purpose is to reassure concerned citizens that the local produce is safe to consume.

The aim of this project is to design a better way to measure food radiation in groceries purchased at local markets in Japan. The resulting project ought to integrate with Japan’s cultural paradigms and empower Japanese households. The resulting product should communicate appropriate operational, functional and feedback sounds for the specified context.

 
 
People in areas affected by radiation leaks have to deal with a contaminated food supply. The effects of such incidents persist over decades. In Tokyo people measure the radiation levels of food using handheld Geiger counters (top left) or at food radiation measuring stations (top right).

People in areas affected by radiation leaks have to deal with a contaminated food supply. The effects of such incidents persist over decades. In Tokyo people measure the radiation levels of food using handheld Geiger counters (top left) or at food radiation measuring stations (top right).

 
 

The Intent

The concept of having to deal with a contaminated food supply is very scary scenario to most people. Even more so as radiation is invisible to the naked eye and may have a life-threatening impact. Yet it is easy to forget that all of our surroundings and the foods we consume are naturally radiated. It is only once these levels of radiation exceed what is considered healthy we need to take notice. For instance, one of our team members grew up in an area in Germany where it is still forbidden to pick mushrooms. These mushrooms still may contain up to thirty times the radiation (Tschernobyl fallout from 1986) that the German government considers safe for consumption. We wanted to find a positive and empowering perspective on how people might be dealing with these situations. We imposed on ourselves that our design should not spur anxiety, but rather be reassuring.

Additionally, we wanted to make sure that our design is technologically feasible to build within the next 5 years. This meant that we needed to look into how Geiger counters work and how they can be used to scan food.

 
 
Japanese kitchens and the lack of space informed our design. Especially the importance of rice cookers served as inspirations for the form language.

Japanese kitchens and the lack of space informed our design. Especially the importance of rice cookers served as inspirations for the form language.

 
 

The Process

We kicked off the this two week project with a research phase in which we focussed on food contamination and radiation measurements. It turns out that there are different governmental regulations on how much radiation food may contain (measured in Becquerel per kilogram). These regulations vary depending on whom the food is intended for: infants have a lower tolerance than adults.

The most common way to determine if groceries are safe for human consumption involves a Geiger counter. To get an accurate reading, people have to hover their Geiger counter over their groceries for up to 20 minutes. Then they have to make sense of the radiation reading by looking up the value on a weight chart.

We then looked into how people are dealing with the aftermath of the Fukushima incident. Most of our findings resulted from a Skype interview with a person living in Tokyo two years ago. We then looked at photographs of Japanese kitchens, learned about the home cooking culture and studied previous work on consumption behaviour. For instance, we found that the Japan has the most health conscious consumers in the world. To communicate our research we built a scenario around Akemi, our housewife living with her parents and child in Tokyo.

Based on the findings from our user tests we spent time improving the interface graphics. We tried a lot of different variations before finally agreeing on the ones shown on the bottom right.

Based on the findings from our user tests we spent time improving the interface graphics. We tried a lot of different variations before finally agreeing on the ones shown on the bottom right.

Our mood board gave us a common understanding of what the form language ought to convey. We were inspired by minimal and clean products. We thought a bright yellow would convey a positive image.

Our mood board gave us a common understanding of what the form language ought to convey. We were inspired by minimal and clean products. We thought a bright yellow would convey a positive image.

In our sketches we explored different forms. We agreed that we needed a compact design that would not take much space on the kitchen counter.

In our sketches we explored different forms. We agreed that we needed a compact design that would not take much space on the kitchen counter.

We created this soundboard to help us understand what emotions we wanted the sounds to convey.

We created this soundboard to help us understand what emotions we wanted the sounds to convey.

During the ideation phase we emphasised building mock-ups to determine size, interaction and form within the context of small kitchens. After testing with food items of various sizes and in different containers we arrived at the final package size. In multiple iterations we then improved on the interaction and sound design of the product. Using Wizard-of-Oz tests with low-fi paper prototypes, we found that it was important to keep our feedback and functional sounds short and in-line with users expectations regarding the tone of the design. It was also important to consider the sounds environment already present in most kitchen environments. We used sound boards (the sound equivalent to mood boards) to communicate expectations amongst team members. Based on the outcome of these tests we realised that we needed to simplify both the number of interactions as well as the way the result needed to be communicated. We found that most people were only interesting to find out if a food item was safe for consumption.

Throughout the project we prototyped early and often. For instance: based on early sketches we could not  decide which direction to take. To see what worked best we tried two different prototypes in our student kitchen early on. We then quickly found that a closed form would not work.

Throughout the project we prototyped early and often. For instance: based on early sketches we could not  decide which direction to take. To see what worked best we tried two different prototypes in our student kitchen early on. We then quickly found that a closed form would not work.

After agreeing on a general form we tested how people interacted with the Food Radiation Scanner. We made changes after each student to iteratively improve on our design until it was well understood.

After agreeing on a general form we tested how people interacted with the Food Radiation Scanner. We made changes after each student to iteratively improve on our design until it was well understood.

We built the final model in Maya and then milled, sanded and painted it in our workshops. The tight deadline did not allow for a lot of physical Arduino prototyping.

We built the final model in Maya and then milled, sanded and painted it in our workshops. The tight deadline did not allow for a lot of physical Arduino prototyping.

Relying on our findings from both research and ideation phases we then went on to build a final model. The model was milled overnight on the in-house milling machine and painted the following day. We decided early to communicate our concept through the means of a video. This meant that we also had to rely on a series of practical effects to make the impression of a working model come across. For instance, we utilised an automatic screwdriver positioned just outside the video frame to make the sensor-blade spin. The final user interface screens were produced in Photoshop and animated/composited in After Effects. Finally, we used Adobe Audition to create the sound design for the product from scratch.

We tried to favour practical effects over After Effect shots wherever possible. An example: the radiation blade spun because of an electric screwdriver just outside of the frame. The afternoon of shooting was wrapped up with a lovely fish dinner.

We tried to favour practical effects over After Effect shots wherever possible. An example: the radiation blade spun because of an electric screwdriver just outside of the frame. The afternoon of shooting was wrapped up with a lovely fish dinner.

 
 
 

The Value

For us this project offers two interesting perspectives on how we look at our food supply. In a sense, the project’s context is one that nobody wants to be confronted with. Given the choice, nobody would want to choose to be in a situation in which the Food Radiation Scanner has its relevance. The first perspective of looking at this project is through the eyes of people that have not had to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear incident. To those people we hope this design serves as a reminder of how our own energy choices might shape the future environment we all live in.

The second perspective is through the eyes of people living in Japan. To them the Food Radiation Scanner offers a positive take on something inherently frightening. One example of this is its lack of detailed radiation readings. We believe that providing the exact numbers might lead to people start worrying unnecessarily about the natural radiation found in all of our food supply. We therefore see the Food Radiation Scanner as offering a real benefit over having to visit radiation measurement stations and a way to buy local groceries without having to worry.

 
 
 
 

My Contribution

This was the first time we were able to collaborate closely with students from the Advanced Product Design program. Our process makes singling out contributions rather difficult. I like to think that I contributed a lot to the prototyping focused approach of the project. I also organised the iterative user tests and helped influence how people interact with the final product. Other major contributions were: research, storytelling, storyboarding, project planning, directing and editing. To a lesser extent I contributed to the sound design and the After Effects shots. I was not involved at all in building the model.

 

School Umeå Institute of Design
Class Form Workshop 1 –  Sound Design
Tutors Stefan Lindberg (Interactive Institute Piteå); Thomas Degn & Parag Deshpande (Umeå Institute of Design)
Year Spring 2014 (2 weeks)
Skills Sound Design, Wizard of Oz-ing, Low-Fi Prototyping, Editing, Directing, Interface Design, Adobe Premiere, Adobe After Effects
Team Members Mady Torres (Interaction Design), Jost Siebert (Advanced Product Design), Peter Alwin (Advanced Product Design)