A student sketch from the Interactive Seating class

A page from the sketchbook of Jessica Chiu, a student in the Interactive Seating course. Image courtesy of Jessica Chiu.

Interactive seating: New course models design innovation education

A place to sit

It’s late, early morning really — during Reading Week at Berkeley at the beginning of May — on the eve of the final presentations for DES INV 190: Interactive Seating Design Competition. Some of the course’s two dozen undergraduates (and one grad student) are probably sleeping, but many are hunched over workbenches here in the CITRIS Invention Lab: sanding, finishing, troubleshooting and generally making ready their final prototypes for tomorrow’s demonstration.

Students working in the CITRIS Invention Lab.The Interactive Seating course meeting in the CITRIS Invention Lab. Photo by Matt Beardsley.The Invention Lab is located below ground, in the basement of Sutardja Dai Hall, at the end of a warren-like hallway that passes by a glass-walled room housing a massive computer array, and another room with a solid locked door with a warning sign reading “laser in use.” Inside the Invention Lab, because of the lack of daylight and the constant activity, it is easy to lose track of time. Given the surroundings — 3-D printers and scanners, robot parts, the innards of electronics and other equipment lining the walls — it’s even easier to think that the future is already here.

But soon it’s the real tomorrow, Presentation Day. The interactive seating prototypes are now displayed amidst the contemporary concrete and glass of Blum Hall’s ground floor. Students flank the freshly finished devices, all of which are accompanied by a formal poster, complete with technical details and photos of the prototypes in use. In a minute, the teams will give rapid-fire presentations describing some of the lessons they learned during the process of designing and building a seating device that is capable, on some level at least, of interacting with its user.

The small crowd gathering to check out the experimental chairs consists mainly of students and faculty members who make up the growing community of people working at the confluence of design, engineering and technology.

Berkeley has always been home to creative minds willing to develop new ways of thinking.  Now, with the formation of the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation in 2013, and the opening of its new headquarters in Jacobs Hall this month, students and faculty interested in designing new technologies and solutions will have all the resources and equipment they need to build their ideas. Many of the new design innovation programs are open to engineers and non-engineers alike: The two dozen students in the interactive seating class, for instance, come from 12 different campus disciplines, including architecture, cognitive science and environmental science as well as mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer science.

Photo of Team Lean's chairTeam Lean's chair is reconfigurable. Photo courtesy of Team Lean.Back in Blum Hall, the presentations are underway. The first team’s overview is polished; they say things like, “Your chair, any way you want it.” Their prototype, called Lean, is an arrangement of three-quarter-inch plywood cut into swooped pieces, then stacked and joined with threaded rods to create a kind of Rubik’s Cube seat that can be transformed into a perch, a lounger and an upright chair.

Chair design is a classic assignment for architecture students because it is a combination of form and function. Designing a chair that is comfortable, durable, aesthetically pleasing and yet different from anything ever built during the past centuries of chair-making is a challenge. Layer onto that the idea of interactivity — the concept that a chair is no longer just a place to sit, but a device capable of providing feedback and updates, connect to the Internet of Things or transform into multiple uses — both compounds the design challenge and opens up even more possibility.

Team Lumina's concept. Photo courtesy Team LuminaA conceptual rendering of what Lumina's chairs would look like in an office setting. Photo courtesy Team Lumina.Two teams explored how smarter seats can aid social interaction, especially in open office layouts or co-working spaces. “Lumina is an interactive seating arrangement for knowledge transfer, so that people with common interests or complementary skill sets can meet,” says a team member. “It is modular and can be pieced together depending on group size.” The cubed seat changes color based on data entered in a mobile app on a user’s phone and sent via Bluetooth.

Team Light Links also riffed on the idea that chairs can aid mingling, with chairs that fit together like Tetris pieces. “The idea was to explore social interaction in different spaces, to extend the handshake to the chair itself.” When the chairs are fitted properly and lock together, they light up.

Inspired by an early class about the biomechanics of sitting, one team wanted to know more about health implications. After hearing a mid-semester lecture from Patricia Moore, known for her socially conscious approach to design, the team decided to create a seating pad equipped with pressure sensors and actuators to help users with mobility issues. “Our aim is to reduce blood clots and pressure sores by creating a dynamic and informative seating experience. A lack of movement correlates to an increase in blood clots,” says one of the team members during the presentation.

Team Volta felt that sitting is too analog. They kick off their presentation by saying, “When you sit in a chair, that’s all you do, you just sit.” So they created a rocking chair capable of harvesting energy. Besides a motor and batteries, the chair is outfitted with other electronics, including a low-powered microcontroller and a small display. The chair is also Internet-enabled, and can record rocking patterns and share them on social media.

Learning design

The interactive seating course is itself a prototype.  The course was created by three faculty with very different research interests, but with strong beliefs in the value of a multidisciplinary approach to teaching and learning: Björn Hartmann, an electrical engineering and computer sciences professor, co-founder of the CITRIS Invention Lab and chief technology officer for the Jacobs Institute, which supported and sponsored the class as a pilot project to test its new curriculum; Greg Niemeyer, a professor of art practice and director of Berkeley’s Center for New Media; and Robert Full, who holds appointments in integrative biology and EECS and directs the Center for Interdisciplinary Bioinspiration in Education and Research (CiBER).

The puzzle piece-like design from Team Light Links. Photo courtesy Team Light Links.“We knew it would be helpful for students to have a design prompt and a common ground,” Hartmann says. “It’s not like a problem set where there is only one solution. We wanted to introduce a domain and make it interesting for students from disciplines across campus. Everyone can relate to sitting.”

All three agree that team teaching with experts from outside of their usual domain is rare — and a huge learning opportunity not only for their students, but for themselves as teachers. “What we bring to the table is the passion to figure things out together and then build from there,” says Niemeyer. “Bob, Björn and I share that passion, so we came together and created Interactive Seating.”

The class opened with a simple assignment. In teams, students had to build some type of seat that could be attached to a chair base from IKEA. Then the students had to build another chair, in quarter scale, and equip it with basic functionality using microcontrollers, LED lights and sensors. After the final teams were formed, work began on full-sized, fully functional prototypes.

“Experience is the kind of knowledge you don’t know you have unless you do something with it,” Niemeyer says. “Some students got stuck, because that general experience of building things with ‘clever hands’ was not there yet. Many students are more experienced at talking about things than building them. In the future, we will need more courses on the concrete building of things.”

Building a fully functional interactive seat is not a theoretical exercise. In this course, the students were not only charged with developing solutions to problems; more important, they had to figure out how to get those solutions from a notepad or computer screen into useable, life-size reality.

“Pedagogically, we are creating a community in support of explorers, and getting that right is very hard. Now we know what the challenge for the Jacobs Institute is — to build a broad support structure for people doing things they haven’t done before,” Niemeyer says.

Full, the integrative biology professor, wanted students to think more about the biomechanics of sitting. In one of the first meetings of the semester, he had the students take measurements of physiological function while sitting on different types of chairs. In recent years a handful of studies have shown that prolonged sitting poses a health risk. “Basically you are making an instrument of death,” Full tells the class at one point. Despite knowing that too much sitting is dangerous, relatively little is known about what exactly muscle function, spinal forces and circulation are doing while a person is sitting.

Full says that this semester was more than a successful collaborative experience; it also served as a model for one of his future courses. He is now modifying a graduate-level bio-inspired design course and opening it up to freshman and sophomores, to get them exposed to design and innovative opportunities earlier in their academic careers.

“To me, the value is to show how diverse disciplines see the same challenge from different viewpoints. The benefit to students is realizing the advantages of looking at things in different ways,” Full says. “That’s more valuable than anything. An interdisciplinary vision is a must now to be highly creative, innovative and on the cutting edge.”


Bjoern Hartmann working with students in the Invention Lab.Björn Hartmann (right) working with students in the Invention Lab. Photo by Matt Beardsley.In April, first-year mechanical engineering student Jessica Chiu found herself hovering over a workbench in the College of Environmental Design’s massive woodshop thinking about tapered miter joinery. It’s right where she wanted to be. She studied art and built robots in high school. During her first semester she took one of Full’s classes, and he mentioned the Interactive Seating course. The idea of combining engineering and design appealed to her, especially if she would have the chance to build things.

Chiu has a dozen or so pieces of solid walnut and cherry she milled earlier. Now she’s figuring out how to make a cutting jig for an industrial-sized band saw, because she needs to fine-tune the many angles that make up the seat of Volta’s energy-harvesting rocking chair.

Weeks before, when the team first came up with the Volta concept, they started their research by visiting furniture stores but soon went beyond that. “They went out and sought external expertise,” Hartmann says. “They found an expert in energy harvesting, and talked through the science and the engineering to figure out a reasonable model for generating energy. That’s one of the benefits of doing design in a world-class research environment: when technical questions come up, you have world-class experts willing to help.”

While Chiu builds Volta’s seat, teammate Nick Firmani is in the Supernode, an electronics workshop in Cory Hall, building the hardware and software to control the energy harvest. An applied math major, Firmani is a familiar face around Cory Hall, having taken numerous engineering courses.

Volta's completed chair. Photo courtesy Jessica Chiu.“This project has been tricky because there are a lot of unknowns,” Firmani says. “I’m kind of guessing how to spec the motor. This is entirely new territory for me — building a whole system from scratch.” He ticks through a list of computer languages — some sounding so obscure they sound almost made up — that will control various pieces of hardware as well as the charging function. “It’s a Rube Goldberg machine,” he says. “To actually charge a battery from a motor is more complicated than I thought — but it will get done.”

Learning experience

It’s June, the semester is over, and campus feels like a ghost town. The open spaces and wide pathways — only weeks ago, packed with the end-of-the-year bustle — are barren. There is no line at the coffee shop. On the other side of the country, members of Team Volta are uncrating their massive rocking chair and setting up for the National Maker Faire in Washington, D.C.

Volta, along with other Berkeley design-related projects, is on display in an open breezeway outside the main exhibition hall at the University of the District of Columbia. The trip was sponsored by the National Science Foundation, CITRIS and the Jacobs Institute. Visitors, ranging from school-age children to government officials, come to sit and rock in Volta; reporters interview some of the Berkeley students and faculty.

Just a few weeks ago, Volta was only an idea modeled in cardboard and sketched in CAD. Now it’s part of the cutting edge. “You won’t normally see a student’s final test go to the National Maker Faire,” Niemeyer says. “In a way, our students’ work was evaluated at a much broader scale, and maybe they learned more.”

“Now I don’t see furniture as these static objects,” says Jessica Chiu. “They are dynamic and alive in a way. I’m definitely not going to settle on something from IKEA; I have the skills to build my own furniture.”

“And damn,” she says, “Building a chair is hard.”

Search news