The RayMatic: Making a thermostat with a human face

Benjamin Madueme Nov 7, 2011

How can one transform the mundane, impersonal task of glancing at a thermostat into a fun and engaging experience? Ray Yun, a Ph.D student who works in the department of architecture’s Computational Design Lab, just might have a solution with his RayMatic device.

The RayMatic, named after its creator, utilizes what Yun refers to as an “anthropomorphic interface.”

“It uses human facial expressions to represent messages or data,” Yun explained. “It’s human-friendly and engaging as well.... Employing a face to represent an agent has been shown to increase engagement and motivation and makes a user pay more attention.”

The RayMatic is composed of a touch screen and an Arduino microcontroller (with temperature sensors attached), all housed within a picture frame. The device communicates ambient temperature information to a user by displaying video of Yun’s upper body on the screen. A person observing the RayMatic frame in a room with normal temperatures would see Yun smiling on the display. If it were to get too hot, the video would change into one where a frowning Yun is fanning himself with his hand. Should the temperature get too cold, a shivering Yun puts on a scarf instead. All of these transitions are made seamless by Adobe Flash actionscript, the programming language Yun used to program the device’s logic. TinkerProxy, an open source project, was utilized to allow actionscript to communicate directly with the micro controller.

Aside from the touchscreen, Yun said that “it’s cheap and it’s easy to make. But the touch screen costs a bit ... like $400.”

However, employing a touch screen interface grants the RayMatic a level of user-friendliness unachievable by typical data communicators. At any point in time, the user can “poke” Yun and watch him flounce back in pain. Changing the thresholds for what the RayMatic considers to be too hot or too cold is made simple by adjusting notches on a sign Yun holds up on the display.

So what exactly inspired Yun to create such a device? Readers familiar with the popular Harry Potter films might have already guessed.

“There are a lot of great things in the Harry Potter movies,” Yun said. “But one of the things is a picture frame. There’s a person in the picture frame that actually has an emotion and expresses that emotion. I thought it was really interesting, and [I realized that] we have sensor technology so that we make a smart picture frame. That was the first start for me.”

Though Yun brought this concept to life with the RayMatic for a fall 2009 class project, the device has since been attracting the attention of observers from all over the world. Recently, he was given the opportunity to show off his invention at the Tangible Embedded and Embodied Interaction Conference held earlier this year in Portugal, as well as the 2011 Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) Computer-Human Interaction Conference in Vancouver. Both of these conferences are well regarded for their exhibitions of advancing trends in the field of human-computer interaction. At both events, Yun stated that he received positive feedback for the device.

The RayMatic has also landed Yun a featured article in the ACM Interactions magazine, a pending patent, and a commission from at least one company to build them a RayMatic device.

In spite of its apparent success as an interactivity device, Yun mentioned that the RayMatic still isn’t where he wants it to be. Unfortunately, in its current state, both the touch screen and Arduino microcontroller have to be plugged into a computer to function, adding cost and space issues that block the way to an easily marketable product.

“The cost can be made cheap if it could run on the iPad and iPhone,” Yun said, noting that such a move would eliminate the additional costs of a computer, as well as a touch screen. “The Arduino and other stuff costs less than $50.”

Other possible future plans Yun suggested included extending the RayMatic to incorporate a noise meter (where Yun covers his ears on the display), an air pollution meter (where Yun coughs on the display if the ambient air quality is below a certain threshold), and/or adding voice functionality to the device so that it “talks” to whoever’s using it.

But even in its current state, Yun did not underplay the significance of his invention. “The RayMatic points to a style of interaction with household appliances and devices that is simple, fun, and friendly.”