5.1. Speculative Design Project

Published January 19, 2020

Reflecting on our speculative design project collaborating with Hilary Goudie and Rob McLoughlin.

1. Introduction

Per brief, we speculated our design for 5 to 10 years time. Others projected their world building further into the future. Given licence to push the extremes of Hancock and Bezold’s Futures Cone (in Voros, 2017) and imagination, not all capitalised on their advantage.

Update: February 2021

A year later and Timekettle is emerging with many of the features we speculated on for this project. It’s exciting to learn of the features they have prioritised and developed for their WT2 Edge in-ear translator.

As we speculated, Timekettle bring conversational controls with a tap (if more abruptly) and can store 7 of the “most popular languages” for when connection to their 15 servers isn’t possible. The slick promotional video describes their proposition.

There’s little comparison between our zero-Euro and part-time study budget and Timekettle’s crowd-funded mega-bucks and this is included for interest only. We can only look forward to where these products will be in 4 years’ time!

2. World Building

Hilary, Rob, and I reviewed contemporary World news themes. We looked at positive alternatives that avoided cliché Orwellian movie flavours. I shared our thoughts of empathy, hope, and simple collaboration within video (See References, Video One).

We worked through the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities a collaborative and positive future could offer. I shared notes that expanded on the themes:

3. Analysis of User Problems

Experimentation with scenarios and personas identified problems that language presents to migratory collaboration. We have each experienced communication barriers. The frustration is a real world problem.

Problem Scenario

I sketched a problem scenario from our conversations to help get us going while Hilary and Rob were busy with thesis work.

cartoon strip
Our persona meets with influencers speaking a foreign language. One speaks with him. Our persona regrets not learning the new language. A translator offers to help. The conversation continues. The translator turns to our persona and announces, “Mr Onikoilonga is at wrong office”.


We combined plausible ideas into our own personas. They were quite similar, which may validate our approach to World building and the problem.

My contribution.
sticky note board
An affinity map exploring problems, what our use might want to do, where, and useful features.
protot persona
A proto-persona of Pat, who is recruiting international staff. Frustrations include not contributing to conversations in languages he cannot understand and time wasted learning complex interfaces. Wants to understand not only what but how things are said.
empathy map
An empathy map exploring what our user thinks and feels, sees, hears, and says and does. They are independent, collaborative, and hate to hear only part of a conversation.

Hilary formed our team persona and empathy map with only light feedback necessary from Rob and I.
Hilary’s persona of Himari, a 28-year-old UX designer moving to a country where the language and culture is different.
empathy map
Himari’s empathy map prepared by Hilary demonstrating her need to socialise and get on with and collaborate effectively with her co-workers in the different languages they speak.

4. Solution and Concept

User problem statements and tasks inspired product solutions and features. Our concept evolved naturally as an in-ear meta-phase translation device.

Story Boarding

Hilary vividly mapped our two scenarios for work and socialising and illustrated them for us:

story board
Hilary’s illustration of our work-based scenario where Himari contributes to the multilingual team using the new device and is invited to collaborate on another project.
story board
Hilary’s illustration of our socialising scenario where Hamari is able to join in with Karaoke and also uses the device and phone app to speak to the bartender, although we overlooked the specific phrasing, which was fixed in the presentation.

Technology Review

Future technology research was anchored to contemporary opportunities. (Open the Future Technology document). 

Of particular interest are the emerging technologies that make our design plausible within the 5-10 year timeframe:

  • Artificial Intelligence (Ai) (Godfrey, 2019).
  • IR Gesture control (Mantecon, del-Blanco, Jaureguizar and Garcia, 2019).
  • Data storage exceeding 10 TB (Ghoshal, 2018).
  • In retina glasses (Bohn, 2018).
  • Lightweight grapheme battery (Langridge and Edwards, 2020).
  • Wireless charging (McGregor, 2018).

5. Product Design

Sensors and data serve the solution’s features. An overview is at Table 1.

Table 1. Technologies.
Technology Useful and Usable Features
Graphene battery power
  • Lightweight.
  • Safe.
Audio speaker
  • Hi-Fi for quality of media playback.
  • Noise cancelling for focussing features.
  • Adjustable volume and tone.
  • Microphone array to locate sound direction and distance and to moderate dangerous volumes.
  • Infra-red camera for gesture control.
  • Stem for vibration and tapping control.
  • Bluetooth.
  • Wi-Fi.
  • Light data channels.
  • Minimum 10 TB+ per device.
  • On-board processing negates transmitting sensitive data to a server and preserves privacy.
Situational awareness
  • Artificial intelligence.
  • Machine learning.
  • Indoor positioning.
Interfacing with
  • Wireless charging technologies of the day.
  • App for configurability and choice of accessibility features.


Contemporary earpiece form factor is too small to fit the required microphone array and IR camera sensor effectively or to position the device by hand. A similar size to today’s buds was sensible.


Paper sketching in and after class evolved to Adobe Illustrator vectors informing a 3D model using Sketch-Up with influences from Grado open headphones. (See Audio Affair, n.d.).

Sketching completed and iterated by the team in class.
page of sketches
Iterating the ear bud idea by cross-referencing to its expected tasks and features needed to solve our persona’s problem. (An early concept of the future app on a scale display at bottom left).
sketch of an ear bud in an ear pinna
Bone induction was not thought viable to the Hi-Fi audio although form factors could have been more generous. The technology review indicated opportunities for miniaturization to enable all sensors to fit on a bud.
final sketching of ear bud with sensors
We arranged the microphone array to act independently of a second device to detect sound direction and distance when necessary. The Infra red camera would enable light data and gesture controls. An app was determined needed for when gestures may be inappropriate or distracting.
Rob sent on his sketches of the pod with a stem and argued in favour of it to help the device ergonomic and give a target for tap controls.
The bud are envisaged to detect where in the 3-dimensional space a voice is coming from, isolate it, and then filter everything else out. This was labelled our Focus feature and could reduce distraction in crowded spaces.

Refining 2D sketches to 3D models.
vector sketch of ear buds
I first drew the design using Adobe Illustrator to refine proportions and details.

3D render of buds
Next, I created 3D models using Sketch-Up. I later found they are 20m tall, which didn’t help the next stage in the workflow.

On review, Rob concluded that ease of handling, cleaning, and positioning benefitted adding the stem he had sketched. Updated, the model was imported into Adobe Dimension for a realistic rendering. This was worthwhile to bring a physical device to life. A physical model moulded with putty demonstrated the device size and need for the stem..

Transforming 3D models to 3D Renders
3d model of buds with stems
I updated the 3D models with stems per Rob’s observation that this would improve handling and enable tap-gestures without smudging the camera lens. It may also help stop the little blighters rolling away off the desk, too?
two rendered 3D models
Importing 20m tall 3D models into Adobe Dimension is unwise when time is scarce. An issue arose too with all the colour and texture information being stripped from the models. This was repeated easily enough in Dimension. The Grado influence survives in the microphone array and horn material.
model ear bud
The (worn out/grotty) putty Sigma model gave a sense of acceptable scale and use.

Accessibility and Usability

Gesture interactions are not always possible and like voice interaction could distract from social connections like Intel’s Glasses (Bohn, 2018). An accessible app would handle user settings and tap interactions augment when possible.

6. Naming

Rob put forward the name Sigma, which we investigated and found more than ideal. Hilary led on branding. 

7. Eco-System, branding, and presentation

We were all firing on all cylinders, which was a pleasure and we distributed our tasks played to strengths:

  • Rob: demo of song translation and website design.
  • Hilary: brand, packaging, and app design.
  • Me: technology, 3D renders, promotional and development videos.

Rob’s Website development.

Rob’s smart and functional Sigma product website prototype responded brilliantly to Hilary’s branding lead.

screen grab
Screen grab from Rob’s product website.


Hilary’s configuration app sports useful features we could not demonstrate without it. Although I had rendered a quick sketch of packaging, Adobe Dimension failed to overlay the brand as the model was not created ‘square on’.

Hilary kindly inserted the Sigma renders into her own workflow and created a convincingly branded case.

ear buds in box
Hilary applied her branding based on the letter ‘S’ to a product case model.
ear buds in box
I enjoyed rendering a realistic presentation box in Adobe Dimension from a rough 3D model sketch created in Sketch-Up and could not apply Hilary’s branding to the off-square result. It’s here only to show off. I hadn’t used Dimension before and for a quick knock-together by a newbie, I was pleased with the result and depth of field effect.

Rob’s music translation video.

Rob’s song translation demo gave a welcomely relaxed context to Sigma.

Hilary’s app design

Hilary went the extra mile to create a convincing Sigma demonstration app (PDF 920 KB).

Hilary’s wireframing of the app.

Promotional and development Video.

The videos became complex. In hindsight, Camtasia is quick and easy to produce demonstrations and Adobe Premiere would be better for the layering effects and transitions that evolved over time.

screen grab from camtasia video editing software
The video quickly grew legs with a feature run through, demonstrations, and iterative background to help explain Sigma to our discerning presentation audience. The two parts were split for display on Rob’s website.

8. Result

Our product is faithfulness to the World and solution we created together. Sigma is a plausible product and real-world solution in the waiting.

We adhered to Hancock and Bezold’s Plausible Futures Cone and mostly worked in the Probable Cone space. Working to anatomical and physiological constraints and within a collaborative World environment aided a favourable outcome like ‘design vision‘ in Buhring, Buehring, and Koskinen (2017)?

The teams I envied for their imaginative dialogues and broad creative licence experienced problems keeping to their vision. Buhring et al. list many advantages of less plausible approaches. Perhaps we are all too used to the concrete needs of our current enterprises and need to get out more!?

9. Collaboration

It was only a delight to work with Hilary and Rob. We shared ideas, criticised, and worked toward collaborative solutions together while all were busy with lives, day jobs, and a thesis on the boil. They made this an enjoyable project and communication was very good. Perhaps our positive world building influenced us positively?

We each put in a significant amount of work which may not all be apparent? Perhaps the module requires greater maturation and clearer, more measurable objectives to reward its participation fully?

10. References

Audio Affair. (n.d.). Grado PS2000e Headphones. Retrieved from https://www.audioaffair.co.uk/grado-ps2000e-headphones?gclid=CjwKCAiAx_DwBRAfEiwA3vwZYkGpIEbTblx07kTp3AKzN_w-ZSTvTHGar0v8dRkioyEOMjXOo3hDoRoCHPIQAvD_BwE

Bohn, D. (2018, February 5). Intel Made Smart Glasses That Look Normal. Retrieved from https://www.theverge.com/2018/2/5/16966530/intel-vaunt-smart-glasses-announced-ar-video.

Buhring, J., Buehring, J., & Koskinen, I. (2017, October). Beyond Forecasting: A Design-inspired Foresight Approach for Preferable Futures. Proceedings of the International Association of Societies of Design Research (IASDR) Conference. Cincinnati, USA. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/publication/321126336_Beyond_Forecasting_A_Design-inspired_Foresight_Approach_for_Preferable_Futures

Ghoshal, A. (2018, March 20). This 100TB drive is the largest capacity SSD ever made. Retrieved from https://thenextweb.com/plugged/2018/03/20/this-100tb-drive-is-the-largest-capacity-ssd-ever-made/.

Godfrey, P. (2019, December 2). Essay: Artificial Intelligence. Retrieved from https://blog.learningtoo.eu/5-speculative-ux/5-1-essay-artificial-intelligence.

Langbridge, M., & Edwards, L. (2020, January 3). Future batteries, coming soon: Charge in seconds, last months and power over the air. Retrieved from https://www.pocket-lint.com/gadgets/news/130380-future-batteries-coming-soon-charge-in-seconds-last-months-and-power-over-the-air.

Mantecon, T.,  del-Blanco, C., Jaureguizar, F., & Garcia, N. (2019). A real-time gesture recognition system using near-infrared imagery. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0223320.

McGregor, J. (2018, September 14). Wireless Charge Everything In A Room All At Once. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/tiriasresearch/2018/09/14/wireless-charge-everything-in-a-room-all-at-once/#29e33c7742af

Voros, J. (2017, February 24). The Futures Cone, use and history [Web Log Post]. Retreived from https://thevoroscope.com/2017/02/24/the-futures-cone-use-and-history/

Video One

AFP news agency. (2018, January 9). Bombardment kills 15 civilians in Syria rebel enclave. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nkd4K7XRLwo

Army Military 2018. (2018, July, 22). War in Ukraine Ukrainian Soldiers GoPro Helmet Cam Combat Footage. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79qa03w4Lts&t=697s

Defence Blog. (2017, July 17). Israel’s Merkava MK IV tank shows it’s power during live fire exercises. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=smQLY4K_MeQ

Foxtrot Alpha. (2015, November 18). U.S. Marines in Combat with Insurgents – Heavy Firefight in Afghanistan near Sangin. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bpfbw-lccQw&t=242s

FRANCE 24 English. (2016, August 10). Lull follows ferocious Israeli bombings, Palestinian rocket attacks from Gaza. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jQpNiMC2uVQ&t=36s

South China Morning Post. (2019, July 17). Stunning aerial footage of Hong Kong’s historic protest. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_OjxW-K3FXI

Storyful Rights Management. (2019, April 29). Mesmerising Aerial Video Shows Trees Blowing in the Wind. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TlnGqd4uXC4

The Liberators International. (2015. July, 21). Train Passengers Sing Over the Rainbow! [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xctzp0dp9uc

wwwcelticvideocom. (2011, May 17). The Queen in Dublin. [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=joPqmW1msEc&t=63s