The Anti-Smart Home Disconnects When You’re In A Great Conversation

Skylar Jessen is fed up with the lack of nuance in the apps and devices he uses everyday. So he’s designing new ones.


Our digital lives take place on platforms designed to be universally usable, simple, and lightweight. But the interaction design student Skylar Jessen sees them as lacking nuance and humanity–they compress the way we express ourselves, just like an mp3 file.


For his thesis project at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, Jessen rethought a handful of these services–including a smart lamp, a mapping app, and a messaging app–with new interaction design. He describes his prototypes as “decompressed design,” founded on bringing kinder, more humane design to our digital lives.

A Lamp That’s Smart Enough To Know When To Shut Up

Jessen’s first prototype isn’t an app at all, but a connected lamp that detects when the people around it are having an important conversation–and disables all digital notifications until it’s over. Think of it as the anti-smart bulb.

“Our devices are inserting themselves into our moments all of the time,” Jessen says. “They’re kind of like this person in the room with us all the time, and that person is the most socially awkward friend you’ve ever had and can’t pick up on the social cues.”

The lamp uses a series of microphones to detect human conversation (Jessen is adamant that there is no speech recognition capacity built in, and none of the data is stored). Then, when the device senses that there are two people in the room speaking to each other for more than 30 seconds, it wirelessly disables all digital notifications. Then, once the conversation has stopped for more than two minutes, it turns them back on.


That’s the most basic version of his current prototype. But Jessen believes that there’s a more complex way to detect if a conversation is what he calls a “moment”–an interaction with more gravitas. He believes that the device could be designed based on a psychology concept called “mirroring.” During a conversation, when two people are really connecting, they often start to mirror each other with both their gestures and their voices. Jessen thinks the microphones in his lamp could analyze the difference in frequencies between two speakers and turn off notifications only when it senses that the frequencies are mirroring each other.

A Messaging App That Mimics Real Conversations–And Facial Expressions

Today, text messages and emails are one of the primary ways we interact. Jessen points out that some of his most formative life events have taken place through text; the first girl who dumped him did it via SMS, and he learned of a friend’s father’s passing via an email. Yet today’s text-based interfaces remain static, no matter if we’re getting serious news or setting up a time for coffee. “In physical space we can have modes of conversation,” Jessen says. “Why can’t we have more modes inside of digital space?”

Instead, Jessen built a text messaging app that replicates the etiquette of a real-life conversation. In order to keep you present in a text exchange, the app blurs older messages, a bit like Snapchat deletes messages to encourage spontaneity. It also blocks you from switching between the text conversation and other apps during an active conversation since, as Jessen says, you’d never get up and leave the room while a friend was talking to you in person.

But perhaps the most intriguing design detail? The prototype conveys the tenor and emotion of the other person using open-source facial recognition software. The software detects that person’s facial expressions through their camera, categorizing each as one of six primary emotions (happiness, sadness, anger, disgust, fear, and surprise). Each emotion is translated into a color (red is anger, blue is sadness, yellow is happiness). This color becomes the background to your text conversation, shifting in subtle gradient the way a facial expression might.


A Maps App That Helps You Explore

We usually use mapping apps to find the fastest, most efficient route somewhere. But what if you have some time to kill and are hoping to enjoy the outdoors a bit more on your walk to work? Or if you’re looking to be inspired on your way to lunch? Google Maps can’t take those criteria into account.

In Jessen’s mapping app, which uses an incredibly simple text-based UI, users can choose between “inspiration,” “surprise,” and “efficiency” to get from point A to point B. If you select “inspiration,” the app asks for what sense you prefer (sight, smell, or touch), and then asks more about what you’re hoping to encounter on your way. If you ask for “surprise,” the app asks for how much time you have and how fast you walk, then uses data from your city about the weather to map a path that will make you feel like you’re wandering while still getting you to the place you need to end up. The idea remains in the realm of the speculative for now, due to the sheer amount of data that would be needed to make it work.

Ultimately, Jessen hopes to continue prototyping and eventually bring his ideas to market–and he wants to keep pushing the conversation toward a more humanistic product design. “I’m really using [the three prototypes] as poster children for designers to think about how they make their tools,” he says. “We’re never going to stop text messaging or using Google Maps. But how do we take them and bring back more of the nuance of us?”

About the author

Katharine Schwab is the deputy editor of Fast Company's technology section. Email her at and follow her on Twitter @kschwabable