While a research assistant in the Changing Places research group at the MIT Media Lab, I designed and built two devices, collectively called Food Groups, which revolved around proactively connecting coworkers to eat together. Even in a highly creative and collaborative place like the Media Lab, students and faculty often ate meals alone at their desks or with the same small group of people over and over, limiting the opportunity for serendipitous and varied social interactions. Mealtime thus seemed to be a good space for interaction optimization.
Version 1 of the device employed a simple interface and revolved solely around lunch and dinner, while Version 2 was slightly more complicated but addressed various issues found with Version 1. The general strategy with both Versions 1 and 2, however, was to take the burden of initiating mealtime social interactions off of individuals and onto some third party system. The system, then, acted like the host at a party, proactively introducing people to each other.
Food Groups Version 1 was simply a large button that was intended to be situated in a public, highly trafficked area of the workplace such as a lobby. Those who were free for lunch or dinner one day would swipe their ID cards on the front panel and hit the button. Around mealtime, the system would match coworkers who pushed the button up into groups of three or four, send them an email introducing them to each other, and suggest a place and time for them to meet up.
The device was a physical object rather than a mobile app or website due to the out-of-sight-out-of-mind problem. A digital interface requires extensive messaging and advertising to get users to know about it, download it, and remember to repeatedly use it. A physical object that is intuitive to use and that users must regularly pass by solves most of these issues.
In addition to building the physical structure, I also designed and programmed the internal electronics as well as programmed a backend web server for the button to communicate with via Wifi.