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, including users' feelings of social anxiety when meeting with an unknown person, and busy schedules and inability to step away for a long meal. 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 2 had four main features that differentiated it from Version 1:
1. In addition to lunch and dinner, users had the option to also sign up for coffee, snacks, or drinks.
2. Each option dynamically displayed how many other people were currently signed up for it.
3. “Mealtime” occurred at a single, specified time instead of during a time range.
4. There was a web interface for signing up in addition to the physical buttons.
As with Version 1, I designed a built the physical structure and internal electronics, as well as programmed the electronics and a backend web server to handle the main business logic.