Kairos: Interactive Desk

Problem Statement

Our class assignment was to examine and design an effective way to display an invisible phenomenon ingrained in everyday life; my partner, Chris Perry, and I chose to focus on the passage of time.

It is difficult to track and understand large amounts of time, this being apparent to us through our own personal experience as well as through observing classmates and colleagues. In designing how to help a person understand the ways in which they use time, we created a tangible solution for displaying and experiencing time.

Questions I addressed:

  • How can someone be made aware of a phenomena usually invisible to themselves?

  • What are effective ways to abstractly represent and tangibly reconstruct the passage of time?

  • What are methods for discerning recognizable patterns from complex information?

  • How to apply consistency throughout an interaction to match a metaphor? 


Solution Methodology

Design Exercise

As a class, we walked around our studio's building and marked invisible phenomena highlighting social and power structures in addition to building infrastructure. This first exercise helped provide inspiration for what we might further investigate and sensitized us to the presence of "invisible" or unnoticed elements.

Initial exploration

After initially looking at different methods with which to display invisible phenomena as well as different aspects and scales of time to focus on, we decided to explore:

  • non-disruptive responsive environments
  • the idea of desk legacy, showing the life of a prior user
  • the question "what happened yesterday, what did I do?"

The question of "what happened yesterday?" eventually eventually became "where did the time go?". The balance of how analog or digital a display of time should be was also debated.

Prototypes: Tempur-pedic Desk

The tempur-pedic desk was an early pursuit of showing long-term use and objects which lived on the desk through memory foam. A desk would take a prolonged amount of time to transition from reflecting one user's habits to the next.

We chose not to pursue blocks with colored sides for aesthetic reasons and due to the focus of the project shifting away from the idea of a "legacy desk" involving the objects which live on the wood.

Time Lapse Research

Through examining time lapse footage we realized the importance of abstraction and uncovered interesting desk usage patterns which informed some of our design decisions.


  • Fidgeting during the late night is common, indicating restlessness and discomfort

    • Constant switching of arm position (fidgeting) would be captured by a desk

    • The desk would be effective at uncovering those difficult to notice behaviors

  • Without lighting and the time listed, it is difficult to determine what time it is

    • Much of time is spent on laptop, obscuring the use of time in a day

    • Grooves in the memory block are important to physically ground the user in time

  • After a week, I recorded the amount of time each person was in studio and asked how long they thought they were there

    • Those who spent the most time in studio were the most inaccurate


I took one week’s worth of footage, took sections in which I was present, and used After Effects to compile each day in order to reduce noise.


  • Work on the desk occurs in almost exactly the same spot even for shared desks, due to desk artifacts and cabinet or chair placement

    • Aggregating data over a month won’t be overwhelming as these patterns will repeat themselves

  • Much of the work environment stays constant, the human shifts around the laptop or sketch book

    • Capturing organic curves of arms with the tiling design became a main focus

    • Initially we were considering square tiles to match the outline for a laptop, sketchbook, etc

Spreadsheet Data

Comparing minutes spent in studio further convinced my partner and me that a qualitative display would be more effective and accessible than a quantitative display.

Prototypes: Tilings

We chose to abstract the movements of the user through the tiling of the desk in order for patterns to be more easily comprehendible. Playing back a direct, amorphous recording of a user’s movement would be overwhelming in its complexity and make using the desk for any purpose far more difficult.

Interaction Iteration

When discussing how a user would "play back" the desk recording of a day, my partner and I entertained the idea of a wooden block which would contain every memory encoded into it. Pressing the block into the table to simulate time passing was an effective way to physically involve the user, deepening their understanding and connection.

We used the metaphor of the block as being made up of layers of time, cutting a groove on the side to split the AM and PM parts of day to be consistent. We didn't implement this in our final concept, but chamfering the edges of each block and matching the push platform to that outline would increase usability.

Final Concept

Kairos is a tangible interactive desk which records how a person moves through time in relation to their desk and produces abstracted patterns of usage. The user is in full control of experiencing how they’ve used their desk through a physical interaction, truly feeling the weight and duration of time through the tactile interaction with the cube and the possibility of literally reliving the past day.

To present an accurate representation of what the final concept would be, we felt it necessary to split the different aspects of Kairos into different experiential components. Furthermore, the proper technology to integrate all of these features into one desk would be far too complex to prototype given our time frame. 


Concept: Tactile

The Kairos desk would have slight give in order to trigger sensors underneath each block, pressing on the desk feeling akin to placing weight on stiff memory foam. Each block would return to it's normal position after weight was removed however, dissimilar to the process for the "legacy desk".

Concept: Interaction

As the day progressed, a block would slide out of the desk as data was being recorded onto it; every month a special block would be produced with data averaged from each day.

Concept: Visual

We chose hexagons as the finalized tiling due to the shape's ability to reasonably capture almost all primary direct interactions with the desk (arms and elbows).


What I learned

  • When a qualitative display may be more effective than a quantitative one

  • The necessity for abstraction and the power of a medium

  • Ways to distill complex data (time lapse) into concrete decisions

  • Effective methods for constructing and developing a concept through multiple prototypes


  • How to divide work and adapt project goals with different skill-sets

  • Ways to work towards a common goal while having different interests in the project 

  • Implementation of techniques learned in 76285 Team Communication