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Talking Head Wins Our Office Gadget Challenge

Max ‘Beast from the East’ Smolaks covers open source, public sector, startups and technology of the future at TechWeekEurope.

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Lyndsay Williams will build the ‘Office Pet’ – a robotic head capable of watercooler conversation

In May, TechWeekEurope launched the office gadget competition, hoping to inspire our readers to spice up their working life.

The task was simple: participants needed to design an office contraption that would be interesting, original and serve some practical purpose. The prize – £250 to spend on stuff from RS Components that will bring their creation to life.

After six weeks, we received several fantastic entries, ranging from an office plant babysitter to a robotic head that is perfectly capable of maintaining (almost) intelligent conversation. We would like to see all of them built, but there can be only one winner.

Battle of the bots

Here are the top entries, in the order of submission:

iPIckUInfrastructure architect and robotics enthusiast Xander Soldaat wants to build iPickU – “a Raspberry Pi based device to help you pick a volunteer for the job that nobody wants”. And it’s biometric! To operate iPickU, the user presses the button and scans a finger while stating his or her name, then passes the device along to the next person.

After the final button push, the iPickU’s ‘Random Volunteering System’ will pick a victim and play the sample of their name.

Physical Weather WidgetWeb developer and technology journalist Philip Howard submitted a plan to build a networked, Raspberry Pi-powered thermal printer that would print out the daily task list in the morning. As the tasks are completed, the user ticks off the checkboxes, and when the paper is fed back into the printer, it automatically updates the user’s electronic to-do list.

Sebastian Groza, a robotics student from Romania, proposed a gadget that would sit on the desk and visualise the weather conditions outside. The system uses a Raspberry Pi to read weather information from a weather API, parse this information with a Python script and send commands to an Arduino to set servo positions. The servos then move indicators for various weather elements, such as the speed and direction of the wind.

Chris Kiick from Austin, Texas, wants to build an office plant babysitter using BeagleBone Black development platform and an array of sensors. The device signals when the soil is dry, and automatically moves water from a reservoir into the pot. Kudos to Chris for the only entry that features a detailed circuit schematic!

Friend-ERutger van Assel from the Netherlands suggested an Arduino-based robot – inspired by a the movie Wall-E – called Friend-E, that can turn around, play music, change its face expression with some clever LEDs, and even provide you with a pen when you really need it.

Lyndsay Williams, a practicing electronics engineer, proposed a highly unusual project – a robotic head that can support watercooler conversation by recording office chit-chat and playing it back at (hopefully) appropriate moments. Like most of the projects in the competition, this ‘Office Pet’ is based on an Arduino microcontroller.

At first we were a little concerned that this could breach privacy and sour office relationships by playing back gossip or secrets. But Williams plans to change the pitch of the replayed message to disguise the original speaker.

Office Pet“The device has thermal sensors to detect if people are in the kitchen and is polite enough to wait for a gap in the conversation (unlike real employees) to speak up with some random snip of gossip just heard earlier. People will be aware the head is recording, as it will have animated features, e.g. winking eyes. The device can also prompt conversations, e.g. ‘Good Morning, how are you?’” explains Lyndsay.

Finally, this wouldn’t be an office gadget competition if there wasn’t an entry that deals with coffee. A project suggested by Mayur Singh, engineer from South Africa, involves RFID wrist bands that carry a code for the wearer’s favourite hot drink. When the wearer scans his or her wristband on the desk terminal, the drink is prepared, and an automatic message is sent to their computer.

There can be only one

When judging the competition, we were asking ourselves one question – which of these wondrous devices would we want to see in our own office? And the answer was clear.

We sit in a world which has been silenced. Everyone spends most of their time interacting through Skype and Twitter, with only an occasional grunt or sigh. The truth is, tech has killed our office conversation, and we’d like to see tech bring it back to life.

Congratulations to Lyndsay Williams! We will be in touch with you shortly, to talk about the logistics of the project.

Many thanks to all contestants, and good luck with your future engineering endeavours. We want to hear more of your progress, all of you.

And look out for our article about the Office Pet in the coming weeks.

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