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Heart Palette

A novel way to connect empty-nester seniors and their loved ones

Connecting empty-nesters and their loved ones

Heart Palette

       The Heart Palette is a follow-up project based on a previous project             . In the development of Pontem, we discovered a problem space that aims to connect empty-nest seniors with their loved ones in the distance. However, during the later user testing and interview, many have responded that the interactions through the changing lighting effects and the magnetic pendulum are a little confusing. Although the innovative interaction seems engaging in the first place, the most important emotional connection feels vague in actual usage. 

    To better solve the problem space, in this follow-up project, I dug deeper into psychological researches on senior users, trying to better understand their values and views, and improved the interactions so that the product can really provide a sense of connection and companion. The result of this work is the fully renovated Heart Palette. It bridges the distance between empty-nesters and their family with an intuitive interaction and concrete aesthetic.

Project Type /

Product Design

PDI Graduation Project

Role /

Design Research

Product Design

Engineering Design

Thesis Composition

Year /


The integrated Product Re-Development 

Re-identifying POG
Deeper Understanding
Integrated Conceptualizing

Re-identifying Product Opportunity

Pontem aimed to create that connection for independently living seniors with their children or grandchildren who live in the distance by the changing dynamic lighting effect. Users express their mood to their loved ones in the remote by switching the magnetic pendulum to a respective spot, which changes the color of the ambient light on the paired unit. The lasting ambient light created a sense of companion and emotions were exchanged through the changing light color. However, some issues regarding this interaction had been reflected in actual usages.

  • The user's move to the input signal via the pendulum is unrelated to the feeling that is been expresed. 

  • There is no logical connection between the input movement (swing pendulum) and the output feedback (changing light color).

  • The relationship between colors and feelings is abstract and subjective. Different people may have different interpretations of the information that's been presented by a certain color. 

  • Ambient light as interaction feedback can be vague in certain scenarios.


By collecting these feedbacks, a refined product opportunity gap (POG) was identified for the redesign:


Deeper Understanding

In order to contextualize the elements that would impact the subjective feeling of senior citizens, one must emotionally connect with them. Academic researches suggested that there are several ways to do so.

Communicate through concrete subjects
Concrete view.png

Although senior citizens and young children seem to be at the opposite extremes of a spectrum, it is not strange to see the two develop a strong bond. According to researches, one theory to explain this phenomenon is that the young and the old share similar mindsets that they used to percept everyday things around them (Frego, 1995). As the thought of children developing from concrete contextual information to abstract understandings, seniors gradually percept the world from a more abstract point of view back to a very practical and specific viewpoint (Labouvie-Vief and Blanchard-Fields, 1982). A concrete narrative is more than welcomed in the interaction designed for seniors. 

Stimulate Multiple Senses

All of the human's interactions with outside surroundings are the result of the collaboration between all senses (Schifferstein and Spence, 2008). The more sensory modalities are engaged during the interaction, the richer that experience would be and could last a clearer memory (Spence, 2002). In Pontem, the interaction simply stimulates the visual senses. To make a design a more effective interaction, more senses are needed. 


Vision plays the most important role in providing detailed information. 

Hearing facilitates to provide detailed info. It also feedbacks the surrounding environment. 

Smelling and tasting together enrich the biological experience of any interactions. 

Touch fulfills the missing parts in visual communication. It creates a mesmerizing and memorable experience. 

Interact with Natural Elements

Horticultural therapy has an extensive history of practice in psychological treatments (Seo et al., 2015). Service animals are also known to be very therapeutic (Hudson et al., 2020). People have been connecting personal feelings to the objects and elements that exist in natural surroundings for a very long time. The soft feeling of hugging a fluffy cat and the satisfaction of watching water drops descending from the top of a waterfall are no strangers to many people. Interactions with natural elements can leave abstract perceptions behind and allow one to merely focus on the concrete interaction (Seo et al., 2015).


These new insights lead to a renovated mission statement for the new project:

     "How can we help independently living seniors to build an emotional, perceptual, voluntary connection with their grandchildren in the distance through concrete, multi senses interactions?"

Integrated Conceptualization

In order to interact with the user with multiple senses and provide the best experience, an appropriate structure design is very crucial. It serves as the fundamental base that connects input movements and output feedbacks in a logical way. A mood board was created to help to identify the best structure choice. 


The mood board looked into some notable mechanical kinetic interactive installations. These mechanical installations have relatively low costs yet still unique and engaging. Therefore, this project is determined to be built on a mechanical structure. The integrated conceptualization process drew knowledge from mechanical engineering, considered structural frame and mechanisms include layer cut, eccentric wheels, hinges, multi-linkages, and topology meshes etc. Note that all of these examples can be categorized in the form of humans directly interact with the piece, or in the form of human-controlled objects interact with another object. All of these example pieces have integrated the interactive input to the structure and the movement with a distinct number of degree of freedom so that there is a clear logical connection between the user input and the system response. Taking these insights, a few potential concepts were generated and listed in the following matrix for evalaution. 


In this specific project, the goal is to connect the senior user with their loved ones. Therefore, at least two degrees of freedom are needed to allow two users to interact with each other using the product as a media. To effectively build the target emotional connection, the concept also needs to have high concreteness and high expandability. As a result, the fifth concept featuring an eccentric wheel stood out. The concept is named Heart Palette. 


The idea behind this installation is that two users in the distance can now cooperate together interacting with this piece. When pulling that pulley, the eccentric wheel will drive the vertical slide bar sliding left and right. The horizontal sliding bar is controlled by the other user remotely. Two participants have to work together in order to get the small heart-shaped gadget at the intersection of two sliding bars into the big heart on the backboard that represents the family tie and light up the LED strip around it. If the piece is left unattended, that small heart-shaped gadget will forever stay at the outside of the big heart and it would never light up. The design requires users to engage with it once in a while and collaborate with their loved ones remotely in a very concrete and intuitive way, thus making the experience less informative but more emotional, and create a feeling of companionship. The name Heart Palette also suggests a similar concept on the emotional connection. 


 Explode structural rendering


The mechanical movement of both sliding bars. 

Left: the vertical bar is driven by the eccentric wheel on the backboard, controlled by the user with a pulley.

Right: the horizontal bar is driven by a servo motor, the motor maps the input of the paired user in the remote. 


Interactive System Diagram

Driving servo

Time of light sensors


Driving belt



Two demonstration prototypes were made for this project. The first one was a low fidelity rough prototype used to verify the feasibility of the mechanical mechanism. It was made with 5 mm PVC foam board to justify the eccentric wheel and the slide bar combination. 


The mechanical verification prototype found that the eccentric wheel would induce a rotational moment on the sliding bar and causing the bar to tilt and got jammed in the sliding rail (Shown below). A finite element analysis on the Von-Mises stress distribution was executed to help trim the shape of the slide bar. 


An anesthetic demonstration prototype was also built. Due to time constraints, it was not functional but was built in full size with designated materials and painted with spray primer and paints to demonstrate the aesthetic and final design effect of the project. 


The fabrication of the aesthetic demo prototype utilized multiple digital fabrication technologies. Most of the structures were made out of 5 mm plywood sheets. The eccentric wheel and the big heart on the back of the backboard were made out of 3.3 mm and 5 mm acrylic sheets. Smaller components were thermally printed with grey scale resins. 


Major components fabricated with the laser cutter in layers.


Mock assembled structure


Colors applied using spray primer and paints


Smaller components thermally printed with grey scale resins


Lighting assembly built with 5 mm Acrylic sheets


Final assembly


Finished prototype

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