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Interactive Flower Vase Set


     When children grew up, they moved out of the house to continue their lives in new directions, often resulting in leaving their parents or grandparents. In modern society, families are often being separated across large distances. For children, the separation provides them a wider space to explore, but for grandparents, the separation created a bit of loneliness. Although it is easy for anyone to call or text someone, that connection only lasts in the duration of the call and is merely informative. The emotional connection that grandparents are looking for is a connection that is intentional, voluntary, bidirectional, and continuous. How can we create this continuous emotional connection is what matters to our grandparents. 

        PONTEM is an interactive flower vase set specially designed for senior citizens who do not live with their children or grandchildren. It consists of a flower vase and its interactive holder. Units in seniors' homes can connect with their grandchildren's unit through the WiFi network, thus allows users to send messages represented by the color of ambient light on the vase holder. The name "Pontem" means "the bridge" in Latin, representing that bridge between separated families. By switching the magnetic pendulum on the vase set to change the color of ambient light on their grandparents' vase unit, grandchildren can share their feelings with their grandparents from the other side of the world. 

       The development process experienced two stages and lasts two years. The first stage of aesthetic design and interactive user testing was done in fall 2018. The second stage of system development and fabrication design was done in fall 2020. With the team's interdisciplinary backgrounds, a fully functional demonstration prototype was successfully built. 

Project Type/

Interactive Product


Team Leader

Development Managing

POG Research

Product Design

System Design

Circuitry Development

Prototype Fabrication

User Testing


Grace Lancto

Zihao Wang

Avani Saggi

Ruijie Du

Weston Brousseau

Markos Abebe



Phase I: Research (2018)

Phase II: Design (2018 - 2020)

Phase III: Realize (2020)


Identify Product Opportunity Gap






Design Criteria Generation



Aesthetic Design

(2018 - 2019)


Hardware Development

(2019 - 2020)



Software Development

(2019 - 2020)


Identify POG

      As an international student, I left home at a relatively young age. For me, this is an opportunity to explore a broader world. But for my grandma, this separation brought her worries and missing. I would video-call her once in a while when I have free time, and she would tell me how eager she has been waiting for the call. It brought to my attention that my grandma has always been yearning to keep the connection since I left home. Through extensive ethnographic research at a local nursing home, my team and I discovered that the lack of effective emotional connection is in fact an unmet need for the majority of senior citizens whose children and grandchildren do not live together with them anymore. 


Anita & John

Age: 65 & 67

  • Live independently.

  • Have 5 grandchildren that live in other states.

  • One of their grandchildren has autism.

  • Can only see their grandchildren during holidays and school vacations.



Age: 75

  • Lives in a senior nursing home.

  • The only daughter works overseas, can only come back once a year. 

  • The daughter is too busy to communicate with her very often.



Age: 82

  • Lives in her own house.

  • Oldest grandson serves in the military, currently on a long-term overseas deployment.

  • The grandson doesn't have access to a timely phone call in the forward base, she worries his safety.

Status Quo

Lack of effective connection.
The connection is not really in a timely manner. 
The connection is incontinuous
Merely informative connection via phone call and text messages

Layer 1

Layer 2

Layer 3

Layer 4

Opportunity Gap


An emotional, perceptual, personal, voluntary connection 
A continuous companion feeling.
A timely connection.
A tighter connection.

       The team had also run a SET (Social-Economic-Technological) analysis to further specify the problem space and envision the solution to that problem space. Utilizing the team's cross-disciplinary backgrounds, we envision the product to be an additive manufactured interactive installation that utilizes the asynchronous transfer ability of the microcontroller to build the connection between units. 

  • Globalization results in families being separated further than ever before. 

  • People started to pay more attention to physical and mental health.

  • The general public is more aware of the welfare of the senior citizens.

  • People have more discretionary income nowadays.

  • The majority of people are willing to pay for products that help to improve physical and mental health.

  • Non-essential goods that improve the quality of life have a heavier market share in modern developed society.

  • Wireless interconnection technology is being applied widely in various industries. ​

  • Microcontrollers like Arduino and Raspberry Pi became more mature, the cost of the chip had dropped significantly.

  • Additive manufacturing techniques such as 3D printing provides more flexibility in the form and aesthetics.  

Design Criteria

     To cover the product opportunity gap for the target user, we interpreted and evaluated some features that are special for elderlies. These features are marked as the design criteria for the product. We scored them from 1 to 5, 1 stands for the least important, 5 stands for the most important. These criteria were serving as guidance to the design on form and function.

Radar Chart (Update).png

Aesthetic and Interaction Design

      The aesthetic design started from a mood board with the design criteria mentioned above in mind. The design of the product focused on simple interaction, retro aesthetic, and practicality for the senior target users. A few concepts have been brainstormed.


Mood Board


Brainstorming Sketches

     Among all the concepts from the team's brainstorming session, the double arc concept with magnetic pendulum and ambient lights stood out. It covers all design criteria and has an interesting interactive mechanism. The vase would set on top of a double arc-shaped base, representing the "bridge" across separated families. An ambient light strip embedded in the structure was chosen to make the connection and convey the emotions because it is less informative and rational but more perceptual instead. It can also keep this emotional connection continuously throughout time. 


The flower vase is an ideal gift for seniors. The process of fostering a plant can also fulfill their retirement life. 

MoMA Magnetic Calendar inspired magnetic pendulum increases the interactivity. Swing pendulum to change the color of light. The mechanism received good feedbacks on preliminary user testing. 

The double-arc shaped support has a simple shape. Representing the "bridge" across separated families. 

The embedded light strip builds the connection and conveys the emotion through color. This connection is less informative and rational, but more perceptual instead. It also lasts throughout time.


       The connection is set up via changing ambient lights. The magnetic pendulum acts as a light switch. The grandchild can switch the pendulum on his/her unit, the color of ambient light on the grandparent's unit would change to the corresponding color, vise versa. By switching the pendulum to adjust the light color that reflects his/her mood, users can share their feelings with their loved ones in the distance. 

Color Output
(Light Strip)
Unit A
Color Output
(Light Strip)
Unit B
User Input
(Magnetic Pendulum)
User Input
(Magnetic Pendulum)
pendulum with hands.jpg
pendulum with hands_1.jpg

The magnetic pendulum switch

Hardware Development

        To realize the interaction in the design concept, the control circuitry is necessary. The system has to be able to sense the user input precisely and control the actuators to execute corresponding actions. An acting machine diagram was created to facilitate the design of the hardware system. 

Unit A*
Unit B*
Acting Machine Diagram.png
Visual illustration. The colors are customizable. More colors can be added.
* The control goes both way. 

        Many existing off-the-shelf technologies and products have been used extensively as solutions to cases like changing ambient color, magnetic sensing, and actuator control. Many of these technologies have the potential to realize the design concept of PONTEM. Applying these existing technologies and products can significantly reduce the complicity as well as the cost of development. 

Magnetic Window Switch
  • Provide multiple light colors.
  • The output color is programmable by changing the voltage supplied to the R, G, B channels of the diode. 
  • Capable of controlling the circuit with a magnetic field. 
  • The output is binary, easy for digital sensors to read. 
  • The embedded chip is capable of reading the input from sensors.
  • The embedded chip also has the ability to control actuators by electric signal. 
  • Programmable for communication between units.
Existing Technologies with Potentials to be Applied in PONTEM

       Considering the fact that the design concept of PONTEM involves a massive amount of sensing, acting, and transferring of signals, the control system is determined to be a digital system. The digital control system is separated into two subsystems, each responsible for sensing and acting. The sensing of user input is assigned to the input subsystem, it consists of a few parallel-connected sensing loops each with a magnetic window switch, a pull-up resistor, and a safety resistor. When the magnetic pendulum is placed near one of the magnetic window switches, that window switch would close the corresponding circuit loop, outputting signal 1 for high potential. The rest sensing loops stay open, outputting signal 0 for low potential. For the demonstration prototype, four parallel loops were connected, corresponding to four available colors.


Input System Schematic

       The output system consists of MOSFET transistors and an LED strip. Three MOSFETs are in parallel from three I/O pins of the microcontroller, connected to the R, G, B channel of the LED strip respectively. The gate of each transistor is connected to the GPIO pin, the drain connected to the LED strip, and the source is grounded. The microcontroller utilizes the pulse width modulation to control the average power supplied to each MOSFET, thus change the color of the LED strip. When no voltage is supplied from the gate, MOSFET would act as a large resistor, keep the circuitry open. 


Output System Schematic

Software Development*

       The key components of the operating system include three programs written in Python. Two units transfer messages using the MQTT protocol through internet servers. 

Communication using
MQTT protocol

Controller 1



Controller 2


Send parameters in lists
e.g. [1,0,0,0]
 Receive parameters in lists
e.g. [1,0,0,0]
 Receive parameters in lists
e.g. [0,1,0,0]
Send parameters in lists
e.g. [0,1,0,0]
Pack the signal in lists,
compare with status json file
Interpret the list,
transfer to R,G,B value
Read status signal
e.g. 1,0,0,0
Update light in RGB
e.g. 128,255,0


Circuitry 1

Read status signal
e.g. 0,1,0,0
Update light in RGB
e.g. 255,128,0


Circuitry 2

IoT Structure

       Among the three Python programs, two are responsible for packing and interpreting signals, the other is responsible for sending the data via the network. The input circuitry would send the signal representing a certain user input such as 1, 0, 0, 0 to the microcontroller inside the vase, which processes all the user input and responds to the interaction. The signal is then packed in a list such as [1,0,0,0] and saved in a status file 'data.json'. The controller would constantly compare the current status with the latest status which saved in the 'all_data.json'. If a newer version is detected, send the 'data.json' to the server. The server then passes the file to the subscribed unit's microcontroller. The subscribed unit's controller first clears the 'all_data.json' file, then receives the 'data.json' message from the server. The controller then transfers the message in lists into the corresponding R, G, B value, and passes to the output circuitry to execute the reaction. Both controllers can be the publisher and subscriber in the system, thus the communication can go both ways. 

*Assisted in system architectural development. Operational code developed by Ruijie Du and Avani Saggi.


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PONTEM Technical Drawing

        Several possible fabrication methods were considered in this project, such as PLA or ABS additive manufacturing and injection molding, wood sheet steam bending, and acrylic heat bending. 



Additive manufacturing


 Injection molding



Steam bending


Acrylic sheet

Heat bending

      By using different fabrication techniques, PONTEM can further develop into a series of products with different versions. However, in many fabrication methods, parts division and dimension is very crucial. For example, many 3D printers have very strict dimension limitations. Inappropriately divided parts may also require unnecessary redundant supporting structures during the fabrication. In order to find the best parts division while still keep the structural integration, a finite element analysis on the supporting base was executed. 


Simulation parameters:

  • Material weight density: 1.25 g/cm^3

  • Material Young's modulus: 1280 MPa

  • Material shear modulus: 1287 MPa

  • Material Poisson's ratio: 0.36

  • Load: 21.57 N towards negative z-axis

  • Constraints: fixed in z-axis

Displacement in x-axis (left) and mean stress (right) distribution in the supporting base

        The material used in the finite element analysis simulation has a similar mechanical property to the commercial PLA. The load was approximately the weight of the vase and contained soil. As shown in the simulation, the vertical load tends to push the top arc structure aside into two pieces and creates rotational moments on the respective side that tend to crush the structure. Thus, the structure of the supporting base was divided into four parts: top left arc, top right arc, bottom left arc and bottom left arc. The bottom arc is connected to the top arc by plugging through the opening notch on the top arc. Thus the bottom arc structure can provide a pair of reaction force and reaction moment that counter the impact of the load and reinforce the strength of the structure. Such parts also only require little supporting structure in additive manufacturing. 


Forces and moments due to load (red) and reaction forces and reaction moments (blue)


1. Vase body

2. Top left arc

3. LED strip (X2)

4. Micro-controller

5. Bottom left arc

6. Window switches (X4)

7. Top right arc

8. Connecting notch

9. Magnetic pendulum

10. MOSFETs (X3)

11. Bottom right arc

Demonstration prototype parts and components
        Two sets of prototypes were built over the course of the development. The first rough prototype was built with cardboard and cork blocks. The communication system was hard-wired analog circuitry that can simulate the communication between two units. The task for this rough prototype was to verify the effect of aesthetic design and to test the interactivity. This prototype was brought to a local senior nursing home for field testing. Good feedback on the aesthetic design and interaction design was received during the testing. 
        The second set of the prototype was fabricated using 3D printing with PLA filament. This prototype features a fully functional digital communication system. The two units are controlled by Raspberry Pi 3B controllers and can communicate via a manually set up regional server. The goal for this prototype was to justify the design of the communication system on both hardware and software level, and also tested the possibility of fabricating the product with additive manufacturing. The prototype proved the design of the communication system was successful, the parts division and mechanical design of the supporting base was also appropriate for additive manufacturing. 

Future Development

     The current stage of the development is making prototypes for design justification, user testing, and demonstration. However, several development goals have already been outlined for future development down the road:

  • Add input feedback for the user. We noticed during user testing that users do not have feedback on what color they sent to the connected unit. For example, sometimes user intended to switch the pendulum to the red meaning they are happy, but by accident triggered the wrong switch with the pendulum and sent the color blue, which means he/she is sad. 

  • Transplant the communication system to the worldwide web. The key challenge is to access a status IP address or hostname for the server. This requires intranet penetration and port forwarding techniques. 

  • Build prototypes with wood steam bending and acrylic sheet heat bending techniques to develop different versions. Through user interviews, we realized that some "tech-savvy" users would be interested in an acrylic version where they can see all the electronic components inside the structure. 

  • Build a customized microcontroller and electronic components to lower the complexity of the system and the cost. 

  • Make 100 sets of PONTEM for a product kick start.

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