SWARM Interactive Workstation

May 17, 2017

Four students from the University of Calgary have come up with the concept of SWARM-- an interactive workstation designed for people with Parkinson disease.

Eric Free, Jubril Idowu, Alex Raymundo, and Xumin Wang are Masters of Architecture students in the Faculty of Environmental Design. They developed SWARM as their research project for their final semester. We spoke with Eric about SWARM in order to learn a bit more about the project. 


Photo by Riley Brandt


Parkinson Association of Alberta (PAA): What is SWARM?


Eric Free (EF): It’s our final semester project for the Masters of Architecture program at the University of Calgary. The final semester is basically a research studio, so each one of the studio professors proposes a research area for the semester and that’s what the students work on.

The one we did was proposed by Barry Wylant, an architecture professor at U of C. It was a design/build project looking at a few things: a modern work station for 4-6 people, designed with the idea that people can work in the way work happens now and how work is going to happen in the future. Obviously, with emerging technologies, work has changed drastically over the years. For example, you don’t have to be “in the office” to be part of the office.

A prominent practice in industrial design is designing for people that you don’t associate with or respond with. So we developed a persona early on that was unfamiliar to us. The persona was a man with Parkinson disease named Yandel—he’s in his mid 40s, computer engineer/scientist. It was my teammate Alex Raymundo who conceived the persona of Yandel and began looking at Parkinson's as something we could address in our project.



(PA): Why did you choose Parkinson disease?


(EF): We chose Parkinson's because none of us in the project group really knows much about it so it. Doing that takes you out of your body and makes you think how they think and act how they act. It’s a really successful design practice. We decided that we’d design something that someone with Parkinson’s could use.

We also looked at some critical art theories: Futurism, Swiss Dada, and De Certeau and Situationalist. The ones that really matter for our project are Futurism and Swiss Dada.

It’s a very technologically expressive work station and it wants you to know that it’s smart and futuristic, so it’s celebrating technology. With Swiss Dada, it kind of puts the whole notion of artificial intelligence becoming very realistic, it allows the user to empathize. Swiss Dada is very much a rejection of the existing way of doing things.

So we kind of gave our SWARM a data sensibility so that it could associate and relate to its users. With the project itself, it’s a series of 50 8 inch by 8 inch by 48 inch long bricks. Each one is made of acrylic. They have magnetic locking chip s on the top and bottom and they’re all wired up and networked and talk to each other through SWARM communications; it’s the same way bees communicate-- when one does something, all of the others know what it’s doing and they react and respond to it. It’s a two way communication.



(PA): How does it work?


(EF): By having the fixed dimension size, all of the pieces connect to each other. 16-18 inches is optimal sitting height. 32 inches is optimal desk height, 40-45 inches is standing desk height.

(PA): How many different configurations are there for SWARM? How many pieces is it made of?


(EF): At rest, it looks like a flat brick of all these things closed and stacked on top of each other. But as a user approaches, the facial recognition software and gesture sensors, so if you’re a frequent user, it will scan you and the bricks will slide out to for a desk or seat or a private work station, depending on your preferences. It caters to frequent users and users that just want something customized. It serves as a chair, office, meeting space all at once.



(PA): What’s the significance of the lighting?


(EF): Initially it was used for recognition, so when you approach it will light up your area. But you can also slide out a brick for task lighting, like if you needed to do some drawing and you need a backlit surface, it can provide that light.



(PA): Why did you decide to create SWARM?


(EF): The idea behind SWARM communications is, if you’re constantly giving the system information then it’s constantly learning and more equipped to adapt to its environment. We also like the idea that because it’s developing kind of a consciousness through learning, someone with Parkinson’s like Yandel, if they’re having a bad day, they can still interact. Because there is no physical pulling to make adjustments—it’s all sensors. If he’s having a bad episode, he can create a private alcove-like spot so he’s not in an open office if he wants to.

With the idea that it’s responding to the people using it, if someone has been sitting at their desk for 5 hours and haven’t stood up, it will indicate that it’s time to stand up and pull your seat away and make you get up and change positions. It makes it healthier in that sense. With meetings too, if a meeting is going too long and taking away from productivity this device can start moving and force the meeting to end. Also, if someone with Parkinson’s starts shaking during a meeting, the workspace can shake too so he’s not a spectacle.


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