Social isolation measures due to the pandemic have prevented many of us from being able to spend time with our loved ones, leaving many people craving social connection. While widely used technology can help facilitate verbal or written communication (video conferencing, texts, emails, etc.), how do we facilitate non-verbal communication such as presence or touch?

Design Response

Oobi is a hand-held squeeze ball that facilitates interactive social connection between two people using ambient light communication and vibration. People can send ambient light “messages” to loved ones to foster intimate non-verbal connections.

Key Features

Send ambient light messages to loved ones using the three main interactions:

Physical Prototype
Shake the Oobi as if waving “Hello”. Receive light and vibration feedback that the message was sent.
Give the Oobi a long or short squeeze. Receive feedback from the action.
Synchronous Hold
If both are held at the same time, paired Oobis will pulse simultaneously, mimicking a “breathing” pattern.
Mobile Prototype
Pair the Oobi device to the mobile app and customize the name.
New Connection
Sync two Oobi devices remotely using the product code.
Customize colors for each interaction. As needed, enable Do Not Disturb mode.


Using the framework of our initial goal to design a solution that facilitates social connection, we wanted to focus more on ambiguous forms of communication. Since many types of technology focus on enabling verbal and written communication, we were interested in exploring how technology could facilitate non-verbal communication - something many of us have craved during the pandemic.

Background Research

Since this project focused on prototyping, we conducted a fairly short secondary research process before jumping straight into the ideation phase. We gathered 20 examples of scholarly research projects that used technology to promote social connectedness.

Design Dimensions
Using this research as inspiration, we established our design dimensions to help guide the project.
Ambiguous, sensory forms of communication
Evokes connection through intimacy & familiarity
Non-screen, tangible interactions
Elegant solution that easily integrates into one’s environment without feeling intrusive


Concept Sketches & Downselection

We conducted an ideation workshop during which we each sketched 5 potential design concepts. We then dot-voted and down-selected to 6 total ideas as a team based on our design dimensions and feasibility.

Concept Feedback
Next, we conducted a dot-voting session with our entire prototyping class, receiving additional comments and feedback from classmates and faculty.
Final Concepts
After evaluating the feedback we received, we downselected to two final ideas: Comfort Stone and Light Us. These two concepts both exemplified our design dimensions using passive presence displays and light elements to promote connectedness. On a more practical note, we were also more optimistic about feasibility and our abilities to prototype these two ideas effectively.


Storyboards & Video Prototypes
Once we solidified the final two ideas, we created storyboards for each concept and used the storyboards to create rapid video prototypes.
Co-design Session
Using our video prototypes, we conducted a co-design session in conjunction with University of Washington KidsTeam, a research group that partners with kids aged 7-11 to design technology for kids. For this session, I created the study plan and co-led the activities.
SEssion Goals
  • Validate the concept ideas
  • Gather additional use cases to help refine the concepts
  • Brainstorm more features and functionalities
Co-Design Activities
  • Watch each prototype video
  • Record immediate feedback of the concepts on Miro sticky notes
  • Draw yourself using each concept, including any additional features you want
  • Line-judge vote on which concept you like better
A screenshot of participants in a Zoom call. Kelsey is smiling as a child (face blurred) holds up a drawing of someone using the Comfort Stone.
A sketch of a person holding a red, ruby-shaped Comfort Stone.
A sketch of a split screen with two people each holding a Comfort Stone that is lighting up.
A sketch of a person sleeping and a message being displayed that reads "do not disturb".
Participant drawings of Comfort Stone
Key Findings
Overwhelming preference for Comfort Stone
Kids expressed interest in using Comfort Stone with friends and family who aren’t physically accessible to them. They brought up concerns that many people might not have enough physical space for the Light Us concept.
Desired additional functionalities for Comfort Stone
Participants suggested various features that would make the Comfort Stone experience more customizable, such as the ability to adjust light brightness and color, an ON/OFF switch, and a “Do Not Disturb” mode.
Interest in availability of various shapes and sizes
Kids were especially interested in the Comfort Stone form factor, suggesting a variety of shapes and sizes they would want to choose from (e.g. a small ruby or crystal, a Pokeball, a dog).

Wizard of Oz Prototype

With the overwhelming positivity towards the concept idea, we moved forward with Comfort Stone, renaming the concept to Oobi, and created a Wizard of Oz (WOZ) prototype to use in further testing.

Our WOZ prototype consisted of two light up balls that we could (secretly) controll with a remote.
An image of a white ball next to an image of a remote.
Prototype Details
The purpose of the WOZ prototype test was to test the overall concept idea of Oobi and the current functionalities without needing to build a “real” working prototype.

We conducted 3 prototype testing sessions over Zoom in which one of our team members was in the same physical location as the participant and the rest of the team were remote. In this scenario, the participant would interact with one of the prototypes, while the member of our team in the room with them (the Wizard) would discretely control the lights with the remote, and a remote team member (the Assistant) held up the other prototype to their camera and controlled the lights with their remote out of frame.

We also conducted a separate prototype testing session with the KidsTeam over Zoom, during which two members of our team held the prototype up to the camera and controlled the lights with the remote out of frame.
A digital sketch illustrating the Wizard of Oz prototype test setup depicting a split screen view of 2 people on the left side, Wizard 1 holding a remote and the participant holding the ball, and 1 person on right, Wizard 2 holding the ball with one hand and a remote in the other.
Diagram illustrating prototype test setup
Session Goals
  • Test squeeze and shake interaction communication modalities for triggering LED light feedback on partner’s Oobi
  • Understand what scenarios users envision themselves using Oobi (who, where, when, why)
  • Define the number and type of desired communication interactions (in addition to the ones included in this study)
  • Overall, determine if Oobi facilitates a sense of togetherness while being physically apart
Prototype Test Activities
  1. Preliminary questions about using technology to foster “togetherness”
  2. Present the prototype and explain how it works
  3. Interact with the prototype to convey “Hello”, “I miss you”, and “I’m feeling down”
  4. The Assistant controls their prototype to light up when messages are sent by the participant
  5. Participant explains the action taken and the reasoning
  6. Switch the interaction model so that the participant is on the receiving end of the messages
  7. The Assistant repeats these interactions on their end while the Wizard controls the participant’s prototype
  8. Reveal the WOz!
A test participant (face blurred) facing the camera and holding the ball.
A side view of a test participant holding a ball emitting blue light and facing a computer during a Zoom call.
Key Findings
Meaning attributed to light effects
Participants equated duration and frequency of lights with different emotions (e.g. slow pulses indicated intimacy, blinking indicated urgency). Participants also expressed a desire to intentionally choose colors to convey certain emotions.
Desire for haptic feedback
Participants would like a vibration feedback to indicate their message was delivered to their partner.
Overall idea validation
All participants said they could imagine using Oobi with one other person but would be open to using it with more people.

Final Prototype

Once we used our prototype test insights to refine the Oobi design concept, we created a physical and a mobile prototype to showcase in our final video prototype. I led and owned building and coding the physical prototype, as well as filming (and acting in) the video prototype.
An image of the Oobi prototype with wires coming out the side next to an image of the Oobi prototype being opened to reveal the lights inside. The background includes the CPX and the button panel used to control the prototype.
The Oobi prototype, outside (left) and inside (right)
To create the physical prototype, I used a wool dryer ball (for squish factor), a Circuit Playground Express (CPX) physical computing board, and a button panel. I cut the dryer ball in half and attached a 3D printed core to house an LED light strip. The light strip inside the ball and the button panel were wired to the CPX, which connected to a computer to run the code for the light sequences.
For our final video prototype, I used the button panel and CPX to control the light strip inside the ball and filmed the user journey by hiding the wires attached to the ball.


A screenshot of the 4 team members smiling in a Zoom call with virtual Oobi branded backgrounds.
Challenges of remote prototyping
This 10 week project presented us with the unique challenge of creating physical prototypes while working as a completely remote team during the early months of 2021. My teammates spanned 3 time zones and 2 countries, meaning we had to strategically plan our methods, schedules, and ownership of deliverables. Because of these constraints, we learned to lean heavily on the power of video prototyping to create the “illusion” of our design concepts. Being the only teammate physically located near our university resources, I was solely responsible for building our physical prototype, which I had little prior experience with. I learned to quickly test and iterate with a variety of materials and methods, learning new tools (and a coding language) to illustrate our concept effectively.
The power of co-design
Working with the UW KidsTeam was a challenging but fun crash course in eliciting feedback and co-designing ideas with highly engaged (and opinionated) participants. I was initially intimidated to present our ideas to the kids because I knew from prior experiences working in classrooms how brutally honest kids can be. But we were pleasantly surprised at how interested, gracious, and innovative the kids were in our co-design sessions. As any good co-design participants would, the kids brought up concerns and ideas that we had not thought of yet, which were ultimately incorporated into our designs.
Updating the form factor
Given more time and resources, we would have wanted to create a more elegant prototype closer to our envisioned form factor by molding the Oobi ball out of soft translucent silicone to further diffuse the lights inside and offer a more satisfying texture and “squeeze factor.”