Meter Widget

In the desktop metaphor for office computing, computer/human interfaces mimic objects common in the physical world of the desk -- paper, file folders, trash cans, etc. Technical computing also uses metaphor, virtualizing physical constructs from the real world, to display numeric data through dials, meters, and gauges and to offer the comfortable affordances of control provided by sliders and push buttons. These controls are often known as "widgets" (1), (2). Widgets are presentation and interaction objects, and offer a "black box" interface (3); the quantity which they control or display is determined by the controlling computer program, and is separate from the widget itself.

[Winamp Skin sample] A recent cultural phenomenon of widgets is that, as widgets begin to appear in virtualized versions of objects that already have cultural significance in the real world, users of the objects now care deeply about their appearance. One example is that software with deep cultural ties, such as music players, now offers customizable "skins," (4) and users of these programs spend a considerable amount of time customizing these user interfaces to have personalized look-and-feel, often borrowing from a design language from the real world, incorporating design elements with a metallic look, or another texture such as wood or fabric.(5)


[Me and my Meter] In this project, I decided to move the virtualized physical back into the real world and produce a real widget. My widget is a meter. The meter widget is, like a virtual meter widget, a black box that is purely a presentation object, with the numeric value set remotely by a computer program, and the meaning of the value determined jointly by the computer and the human. My meter widget is, in fact, a real meter from Radio Shack (22-412, $9.99) in a real black box.


[Meter in Use] I put the meter and a remote control system into the box, allowing a simple command-line program to set the value displayed on the meter. This physical meter can thus be used as a design element in any numeric monitor and display system, such as a display of web site load (6). Shown here is a sequence in which the meter is controlled by a simple ramp-up/ramp-down (7) program.


[Inside the Meter] The meter uses the X10 power-line control protocol (8), (9), and is built of standard components: the aforementioned Radio Shack meter and black box, an X10 lamp dimmer (10), and a standard night light. The computer interface to the X10 protocol is a Firecracker (11), a small RS232 plug that controls X10 devices by a radio link. All the X10 components necessary for this project can be bought together for $19.99 at Fry's, or for $39.99 at the (11) reference.
[Live capture from webcam on meter] Live WebCam on meter. (Well, not live right now.)