At first glance, users may have no idea what they are and how to use Sony Corp.’s MESH — four colorful rectangular blocks the size of an eraser.
But with some intuitive creativity, they have the power to use them to add interesting features to everyday products — turning them into electronic gadgets.
Using it is as simple as dragging and dropping visual images on an iPad interface without having to be a computer programming expert.
“It’s easy for anyone to craft something with paper or clay or make a plastic model, but when it comes to making electronics, it can be tough because people need to know electronic circuits and programming,” said Takehiro Hagiwara, 36, who heads the MESH project at Sony.
The four DIY blocks — blue, orange, green and gray — work as smart tags with each having its own function.
The blue tag is equipped with a motion-detecting sensor; the orange with an LED; and the green as a button to switch other tags on and off. The gray tag comes with general-purpose inputs and outputs, or GPIOs, so people can connect other electronic devices, sensors and motors of their choice.
Currently, MESH can be used only on an iPad, which works as a parent station for MESH via a Bluetooth connection.
Using MESH is about combining these tags with ordinary items to make them more useful or just for fun.
For instance, users can put a blue MESH tag with the move sensor on a dumbbell and program it to play a voice from an iPad cheering them on every time they lift it.
Another MESH option would be to attach a gray tag to a scrubbing brush, which is connected to a motor, and another tag to a broom. Configuring both on an iPad, as you sweep using the broom the brush will also move in sync.
Hagiwara came up with the idea of MESH when he was thinking of ways to make everyday items more useful.
For example, while an alarm clock is usually placed by the bed, a person might fall asleep again once they turn it off.
Hagiwara says a better option would be if the alarm switch was placed in a different room. This can be possible with MESH by programming a switch tag, or move tag, to stop the alarm on an iPad placed some distance away.
People may have trivial notions of how to humor themselves or to make their lives more convenient. But they may have lacked the tools to accomplish this, “so I thought it would be interesting if there was a way for people to easily materialize their ideas,” said Hagiwara.
Playing with MESH is easy.
Manuals for MESH, which hit the stores in July, are available via a programming app on iPad. Unlike regular programming in which people type in text codes that require knowledge of programming language, MESH’s programming can be conducted just by touching and dragging visual commands on the app.
“We wanted to make it as easy and intuitive as possible for people to use. This is also why the tags are wireless,” said Hagiwara.
The ease of use proved to be true when many children invented their own gadgets using MESH at a workshop event held last month.
MESH, mainly targeted at consumers, may seem user friendly to nonengineers but it is still unclear if it can grab the hearts of a wider audience, including those who may have no interest in creating gadgets.
One way is to promote MESH as an entertainment tool instead of a gadget manufacturing kit, Hagiwara said.
MESH’s introduction on YouTube shows a scene where users put a MESH sensor tag on the popular “Jenga” game, programming it to play a funny sound on an iPad when the block tower collapses and the tag falls.
Hagiwara said uses like this can work at parties, such as Halloween, or school events.
Looking forward, Hagiwara hopes to add more variety to the MESH tags, including ones with temperature and humidity sensors so that users can water a plant when the humidity in the soil falls to a certain level.
He also hopes to work more closely with smartphones, such as sending alerts to them when a tag moves. This will, for instance, enable users to check on elderly people living alone at home by putting a tag on the door.
This section, appearing on the second Monday of each month, or on the second Tuesday when Monday is a press holiday, features new technologies that are still under research and development but expected to hit the market in the coming years.