When I started buying robot and electronics kits from Kickstarter, I noticed that the marketing copy usually promised "endless possibilities."
I was never particularly comfortable with endless possibilities as a design starting point. So I wasn't too disappointed when I found that most of these robot kits, which usually came with two motors, an IR receiver and remote, an LED and perhaps a distance sensor, were not much more than glorified remote controlled cars. Some of them, however, came with the tantalizing possibility of "adding your own sensors." Very well then, I thought. What sensors are there?
I began making lists of every sensor I knew of, then scoured part catalogs for more. At the same time I started mindmapping some of the more complex kits I had. The parts fell naturally into four branches:
Now I could see these kits purely for their function instead of being distracted by their form. I also found that mindmapping other devices in this way (like the iPhone) made their potential clearer and more accessible. It was far too easy to forget functions that were rarely used, or to dismiss them as only useful in the ways they were being used already.
I eventually turned these lists and mindmaps into playing cards, called KnowCards, because I wanted to introduce the element of randomness and more flexibility, while still keeping the underlying structure. The four main categories stuck, but I also added subcategories and related icons to make finding cards of the same type faster for comparative purposes, or to leave them out.
Above is an example of basic brainstorming use. You eliminate the display subcategory from the outputs (otherwise the ideas tend to get boring), then shuffle inputs and outputs, draw one or two cards from each deck, and try to come up with an idea that uses these that someone else wouldn't come up with. You can add complexity/options by dealing a connection and power cards as well. (I think it'll get very interesting once I get the API deck done, though I've been told that's probably still a pretty niche use.)
The most interesting thing I found while doing all this is that we have a variety of input options, but most of our output options are limited to light, movement, or sound. It seems to me that there should be more options. Changes in texture, for example. Or displays that don't light up (other than e-ink). The cards, as they are now, map the landscape of what is, but as I play with them they also suggest uncharted areas, like gaps in a periodic table.
I'm interested in exploring what's missing from the decks, as well as what unexpected things some otherwise overlooked part or part combination can be used for. The Power deck could start a conversation about new ways of harvesting energy, for example, or find places where energy isn't being harvested yet (my daughter suggested playgrounds). I gave each card a number within its deck and subcategory, to allow for the eventual possibility of a website where there could be comments and resources for each one. But I'd also like to have a place for new ideas and expansions on these. The possibilities may, eventually, be endless.