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Domestic Gubbins

Investigating the possibilities for 'smart' products that could live alongside us, sharing in the minutiae our everyday life.

The Socio-Digital Systems Group at Microsoft Research Cambridge focuses on understanding how human values interact with the contemporary technological landscape. Moving beyond questions of productivity and efficiency, their research asks how we can build products and technologies to help us be more expressive, creative and reflective in our daily lives, particularly in the context of the home.


Working within this remit, our project 'Domestic Gubbins' explored the niche for consumer products at the intersection of the physical, the virtual, and the domestic  a space previously inhabited by 'smart' fridges and robotic lawn mowers. Through inventive design research and prototyping methods, we created new concepts for 'smart' or 'intelligent' products that might live alongside us, sharing our homes.

The Gubbins are four fictional objects, designed as provocations. They were the subjects for a series of video probes; social objects to prompt conversations with people about their ideas of smartness and intelligence.

370 Sketch of what the Gubbins might look like

371 Dummy gubbins from mdf

A mundane object, sitting on your shelf, expresses its opinion on the weather. The object by your plant sings a soft reminder. The item in your pocket whispers to you, feeding gossip about your fellow train passengers.

These were some characteristics of the Domestic Gubbins, a set of tiny pseudo-robots that share your home, each performing a single task with an unusual level of intelligence and sophistication. At times, they demonstrate a near-uncanny level of autonomy; expressing emotions, opinions and boredom.

1. Mimi: Gubbin Mimi has a big head and a great memory. She is curious and likes to gossip. She takes pictures of mundane activities, giving her own comments and interpretations.

372 Scenario of Gubbin Mimi, place on a window sill, getting bored.
374 Scenario of Gubbin Mimi lighting up, and responding to a TV series.

375 Gubbin Mimi has an uncanny ability to participate in conversations.

2. Bee: Gubbin Bee is a split personality. He uses his two parts to measure sound, temperature, and other characteristics of his environment. When his two parts are reunited, Bee interprets these measurements in his own way.

376 Bee placed in two corners of a room.

377 Bee measures sound, and comments on the silence in the home.

3. Snip: Gubbin Snip can be carried while commuting. He has the ability to look around, sniff radio wave emissions from the environment, and attribute them to strangers in the vicinity. 

378 Gubbin Snip lights up as he senses 'familiar' bluetooth activity in the vicinity.

379 Snip recognises the repeated presence of a mobile device called 'Man Mambo' and questions the owner.

4. Pobel: Gubbin Pobel is normally quiet and patient. But when a plant near him is dying, Pobel plays music, reminding us to take care and bring it back to life.


380 Pobel whispers songs into the dying plant's ears while the owners forget about it.

We brought the gubbins to life through narrative scenarios and video prototyping. 

These lightweight design methods saved our client time and money, but – more importantly – they allowed us to enter into dialogue with real families, who found it easier to engage with our films and stories.

From these conversations, we were able to build further on the users' expectations of their everyday interactions with such devices; findings that fed back into a more detailed round of product development.

The processes underpinning 'Domestic Gubbins' capitalised on our research, prototyping and storytelling skills. The project was exhibited in the online exhibition, Design and the Elastic Mind, at New York's Museum of Modern Art, and laid some of the foundations we needed to continue designing for 'smartness', robots, and networked devices.