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Free Mode

It is a machine that assists people who excessively rely on their smartphones by preventing them from digital interference in terms of incoming calls and pop-up notifications. The machine, therefore, frees us back to humanity.

Art Installation

Kinetic Sculpture

Steel, Aluminum, Plaster, Acrylic

Arduino, OpenFrameworks, Fabrication


The machine criticizes over-reliance on technology by physically impeding our engagement with smartphones. Specifically, it utilizes a specialized apparatus to enhance work efficiency and to avoid digital distractions.

As for the target users, people who overly rely on their smartphones, although they are aware of the negative effects of the constant incoming distraction, they generally feel a sense of security to have their phones around them all the time.

I am creating the feeling of uselessness. Through emphasizing a gratuitously detailed design for a simple function, smartphone addicts might be surprised by their heavy dependence that unexpectedly needs to be solved by an impractical machine. Hence the instrument is meant to be exaggerated. In other words, the concept functions through using an unnecessarily well-designed mechanism, to obstruct the connection between device and user.


Digital Distraction

With the advent of technology, smartphones have become the indispensable device of our everyday life. We derive the ability to connect through this little miracle device, people become more and more reliant on the ease of getting information. In a world of mobile connectivity and overload of information, a smartphone receives an average of tens of hundreds of push notifications a day1. Paradoxically, constant notifications are significantly influencing our productivity, since even a little buzz or sound of a notification can take away user’s attention2. Digital distraction can ubiquitously happen in everywhere3. For example, you and your friends are talking about a recent fashion exhibition at Museum of Modern Art. However, your friend replies to her text message every time her smartphone’s notification pops up. Then she might spend a couple minutes to catch up on the context of the conversation. To be more concise, many people are constantly distracted by their smart device. A statistic shows Millennial Generation students’ behaviors and perceptions regarding their classroom uses of digital devices for non-class purposes. The survey included 675 respondents in 26 states. Respondents spent an average of 20.9% of the class time using a digital device for non-class purposes. The average respondent used a digital device 11.43 times for non-class purposes during a typical school day in 2015 compared to 10.93 times in 2013. A significant feature of the study was its measurement of frequency and duration of students’ classroom digital distractions as well as respondents’ motivations for engaging in the distracting behavior4. We can see how digital distraction is severely affecting us.
In order to mitigate undesirable interruptions caused by smartphone notifications, people often rely on the methods such as turn on silent mode, turning off notifications, or put their smartphone from afar. However, those methods usually do not last long due to lack of self-control and nomophobia.  
The term nomophobia refers to the anxious feeling caused by being unable to use one’s smartphone or being out of smartphone contact5. It is an abbreviation for "no-mobile-phone phobia"6, was coined during a 2008 study by the UK Post Office, it evaluated anxieties suffered by mobile phone users. The study found that nearly 53% of mobile phone users in Britain tend to be anxious when they "lose their mobile phone, run out of battery or credit, or have no network coverage". The study, sampled 2,163 people, found that about 58% of men and 47% of women suffer from the phobia, and an additional 9% feel stressed when their mobile phones are off. 55% of those surveyed cited keeping in touch with friends or family as the main reason that they got anxious when they could not use their mobile phones7 8.
I am heavily influenced by digital distractions, lack of self-control and nomophobia. At most of the time, I have a conflicting mentality that I do not want to be bothered during my work, but I still want to receive notification to fulfill the need of being needed. (Smartphone notifications provide application-specific information in real-time but could distract users when delivered at inopportune moments9.) That is to say, I cannot just turn on airplane mode on my phone or just put it at other places. The question is how do I address the problem of digital distraction under the premise of lack of self-control and nomophobia. My solution is making a therapeutic machine. Users can still have their phone beside them (address the lack of self-control and nomophobia), and they can still get notifications (fulfill the need of being needed), but at the same time, the machine will block all the incoming notification so that the user won’t be distracted. The user can see their notification or call back to someone after they finish their work.

What exactly is it?
In Amber Case’s TED Talk We are all cyborgs now 10, she describes that nowadays the use of smart devices extends our perception and cognition way farther than we have before. The technology brings us to the place where we can connect to each other by single effortless behavior like text messages or video calls. (Cyborg: an organism to which “exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments”) On the other hand, I would say this is a machine that brings us back to the human, it is the reason why I call it Free Mode, it frees us as from being a digital slavery. It is a prosthetic that assists us to do the task that we do not want to do (or we do not have the self-control to do). (Prosthetic: an artificial device that replaces a missing body part, which may be lost through trauma, disease, or congenital conditions. Prosthetics are intended to restore the normal functions of the missing body part.)

The Machine

This machine is a kinetic sculpture, which primarily comprised of 2 mechanically operated fingers. The thumb locks the phone as the machine detecting lights from the phone screen, which caused by popping notifications. The index finger hangs up the phone as the machine detecting sounds (phone rings).

For the materials, I want to keep the original form of raw materials as much as possible and use them for specific purposes. For example, using a big steel plate as the bottom base for stability, using aluminum bars as moving part for lightweight and easy movement, and casting my own fingers with plaster to create the exact same appearance of human fingers.
For the mechanics, I make a little modification from Crank and Slotted lever Quick Return Motion mechanism, which is used for converting the linear motion of a slider into rotational motion or vice-versa, I bring up the pivot from the bottom to the middle of the slotted link so that I can let the plaster thumb horizontally lock the phone, which simulates our action of locking phones.

Design Value

Not exactly useful, but somehow not altogether useless.
It has a purpose and It is functional. Therefore, it is not useless, neither practical. It seems useless from a practical point of view, however, it did serve the function.

The mechanism of familiar and repetitive gestures are emphasizing the movement that we make hundreds of times every day in terms of locking our phone.

I am criticizing the over-reliance on technology by emphasizing the differentiation between digital and analog; complex and easy; exaggeration and plain. This is an instance of the physical world being mobilized against the digital world. It’s a gentle protest to our modern lifestyle.


1. Forest

Forest is an app that helps people conquer their phone addiction. Users can spend less time on their smartphones, and focus on more important tasks. By using this APP, the users set up the duration that they expect themselves not to use the mobile, once they achieve the goal, they earn the points in the app. By collecting the coins in a certain amount, the app creator is going to plant a tree in the real world. Until the end of 2017, they have already planted more than 200,000 pieces of trees in the world. We can say it is kind of app that helps people to concentrate on their priority tasks and do an effort on sustainability issue. Both of our goals is to assist people not using their smartphones during their work. Forest encompasses time element to accomplish it in a positive way, however, I think it turns out causing people to spend more time checking and taking care of their forest. Take my experience for instance, while I am in the process of planting my tree, although I leave my mobile away, I use my friend’s mobile instead of mine or using my laptop more frequently. Given that, I don’t reduce the times of using my phone but pay more attention to check the growth of the trees. On the other hand, Free Mode’s approach is to deprive the authority of getting notifications under user’s consent.

2. Arthur Ganson, Machine with Wishbone & Thinking Chair

Arthur Ganson is a kinetic sculptor, he makes mechanical art demonstrations and machines with existential themes. Being expert in using very simple and plain materials to achieve a complicated mechanical art object, and those elaborated objects are created just to accomplish particular purposes. For example, in Machine with Wishbone, he constructed a huge intricate machine in order to let a wishbone walking in a human way. In Thinking Chair, he rotates a substantial rock above a complex mechanism merely for the sake of letting a small chair walking on the rock. In those objects, he always tried to keep the original form in order to represent the sense of natural atmosphere. Free mode shared similar characteristics and contrastive features with those machines he made. I keep the original form of raw materials, such as the steel plate, aluminum bar, and plaster fingers. I design a complex mechanism only for the purpose of locking and hanging up the phone, which is very easy for us (the smartphone addicts) to do.

3. Klemens Schillinger, Substitute Phones

I use realistic hand gestures to lock and hang up the phone as we operate our phone. I got the inspiration from Klemens Schillinger, Substitute Phones, in which he designed a smartphone replica embedded with stone beads that allow people to scroll, swipe, zoom, but without actual digital function. He describes it as a therapeutic approach that helps for smartphone addicts to cope with withdrawal symptoms. His project investigates smartphone gestures in general. Humans created these gestures, which didn’t exist several years ago and implement them over a hundred times every day. I am exaggerating this “smartphone gesture” by using the repetitiveness of mechanical principle.

4.  MORE TH>N, Prosthetic phone

Prosthetic phone by MORE TH>N is an interesting product that helps people quit the addiction of smartphone. The prosthetic phone comes with the same weight and appearance but without any real digital function. It was designed to comfort people when they are not with their phone. 

5.  Chindōgu

Unuseless: “Not exactly useful, but somehow not altogether useless.” The term, originally coined by Kenji Kawakami, means “unusual tool,” and is a form of Japanese art. There are some interesting tenets of Chindōgu. For instance, A Chindōgu Must Exist— A Chindōgu must be something that you can actually hold, even if you aren’t going to use it, There must be the Spirit of Anarchy in Every Chindōgu— Chindōgu inventions represent the freedom to be (almost) useless and challenge the historical need for usefulness, Chindōgu Tools are for Everyday Life— Chindōgu must be useful (or useless) to everyone around the world for everyday life, Humor is Not the Sole Reason for Creating a Chindōgu— Even if Chindōgu are inherently quirky and hilarious, the main reason they are created is for problem-solving11. I am intrigued by the notion of the line between useful and useless. Designers nowadays generally design products to solve specific problems and to fulfill specific purposes. So, is Free Mode considered useless? It seems useless from a practical point of view, however, it did serve the function.


Martin Pielot, Karen Church, and Rodrigo de Oliveira. 2014. An In-situ Study of Mobile Phone Notifications. In Proceedings of the 16th International Conference on Human-computer Interaction with Mobile Devices & Services (MobileHCI ’14). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 233-242. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2628363.2628364

[2] Michael S. Victoroff, “Putting Employees Online Risks Distractions,” Managed Care, 2001
[3] Priyanshi Agrawal, H. S. Sahana, Rahul De', Digital Distraction, 191-194. ICEGOV '17 Proceedings of the 10th International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance, 2017.
[4] Bernard R. McCoy. "Digital Distractions in the Classroom Phase II: Student Classroom Use of Digital Devices for Non-Class Related Purposes", 5-32. Journal of Media Education Vol. 7, 2016.
[5] "Nomophobia is the fear of being out of mobile phone contact - and it's the plague of our 24/7 age". Evening Standard. April 1, 2008. Archived from the original on July 6, 2008.
[6] Charlie D'Agata Nomophobia: Fear of being without your cell phone. CBS News. April 3, 2008.
[7] Sanjay; Shukla, Harish; Bhagwat, AK; Bindal, Arpita; Goyal, Abhilasha; Zaidi, Aliak; Shrivastava, Akansha (2010). "A Study to Evaluate Mobile Phone Dependence Among Students of a Medical College and Associated Hospital of Central India". Indian Journal of Community Medicine. 35 (2): 339–41.
[8] Wang, Guan, and Ayoung Suh. "Disorder or Driver?" Proceedings of the 2018 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems - CHI 18, April 2018.
[9] Chunjong Park, Junsung Lim, Juho Kim, Sung-Ju Lee, and Dongman Lee, “Don’t Bother Me. I’m Socializing!”: A Breakpoint-Based Smartphone Notification System, CSCW 2017, Portland, OR, USA, February 25-March 1, 2017
[10] Case, Amber. “We are all cyborgs now.” Filmed December 2010, TED video, https://www.ted.com/talks/amber_case_we_are_all_cyborgs_now
[11] Guerrera, Chasse. “Chindōgu: The Art of Unuseless.” March 8, 2015. http://mentalfloss.com/article/61842/chindogu-art-unuseless


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