Finalist 2021

Digestive Tumble

HAFP Research Lab

Digestive Tumble: Visualising the human digestive system through a playful tangible system.

Digestive Tumble is an innovative system that represents the functioning of the human digestive system. Through nine interlocking modules, the system provides information about digestion of different foods to help users in making informed decisions about their dietary choices. Users interact with the system by inserting tokens representing their meal. These tokens transform into colorful beads, which traverse through the system at different rates depending upon the meal. For instance, since vegetables and fruits are quick to digest, the corresponding beads would traverse fast through the system whereas the beads corresponding to meat and dairy will follow slow digestion rates.

Design Brief

Digestive Tumble had multiple aims:

Our first aim was to develop a simplified representation of the complex processes of the human digestive system. Instead of representing the anatomical structure of organs, we focused on visualizing the differences in the processes to support deeper reflection on dietary choices.

Secondly, we focused on creating a system that has personal relevance, where users can see how their different meals get digested in the body. Next, we aimed at facilitating a shared understanding of one’s digestive processes, where family members can reflect on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of each other’s dietary choices.

Our final aim was to create a glanceable reflection tool that does not require continuous attention of users, instead can work silently in the vicinity like a clock. The design mimics the slowness of the digestive system, where the digestion rate varies based on the food groups being consumed.

This project was developed by:

Design Process

Digestive Tumble has been developed by an in-house team of industrial designers and computer scientists with expertise in digital health and interaction design. The system was iteratively designed over a period of 10 months, where different iterations were tested with the lab members.

Digestive Tumble demonstrates how the food goes through different processes by using physical metaphors like tokens and beads. Following the Australian Dietary Guideline, we categorized different food items into five main groups: grains, meat, fruits, vegetables, and dairy. These food groups are represented through colorful tokens. The system takes a couple of hours to show the digestion of a meal, where the time varies depending upon the food composition of the meal. For instance, fruits and vegetables are high in fiber, hence get easily digested; whereas grains, meat and dairy follow slow digestion. The system also utilizes audio and visual representations to show the internal transformations of food. Finally, taking inspiration from the ‘body as a factory’ analogy, we used familiar metaphors of machines and industrial processes to visualize the digestive processes. For instance, while mechanisms like conveyor belts, and hold and release claws are used to represent the processes; geometrical figures like square, rectangle, and L-shapes are used to design the modules.

Digestive Tumble includes a certain level of abstraction to simplify the complex digestive processes so that users can easily understand the processes and can use the system safely at home. For instance, the excretion process does not contain the stigmatic details like colour, shape, or odour of the stool, hence providing opportunities to discuss the processes both in general and in relation to one’s body. By externalizing the internal processes and putting them out on display, we aim to remove the stigma of discussing one’s digestive health.

Design Excellence

Digestive Tumble is designed in white color with no flashy components so that it can easily blend in the home setting. While the modules of the system are white in color, the beads are colorful to support glanceable feedback. The size of the system is also carefully designed so that users can glance at the modules from a distance to check the digestion status of their meals.

Digestive Tumble works as a standalone unit at home and needs input only in the form of tokens. The system needs a direct power supply to run but does not require any data communication through Bluetooth or Wi-Fi. The system follows a minimalistic use of electronics and runs mostly with mechanical gears. The system consists of 12 various-sized gears controlled by a stepper motor that runs via Arduino. There are no exposed electronic components nor does the system make use of any chemicals, hence the system is safe for everyday use at home. Moreover, while the digestive process utilizes different acids and enzymes to physically transform the food into absorbable nutrients, we took a simplified approach to represent the transformation of food through tokens and beads so that the system can be safely used by users of all ages.

Digestive Tumble mimics the slowness involved in the digestion processes and presents the digestion of a meal over a long period. By doing so, the system aims to support slow reflection on our digestion processes. The tokens and beads support multimodal interactions (i.e., visual, tangible, and audio) with the system. The multimodality, slowness, and playfulness in interactions will allow deeper reflections on one’s dietary choices, encouraging users to adopt a diverse and balanced diet.

Design Innovation

The human digestive system is one of the most important systems in our body. It plays a vital role in converting food into nutrients, which the body then uses for energy, growth, and cell repair. Understanding the digestive system is the first step in raising interest in topics related to gut health and helping people to understand how their dietary choices impact their health and wellbeing.

While there exist several textbooks and websites describing the mechanism of our digestive tract and the factors involved, these mediums offer a static mode of learning where visualizing the operation of the digestive tract and movements of the food is difficult. Researchers have also designed physical and digital systems of the digestive system to support awareness through interactions. For example, a large model of the human digestive system is also displayed at the MONA Museum that displays the digestion of food from intake to excretion with realistic visuals and smells of the different digestive processes.

These works, however, offer general information related to the human digestive system with which an individual may not be able to relate on a personal level. It is difficult to apply such factual knowledge in an everyday routine because of the subjectivity and diverse eating practices of any individual. Besides, these works focus on creating awareness about the anatomical structure of the digestive tract and give less focus to the processes that happen inside it. As such, there have been limited attempts on representing digestive processes for everyday reflection, which we explore through Digestive Tumble.

Design Impact

The impact of Digestive Tumble is substantial. Through the field trials where the system was used by participants at home for one week, we found that Digestive Tumble helped participants to reflect upon their diets. Participants realized what is missing in their diet and what they should add to make it balanced as per the Australian Dietary Guidelines. Understanding the differences in the digestion rate of different food groups helped participants to plan their meals, where they kept easy to digest diet for dinner and meat based diet for lunch.

While the current design is made for home use, we envision different application scenarios for Digestive Tumble. Firstly, Digestive Tumble can be installed in science galleries or exhibitions to generate public awareness around digestion. With the Wallace & Gromit and Friends exhibition held in ACMI, we noticed a trend where exhibitions create activity rooms to experience the topic of the exhibition. Digestive Tumble can be tweaked to allow short bursts of interactions. The size of the model can also be increased to cater to a wider audience. The bigger design of Digestive Tumble will mean bigger beads and larger tokens that can afford embodied engagement and collaborative learning, similar to the popular Gut Feelings exhibition in the Melbourne Museum.

Digestive Tumble can be used for educating children about their digestive systems. A large-scale Digestive Tumble can be installed in common areas of schools, where children can play with it to learn about their digestion. Digestive Tumble facilitates multisensorial play-based learning through a DIY assembly of the modules, tangibility of the tokens and beads, vibrant color of the beads, and the gentle sound of the beads. Finally, Digestive Tumble can also be set up at hospitals, clinics, near lift lobbies, or in public commutes to facilitate brief interactions during waiting time.

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