Can Appliances Be Designed To Make You Happy?

A hugging toaster, a phone that only makes calls if you smile at yourself in the mirror: Should our gadgets act like electronic Prozac?

What if your household appliances could make you a happier, saner person? That’s the idea behind recent RCA grad Ted Wiles’ final project, Involuntary Pleasures, which includes a toaster, alarm clock, mirror, and telephone that are designed to nudge the user into performing physical actions that invoke feelings of happiness and delight.


“The project started with my fascination of how people emotionally react to products,” Wiles writes in an email. “I wanted to use technology to choreograph interactions that exaggerated the reaction for a positive means.” The bright red Hugging Toaster, for instance, won’t heat up unless wrapped in a firm embrace, which activates inbuilt pressure sensors. In turn, Wiles says, the user will experience the same benefits as they would hugging another person: a rush of dopamine and seratonin to the brain, which can reduce heart rate and increase feelings of comfort and happiness.

By encouraging the user to engage with a positive self image, The Smiling Telephone also invokes the calming qualities of seratonin, while the energizing Victory Alarm Clock is supposed to ramp up testosterone levels. The Reflective Mirror is more philosophical than physical–the distortion of the mirror is meant to give users a fresh perspective on body image.

Wiles came up with the designs by researching the work of psychologists who study how physical actions chemically alter the body, like that of Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy. Cuddy’s assertion that a technique called “power posing” can boost confidence by raising testosterone levels and decreasing cortisol (the stress hormone) provided the basis for the Victory Alarm Clock. The clock only stops beeping once you’re out of bed and raising your hands above your head like an Olympic gymnast who just stuck a landing.

The Smile Telephone is outfitted with a mirror, camera, and facial recognition software and only makes calls when you smile at your reflection every 20 seconds. And Wiles’ Reflective Mirror uses a Microsoft Kinect Camera to track the user’s right hand, distorting the mirrored surface as it moves and giving “a moment of meditative reflection to remind oneself that the world is always experienced through a level of perception.”

In essence, these products provoke small, simple acts of self-care that help start out the day on the right foot. Sure, the same results could be accomplished by a morning stretch or meditation but let’s face it: those require a lot of self-determination and are often the first things you forget amid the frenzy of the early morning rush. Wiles’ colorful, cartoonish household objects nudge you to give yourself (or your toaster) a little love. And with the influx of new technology designed to make us feel safer, smarter, and more connected, it’s heartening to see products conceived with plain old happiness in mind.

Wiles’ Involuntary Pleasures products only exist as prototypes right now, but Wiles hopes to be able to manufacture and sell them in the future. In the meantime, head over to his website to see the project.


About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.