The Break Light


For my Master’s Capstone project, I chose to design a device that would help computer users avoid discomfort and injury by encouraging them to take frequent, physically active breaks.

The Break Light is a lighted, weight-sensitive coaster designed to be used in conjunction with a clear glass of water. Computer users drink water throughout the duration of their computer use, and the routine of refilling the water glass and using the bathroom provides opportunities for movement. The lights of Break Light shine up through the water, drawing attention to the water level and providing subtle cues about the passage of time

The Break Light represents the application of the philosophy of calm technology to the goal of supporting behavior change. Typical computing technologies demand users’ time and attention, forcing them to adapt their workflow to the software’s programmed expectations. Existing RSI prevention software follows this pattern by using timers, popup alerts, and forced locking of users’ computers screens in order to direct them to take breaks. These kinds of strategies disrupt organic work patterns and the experience of flow. Users often become irritated and, if they have the choice, abandon these kinds of break management strategies. The Break Light is designed to support flow, existing in the environment for users to notice during natural lulls in their cycles of attention. The highlighted water level provides an indication of how soon the next break should occur combined with a mechanism for the user to control that timing, rather than demanding immediate reactions.


During the fall 2009 semester, I read literature about computer-related injuries and interruption/disruption of work, investigated existing RSI-prevention products, conducted interviews and observations, and frequently sketched design concepts and discussed with classmates, ending the semester by choosing to move forward with the lighted, weight-sensitive coaster concept.

In the spring, I continued to interview computer users as I refined details of my design concept. I also created several prototypes to test. The first was a simple, store-bought lighted coaster that I gave to participants, who recorded video of themselves drinking water with it while using a computer for several hours at a time. I also built a more sophisticated prototype using the Arduino prototyping platform, with a Flexiforce pressure sensor and several tricolor LEDs. As this prototype was not stable enough to use for lengthy testing, I used it to experiment with light patterns to indicate water level and elapsed time.


To fulfill the capstone requirements I created a poster and gave a presentation.

The Break Light from Lorelei Kelly on Vimeo.