SweetFeedback: Doing the Right Thing Just Got A Lot Sweeter-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

SweetFeedback: Doing the Right Thing Just Got A Lot Sweeter

Ted Selker explains the function of SweetFeedback
Ted Selker explains the function of SweetFeedback

Tables covered with gumball machines are not an everyday sight in the classrooms of Carnegie Mellon Silicon Valley. At first glance, professors, students and visitors walking into Room 118 must have thought they had just stumbled upon a candy store, until they were instructed to hook up their laptops to the candy dispensers. Professor Ted Selker and his team of graduate students led by Chihiro Suga, a visiting master’s student from Ochanomizu University in Tokyo, Japan, recently gave a workshop introducing participants to their SweetFeedback device, a USB connected gumball machine that gives users tangible rewards for positive behavior. 

The SweetFeedback project experiments with an intersection of technology and social incentives. As Dr. Selker explained, “It is very easy to make people’s lives worse with computers but computers can also assist in training a person to do something better.” The workshop demonstrated how “sweet” rewards provided incentives for users to fix bugs in a program, answer questionnaires and stay on task while writing a paper. For example, a finished paragraph sends a positive signal through the laptop’s application, while unproductive work such as checking Facebook produces negative sound feedback.

The candy machine system uses Arduino, a popular open-source microcontroller, to provide a serial communication between the gumball machine and applications on the computer. Students involved in the project expressed excitement over exposure to not only the expected hardware design and software implementation: “It was my first experience thinking about user experience, how to detect user behavior and how to motivate users to change their behavior,” said Suga.

SweetFeedback is not simply a fun and tasty way to stay on task, however. The SweetFeedback team ultimately plans to build a special application for the NASA LEED Platinum Sustainability Base, a highly energy-efficient building at Ames Research Center. The team will evaluate how social incentives can improve participants’ willingness to engage in energy saving activities, thus contributing to NASA’s efforts to replace antiquated buildings with new, green workplaces.

A SweetFeedback gumball machine will soon be installed in the CMUSV lobby to welcome visitors. So, the next time you visit campus, be prepared for a sweet treat.