Torrey Brenner and his classmates sip coffee in the R-Bar at the Gates Center, brainstorming ideas for a project for their Human-Computer Interaction class. Brenner, a senior Cognitive Science major, and graduate students Ana Alves, Gabriela Marcu, and Zachary Jacobson-Weaver have three weeks to fulfill the assignment that has one primary theme: improve something in the kitchen.

Pet peeves are bandied about. After listening to the gripes, Alves shares something that drives her crazy in the kitchen-the dishwasher is constantly full of dirty dishes. The problem stems from someone not loading the dishwasher properly, which blocks the water jets during the clean cycle and leaves plates, glasses, and silverware splattered with crud when they should be sparkling clean. Her complaint resonates with her teammates, who decide they will pursue the creation of an affordable Idiot-Proof Dishwasher.

Brenner likes the challenge of Alves' concept particularly because it will incorporate sensors (a course requirement) to detect when a dish or glass is placed in a spot that will block a water jet. Improper loading will then trigger an alarm that can be made just annoying enough that it can't be ignored.

Before taking their last swigs of coffee, the team divvies up the work: Brenner will create removable racks for the dishwasher. Each rack will have a raised symbol denoting what type of kitchenware belongs in it, which will ensure that the water jets won't be blocked. Jacobson-Weaver, a tangible interaction design master's student, will do the necessary nuts-and-bolts electrical work, using his apartment's dishwasher as a guinea pig. Alves, a master's student studying Human-Computer Interaction, will help Jacobson-Weaver and research other related dishwasher mechanisms, so they don't reinvent the wheel. And Marcu, a doctoral candidate in Human-Computer Interaction, will prepare a presentation demonstrating the system's creation.

The end result is a dishwasher equipped with the students' modifications, including photoreceptors that can determine by the absence of light when the water stream has been compromised by improper loading. If it is, an alarm sounds, subtle enough that it doesn't make Jacobson-Weaver's dog howl.

The students get an A- on the project, and Jacobson-Weaver is so proud of what they've created that he puts the device's video and five-step customization process on the popular how-to Web site The Idiot-Proof Dishwasher is so popular that it ends up featured on the site's homepage.
-Jonathan Barnes (DC'93)