The UX Generation: Anil Mohabir’s Industrial Design For Everything

July 27, 2015 Ben Myers
Anil Mohabir
Showing off some hardware in the Patio Interactive space.

“My phone got shot!”

Anil Mohabir, a 22 year-old wunderkind from King City in the northern part of Greater Toronto, emails me to let me know that he might not respond to text messages for a while. But it begs the question, how the heck does a phone get shot?

“Well pneumatics would be the short answer,” he replies in a few minutes. “I was working on a baseball delivery system with a laser cutter…”

As if the rest explains itself. For Anil, I guess it’s just another day at the office.

After leaving the kinesiology program at York University, Anil had a hand in programming Windows 8 at Microsoft in Seattle. After two years, he returned to Toronto and was a Community Connector at the Lassonde School of Engineering.

By looking at everything like a product, you follow a product-like design, not an installation.

Anil thinks about the technology that a typical consumer doesn’t buy – it’s the type of stuff that just you notice when it just appears. One day, your bus pass is a NFC-enabled card; an in-store display can react to tweets; a custom vending machine suddenly has a touchscreen interface.

Anil shows off a laser cutter at Patio Interactive.

That’s how Anil came to The Maker Space at Dx3, an area that brought together 3D printing, electronics and laser cutting to demonstrate how manufacturing and prototyping is coming directly to consumers.

To be honest, Anil once told me, he’s not the biggest fan of 3D printing – though it was his first foray into computer-designed objects. His real enthusiasm lies with laser cutters and CNC routers. He wants to make the digital realm come to life with industrial design and hardware.

He dove back into hardware at Patio Interactive, a part of the Project Rhino a shared office space, working with clients like Ryerson’s DMZ on a sign featuring LEDs that would light up when anyone tweeted @ryersondmz. The sign is part of the introductory tour of their Yonge-Dundas offices.

Welcoming everyone to the DMZ to celebrate @vfox10. Want to make our sign flash? Use the hashtag #ThxVal

— The DMZ (@RyersonDMZ) June 17, 2015

Smaller picture frame-sized versions of the sign were cut during the evening at the Patio Interactive offices (days are better used for meeting clients) and Anil spray painted them in his mom’s garage in Mississauga. Recently, Anil took his talents to Asterisk Media, a video production company that is increasingly moving into product activations and interactive design. He found a common philosophy with Asterisk and is leading the non-video charge with a new branch called AI.

If your in-person activation is cool enough, you have a commercial right there.

“The new model isn’t just to do an activation, and it’s not just to throw out an online video,” he says. “You want to combine the two. If your in-person activation is cool enough, you have a commercial right there.” The speed of production is another pressure that both video and hardware creators are sharing. Getting things out the door quickly is becoming more important to win clients and get the word out in real-time.

“You don’t have three weeks go into production on a video any more. Just like I don’t have three weeks to build up my product.”

Anil dove into a pretty big production as soon as he joined Asterisk, The Pan-Am Games, but he has his sights set on a bigger Toronto icon: The CN Tower. “I saw the CN Tower on fire and I got mad,” he says, referring to a smokey Pan-Am games experiment on July 9 that was meant to simulate the games’ torch.

Many Torontonians were caught unaware as their civic symbol billowed. Anil considers it a failure of matching the objective of the project with the user’s experience of it.

“By looking at everything like a product, you follow a product-like design, not an installation. Like, ‘I’m an artist, if you don’t get it, F-off’… I want people to understand what I’m using.”

A display designed and cut in-house at Patio Interactive.

“To set up the digital narrative, there has to be a story behind what you’re doing,” Anil says. “How is the user going to interact with this? How are they going to feel and what’s their end goal from it?”

When he sees the tower on his trips to and from the Asterisk offices in Liberty Village, he thinks of what he could do if he was at the helm of the microprocessor-controlled lights and the millions of potential colours.

“They’re all individually programmed and just waiting for beautiful things to happen.”

Analyzing the interactive design of a light-up sign or a 950-metre tower is not the mindset of a typical software engineer or even an architect.

It’s a new school of thinking about technology – not just as a tool, but as a kind of passive reflection of our intentional uses of technology.

In other words, it was only a matter of time until someone shot their phone. Now you know who did it.

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