Physical Computing

Not Asleep!

You never know if your grandma has fallen asleep or is still watching TV.

'Not Asleep' tells a story of a grandma with servo motors.

Circuit Playground Express,
Servo motors,


I designed a functioning prototype using Circuit Playground Express(CPX). The prototype is responsive to sound, light and button behavior.

The story is from an experience which many people have: For many times, you’ve seen grandma falls asleep when watching TV. You might quietly turn off the TV, thinking she would sleep better without the noices, however she wakes up immediately when you turn it off and insists she is not sleeping.

Create an interactive piece that uses one or more servo motors to create something that feels alive. It must be based on research inspiration, where you find an example of something alive that behaves through movement. Project instructed by Maxim Safioulline and Elise Co.


What makes something ‘feels’ alive?
I started my investigation into what makes something feels alive. David Chalmers defines life as: “an entity capable of maintaining stable internal conditions in spite of external perturbations”.

To make something feel alive, building mechanics with moving parts is not enough.

What allows us to tell the difference between a pile of dead leaves blowing across the lawn and a squirrel looking for nuts in the tree? A wind-up toy feels dead no matter how complicated or well-engineered you make it.

But look at animals: when a predator threatens them, they run away; when they find food, they eat. Aliveness is what happens when a system responds to its environment in some way that is not purely mechanical.
Reframing the question

What are the examples of living creatures responding to the changing of environment?

I was most intrigued by how we respond to environment change during sleeping, which is natural response to not only our physical but also the social surroundings, which provides some opportunities of designing aliveness. Whether we sleep better in bed or curled on the sofa depends on three key factors: light, sound, and social presence.

How can I design a story around these factors?

To answer the previous question, I decided to start with making and let the story reveal itself.

I started with simple movements, like nodding and shaking my head. The servo motor’s ability to rotate to different directions inspired me to design a story where agree/disagree happens.

I thought about people who deny the fact that they are sleeping—students falling asleep in the middle of class, a tired driver dozing off while driving, or an elderly person dozing off while watching television.

I decided to develop my prototype based on the story of an elderly falling asleep while watching the TV for its humorous nature, which makes it a case that most of people can relate.

To enhance the feeling of a natural, rather than mechanical, movement, I tried different materials in this process.

Revisit This Concept

MDF Board,
Acrylic Painting,

In 2022, I recreated this scene when I was exploring my interest in automata, instructed by Ray Chang.

To add a little dark humor to the new story, the TV screen is a projection of the automata mechanism using a convex lens. Grandma watches the mechanism that keeps her running as she falls asleep.

Mavis Cao 2022, Pasadena, CA