Zum Inhalt springen

Innovating Uselessness: How to Create Something Useless

Lesedauer: 9 Minuten

Machines with a function but without a purpose: are they useless? No, according to designer Jaivardhan Singh Channey who says uselessness is just one perspective of looking at things.

All men know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless!
― Zhuangzi, The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu

In a world where everyone is obsessed with finding meaning, purpose, or usefulness within the simplest of objects, I try and create useless machines. Useless machines aren’t machines that don’t work. They are actually a genre in themselves where they do have a function but not necessarily a purpose. These machines intend to make a philosophical point, or are sometimes just an engineering hack that evokes a certain emotion.

Like most artists, I came to know about useless machines through the ‘Useless Box’ designed by Marvin Minsky. The first time I saw the useless box, I was completely mesmerized by it. Despite it having no purpose, I just couldn’t stop playing with it. I couldn’t stop thinking about how a useless machine could spark so much curiosity in my brain. It was that magical feeling that led me to build my first useless machine.

I love it when the audience interacts with my work. My practice has revolved around technology and interactions, using the former to facilitate, challenge, and complicate the idea of the latter. In a world full of difficulties, challenges, and stress, I try to solve the biggest problem the world faces, which is to make the user smile through my art.

Inspired by Marvin Minsky’s Useless box, I created my first useless machine with the simple idea of how I did not like to work in certain spaces in my school.

According to me, there are three parts to an interactive art installation. The setup, action, and trigger. The setup is the premise and the setting the artist builds around the installation to invite the user. This is followed by the user performing an action based on the behavior in response to the setup. This triggers a response by the installation and the looping interaction between the user and the machine takes place.

The Lamp That Does Not Let You Work

In my first useless machine, I decided to build a lamp that just wouldn’t let the user work as it would keep switching itself off. As part of the setup, I dimmed the lights in a room where the lamp was kept and a paper was kept on the table for the user to read. The basic human behavior makes the user take action by switching on the lamp in order to read the text on the paper. As soon as the user switches it on, the lamp starts switching itself off evoking a reaction and setting off a looping interaction that keeps surprising the user. The user keeps on playing with the machine as the machine has triggered the curiosity of the user by surprising and often ridiculing them with an action they weren’t expecting.


They say happiness is contagious. Well, watching people continuously interact with your useless machine and smiling throughout is not just contagious enough to make you smile but also pretty addictive in terms of making you create more such experiences. You want to keep innovating machines that evoke different emotions in the audience while keeping them curious. Riding on this addiction, I decided to build my next useless machine.

‘What A Waste’

Learning new things about waste disposal and recycling can often make you reflect on your own decisions in the past. A lot of the environmental problems from garbage disposal to global warming that humans face currently are caused by all of us because of our bad waste disposal and recycling habits. To reflect and comment on the same, I decided to combine humor and technology to build a machine called ‘What A Waste’.

We humans love shifting responsibility, much like we love shifting our waste. This inherent nature of shifting responsibilities is what ends up culminating in unhygienic spaces, pollution, and even diseases. I found glaring similarities between our relationship with waste and Sisyphus’ relationship with the boulder. Greek Mythology had one Sisyphus and one boulder. But, we have a million humans shifting the responsibility and not disposing of waste properly, leading to a vicious circle of it all coming back to us time and again.

Using a robotic arm, a machine was innovated that tried to push trash over the hill but kept failing as the waste kept coming back. The machine has since been exhibited at a number of places and the reaction it has gotten from the users is exactly what I was looking for. The continuous motion of the machine immediately grabs the attention of most of the crowd. Every useless machine has various layers in it. Each person sees what they want to see in it. The younger audience gets fascinated by the perpetual motion of the machine grabbing and throwing the trash. The adult audience usually immediately understands the link to Greek mythology and it sparks a conversation between them about the machine as well as trash. However, one thing which every person could connect over was unknowingly was humanizing the machine. The audience starts giving a personality to the machine. They feel bad for the machine that is continuously trying to do a task but is failing miserably. They start feeling emotions that you would feel for a fellow human. The humanizing factor makes them even more involved in the machine and as a result, makes them more aware about the topic of waste.


Observing reactions to useless machines teach us a lot about user experience and behavior. People feel a sense of togetherness when they see a useless machine that makes them feel curious. It sparks conversations. Like other installations, people often start looking for the use of these useless machines. However, on realizing that it is categorized as a useless machine, they often get puzzled. They start looking for meaning. People start looking for connections between the emotions they feel when they witness these installations and the world around them, thus bringing them closer to art and their own selves.

Jeevy, the Toy Story Robot

Every time I look around my room, I see shelves full of toys. These toys always take me back to my favorite film, Toy Story. I often wonder if these toys, just like Andy’s toys in Toy Story, also come alive when I am no longer in the room. To fill this need and curiosity that was built by the Disney Pixar film, I decided to make my own useless toy that comes alive only when there is no one in the room.

After a lot of research to figure the best technology and design components, I ended up using PIR (passive infrared) sensors to make my toy come alive. To understand this useless machine, we will very briefly understand how a PIR sensor actually works. When a living organism moves, it generates heat. This heat can be captured by infrared cameras. PIR sensors limit these ranges to recognize movement from humans and dogs.

I decided to use these sensors to create my Toy Story inspired toy. I call this project ‘Jeevy’. Jeevy is derived from a Sanskrit word ‘Jeev’ which means a living being or someone with a soul. Jeevy comes to life only when the user is not in the room. When Jeevy realizes that there isn’t anyone in the room, the robot starts moving and generating light patterns. But it goes back to its initial position as soon as a movement is recognised.


While showcasing this useless machine to a number of people, everyone exhibited the kind of behavior that we usually refer to as ‘burbulation.’ Burbulation is the curiosity that a person feels while closing the door of a refrigerator slowly just to see when the light switches off. All the users were trying to see the movements from the creeks of the door. Everyone was very curious to see Jeevy come alive.

While playing with Jeevy, we realized that Jeevy was capable of working even if someone was present in the room but was making an effort to keep calm without movements. This sparked an idea in my head and I met with a psychologist who deals with children with special needs. Upon meeting them, we realized that Jeevy had the potential to be used as a calming device for children with ADHD.

While toys are designed to keep the user active, here was a toy doing the complete opposite by making them calmer and perhaps, more patient. What started as a completely useless toy, now had a potential use case. The interactions with different users along with the curiosity everyone had to play with Jeevy, created several potential use cases.

After building various useless machines, I can say that uselessness is subjective. It is one perspective of looking at things. Usefulness goes beyond purpose. The beauty of useless machines lies in the conversations they spark. These conversations spark ideas that even the innovator is not aware of at the time of building them. They help us look at a problem through various different lenses. It gives us a perspective that we have never seen or tried before. Be it a young child or an adult, everyone can relate to it in some way or the other. And at the end of the day, everyone ponders over the same question—are useless machines actually useless?


Jaivardhan Singh Channey
New Media Storytelling & Play Designer