Dis-disrupting dinner time

Dolmio Pepper Hacker

Dis-disrupting dinner time

Dolmio Pepper Hacker

We all love our devices. They take us to new places and take us into new and exciting worlds…well sometimes. Which is exactly what you don’t want at dinner time.

1 in 3 families eat their meals in front of the TV and 38% of Australians routinely check emails at the dinner table

Dolmio is a globally recognised pasta brand that’s on a mission to bring families back together over distraction-free dining, so they turned to their creative agency Clemenger Sydney to help, who in turn turned to Pollen.

Clemenger planned to conduct a social experiment to see what would happen if a family's devices were removed at dinner time. Would they come back together? Would they fall apart? Parents of participating families were recruited to have their houses wired up with cameras and microphones so that their reactions could be recorded when a very special device was activated.


The brief from Clems

“So Pollen we’ve come up with this idea of having a Pepper Grinder that turns off everyone’s phones/iPads, shuts down the household WiFi connection, and also switches off the television, oh and any other potential interruptions, game consoles etc, can we do that?”


Initial thoughts went to the slim possibility of designing an EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) generator or jammer but this was quickly dismissed by all. It’s quite illegal and none of us relished a visit to jail.


The solution

The solution needed to be secreted away inside a wooden pepper mill and work in any household environment. The effect of shutting down devices needed to be immediate and realtime to capture the surprised reactions of the family members.

With a very tight turnaround time and a limited production budget we needed to turn around a solution quickly. By using off-the-shelf electronics, software services and actual pepper mills, and by hacking other technologies in an innovative way, we were able to design a solution that not only fitted the requirements but also did it in an elegant way.


Three pepper mills were created and lovingly carved by hand (yes we have chisels). Each contained the switch, XBee radio transmitter and battery. When the parent used the pepper mill at the dinner table, the transmitter sent a signal to a custom created ‘control box’.

The control box housed a micro controller based on the Arduino physical computing platform. This provided a way to quickly prototype and also allowed us to use other software libraries and techniques from the broad hacking community. Building on the shoulders of giants if you will.

As the basis for the control of the system, the control box also contained an XBee Radio Receiver, an SMS module and its own power supply.

Designing the solution that could be created, tested and deployed in a short period of time and with a fixed budget meant working out the mix of technologies that could be used without building from scratch. This meant searching for technologies that had been designed to solved other problems and then re-tasking them for ours.

We utilised two technologies this way -- X10 and AirWatch.

Oh no the TV’s broken!

X10 is a home automation technology that is normally used to control the dimming of lights and turning appliances on and off.

We hijacked this technology to enable us to shut down TV and Wifi from our control box via the Pepper Grinder (Hacker)


My apps are deleted!

AirWatch enables enterprise organisations and education organisations to control the devices of large numbers of people via a technique called Remote Device Management.

We used it to temporarily disable devices by making apps appear to be deleted as the user was using them. Of course the apps weren’t really deleted, just hidden for a while.