Maker Stories

Touch, Technology, and Giving Back: Meet John Harrison and Vanessa Whalen, Creators of the Long Distance Touch Lamp

July 24, 2017

Imagine a technology that allows you to show loved ones you’re thinking of them–not with a phone call, not with a text, but with a soft, colorful glow. John Harrison and Vanessa Whalen, a married couple looking to foster unique connections with their faraway family members, made it happen with their Long Distance Touch Lamps. With just a simple tap on the top of your touch lamp, you can illuminate another connected lamp anywhere around the world—sending a message of love without words.

Here at UncommonGoods, John and Vanessa’s lamps have proven to be a huge hit, connecting faraway friends and family members with a little bit of Wi-Fi-powered magic. Read on to hear from John about the winding path he took to get to the Touch Lamp‘s creation—from playing the violin professionally, to working as an electrical engineer, to working closely with non-profit organizations to bring his and Vanessa’s shining idea to families and friends all over the world.

Tell us about your background. Did you always know you wanted to be an artist/maker?

Terms like “artist” and “maker” have never been clear to me. I’ve always loved to build stuff. I love to learn new things. I was lucky to have great parents who encouraged me to create and explore. If somebody wants to call me an artist or maker, I’m flattered. But somehow the idea of achieving these titles has been confusing to me and I’d rather focus on the journey.

Actually, when people use the term “artist” for me they are usually referring to my music background, not the work you see at UncommonGoods. I started playing the violin at age 5 and it has been a primary focus for me throughout my life. At age 11 I played the Mendelssohn Concerto with the Boston Pops. Later in life I played in a professional string quartet and did a lot of concerts as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Boston Pops. I taught violin for many years as a tenured professor at Wichita State University and I am still the Concertmaster (first violinist) of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra in Wichita, KS.

John Playing Violin

John playing violin, accompanied by Vanessa on piano

While music gave me a voice for emotion, I have always loved problem solving. That has lead to an active pursuit of mathematics, electrical engineering, and computer programming. I was lucky to have a dad who thought the most fun thing in the world was to teach me math. So even through middle school I learned math as a fun game I did with my dad in the evenings. That sense of play—that is what has led me down the engineering path.

What was the most exciting thing about becoming a professional artist/maker?

I see magic everywhere I look, but making something—then I get to touch the magic. This is partly why I’ve always been more attracted to computer programming and electrical engineering than other forms of engineering like mechanical engineering. You never get to see the electrons traveling inside all of the circuits and wires that make electrical things do what they do. Nobody can show it to you. They can only talk in metaphors and you get to see the result. Computer code is the same. Nobody sees the code. They only see a representative description of it on a screen. But you can’t actually see it. Nobody can. It’s magic. I love that.

I come from a family with a great respect for education and for thought. And while I embrace that respect as well, I have found so much personal satisfaction in working with my hands. Actually building something, creating something. There’s just nothing like that sense of relationship you develop with the things you make.

What first inspired you to first create the Long Distance Touch Lamp, and how did your original idea grow?

The Long Distance Touch Lamp came from two seemingly unrelated personal challenges. It was November 2014 and I was struggling with what to get my family for holiday presents. My family lives in different states and countries and we aren’t the best at staying in touch. On top of it, I’m sorry to say that there are members of my family that more often than not are antagonistic to each other when they do communicate. I had been wondering, “How can we just remember that we are family? How can we keep the feeling of family without the words that seem to confuse or cause problems?”

John, Vanessa, and Family

From left to right, the family: Brendan, Lucky, Vanessa, Sean, Buddy, and John

Then another thing happened: First, as background, I am one of the founders for a makerspace in Wichita called MakeICT. One of the great things about being at a makerspace is that companies trying to promote products that makers might use sometimes give free samples to makerspaces in the hopes that those makers will develop cool things, thus helping the community at large learn how cool the new product is. Such a company, now called Particle, sent MakeICT some Wi-Fi modules. They gave them to us for free but asked us in exchange to publish the results of what we built with them. I’m always up for a challenge, so I took some to play with. I was dabbling in my basement, playing with them the way a kid plays with Lego. Gradually the idea started to emerge.

And by the way, I did publish my results.

Tell us more about how your lamps are made. How did you start working with the Wichita Women’s Initiative Network?

One unique property of the lamps is that they sense your touch, as opposed to being triggered by a button. This distinction is an important one to me: buttons are digital and cold. In fact, despite my love for computers and electronics, most digital interfaces such as buttons, keyboards, and mice I find disappointing because of their lack of subtlety and expression. Perhaps my music background is influencing me here. Whatever the case, I felt the lamps needed to react to something a bit more sensory and magical than a button. So the touch part and the vagueness that accompanies it was a concept I was committed to from the beginning.

The touch technology uses a concept called capacitive sensing. You may never have heard of it, but it’s been around for awhile. One of my favorite uses for it is the Theremin, the world’s first electronic musical instrument. And Clara Rockmore is a master of the instrument. Her playing brings tears to my eyes…but I digress. The point is with the concept of touch being integral to the idea, the shade needed to be more than just a shell that diffused light. It needed to be a sensor as well. So the trim has instilled conductive properties. That design is very intentional.

Tabitha and Heather

Tabitha and Heather, who worked with John and Vanessa through WIN at the time of our initial interview, assembling a base

We initially partnered with the participants at the Women’s Initiative Network (WIN) to assemble the parts together. We knew that we wanted the product to add beauty to the world, not just in what it offers the consumer but in how it is made. This is an ongoing goal and we continue to make steps in this direction. But one part of this equation was to have the lamps assembled by a non-profit in some way that would be of benefit to the participants and the community.

We talked to several non-profits and the fit at WIN was perfect. For starters the staff had the same exploratory attitude and sense of adventure that we had and that a venture like this needs. Also, I am close with lawyers who work for Legal Aid and Legal Services. Both organizations often legally represent women who are victims of domestic violence. I have heard the stories. I was so happy we found a way to perhaps help contribute.

john-at-win

In working with the participants at WIN on a daily basis, my understanding of their struggles deepened. I am humbled by what they have overcome. This life experience has been an invaluable one for me.

*Editor’s note: WIN participants no longer play the same role in assembling John and Vanessa’s Touch Lamps, though the organization is still involved in their creation, programming boards and performing occasional subassembly of bases. John and Vanessa now have their own shop and warehouse with five full-time employees, plus one part-timer. Two of those full-time employees are refugees who linked up with John and Vanessa thanks to the International Rescue Committee, who also happen to be one of our Better to Give partners. Read more about the IRC here.

Is there a trinket, talisman, or other inspirational object you keep near as you work? If so, what is it and what does it mean to you?

I don’t have anything like that. The closest thing I probably have is my laptop. How sad is that? 🙂

What quote or mantra keeps you motivated?

I am not a religious person in the traditional sense of the word. Having said that, this famous quote from Marianne Williamson has been an inspiration to me for decades:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

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145 Comments

  • Reply Jess December 6, 2017 at 8:27 pm

    Hello! If I bought only one lamp for my mom, is there another way of turning on her lamp without having one of my own? I don’t really need one for myself so I’m hoping I don’t have to buy two lamps in order to get this to work. Thanks!

    • Reply Hadley December 7, 2017 at 10:09 am

      Hmm… There’s no way to control the lamp’s behavior without touching it, so without your own lamp, you won’t be able to turn hers on.

  • Reply Reuel December 7, 2017 at 12:54 am

    Can i make a 3 way connection?

    • Reply Hadley December 7, 2017 at 10:04 am

      Hi, Reuel! You can indeed. (In theory, in fact, you can connect as many lamps as you want.)

  • Reply Alif December 8, 2017 at 12:48 am

    Hi! My friend is moving to Ireland and I live in Canada. Will it still work?

    • Reply Hadley December 8, 2017 at 12:12 pm

      Hi, Alif! Yes, these lamps work worldwide—you’ll just need to make sure that your friend in Ireland has an appropriate converter for the plug, as the lamps are wired for use in the US.

  • Reply Aunt Barbie December 8, 2017 at 10:55 am

    I would like to connect to my twin niece and nephew, individually. If I send them a touch and only one responds, will I know which one it is? Will I have to have one to one connections to them?

    • Reply Hadley December 8, 2017 at 12:11 pm

      Hi, Barbie. In order to tell your touches apart, you can each set a color range unique to you. Hope this helps!

  • Reply Jessica Almonte-Deas December 8, 2017 at 1:23 pm

    Do I have to order 2 together in the same order? I want to order one and send to my in laws and another for us. but we do not live in the same state? can we Order separately and connect through Wi-FI?

    • Reply Hadley December 8, 2017 at 2:50 pm

      Hi, Jessica! No, you do not need to order the lamps together in order for them to connect—you can place as many separate orders as you wish, and as long as they’re set up properly, they will connect with each other. Hope this helps.

  • Reply Jennifer Marek December 9, 2017 at 8:30 am

    My sister lives in Malaysia and I in WI. Will this work so far apart? Also, can a lamp be shipped to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia?

    • Reply Hadley December 11, 2017 at 10:20 am

      Hi, Jennifer! Yes, your lamps will still be able to connect across the distance, and yes, you can ship this item to Malaysia.

  • Reply Zach December 10, 2017 at 5:11 pm

    Will the lights work if one person lives in Georgia and the other in Ontario Canada? Wanted to get this special gift for them.

    • Reply Hadley December 11, 2017 at 10:21 am

      Hi, Zach. Yes, the lamps can connect from any two points in the world, so long as they’re both successfully connected to Wi-Fi.

  • Reply Jean Goodnough December 10, 2017 at 8:40 pm

    I really love this for my sister who has ALS. Why won’t it work with 5GHz? My husband says that is what our wi-fi is.

    • Reply Hadley December 11, 2017 at 10:26 am

      Hi, Jean. With a 5.0 gHz connection, your lamp will unsuccessfully bounce between your home Wi-Fi and the lamp’s own Wi-Fi, which appears during setup. In other words, it won’t be able to maintain a connection with your home Wi-Fi. Hope this helps, and sorry for the inconvenience.

  • Reply Jill Dean December 11, 2017 at 10:41 pm

    Hi there! I looked at ordering these yesterday and noticed they were on back order but there as a nice certificate I could print out to wrap for Christmas, in place of the actual lamp. I did place my order today but can’t seem to find that certificate any longer. Can you please tell me if the certificate is still available? Thank you!

    • Reply Hadley December 12, 2017 at 9:17 am

      Sorry about that, Jill! Here is a link to the printable card.

  • Reply Carolyn December 12, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    I understand you can assign color to designate who is touching the lamp but can the lamp be in more than one group at a time? I want to get one for my kids and each set of grandparents. If my son touches the lamp intended for Grandma A, does Grandma B see?

    • Reply Hadley December 12, 2017 at 4:05 pm

      Hi, Carolyn. Unfortunately, there’s no way for a lamp to be in two separate groups at a time. If you only own one lamp, everyone in your group will see when you touch it–both Grandma A and Grandma B.

  • Reply Amanda December 16, 2017 at 8:54 am

    If I want to send one to NY and one to Florida do I have to buy single lamps or can the two be shipped separate

    • Reply Hadley December 18, 2017 at 11:24 am

      Hi, Amanda! Great question. If you purchase a set of two lamps, they come packed together, so we’d recommend purchasing two individual lamps in this case.

  • Reply Ashley December 19, 2017 at 3:21 am

    Hello,
    I’m curious, I would love something like this for my grandma and I, however she is not tech savvy and doesn’t have the internet. Is there another way this could possibly work? I obviously understand that is how it is able to communicate, I’m just trying to figure out how to get her connected to WiFi. Sorry for the dumb question, you never know what kind of technology is out there so I figured I would ask anyway.
    Thank you for any advice!

    • Reply Hadley December 19, 2017 at 10:08 am

      Hi, Ashley! Hm… Your grandma will need her own Wi-Fi connection to get her lamp set up, which isn’t something we can help with too much–she’d need to contact a local service provider for more info on how to obtain one. Unfortunately, there’s no way to control the lamps without Wi-Fi, though you can set them up using various Wi-Fi-enabled devices, including your computer, smartphone, or tablet.

  • Reply Karen December 20, 2017 at 12:14 pm

    So I have 2 sisters that live away and I am wanting to get them for my mom and both sisters. I understand they can both set a color. If one sister touched lamp will my mom and the other sisters lamp light up. Is there a way to distinguish sister to sister Mom to sister and Mom to other sister or will they just light up all at once?

    • Reply Hadley December 20, 2017 at 2:13 pm

      Hi, Karen! Great question. In this case, all lamps will light up at once. The only way to establish distinct “groups” is to purchase an individual lamp for each connection–sister to sister, Mom to sister, and Mom to other sister, in this case. (In other words, everyone would need to own two lamps.) Hope this helps.

  • Reply joleen miller December 24, 2017 at 10:32 pm

    How I order one for me and ship one to a friend?

    • Reply Cassie December 28, 2017 at 4:20 pm

      Hi Joleen, the lamps are sold as sets of two or as individuals. To ship one to yourself and one to a friend, you’ll want to order two individual lamps and enter your shipping addresses separately.

  • Reply Keaton Honeycutt December 26, 2017 at 12:39 am

    Hey!! I really want to buy a set for my best friend and I!! She is going to college so I think this will be a wonderful thing for us to connect with. But anyways since she is going to college and she will be in a dorm with dorm Wi-Fi do you think that will matter.. I don’t want to buy a set and it doesn’t work because of her Wi-Fi connection. Anyways, I think this an extremely cool product and I’m really hoping it work so I can give it to her for her birthday!! I know I have to wait to buy them since you are out of stock,but if it works with her Wi-Fi I’m definitely going to consider a set!! Anyways, thank you and I think this will be a cool gift for us!!

    • Reply Cassie December 28, 2017 at 4:19 pm

      Hi Keaton! We’re glad you think the Long Distance Touch Lamp would make a great gift for your best friend! Whether or not the lamp will work in her dorm room depends on what type of connection she has. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work with captive wi-fi portals or WPA Enterprise. It requires a 2.4 GHz connection, and does not work with a 5 GHz connection. To be safe, it’s best to try to figure out what kind of connection she has in her dorm before purchasing. If she has a 2.4 GHz connection and WPA, WPA2, or an open wi-fi connection, the lamp will connect.

  • Reply Kelee Henn December 26, 2017 at 3:00 pm

    I would like to know how far does the connection go? My husband works in the Seychelles ten months of the year and I am in South Africa and I would love to buy this for him, our son and I. It would make the distance not seem so daunting and just all round horrible.

    If it can reach that distance when will you have new stock in, as currently they are out of stock.

    • Reply Cassie December 28, 2017 at 4:11 pm

      Hi Kelee, the Lamps will work anywhere in the world, as long as you and your husband each have a reliable wi-fi connection. Although the lamps are back-ordered now, you can still place an order, if you’d like. If you order today, the back-ordered lamps should ship by February 15, 2018.

  • Reply Tina Mulleady December 27, 2017 at 8:39 am

    Hi. I purchased a set and we love them!! We are in are 50’s best friends forever and now live in two different states. So this is the greatest gift I could have ever purchased. But as I sit here and my light went off I’m thinking about lightbulb’s?? How does that work?? Do I need to purchase extra light bulbs? We have been saying goodnight, lol hello during the day and good morning 😊 ( again we love them!) I never thought about a bulbs or if it stops working after a while 🙁

    • Reply Cassie December 28, 2017 at 3:44 pm

      Hi Tina,

      We’re so happy to hear that you love the Long Distance Touch Lamps! We don’t sell replacement bulbs, but the good news is that the lamps use LED bulbs, so they last a very long time. Even with daily use, the lights should continue to illuminate for years to come. If you do end up needing to change the bulbs, you should be able to get replacements from your local electronics store.

  • Reply Amy anderson December 27, 2017 at 8:29 pm

    Hi I want to purchase for my mother that is in assisted living facility . She does not have wifi in her room or any type electronic devises. But the building has wifi! I am scared to purchase it and the wifi might not be strong enough or won’t work at all. What do you think?

  • Reply Cassie December 28, 2017 at 3:33 pm

    Hi Amy, thanks for reaching out. You should be able to connect the lamp using the building’s wi-fi, depending on its strength and the type of connection. As long as the wi-fi isn’t a 5.0 gHz connection (which unfortunately will not work with the lamp) and the signal is strong enough to reach your mom’s room, it should work. To be safe, please check with someone at the facility to find out what type of connection they have and to make sure that other residents have had success connecting wireless devices in their rooms before placing your order.

  • Reply Jessica Belcher December 28, 2017 at 9:19 pm

    Wow! The best Christmas gift to give my brother. He only lives 45 minutes away, but he can’t speak or move anything but his left arm. This lamp has been such an awesome way to let him know he is on my mind. My kids love it too! Thank you thank you thank you!

    • Reply Hadley January 2, 2018 at 5:19 pm

      Thank you, Jessica! We’re so happy to hear that this gift has brought you even closer to your brother. Here’s hoping you both had a lovely holiday.

  • Reply Joe McDowell December 30, 2017 at 8:25 am

    I got mine for Christmas and absolutely love thinking of my Grandkids when I touch it. The thought of them getting excited knowing I was thinking of them. Their Mom said she had to force them to go to bed the first night we set it up.
    I would like to set Filimins for my other Grandkids but I notice there is only one style. I was wondering if you have considered making different styles. I will probably buy more in the style that you have, but it would be nice if there were more styles.

    • Reply Hadley January 2, 2018 at 5:26 pm

      Great question, Joe! We’re only offering the one style for now, but I’ll pass your suggestion on to our Touch Lamp team. We’re always looking for new ways to improve our products, and we really value our customers’ feedback for that reason.

  • Reply Destiny Martinez December 30, 2017 at 5:20 pm

    Hello, this looks like an awesome product! I was wondering if it works in different countries? For example would it work if one was here in the United States and the other was in Mexico.

    • Reply Hadley January 2, 2018 at 5:27 pm

      Hi, Destiny. Yes–as long as a Touch Lamp can connect to Wi-Fi, no matter where it is in the world, it’ll work. It is wired for use in the US, though, so you may need to purchase a converter for use in other countries. Hope this helps!

  • Reply Jennifer January 1, 2018 at 8:33 pm

    Is there a way to get a discount for purchasing multiple lamps at once? Huge family here. I really want to get everyone one and I am looking at 30 lamps.

    • Reply Hadley January 2, 2018 at 5:31 pm

      Hi, Jennifer! We do offer discounts on corporate orders over $1,000, but I don’t believe those discounts are available to individual shoppers. If you’d like to submit a corporate order inquiry, however, you can do so here: https://www.uncommongoods.com/corporateOrder.

  • Reply Hadley December 6, 2017 at 4:01 pm

    Hi, Stacy! If your lamp is functioning normally, you can rest assured that it’s connected to your friends’ lamps. During the setup process, your lamp will indicate that it’s looking for the other lamps in its group by showing a solid blue light, typically only for a moment, and then displaying a rainbow of colors to signal success. If your lamp shows a solid blue light at other times, it’s having trouble connecting to the other lamps in its group, and you may need to tinker with your Wi-Fi to help it along. While there’s no real way to guarantee someone has seen your “touch” (unless you’re spying on them), we’d hope they’d send you a touch back to say hello! That’s what the lamps are there for, after all. Hope this helps.

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