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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43 Comments

  • Reply Lynn August 5, 2017 at 10:48 pm

    Can 5 girlfriends be set up together, or is it only set for 2?

    • Reply Cassie August 7, 2017 at 11:04 am

      Great question, Lynn! Yes, you can set up the lamps to work in five different locations. The lamps come in sets of two or as individuals, so you’ll just want to adjust the quantities (from the drop-down menu under the product name on the item page) when you place your order. We hope your girlfriends love the lamps!

  • Reply ANNETTE FIELDER August 6, 2017 at 9:55 am

    I have the same question, but for 3 girlfriends across the country.

    • Reply Cassie August 7, 2017 at 11:02 am

      Hi Annette! Multiple lamps can be connected, so it’s a great choice for keeping friends across the country in touch. The lamps are sold in pairs or as individuals, so you can purchase even or odd numbers as needed. Thanks for asking!

  • Reply Jill M. Hanson August 7, 2017 at 9:05 pm

    Can I order two lamps and have one delivered to myself and my daughter that lives in a different state?

    • Reply Hadley August 8, 2017 at 1:56 pm

      Hi, Jill! You’d need to order each lamp separately in order to ship them to different destinations, meaning that you’d need to order two “single lamps” as opposed to one “set of 2 lamps.”

  • Reply Nelly August 8, 2017 at 8:34 am

    Do you ship worldwide? Because I want one for me in Saudi Arabia and one for my bff in India. Can I have one delivered to me and the other delivered to him?

    • Reply Hadley August 8, 2017 at 1:58 pm

      Good Q, Nelly! We do ship internationally, so yes, you can ship this item to both India and Saudi Arabia.

  • Reply Sandy August 9, 2017 at 12:16 pm

    I absolutely loved this idea and bought one for my best friend who lives in NY and one for me here in GA. I have no idea if she was able to connect hers but for the life of me, so many attempts, I am NOT able to get mine connected. It is so upsetting considering the cost of these. Great idea but just doesn’t work.

    • Reply Cassie August 9, 2017 at 4:29 pm

      Hi Sandy, thanks for letting us know about the problem. We can’t give you a bunch of information on how to set these up without knowing more about your computer, since the instructions vary a bit depending on what system you’re using, but we’ll be happy to help if you can call us with more information. Please give our CS team a call at 1.888.365.0056 and we’ll help you connect. If you’d like to follow along with the instructions, you can find them at the bottom of our product page here: https://www.uncommongoods.com/product/long-distance-touch-lamp

  • Reply Joyce August 10, 2017 at 10:20 am

    How can I reach out to my son, and reach out to my BFF, w/o setting off both lamps at the same time? Would I buy 2 sets and mail them each, 1/2 of each set? Do I buy 4, and have them shipped separately….. ? How would this complicate set up?

    • Reply Cassie August 10, 2017 at 4:53 pm

      Hi Joyce, we’re glad you like the lamps! While one lamp can’t be connected to two other lamps without all three being connected, you can connect two different lamps in your home to two other lamps elsewhere. To do that, you would need to purchase four lamps (so you could send one to your son and one to your BFF) and then connect each of your lamps to its match at your loved one’s house. The lamps come with instructions for setting up the connection, so you’ll want to do that for each lamp individually.

      As for the actual shipping, you could ship a set to yourself, a single lamp to your friend, and a single lamp to your son. The sets aren’t paired until you make the connection with your wi-fi.

  • Reply Lakin August 11, 2017 at 4:07 pm

    We have three lamps, our group is currently set up; however, we cannot connect to one another. What should we do?

    • Reply Hadley August 14, 2017 at 11:43 am

      Hi, Lakin. Sorry to hear you’re having trouble connecting. We can’t give you much information on how to fix the problem without knowing more about your computer, since the instructions vary a bit depending on what system you’re using, but we’ll be happy to help if you give our CS team a call at 1.888.365.0056. With more details, they can help you troubleshoot. If you’d like to follow along with the instructions, you can find them at the bottom of our product page here: https://www.uncommongoods.com/product/long-distance-touch-lamp.

  • Reply Diane August 12, 2017 at 12:53 pm

    How long do the lamps stay lit?

    • Reply Hadley August 14, 2017 at 11:45 am

      Hi, Diane! The Touch Lamps are automatically set to fade after 1.5 hours of consistent illumination, but you can adjust them so that they turn off at 30 minutes, 8 hours, or 24 hours, if you like.

  • Reply Johnny August 22, 2017 at 1:03 pm

    I’d like to buy a lamp for my niece for her birthday in November. Wondering if I bought the lamps today (8/22) do you think we would get them before 11/25? I saw that these were back ordered and I didn’t know when the next batch of these would be available. Can you please let me know? Thank you very much and hope to hear from you soon

    • Reply Hadley August 22, 2017 at 1:14 pm

      Hi, Johnny. We’re glad you like the Touch Lamps! Fortunately, they are currently in stock, so if you order now, you can select your shipping method of choice at checkout. Whatever you choose, you should have no problem receiving one in time for your niece’s birthday.

  • Reply Johnny August 22, 2017 at 1:18 pm

    Awesome response time, thank you for that. And greatly appreciate the info, I will be purchasing them today. If these lamps are as great as your customer service, I’m sure I’ll be the best Uncle in the world! Thanks again.

  • Reply Amy September 2, 2017 at 4:15 pm

    I have a kindle, my daughter has a laptop, would this work for us? We have different WiFi as well, which I’m guessing is a common factor with these lamps.

    • Reply Hadley September 5, 2017 at 4:26 pm

      Hi, Amy. Unfortunately, a Kindle won’t work — you’ll need a device that can connect to the internet, which means you’ll need to use either a computer, tablet, or smartphone to connect the lamp. Being on different Wi-Fi networks, however, is totally fine!

  • Reply James September 5, 2017 at 11:11 am

    Hello, I was interested in this item but my friend that I would send the second lamp to live in the UK and I am in Virginia. Will they work that far away from each other? Also, I know they use a WiFi connection to work but does your computer that you use have to be turned on for it to work or are they independent from the computer after you set them up?

    • Reply Hadley September 5, 2017 at 4:38 pm

      Hi, James. Distance isn’t an issue — you should be able to connect a lamp in the US with another in the UK no problem. And once your lamps are set up, there’s no need to keep your computer on — they will work independently of it.

  • Reply Nathalie September 8, 2017 at 2:50 am

    Are you going to make these lamps in a different design? Love the idea! The design … not so much.

    • Reply Hadley September 12, 2017 at 10:12 am

      Hi, Nathalie! The shade’s design was actually revamped slightly in recent months, but I don’t believe there are any current plans to change it further. I’ll pass your comments on to our buying team, though.

  • Reply Jody McBride September 12, 2017 at 10:22 pm

    If I order 2 of these tonight or tomorrow, would I receive them by the middle of November?

    • Reply Hadley September 14, 2017 at 10:13 am

      Hi, Jody! The Touch Lamps are currently in stock, so you can choose your preferred shipping method at checkout. Whichever method you choose, they should arrive by mid-November.

  • Reply Lisa N September 13, 2017 at 11:58 pm

    I live in the US and my friend is in Pakistan. Would they connect at such a great distance?

    • Reply Hadley September 14, 2017 at 10:08 am

      Hi, Lisa — they would indeed!

  • Reply Susan Hart September 17, 2017 at 9:37 pm

    I have purchased three lamps. I connected mine waiting for Christmas for the other two to be delivered. I was wondering how to adjust the timer on them to switch off the light. Does not have directions on how to do this. Any help would be appreciated

    • Reply Hadley September 18, 2017 at 2:59 pm

      Hi, Susan. Please visit http://filimin.com/support/ for details on how to change your lamp’s settings — check under “I want to change the settings for my Filimin or group. How do I log in?” That should help!

  • Reply Brenna Butdorf October 2, 2017 at 4:12 pm

    I would like to order one of these lamps for myself and one for my sister who lives in New Zealand. I see shipping is not an issue but will the one shipping to New Zealand have the correct cord plug and be setup to run on their power? Thanks for the help!

    • Reply Hadley October 3, 2017 at 9:59 am

      Great question, Brenna! The lamps are built to US electronics specifications, so they may need additional modifications or converters to work outside of the US and Canada–e.g. in New Zealand. Unfortunately, we can’t provide those modifications for you, so your sister would need to be sure she has the proper tools on hand before setting up her Touch Lamp. Hope this helps.

  • Reply Julia October 17, 2017 at 8:37 am

    Hello, I was wondering if I would be able to talk to someone more about the making of the product. I’m a student in Computer Information Systems doing my senior project on long distance touch lamps – which will include making one of my own. Would it be possible to get more information on the making and process of these lamps? Or possibly just some helpful tips to building one of my own?
    Thank you!

    • Reply Hadley October 23, 2017 at 2:28 pm

      Thanks for reaching out, Julia. This is linked in the post, so you may already have seen it, but we suggest checking out John’s instructions here for more on how to make your own Touch Lamp–it looks like there’s a lot of info there that may be useful to you. Hopefully that helps. Let us know if you have any additional questions!

  • Reply Rebecca November 5, 2017 at 12:12 am

    I was wondering if these are available for local pick up if in the Wichita area?

    • Reply Hadley November 6, 2017 at 3:33 pm

      Hi, Rebecca. Because all Touch Lamp orders ship from our warehouse in Brooklyn, we can’t accommodate requests for pick-up. (See here for more info on pick-up requests.) We hope this doesn’t deter you from snagging a lamp or two of your own!

  • Reply Heather November 5, 2017 at 11:48 am

    Hi, my family really loves the idea of the touch lamp, but since my parents are a bit old school we haven’t been able to reassure them that there isn’t a security risk. I’d like to give the two I have to a friend for her use, do I have to reset the lights so she can log in under a new user account? or can she just create a new account with the same lamps?

    • Reply Hadley November 6, 2017 at 5:55 pm

      Hi, Heather! No, you don’t need to reset the lamps; you can send them to your friend as is. The lamps can only “remember” one Wi-Fi connection at a time, so once they’re moved and linked to a new one, they’ll forget the old one, and your friend can start to set them up from the beginning. Hope this helps.

  • Reply Whitney November 15, 2017 at 5:24 pm

    Hi can you use these with just smartphones? We want to get a set to communicate with grandparents and neither of us has wi-fi. If you can use just your phone, how does it work? Will it use our data up or anything like that? We have iPhones and they are androids.

    Thank you!

    • Reply Hadley November 17, 2017 at 6:27 pm

      Hi, Whitney. You can use a smartphone to set up your Touch Lamp, but you still need a Wi-Fi network to connect it to — otherwise, it won’t work.

  • Reply Sue November 17, 2017 at 12:31 pm

    If I am understanding correctly:
    1) If I buy one lamp for myself and 3 for each of my daughters, each of the girls’ lamps will light up when I touch mine UNLESS I purchase 3 sets of 2 lamps each (one lamp for each of them and 3 lights for me–one for each daughter)?
    2) If I touch the lamp and they are not home at the time, the light will continue to shine as set by a timer and/or they turn it off?
    Love this idea, just asking for clarification.

    • Reply Hadley November 17, 2017 at 2:25 pm

      Hi, Sue! You’re correct on both counts. If you only have one lamp, you can only be in one “group,” meaning each of your daughter’s lamps will react when you touch yours. The only way to be in separate “groups” is to have more than one lamp yourself. If you touch your lamp, regardless of whether or not your daughters are home, their lamps will light up for the time they’re set for — unless your daughters set up a sleep mode, when the lamp won’t light up at all. Check out this PDF for some more helpful info.

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