A new idea for open electronics

I never thought I would get caught up in the idea of building my own open source microcontroller, but lately I’ve been dreaming about it. Last week I dreamt that I met some women at a party in Brooklyn (waking life: I live in New Mexico) and they showed me this beautiful new board they had built. As they were explaining all the cool I/O , I woke up, super bummed that it was a dream and that hardware didn’t exist.

Over the last few months, we’ve been compiling data on expanding field of open source microcontrollers, not with any expectation that my love of the simple, perfect arduino Uno would be displaced, but because I’m curious about this emerging arena. Who is putting so much time and money to bring a$15 boards to the market? Also: many of them suck and just don’t work. (When I read Emile Petrone’s post , “We Need More Embarrassing Hardware”, I could kind of see his point, I also want to say No.We.Do.Not.) There is plenty of sloppy hardware out there, and later on I might name names.

What’s up for Fall 2014 (while it’s still very much summer)

I’m working on some themes that will set the tone for my academic year. Well, at least for the fall semester, since I can’t promise to not change my direction & ideas completely by January. As I write this, it’s the beginning of July, about 97 degrees outside (which is why I’m inside, and getting ready for fall actually seems like a good idea).

“I don’t see the world as a market, but rather, as a place that people live in.” -Red Burns

I’m thinking about cross platform development, open hardware, making vs. manufacturing, and the Internet of Things (#IoT is how it presents on Twitter) . I’m thinking a little bit less about wearables in this moment, but that will change as I start working on my syllabus for Physical Computing, which would be way remiss without a wearable component. Gestural interfaces like the Kinect & Leap have played a big role in recent projects (such as the Baumann Marionettes), and Augmented Reality (AR), something I started paying attention two almost 4 years ago, finally seems to be ready for users.  So whether you’re in my Web Production or Physical Computing classes, be prepared hear about these areas.

Summer reading & a few conference visits got me more interested in projects like MakerNurses, small scall manufacturing, custom 3D toy design.  My former student Veronica Black, just did her MFA thesis at Parson’s in food-based clothing technology, and I’m following her research.

Parachute Factory & the NMSL partnership is doing great work with community technology, a couple of grad students are in the middle of writing their theses. It’s still hot outside, and I’ve seen a lot of soccer these past few weeks.

More here in a few weeks as planning develops.


Teachers in the same room as you.

I’m reading a lot of Anya Kamenetz these days. The author of Edupunks, and now a frequent columnist in the NYT Education section these days, she’s big on alternative paths to a college degree or equivalency. On the site today, I’ve read two articles: “Are you Competent? Prove It” and “For Profit and People“. (I read other things by other people, like an article about how Stanford and Princeton are worried about their humanities departments) Anyway, both of her articles make much about the concerns about the cost of a traditional four-year college degree, and are heavy on the terms “student-centered”, “value”, “assessment” and (my least favorite)- “outcomes”.

I’m definitely for  education disruption. Four+ years doing 3-credit courses at a bricks and mortar campus is not for everyone, and it’s sometimes financially impossible. However, it is what’s best for the majority of first time college students. Even Ms. Kamanetz has to include quotes like this one from Professor Amy E. Slaton of Drexel University,

“It’s a red flag to me, the idea that this is going to be more personalized, more flexible, more accountable to the consumer,” she says. “If you are from a lower socioeconomic status, you have this new option that appears to cost less than a traditional bachelor’s degree, but it’s not the same product. I see it as a really diminished higher education experience for less money, and yet disguised as this notion of greater access.”

I’m inclined to agree, and express my concern. You won’t find one professor anywhere that doesn’t encourage hybrid learning- using web video, external sources, sharing documents and presentations from other schools (I do that a lot, and appreciate faculty who post their ppts and other sources), and in my case, the large community of open-source coders who post code on reddit, github, arduino forums and the like. Teachers like additional information like they like libraries. Nothing is taught in a vacuum, and free is good.

Here’s what is not going anywhere: distributed information, and most of it free. If you are motivated, you can do an entire electrical engineering degree on line, for free, and you will be a self-taught engineer. But you could have done that before, at any decent public library, with textbooks, periodicals and inter-library loan. There are lots  of self-taught engineers out there, perhaps without the license or degree but with all of the knowledge and capability (I’m lucky to know quite a few in the maker community..I worship these people who have taught me so much, and so humbly).

But how many do that? How many students do not need real teachers in the room?

I’ll be continuing this post later this week.

How to Equip a MakerSpace or Physical Computing Lab

Marianne Petit, my advisor from ITP, is now running the IMA (Interactive Media Arts) program at NYU Shanghai. She posted this in an email this morning, responding to questions about how they set up their new classroom. Lots of people ask me this, and this is pretty close to how I answer & what we have set up in our lab (although I would like to move away from power tools at the recommendation of Matt from Metrix:Create Space in Seattle) so with her permission, her whole list is below:

We’ve had to think through this for the start of IMA (Interactive Media Arts, the undergrad version of ITP) here in Shanghai.

There are a bunch of things we’ve really pushed for to ensure that we have maximum flexibility and that the tone is set correctly. (In other words – not like a typical classroom space.)  We wanted our space to be self-contained so we can operate autonomously in terms of programming and scheduling. As a result, we’ve had to build it for dual purposes —  both as a classroom space and as a lab/workshop space that the students would feel ownership of.  Here are things we’ve done to that end that may be helpful to you.

1) Furniture
Tall work tables on wheels (and in our case built-in access to power). They’re super configurable, allow for lecture and presentation formats, conference room style work, small group work, etc. It’s very gratifying to easily move the furniture whenever you need to.

We outfitted them with stools that have backs and a rotating base so you can spin easily to direct your attention to anyone or anything in the room. They are also on wheels.

That said, the tables also allow for standing work which is really helpful.  (We just hosted a DIYBio workshop in our space as part of a conference so you can see how they worked here: http://mariannerpetit.tumblr.com/post/64667688563/shanghai-china-hacked-matter-diy-bio-workshop-at)

For our new space we’re getting more tables of a similar design but with a sturdy wood surface top for messier shop work.

Another detail is that our chairs are really colorful. We’re going to continue that in the new space. It seems like a really silly detail but it has made for a very welcoming and non-traditional environment that the students love.

2) Power

Flexible access to power is really really important. In our current space we didn’t really get this and have had to be creative in running power from the wall. In the new building I’ve pushed for what we have at ITP – ceiling trays with retractable power cords.

3) Personal Storage
Storage lockers for students so they don’t have to carry everything back and forth and it’s easy for them just to drop by whenever they want.

4) 3D printers
We bought two based on the Ultimaker and are really pleased. We have found that students can do an awful lot with free software (Autodesk (123DCatch, 123DDesign, Meshmixer), Blender, etc.) . That said we also got a few copies of Rhino that we’re going to install on some Dells we have just in case students need/want more.

5) Lasercutter
We had to buy a standalone filter for our current space because we had no ability to build ventilation. In the new space we’ve built that into the construction plan. We’ve also had to be sensitive to noise because our lab is currently located in a corridor with other classrooms and offices. Other than when the air compressor fills (which is loud) it’s all relatively quiet.

6) Hand tools
This includes power tools (jigsaws, drills, etc.) and soldering irons, wirestrippers, etc.

7) Projector
I would recommend getting one for the obvious reasons of it being helpful for lectures / teaching / community & group work. Ours came with our lab/class so we have been limited by its placement — fixed to the ceiling and thrown onto the long wall (what you would do in a traditional classroom). I’ve been pushing for a more flexible mount in the new space so we can swivel it towards the short wall for conference room style teaching/presentations. I would encourage getting one but would discourage affixing it to anything.

8) Starter Kits for Arduinos
We provided them to our students for the first half of their computational media class.  I know the Xinchejian (the makerspace here in Shanghai) has them available for sale to new members just to get them started. re: software – what you would expect. free and students have it all installed on their laptops.

9) Bench tools
We purchased a drill press, band saw, mitre saw, lathe, and sander.  This is probably more than you need. We’ve yet to install them (we’ve emptied out our ER and are going to use it as separate shop that we’ll make operational in January, once we come up with noise and safety policies.

10) Production Laptops with software the students can’t afford
Some laptops with the Adobe suite / MadMapper, etc.. We needed to provide students with access to photoshop / illustrator / premiere / after effects. I don’t recommend that for you. Also, the site licensing was a pain in the neck.

11) PCB Printer
That’s the next thing on our plan to add.

Staring in to the Abyss, with heartbeat

Today the new grad students in my 610 class presented their first  group project. It’s always a tense time for them (and me) as they come together as a group, decide on an idea, and in just a couple of weeks design, source, build, wire and code.

This group, David, Paige, Rowyn, Adam, Yomi and John Patrick decided to use the heartbeat as input to create an immersive experience. They used Adafruit’s pulse sensor, which they struggled with to get a useful analog reading from, but finally did get working. They used a 2 sided mirror, and added rgb led strings to create a recursive illusion of the lights reflecting infinitely (Slideshow to come- Paige & David did photo documentation and I will post soon).

Walking in to the dimly illuminated space, we peered over the top of the table, looking at lights receding into infinity, as a heartbeat played on speakers attached to the arduino wavshield. A small stuffed heart sat on the table. Picking it up and squeezing it triggered a voice track, with a fact about human hearts, or a hummingbird heart, or a whale heart. Stop squeezing the heart, and the audio track resumes the heartbeat file.

The other sensor was the pulse sensor, which was sized to fit on a fingertip. With fairly light pressure, the lights under the mirror begain to pulse blue and pink to match the user’s pulse. Four of us- Miles, Eli, myself, and Ven (our visiting artist up from Roswell for the day), crowded around the table, trying to get a pulse, trigger audio and figure out the various sensor/actuator pairings.

The project used 3 arduino unos, one paired with a wavshield, an IR sharp for the relay circuit, a pulse sensor for the heartbeat, and an FSR to activate the audio array.

Super pleased with this project – visuals to come!

Let’s move on from that last post

I guess I am lucky that the only people who read this blog are my students, and they get to take a 3 month break from this particular bookmark. I posted that rant, and it was cathartic, and now we can move on.

A few awesome things happened, right here in New Mexico this week. Actually, they all happened up in Las Vegas, and one of them was a lovely downpour yesterday, hopefully having some effect on the horrors of fire season.

Here’s what happened: Billy Grassie presented his thesis research on 3D aerial photogrammetry, which he accomplished by building a quadcopter himself, customizing firmware on his cameras, and doing a fly around to create a gorgeous point cloud of the national historic Trolley Building, built in 1905, and about to be renovated (/rebuilt) into a new home for my department, Media Arts & Technology. Billy’s blog goes through all the steps, and the images of the building that he created just blew everyone away.

Earlier in the day, Eli Gonzales presented his master’s project Things Fall Apart: A Repurposed Experience. I wish Eli’s blog was public, because the installation he created about the history of moving images, with found objects/recycled parts and hacked electronics, is just beautiful. My favorite is the ultrasonic PING triggered flip book made of a old rotisserie housed in a hollowed out CRT tv. Hopefully I’ll get some pictures up, or a link, soon.

Parachute Factory/HackerScouts #005 was featured in our local paper, the Las Vegas Optic, along with an OpEd by the Optic Board supporting the goals & mission of the Hacker Scouts (and encouraging donations through the NMHU foundation, thanks!).

Miles led his first maker workshop in the Start Up Studio at the NMMNH&S in Albuquerque, by all accounts, it was really fun as they built mini electronic theremin-style instruments.

This week, my students showed me just how much they care about their peers, community and families & how much they are willing to invest in themselves. Also, it rained, so it’s a whole different world.

Next week: Roxy & Allie head to Chicago and get behind the scenes at the Art Institute’s division of digital access!

The only answer is to keep making stuff.

The semester is over, summer is here in NM, and  so I’m paying more attention to longer news stories, instead of scrambling to get ready for classes or projects with deadlines. This week, three things made a big impact on me, perhaps seemingly unconnected. The first was that I read “Change the World” -George Packer’s outstanding (long but worth it) article in the 5/27 New Yorker. It’s about the Silicon Valley Tech industry/tech cultre, and focused on the insular world created by the bay area co-location of tech campuses (lead by  mostly young, mostly white, mostly men) – that’s a given- the tech industry has long been a place for workaholic young engineers and business types to flex the muscle of their ambition, starting young (and if you want the best story you drop out of college) and ideally failing quickly a few times before making a strikingly, media-worthy, success. I’d recommend reading the story, complete such key points as the winning candidate for mayor of San Francisco campaigning with the line “Keep Twitter in San Francisco”, as opposed to opportunities for education, affordable housing (the most expensive city in the US and maybe the world) or equality. The thing is, he says, all of that is implied by keeping Twitter in SF- what’s good for tech companies is good for all the people of the city.

George Packer’s article is thorough and enraging. I’m not naive, I know the history of the Valley, and plenty of people who work there, but the continued arrogance of their belief in the intrinsic value of each marginally useful product is corroborated by the VCs who fund them. It makes me wonder what the point is even of educating my students in technology- out in the valley there is a whole different species of human, a type of person that might as well be from another planet.  Should I tell my  ambitious students to to drop everything and go? Or would they be chewed up/spit out like someone arriving by bus in Hollywood, ready to become a big star?  We can create a pretense of doing economic development and job creation here in NM, but I imagine that everywhere else, where there is real money, is laughing at our meager attempts to get things going without the massive millions of bay area venture capital.

The next thing I did, was become a backer of a kickstarter proposal by ProPublica, called “Investigating the Intern Economy”, which, if funded, will send an intern & staff member around to college campuses to talk to students about their internship experiences (and ultimately publish a report). It’s not exactly what  I’d like to see (an end to unpaid internships) but I am glad they are doing something, and I hope they raise the ~ 20K that is needed.

We started our paid internship program 8 years ago, on the premise that if you are going to speak at all about diversity in the culture/arts/media field, the very first thing you have to do is pay your interns. Or maybe the first thing you have to do is believe that interns should be paid. Regardless of whether you, yourself, were paid as an intern when starting out. Regardless of whether there is no funding for such a thing and it is seems an anathema to your museum’s mission, which is an educational institution and feels that unpaid internships insure the academic nature of the work. You have to decide that if you are going to speak any language of diversity, you need to start by paying your interns. Our first hosts were cultural institutions, primarily museums, and it didn’t take to long for most of them to see the value in the setup. We brought our grant funding for the first round, and in most cases, institutions saw the value and returned with their own funding for the next round. The cultural assets of New Mexico are under-resourced (like most places) and the fact that we were approaching them with fairly qualified web, video & graphics people seemed like a really fair trade for what they got. Also, it turns out, people like working with students.

But if we’ve made headway in New Mexico with our Department of Cultural Affairs partnership and our AmeriCorps Cultural Technology program, it feels like the intern economy just keeps on growing – in the film industry (despite high profile lawsuits) the design field, and most areas of media & culture. It starts to seem as if you’re either a startup/ VC funded rockstar or an unpaid intern waiting to be recognized for your dedication and hard work, with the the carrot of a paid position dangling in front of you.

Today, Thomas Friedman published an Op-Ed in the Times which made me choke, it was so absurd (by the number of comments, seems not just me) – It was called “How to Get a Job” and then talked about the need to pre-train yourself in a set of employer-valued skills, perhaps a set uniquely specific to one employer, in the hopes that a company (like the one run by a friend of his daughter!) would match you up. It waxed on about the meritocracy of skillsets, and how the new world doesn’t care where or if you went to college (bullshit on one hand, and where do you think the friend went to school that got venture capital to start that recruiting/job match company, ArtHire?), as long as you can come in completely prepared to do a specific job and need no training whatsoever.

I’m seriously annoyed with this kind of language, as the wagons of employment circle closer and closer in through the widening, yet closed (usually by class & education) Venn circles of social media. Oh, and George Packer posted a response on 5/26 night to those that (very politely, he points out) disagreed with his article (also in light of the revelation of Apple’s elaborate tax evasion)- including a link to a rather lengthy post by Steven Johnson, who insists, through use of extensive buzzwording, that the language to describe the sea change of peer progressivism just hasn’t caught up yet.

Two projects, two documents

I’m going to post links to two google documents that I am really excited to share. They are pretty exhaustive- the first one is all the steps for construction and installation of the pneumatic tube system that we installed two weeks ago at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum. It’s not perfect, but it’s kind of perfect- in the sense that it was a DIY open-source, arduino based project from the beginning, when I asked the two most awesome hacker/collaborators that I know – Chris Weisbart & Michael Wilson- if we could build a cheap, fun, steampunkish pneumatic tube system to send messages (it sends other things, too). If you are reading this, you might know that we prototyped first at the MCN 2012 conference in Seattle in November, thanks to the committee who asked us to bring a ‘layer of chaos’ to the conference (we did, by all accounts). Then, we were lucky to get the SFCM on board through their Delle Foundation funding. Chris & Michael came for a prototyping weekend, then went back to LA to do a total design overhaul. Two weeks ago during our spring break, we spent a week building & installing the tubes, with the help of some great students who pretty much gave up their spring break to do this . They have been (by those who have observed) a huge hit with the kids at the museum. I’ll post some more pictures in that section of the blog, but here is the link to all the documentation, should you want some pneumatic tubes yourself.

That same week, another really cool project was put in motion. For several years, I’ve been wanting to get some of the precious Gustave Baumann marionette collection to a workable, digital state. The puppets (over 70 in the collection at the Museum of Art in Santa Fe) date from the mid 1800s and are very fragile. They are rarely on display, and only replicas are used in the annual Christmas puppet show at the museum. We approached them and asked if we could do some photogrammetry to create 3D images of some of them, which would then be used to create a Kinect/Unity based interactive.  MoA Director, Mary Kershaw, cleared it with her staff, and thanks to the registrar and educators, 5 marionettes were chosen. So  the same week as the Tubes project (spring break, again!) scanning commenced. Thanks to our photo faculty, Megan Jacobs, and graduate student Daniela deAngeli, we were able to get 5 models- Pecos Bill, Nambe Nell, Lord L, Gus Baumann (himself!) and a Rooster. The scanning & PhotoScan clean up is documented here, and while the project is ongoing, and will continue as we move in to the interactive stage, we’re really excited to show the step by step set up & process of creating the models that we’ll continue to work on.  I’m happy to hear from anyone with questions & comments about either of these, and I’ll continue to post photos in their sections.

The street finds its own uses for technology

That’s from William Gibson’s Neuromancer, the famous cyberpunk novel that gave us the word “cyberspace” in 1984. 30 years ago (just to do some quick math for you).

Someone I follow on Twitter posted that today, in reference to recent events in Mali, but it was good to be reminded that the uses of technology are usually so far removed from its original intention. I often talk about how all the components we use in Physical Computing class originate from the military industrial complex and/or biomed technology, but by the time they filter down to us, they become the bits from which huge interactive installations are borne, often to comment on the very politics from which their purpose was born. Full circle, and indeed, its own uses and intentions.
Sometimes, the street is literal, as in the creation of DYI electronics projects that create public art, or graffiti, or responsive work in storefront windows.  A student showed an arduino based work by a Danish artist (link to come) – a motorized rainbow-painting device, rigged to bicycle, designed to quickly paint a 15 foot tall rainbow on the side of building.

This line, coined by a visionary in 1984 (also appropriate), describing uses of technology and drugs of a future cyberpunk society, is so beautifully applied to the DIY movement today. I was just happy to be reminded of its origin. (Follow William Gibson on Twitter @GreatDismal)

James Nick Sears on Arduino vs. Raspberry Pi

This came through my ITP email list, so credit to JNS who answered the question: Getting into physical computing, Arduino or Raspberry Pi?

They really are very different platforms with very different sweet spots.  If your project is something that benefits from robust networking, video, audio, using libraries and high level languages like ruby or python, version control with git, cron jobs, or other things of that sort, Pi is clearly the way to go.  If you’re not using any of that stuff, but doing a project around things like reading switches, blinking lights, sending/reading serial data to other ICs, etc, Arduino probably has less cognitive overhead (you don’t have to start playing sysadmin) and is a better choice.  Also, if your project relies on timers or otherwise highly accurate timing (meaning at the sub-millisecond level), Arduino holds the edge there as well.

In many cases, they both *can* do the things that the other is better at (you can read from a web API with Arduino, and you can blink lights and read switches with Pi), but they are definitely aimed in different directions, which is great.  If you’re just getting started, or teaching someone who is, and your focus is really on the electronics aspect of PComp, I’d probably lean toward Arduino, unless you (or the student) is already very comfortable in Linux.  Otherwise, at first you’ll be spending as much time learning Linux as PComp (not that that’s a bad thing, really, but you said you wanted to focus on PComp, right?).