Physical Programming & Sensor Garden Prototyping from @Tinkering Studio, Exploratorium

Our recent experiments with ScratchX, Seeed Sensors, and programming have produced some really interesting prototypes that I think can shed some light on the process that our group goes through when working out new tinkering activities. We’ve all been sharing ideas with each other and it’s been really interesting to see how initial investigations build on one another and lead to new pathways.


A few months ago, Nicole built a prototype of cardboard disks that turn switches on and off to simulate programming (blinks and morse code) through mechanical means. This got us all thinking about how we could approach the concepts of programming with simple materials in a low tech way.


As we’ve become more interested in programming and sensors, we’ve discussed and researched ways that these topics could be incorporated into existing activities, new workshops, and past ideas. We thought back to an old PIE workshop from about ten years ago called ‘sensor garden’ as an interesting idea to revisit. In this atelier, participants used PICO crickets to process inputs and control outputs that responded to the environment in interesting ways. Luckily there was a PDF made at the time with lots of photos, inspirations and examples that we could riff on using the seeed sensors and scratchX programming that we have been messing around with lately.


Sebastian combined these two ideas for a quick experiment during a tuesday Learning Studio meeting where a few of us shared ideas about programming and sensors with the larger group. He connected a cardboard disk to a slow moving motor, cut some holes in it, and placed a couple of light sensors from the Seeed kit under the turntable. He then used Scratchx to connect to the sensors, making it possible to play sounds and change the animation when the light hit the photoresistors. This prototype (reminiscent of the infamous ‘drum buddy’) was an first attempt to build an experience where people could experiment with both the physical programming of the disks and the scratch animations.


After some initial experiments in the tinkering studio workshop, we’ve been looking for ways to make the environment around Scratch programming feel more unusual and collaborative. Sebastian’s small-scale prototype inspired me to try to create a larger version that multiple groups could interact with at the same time. After the show-and-tell in the meeting, Nicole and I gathered some parts and kluged together a LED from the light play set and a slow moving motor on a tall stand above the workbenches in our mini shop. We adjusted the lights so that they cast a moving shadow about the same size as the tables. It wasn’t pretty, but worked ok to get a first sense of the potential of this idea.


Here’s a video of the setup in action. There are a few light sensors attached to the seeed board which are each programmed for a different instrument in scratch. So when they are triggered by either lightness or darkness, they play a sound. Something like this could be set up to allow people to play with the light sensor boards without even programming, to get of sense of how they work before jumping in.


The next thing that seemed interesting is adjusting the scratch program to respond to the sensors on the screen. We thought it might be fun to start with a simple animation and suggest that people could make it their own by adding unique sprites and sounds.


Another direction that we could take this project is creating customized disks that make interesting patterns of light and darkness. Nicole built one out of familiar materials and I think we could go super deep with transparencies, filters, and other semi-translucent objects that may affect the light sensors in complex ways.


What seems most promising about this prototype is that I think it can lead to a bunch of other ideas and things to try. For example, one of the advantages to the PICO boards was that they were wireless and could be programmed and then activated in the natural environment without being connected to a computer. So, we’re experimenting with seeed boards and other technologies that may allow for similar wireless explorations.

As well I think it would be really interesting to see if we could create projects that responded to one another using feedback and sensors. I’d love to try and built moving creatures that made sounds or had lights that could activate other devices. All of this seems possible but will require some more tinkering.

For me, it’s fun to see how different prototypes build on each other and get changed and modified in the process. I think the tinkering activities and exhibits with the most longevity and success are the ones where it’s hard to tell exactly where the idea came from and many of us had a hand in the design. I’m not sure if this light/shadow sensor garden will ever become a full on workshop with visitors, but it feels like a step in the development of computational tinkering, programming, and sensors that I hope will lead to more engaging and collaborative experiences.




This post is originally posted on this  blog post  from © Tinkering Studio, Exploratorium
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March 2016