Friday, March 30, 2012

Prototyping the Bumblebee

This is another project in progress. I love the idea of paper computing or paper electronics. I'm planning a print (à la Italian-speaking polar bear) which interacts with the viewer by making sound when approached. So I want the print itself to act as a (capacitative) sensor and a speaker. I've been sourcing electrically conductive paints and inks and even tried to make my own with graphite and block printing medium. I settled on Bare Paint which seemed the most user-friendly (though it is only available in black, I suspect because it's full of graphite). It's slightly tempermental as a block printing medium, but only slightly - which is great news as they never claimed it could do this. They have examples using it as a screenprinting medium, but usually screenprinting ink is less viscous. This 'paint' is quite thick and viscous so I'm really pleasantly surprised at how it performs in a block print. (They also produce an electrically conductive body paint so you can be a circuit and have blinkie LEDs shining on your skin, or your body can be a MIDI interface, if you so desire.) They even have a tutorial for how to make a capacitative sensor, which I followed. I combined their Arduino code (basically the CapSense library with slight tweaks) with some advice from Lady Ada's tutorial on using switches with Arduinos and Leah Buechley's Simple Arduino Audio Samples tutorial and the tutorial for paper speakers from the Kit-of-No-Parts by Hannah Perner-Wilson. There's no point in re-inventing the wheel, people. You'll have to turn your volume up to hear the buzzing, but it's there*. I believe the weird noise at the beginning, is because the start of the sample is being triggered repeatedly; I should be able to write better code to avoid that and go straight to the buzzing bumblebee.

As you can see, it worked in my demo, but it isn't yet very robust. Sometimes if I restart the Arduino it gets caught in a loop, constantly re-triggering the start of the sound sample. I plan to work on the code, and maybe play with the resistance accross the two pins to sense and receive the varying capacitance, and maybe add a small capacitor for stability. The other issue at the moment is power. I seem to be going through 9V batteries at an untenable rate**, so I hope to be able to switch to rechargeable AA batteries (and lowering the voltage, because no one want to deal with 6 batteries). Alternatively, I might get a 9V adaptor to power both the Arduino and the FET which switches the speaker on. That might be the way to go for the final product. Eventually, I'd like this to work with some very small parts; just the chip from the Arduino***, the FET, some resistors, maybe a capacitor, minimal wires or conductive thread or copper tape, a magnet, and power. I also need to find out if there is any difficulty having the sensor printed on one side of the sheet and the speaker on the other; after all, two conductors with paper sandwiched in between is by definition a capacitor so I wonder if I need any shielding or anything.

Also, I trained it to play the Ode to Joy (badly, from a musical perspective) employing the Tone function which outputs square waves at the frequency of notes. Now, don't you want to see what you could make your art do?

Note: If you're just here for pretty pictures and such and cannot make heads or tails of my descriptions of software or hardware, feel free to ask. I hope the above is comprehensible. If it isn't, feel free to let me know.

*thanks again Synap for the sound sample
**why don't they mark Amp-hours on these things?
***I think I'll have to use an ATMega chip, because the ATTiny only has 2K of memory and I don't think I can write a program and store 3 seconds of sound data in that little space.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mini Print International - Asia Pacific

Finalists, friends, family & print aficionados...
You are cordially invited to attend the opening reception of the awards:
Date: April 6th 2012
Time: 6pm - 9pm
Venue: No Vacancy Gallery, 34-40 Jane Bell Lane, (QV) Melbourne 3000. (enter from Russell St)

Should you be reading this from Melbourne, I hope you'll consider going to see this Mini Print International - Asia Pacific opening on my behalf. I'll be 16250 km away, but I am a finalist, and you can see several of my prints in the exhibit.

Winged Walrus

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Handmade Olympics

The lovely rikrak (blogger and crafter extraordinaire) is once again hosting 'The Handmade Olympics'. This year, things from secret minouette places is sponsoring 'The Handmade Olympics'. This is a fun event for handmakers to show their stuff, with amazing prize packs for fans of handmade goodies. You can nominate yourself (if you're a maker) and another person in each of 7 categories - and both you and your nominee stand to win some amazing prizes! Check out this post for information on the events and enter each category at:

( event 1 ) :: our favourite handmade goodie with an innovative design
( event 2 ) :: our favourite handmade goodie for kids
( event 3 ) :: our favourite handmade eco friendly goodie
( event 4 ) :: our favourite handmade item that inspires loveliness + wellness (in our homes, for ourselves, etc.)
( event 5 ) :: our favourite handmade personality/group forwarding kindness thru handmaking
( event 6 ) :: our favourite FUN-FILLED handmade OR vintage goodie
( event 7 ) :: our favourite handmaking-focus blog

I hope you'll consider nominating minouette items, or blogs (for that matter). I can't, of course, win the event 5 - since I'm the sponsor - but if you like something and think it just the thing for a given event, by making a nomination you'll be getting a chance to win great fan prizes yourself. This is also a fun chance to see some of the amazing handmade goods which are out there, and find some new favorites. Do check out the fun and follow along!

Monday, March 19, 2012

Today I made a polar bear speak Italian

aurora detail It's true - though very briefly. I took one of my polar bear proofs and used copper tape to make a spiral on the back, following this tutorial for paper speakers from the Kit-of-No-Parts by Hannah Perner-Wilson. I hooked up the controlling circuit for high current loads with a digital pin on my new Arduino Uno microcontroller (ciruit design by Tom Igoe, shown below, though I ignored the potentiometer, so my simple speaker has no volume control... though I could add one - the speaker is connected where the motor would otherwise go). So the parts needed are: Arduino with power (I used USB connection to my laptop), some jumper wires, a transitor, an extra 9V battery, the print with its copper tape spiral and a magnet (I used the magnet from within an old junked harddrive, because this is both free and a very strong magnet). Then after trying some simple tones, and basic modifications to C programs which come as examples with the Arduino, I tried running Leah Buechley's Simple Arduino Audio Samples tutorial. It's a software solution which lets you play a 4 second sample, so long as it is only 8 kHz and mono - without adding anything else to your microcontroller. It comes with a sample of someone saying 'Arduino Uno' with a proper Italian accent. It is rather cool to hear the print itself vibrating to make the sound of an Italian woman speaking. Now, I know that some of the above may read as goobledegook to anyone unfamiliar with basic electronics or programming, however the point you should take away from this is that it is now very posible for anyone to buy some simple open source parts (for about $25 - $30), follow some on-line tutorials and make their 2D artwork itself produce sound! It is in fact posible to do this even if you do not understand the circuit or the software (though, I would encourage anyone to try to follow that too, as with most things, it's easier than you think).

The next step to make some prints which interact with the viewer (listener?) audibly! Thanks to Synap for helping me get some appropriate sound samples! There will be more of this to come (I cannot bring myself to say 'stay tuned' as it is just too corny a pun).

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Happy Pi Day!

Who doesn't love pi, or π (or pie for that matter)? On March 14 (which can be written 3/14*) we celebrate the world's most famous irrational number, so central to geometry, trigonometry, calculus, Fourier Analysis... you name it. If it's mathematical, it needs more π.

The video was produced by Austin-based musician Michael John Blake via the New Scientist magazine.

*Though I prefer the proper, metric date version, 14/3/12.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Polar Bear and Aurora lightbox & art+electronics resources

polar bear & aurora lightbox in progress

I've got another sneak peek for you. These are a couple of basic videos I shot myself (obviously) of the construction and finished project. I'm lucky enough to be able to get some help from the professional photographer in the household and hope to have some better videos to share in the near future. Though, it is no mean feat to photograph something which emits changing patterns of light... so he must really love me to embark on this project, and as it will require some labour, it may take some time. In the meanwhile, you can watch this:

Other than that, I built a prototype of my Schrödinger's cat which incorporates some simple circuits so that the poison and cat disappear at the flick of a switch! I'll share it with you when I've got something a little more polished than my breadboard and copper tape circuit. I've been thinking about how best to let the user interact with electrically heated thermochromic prints. It's funny that I'm suddenly thinking of a 'user' of art, rather than a viewer.

Also, I've gathered together a 'Resources' page with links to several of the sites I've found which are useful to artists and makers who want to incorporate some electronics, 'smart' materials, and other scientifically-fueled interactivity (like thermo- and photochromic materials, or shape memory alloys) into their work. This includes sites with information, projects, tutorials and a variety of suppliers. If you have any suggestions, please let me know.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Marine creatures and bioluminescence

Going in a manned submersible is definitely on my bucket list. My mother has made me promise not to tell her about it until I'm on dry land again. I've been obsessed with the idea, and with bioluminesce since I first witnessed many of these creatures over a decade ago. It is true what she says, that it's addictive. You have to order the scientists out of the lab and remind them they need to sleep in order to be awake for their next shift.

The communication aspect is something I'd like to capture.

Polar bear and Aurora Borealis

aurora borealis

A relaxed polar bear sits back in the snow and admires the Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights, in this lino block print. The linocut is printed in a gradation of black through cobalt blue to white, on Japanese kozo (or mulberry) paper, 11 inches by 14 inches (28 cm by 35.6 cm). There are seven prints in the edition.

I've been thinking a lot about the poles, and animals in the remarkable environment of the high arctic (and antarctic). A second theme in my work has been light in various forms. How could I resist the beauty of the aurora, where cosmic rays come to play with the geomagnetic field?

Did you know that polar bears are the world's largest land carnivore? They are beautiful and deserve to thrive and see a healthy, robust habitat, much more so then they have of late.... but make no mistake, polar bears are not cute. Polar bears are deadly. Should you ever meet one, be sure to see it first - your only other chance is to look too skinny to be a seal or have enough fat content to be worth the effort. It's not like polar bears are interested in eating people; they are not. But, a well-clothed Arctic explorer might look like a mammal with a layer of blubber. They are the reason that earth scientists I know, who've worked in the high arctic, have to take a rifle, even to the outhouse (which is open on top to better scan the horizon for fast-moving, camouflaged, predators). Furthermore, like other bears, they are smart and curious. There is a reason they are called Ursus maritimus; they spend most of their time at sea. They've been known to board vessels and ships in the Arctic ocean need to post a bear watch. Sometimes I wonder why I am so keen to get myself sent to the Arctic, but I'm not completely naive. I know hypothermia isn't the only risk.


This print is actually inspired by the aurora and the potential for making more light boxes... I have the guts of a second light box in progress, which will use this print, two types of rgb LEDs, and gels to try and capture the feeling of the Northern Lights. I considered using electroluminescent (EL) paper... which I may still explore. EL materials are often that eerie pale green, and since they need an inverter, they make a sort of humming noise which is very apt. When I've witnessed the aurora, there has sometimes been an associated crackling sound.

I remember my father, who grew up in Northern Ontario (both closer to the pole and further from light pollution) being astounded to learn that his children had only seen the Northern Lights a handful of times. He's lived in Toronto for almost 40 years and might have noticed their absence. Though Victoria isn't that much further north, I saw them several times a year when I was there - including when I was at sea. The most spectacular display however, was when I was in Georgian Bay as a teenager. I'll never forget it.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

minouette comb jelly on Adafruit

Enchantress of Numberscombjelly007One of the places you can find great items for incorporating some electronics into your art, as well as tutorials, kits, links, forums and useful information is Adafruit. I like their attitude, and I like seeing a company lead by a female electrical engineer and entrepreneur be such a success. She (founder Limor Fried) named herself and her company in homage to Lady Ada Lovelace, the first computer programmer. I added my pictures of my comb jelly light box to their flickr pool and was asked by one of their engineers if they could feature the comb jelly project on their blog. One of my motivations is often sharing and teaching; I personally think comb jellies are undeniably cool, and I want artists I know to see how easy it is to wire up a simple circuit and add light (or even changing coloured light) to a project. I'm a believer in 'open source'.* It's why I like their attitude, it's why I made a point to explain what I'd done and how, and it's why I'm flattered to be featured.

*It's not always obvious how to make information free, but I think it's a concept which will, combined with a rapidly improving communication system, lead to faster innovation and change civilization.