Making

Micro:bit review

PC Cannibals

I finished running a Wrekshop for kids with a Year 4 class near Bridgend (UK). A typical Wrekshop combines creative taking apart and reconstruction of electronic waste with coding. The kids made sort of robots from electronic waste. For the coding aspect I decided to use the recently released BBC Micro:bits. Micro:bits are small, child-friendly programmable devices developed by the BBC, the University of Lancaster, Microsoft and other partners.

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micro:bit in a scrap robot’s “brain socket”

The BBC and partners are aiming to generate an enthusiasm for coding in young people similar to what happened when the original BBC Microcomputer was released in 1981. A generation of British coders learned their skills on this flexible machine (and me 15 years later). Unlike current computers or tablets, the user had to code so as to get the best of the machine’s possibilities.

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Positives:

After ten sessions in the class, I find the BBC Micro:bit well suited for the task of engaging children into coding and interfacing. They can get quick gratification with the built-in 5×5 LED display and 2 buttons. The JavaScript Block Editor programming environment (similar to Scratch) is intuitive and easy to use and there is ample way to progress with the availability of MicroPython and Java programming environments.

micro:bit block editor

I used Micropython to finalise the programs for the class, not an ideal solution for the children who were used to the block editor, but the only way so far for including speech in the project. The kids were keen to get their robots to speak.

Downsides:

Unfortunately the Block Editor is only available online, which can be seriously limiting if you have no or slow internet access. For more advanced users I recommend the MU editor, a self-contained, downloadable MicroPython programming environment that works very well.

bbcMicrobitFront

The crocodile clips connections system, although a good idea, makes it easy to short-circuit the board as the 3 Volts and Ground holes are next to each other. The clips can also easily cross-connect adjacent pins. Most 8 year olds do not find it straightforward to use crocodile clips and several of the boards used in the project have suffered already. Still, with a little care it works fine.

Wrekshop controller

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After several Wrekshops where we spent too much time building the interface for the creative down-cycling of e-waste items, I have finally found the time to build a general purpose Wrekshop controller. It features an Arduino Mega microcontroller, a recycled 400W PC power supply, three L298 dual channel motor controllers, an 8-digital outputs L2803 darlington array and a fast connecting system giving access to additional digital I/O, analog inputs, I2C and serial ports.

The Wrekshop controller was debugged and tested during the Blast Wrekshop in April 2015.


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Blast Wrekshop

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I was invited by Blast (Bournemouth laboratory for arts science and technology) to run a Wrekshop as part of their guest artists workshops seasons. In good company there, after Anna Dumitriu and Brandon Ballangée. I had been thinking for a while about how to boost the Wrekshop format (informed deconstruction and creative reconstruction of e-waste). I finally found the time to build a Wrekshop controller box, a sort of general purpose programmable device with easy connection and built-in functionalities. More details here.

The Wrekshop was attended by a gender-balanced group of mostly artists. They all-but-one built functional (if not useful) items to be connected to the controller. The results will be included in the final exhibition of the Blast projects alongside all the other things that were built. This should be an interesting show, planned for June.

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I also presented a lecture on the latest of my practice and thinking on the Co-evolution of humans and machines. The not fully uplifting aspects such as superintelligence and Algorithmic regulation were compensated by funny old classics such as the Cybernetic Parrot Sausage video.

Gdansk Man|Machine Workshops

I just came back from running a Man|Machine workshop organised by Laznia Centre for Contemporary Arts, Gdansk, Poland, 17th to 23rd November 2014.

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“The Man|Machine workshops will concentrate on the creation of robots as works of art. The workshops are meant to enhance interdisciplinary attitudes among young artists, engineers and designers. They open to all audiences, with a special focus on students of art academies and technical universities from Poland and Norway. They will be lead by three robotic artists. The participants will form interdisciplinary teams, each of which shall create at least one robot under the supervision of a chosen artist.”

I lead one of the groups. The other artists were Jim Bond (UK) and Anders Eiebakke (Norway).

We worked for 6 days in a technopark in Gdynia and created a thing out of arduinos and Polish electronic waste. The students called it “Sasza – the love machine’. It has heart that moves and beats, a mouth made of felt that comes to kiss people who touch Sasza’a hands, and two excitable vibrating pets. Sasza will be exhibited in May in Laznia Centre for Contemporary Arts, Gdansk, then in Oslo in September.

 

After the circuits died

After the circuits died

On Sunday 26th October I was in the Victoria and Albert Museum Art Studio in London with three other artists (Jonathan Kemp, Madaleine Trigg, Dani Ploeger) improvising with a large pile of electronic waste.

The day will concluded with a presentation of the work in progress and discussion with cultural theorists Neil Maycroft and Toby Miller.

Details will be uploaded soon.

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After the circuits died: exploring electronic waste is a free event where “Visitors are invited to follow a group of artists and cultural theorists in a one-day exploration of electronic waste”, part of an AHRC research project lead by Dani Ploeger

Dartmoor Art School Robotics

Demo in the pub

At the end of July I ran a workshop as part of the original and friendly Dartmoor Arts Summer School, an independent organisation that runs art courses on a variety of subjects in or near Drewsteignton, Dartmoor, UK. For the first time the team included a drawing robot course in addition to more traditional subjects like drawing or stone carving.


7 participants registered and over the course of three days we covered the basics required to build and start programming an Arduino-powered drawing vehicle. All went well. Robotic drawing happened, culminating in a semi-chaotic demo in the local pub on the last night.

Experiments in DIY supercapacitors

Just back from Brussels where I worked for 5 days on DIY supercapacitors with my inspiring friend Michka Melo. We worked on the premises of the equally inspiring organisation Foam, trying to build supercapacitors from upcycled computer batteries and other methods including chemically altered cuttlefish bone, in a true citizen science spirit!

[Supercapacitors are electrical storage devices that become a viable alternative to conventional batteries, making up for lower capacity with a very fast charging time and much longer life.]

Michka compiled a detailed account of our experiments. Thanks to Robert Murray Smith for valuable info on DIY supercapacitors.

Coucou clock making in Cévennes

I spent a week near Alès in the south of France, sharing tricks with the multi-talented William Brossard, founder of Artimachines. We started building a hybrid cuckoo clock using various techniques ranging from walnut tree sanding to Raspberry pi programming. The coucou bird is working nicely, coming out of a circular door designed by William. The clock runs on a Raspberry Pi fitted with an Adafruit PiTFT monitor. The bird and door are controlled by an Arduino Uno and a L298 motor controller.

I am thinking of changing the display as the PiTFT display is dim in daylight and when seen at an angle.


coucouJune

Is Technology Eating My Brain? the machines

Several works were developed for the  Is Technology Eating My Brain? exhibition:

Geranium Survival Unit

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Pedal-powered automated watering and lighting system for a geranium
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techEatBrain Litany

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Endless computer speech declining public opinions on technology
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Big E-Waste Tech Head

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Participatory sculpture made of upcycled e-waste
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Slicing Photo-Booth

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Self-portrait machine with random slice-mixing function

 

Is Technology Eating My Brain?

Is Technology Eating My Brain? poster

My residency-exhibition Is Technology Eating My Brain? at Watermans Arts Centre Brentford West London is going well. The project is based on my Wrekshop idea. The principle consists of installing an e-waste upcycling unit in a gallery space, opening it to voluntary participants and build exhibits over the period.

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The residency part of Is Technology Eating My Brain? at Watermans Arts Centre has concluded with a launch on 15th May. Visitors had a chance to mingle among a Geranium Survival Unit, a Slicing Photo-Booth, eat French style radish snacks (raw with a chunk of butter and some salt), play tunes on a pedal-powered sound system provided by Pedal PA.

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Other works include the techeatbrain Litany, a growing list of “Technology is…” statements read by a speech synthesizer running on an old PC retrofitted with Linux Crunchbang and espeak. Visitors can enter statements to the list which was started by myself and participant Toby Lynch. The soundscape is completed by an audio mix of atmos sounds I recorded in Australia and Japan.

Participants Jason Scording and Bobby Neighbour contributed greatly to the Big E-Waste Helmet of Tomorrow, a bulky just-about-wearable headset featuring mobile photographic eyes made of hacked 2 megapixel vintage-ish cameras. The Slicing Photo-Booth was programmed on Raspberry Pi by Vagmakr. Eugenie Smit put together a delicate assembly of small devices triggering one another (see below).

The exhibition runs until June 3rd

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