Tech corner

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.

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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.

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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.

Interview with Michka Melo

At the occasion of a week of citizen science research with my friend Michka Melo in Foam Brussels, I took the opportunity to record an interview. Michka talks about his atypical background, urban gardening, biomimicry, upcycling, future scenario, art and science collaboration. Inspiring and very well informed views on cutting edge topics!

An account of our experiments is available here. Thanks to Robert Murray Smith for valuable info on DIY supercapacitors.

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.

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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Recycling plastic for 3D printing

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I have been using basic 3d printers since 2011, starting with a Thing-o-matic  by Makerbot, then a couple of UP3D machines. They use plastic filament, mostly made of Acrylonitrile butadiene styrene (ABS), the same material used to make Lego bricks, or polylactic acid (PLA), a plastic derived from corn starch or other renewable bio-materials. The filament is generally made from virgin plastic (ie: not recycled), purchased ready-spooled and in various colours.

The frequent use of a 3D printer has a common side-effect: the production of a significant amount of faulty parts and temporary support structures, without even counting in the endless tat spewed out by the little machines in the guise of Yoda heads, clumsy plastic jewellery, door knobs that don’t quite work…

Additionally ABS plastic perfectly suitable for printing can be found in the casings of many consumer electronic items, car bumpers, fridge door compartments, lego bricks, luggage etc… The problem is how to turn this abundant source of potentially upcyclable material into suitable filament. The most spectacular and impressively robust use of recycled ABS in a 3D printer is Endless, a project by Dutch designer Dirk van der Kooij based on a modified robotic arm.

The search for an environmentally friendly solution to the needs of desktop 3D printers is underway. The Filabot was probably the first attempt for an open-source solution allowing both the re-use of discarded prints and of recycled plastics. Filabot is now providing a commercially available grinder, the Reclaimer, as well as different models of filament extruders.

 

Other commercial designs include and the Strudittle and the Filastruder. Open source designs can be found on the Recyclebot website. Joshua Pearce from Michichan Technological University made the news in 2013 for his recycling of milk jugs using a Recyclebot v2.2, design available on Thingiverse. Beyond the fact that high-density polyethylene, or HDPE (the plastic milk jugs are made of) retracts dimensionally while cooling, the recycling of plastics presents the inconvenient that polymer chains do break down in smaller chains each time the plastic is melted, thus weakening the material and limiting the amount of useable cycles.

Filastruder recommends a pellet size of no more than 5mm width in any dimension for use with their machine. I experimented briefly with an office paper shredder and some of my discarded prints. The coarse plastic fragments I collected are not suitable for a small extruder, and the shredder struggled to cut anything thicker than 2mm.

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In November 2013 the UK based techfortrade charity launched the Ethical Filament Foundation, an initiative aiming to reduce plastic waste in developing countries while providing income to deprived populations. Their vision: ” We believe that there is an opportunity to create an environmentally friendly and ethically produced filament alternative to meet the needs of the rapidly growing 3D Printing market. We also believe that by doing this we could potentially open up a new market for value added products that can be produced by waste picker groups in low income countries.The foundation is working on a manufacturing and quality standard “.

 

Chip for Human Brain project

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In Manchester today, doing some preparation for a 2015 exhibition called The Imitation Game in Manchester Art Gallery. Curator Clare Gannaway is looking into possible collaborations with the School of Computer Science of the University of Manchester. Today we met Steve Furber, a legendary figure of the computing world who was one of the lead designers for Acorn’s microcomputers in the early 1980’s. After the success of Acorn’s BBC Micro, he was a crucial contributor to the invention of the ARM chip, the descendents of which can be found at the heart of today’s vast majority of mobile phones and tablets. I felt a bit star struck, as it was with BBC micros found in UK skips that I discovered (late) the joys of physical computing.

Steve Furber with one of the first SpiNNaker working units

Prof Furber talked to us about the SpiNNaker project he is currently leading, well on its way to complete a machine featuring an array of one million specialised ARM chips. The machine’s processing power will be equivalent to 1% of the human brain’s. The machine will be used by scientists from various disciplines to run experiments aiming at understanding the least understood intermediary level of brain processing, between neuron firing and high level activity monitoring. This effort is part of the international Human Brain Project.

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Each SpiNNaker chip, designed in the lab, made in China and Taiwan, features 18 core processors. The machine will feature approximately 56000 of the super thin chips, mounted on individual boards carrying 48 units. A massively complex operation, running in 10 wardrobe-size units. Steve Furber told us of an analogy he uses when he talks to secondary school students about the complexity of modern electronics and of the chip architects’ job: the connections and routing in a smartphone’s ARM processor, if scaled up, would be equivalent to all the roads on earth. The architects’ job is to make sure all the roads go to the right destination and that there is no traffic jam. Daunting.

We visited the SpiNNaker labs, where we saw one of the first operational machines running, some mysterious programme with lots of pretty flashing lights. We also had a look at the graphene lab, nanotechnology research heralded to produce great things in the near future. I only know of graphene in relation to promising new designs for supercapacitors. We could see researchers wearing what Furber called bunny suits busying themselves on high tech gear, working on nanoparticles.

Visit to Access Space Sheffield

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I visited Access Space in Sheffield, where I enjoyed a two days crash training in using the command line and shell scripts in Linux. Initiated by James Wallbank and the Redundant Technology Initiative group in 2000, Access Space is arguably the first open source/community computing creative technology labs in the UK. The space is open several days per week, with two main areas: the Media Lab where visitors can access a Linux workstation for web access, design, programming, etc. A code-protected door opens on the Refab Space which hosts the digital fabrication machines (laser cutter, CNC router, several rep rap 3D printers), a lot of recycled computing gear and several solid workbenches.
During my stay I saw lots of activity in both areas, including a Sheffield Hardware Hackers meeting (every monday 6pm), and the laser cutter was pretty much always busy.

James is a great host, busy with many projects including his latest business adventure Infinite Crypt. He is always keen to share on topics of technological accessibility, community development and techno-social trends. I recorded an audio interview where he gives us his insight on Access Space and thoughts on the opportunities offered by digital fabrication technologies.

Interview with James Wallbank in Access Space Sheffield, 26th February 2014

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