CIID 09/10: Physical Computing

Physical Computing

Following our two weeks of Processing, we turned our attentions to the physical: prototyping with electronics, using the Arduino platform as a basis for our experimentation. From code, screens, and prints to objects, electricity, sensors.

Massimo Banzi, Arduino

“Arduino is a tool for making computers that can sense and control more of the physical world than your desktop computer. It’s an open-source physical computing platform based on a simple microcontroller board, and a development environment for writing software for the board. Arduino can be used to develop interactive objects, taking inputs from a variety of switches or sensors, and controlling a variety of lights, motors, and other physical outputs.” (ref) . We were lucky to have Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi teach us for the duration of the course, and he was joined for the second week of the course by his colleague at, Daniel Soltis. As with the computational design course, the skill levels going into the course varied widely, but we were quickly brought up to speed by a series of lectures and small exercises.

Asking Massimo...

In the first week we explored different types of inputs, sensors, switches, and outputs, creating a series of small projects (half to two days in duration): ranging from small games to support products for the disabled, but starting with making an LED flash – arduino’s own Hello World. Mostly, these were to give us the space to explore the medium and the technical possibilities – wires, breadboards, components in various combinations, sketching in hardware, and getting used to the opportunities and constraints of the code.

For the second week, we had a longer project to focus on, with a brief set by Daniel: Take an existing object, and infuse it with the behaviors and interactions from another.

Ironic Iron

Working in a team of 4, we conceived and created a project we later dubbed Ironic Radio. In short: the iron you see above is a radio. By divorcing the function from the form, and making the existing controls and the metal plate control the functions of a radio, we played with expectations and, in this case, deeply held discomforts and instincts. Read more about the project here, including a video of the concept. The video is new – go watch 🙂

All the projects were exhibited at the end of the course, and underwent a thorough crit from Massimo, Daniel, Simona, other faculty, and to our great surprise, Bill Verplank via skype from California. There’s a rush to having your project picked out as being especially interesting by somebody who has worked on the very foundations of what we now know as interaction design since the 70s! Still, it’s odd presenting to a whole bunch of people… and a laptop with a webcam.

Ironic Iron: In Progress

But aside from the project itself – which I really enjoyed, and I’m really happy with the outcome – it was interesting to be working on physical things again. During my 4 years studying industrial design at Brunel, I more and more shifted my focus, interests, and reading away from straightforward object-design, towards the intangible: service design, interaction design, research, process; working at Radarstation and then coming to CIID was continuing that trajectory. So I was surprised how much I enjoyed being ‘the industrial designer’, being the person who knew about modelmaking, glue, machines, spraypainting, etc. I was reminded why I studied industrial design in the first place: they may not always be the answer, but there’s something wonderful about objects, products, things – and something wonderful about designing and creating them. There’s defiantely a joy in being the expert at something: I’m not the only person with a background in product/industrial design here, but we aren’t that many – so a lot of the traditional craft skills from product/industrial design aren’t the common knowledge in the way they were at Brunel. Perhaps what I enjoyed most was combining a craft that I know – that of creating models, objects, products – with thinking beyond it: the possibilities of code, the subtleties of playing with psychology, the debates about interactions and how they should work, and why. It’s strange that it has taken my being in a place not focussed on what I know and what I studied to remind me of what I enjoyed so much in it.

And from all that – not only an outcome I’m proud of, and a project I learnt a lot working on, but maybe also a glimmer of an insight into myself as a designer.

Iron Iron (in the spray booth)

And damn, I’m really behind writing these course updates – the next few might be shorter, just to speed it up and get me up to date!

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