Despite being called the Department of Digital Media, we still share a love of tangible things. Between the Legos, the Nerf guns, plant-asaurus cacti, and adventures in soldering, our time off the clock is quite often spent doing something that doesn’t involve staring at a screen.
Taking an objective look at that list, it seems a bit we’re mostly interested in toys. Please try not to judge too harshly. For me, I’ve had an ill-defined itch for a while. First it drove me to make a Thing-o-Matic, then the Raspberry Pi-powered arcade machine, and now I’m dabbling in Arduino development. It took me a long time to pinpoint the source of this urge, but I eventually figured out the appeal:
I’ve been wanting to take abstract, digital ideas and make things that have a tangible, real-world, analog presence… with the eventual goal of making things that blur that line.
There’s a somewhat harsh learning curve, however. The path to teaching yourself the basics of circuit theory is most frequently navigated by failing upwards (with a strong emphasis on failing). At one point, as a habit picked up after years of working on projects here at the office, I started to try to estimate the number of hours I’d sunk into trying to get my 3D printer to stop jamming mid-print. I wound up giving up on the tally-not because of the difficulty, but because it just made me feel a bit embarrassed. Let’s just say that it has successfully earned the title of “pastime,” given the amount of time that has been passed. That said, an itch must be scratched and the rewards of doing so are tremendous. I’m generally a pretty humble guy but I can’t resist patting myself on the back the first time someone sees the classic arcade machine in a cardboard box. Also, in my defense, I’ve got to point out that the cardboard box was really just intended as an initial prototype to make sure the pieces themselves worked.
People’s responses, however, were almost universally that they loved the rough-spun, homemade, tactile, and just generally ridiculous nature of it… and I’ve got to admit that it grew on me, too. So the alpha release is staying intact and the beta is going to be a second device all unto itself. I just can bring myself to cannibalize my first attempt. Notice that I’m still approaching these hardware projects as I would software (alpha and beta releases, etc…). I’ve been going to great lengths-even at the expense of the overall build quality and “polish” of the final result-to make sure that they’re completely de-constructible. If it were code, I’d be able to rewrite it and recompile, so I’m treating the physical elements the same way.
The LED scoreboard for our “game of the week” competitions (each week we pick a classic arcade game and over lunch breaks and after hours, everyone competes for the high score and its accompanying bragging rights, initials on the scoreboard, and the right to pick next week’s game), for example, was originally intended to be built into a championship belt as my first wearable project. Once I had the components in hand, wired up, and tested, however, it just seemed better-suited to mounting behind acrylic.
All the while, in my head, I was looking at the components laid out on a paper outline of a belt and considering it as user acceptance testing. That testing ultimately lead to a change in the scope and goals of the project. Thankfully – as a purely personal project – I got the rare opportunity to iterate in an agile fashion based upon the testing without having to make the case for the cost-benefits to the stakeholders. Again, treating real world projects like software development saves the day.
All of this lead to my immense joy at seeing the latest effort from some of our friends and collaborators over at Olin College of Engineering: The Tessel. Right up front, they managed to pinpoint exactly the itch that took me a year to scratch: Hardware development for software developers. For those so inclined to hear me rave about the details, it’s a microcontroller, very much like an Arduino, but it runs on node and is built from the ground up to blur those lines and incorporate itself into a software-based workflow. A few students over at Olin have made exactly the product I never even knew I’d craved, and earned themselves both my admiration (for pinpointing “the itch” right off the bat) and another pre-order in the process.