Make 3: Wearable Computing

The area of wearable computing is growing fast. Technologies from Google Glass to Samsung Gear are attracting a lot of attention world wide. I’ve been interested in this area for a while and in the last couple of years have become acquainted with wearable platforms such as the Arduino Lilypad and Adafruit’s Flora. In this post, I will describe an interface I designed with my good friend Natalie Comeau this summer. I’ve mentioned this project, named LuvBug in a previous post, but here I will go in a bit more detail.

The original idea was to design something that would promote people hugging each other. While we were thinking of doing an interactive project for the Harvest Festival, the idea became more general and possibly more applicable to everyday urban situations. I have always found urban environments alienating. While the anonymity one feel in large cities is celebrated by some and has its charm, it can be suffocating at other times! The onslaught of modern devices (smart phones, tablets, …) seems to make everything worst, as people don’t even make eye contact on public transit, let alone make conversation or physical contact.

Thinking these things over, we decided to come up with a hugging jacket that would transform its wearer into a creature of a fictional future where people (hopefully!) have turned into creatures that have augmented their bodies such that they are more expressive of their emotions. Since hugging can produce positive emotions, these would be externalized as music and light effects, encouraging other people to hug each other! In more technical terms, we wanted to create a wearable interface that would encourage physical contact and disrupt the flow of everyday urban life.

Obviously, the idea is more playful than practical, but we like playful! The hugging jacket soon became a hugging hat that was augmented with programmable LED lights, these were sown onto a hat I had bought a few years ago in Florida and were connected to an Arduino microcontroller (after I blew up my fancier but apparently more fragile Flora board!) and a power source.

The hugging was detected by a Makey Makey unit which was connected to the wearers body through long wires with alligator clips. Each time somebody hugged the wearer, a dangling alligator clip would touch his or her body and a connection would be made, this would cause music to be played out of a backpack that contained my labtop and for a light show to happen to the LED lights around the hat. (Technical note: I used the LPD8806 library on the Arduino side to control the lights and on the Java side used the serial port communication protocol to send signals to the Arduino, this was facilitated by the RXTXComm jar library. I used a little program called InsomniaX to prevent from my laptop to go to sleep when the lid was closed. If you use this program please make sure you check your laptop occasionally so that it doesn’t heat up too much!)

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After many a-debugging sessions, I finally got the programming down and we took the project to Maker Faire where we had a lot of fun with the crowds. One thing I found out was that people had a much easier time hugging my friend Natalie than myself 🙂 Here are pictures from the event:

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I had to provide technical support once in a while!

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Follow this link for a video of the project.

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Make 2: 3D Printing

This semester, I have been facilitating a series of workshops on digital design and “making” at York University. The idea is to introduce “maker” and “hacker” methods in an academic context. The Maker Movement, is a term that loosely refers to the proliferation of amateur and professional designers who use both novel (e.g., 3D printing) and traditional (e.g., glassblowing) manufacturing methods to subvert the mass production factory model and engage directly with every stage of the creation of their customized small batch designs. In an earlier post, I explored Maker Faire, a coming-together event of different groups that engage in maker activities.

I believe combining hands-on and creative techniques of makers with the theoretical grounding of academia might yield a potent and balanced methodology for coming up with real-world solutions to real-world problems and also to facilitate more playfulness and diversity in digital design.

An important technique of the maker movement is 3D printing (also known as rapid prototyping) a technique that involves the direct creation of physical objects from 3D software models out of material as diverse as plastic (the most common one) to cement and chocolate.

One of the lucky outcomes of organizing a series of workshops was that we were loaned two Cube 3D printers for the duration of the semester. These small but (relatively) user-friendly machines allow one to print out 3D models in two types of plastic (ABS or PLA). The plastic is fed into the machine in the form of a thin tube that is melted at the tip (at a temperature of about 200 degrees Celsius!) and is output in patterns from the extruder.

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I had done some 3D printing before (with the previous version of the current 3D printers, the 3D Touch), but had not engaged with every stage myself yet. I decided to go with a simple test first and printed out a couple of spiral earrings. They came out very nicely and took only 10 minutes to print.

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In the cube program, I had set print mode to “strong”, rather than “solid” which meant there were some empty cavities on the body of the earrings. At the suggestion of one of the workshop participants, I used red wax to fill out the space. After this, I got a couple of earring posts, attached them using cement glue, and, voila! I had my first pair of 3D printed earring! (I have to say that connecting the posts was not very easy since it was my first time and it took a while to get a handle on how to do it. There isn’t a special trick to it, just plan to spend time setting them up properly!)

The next project was a bit more ambitious. I wanted to try my hand at 3D scanning. We have a scanner in the lab but I was interested in using cheaper technology to create models, something that Autodesk has been promising with their new 123D Catch App. The idea is that you can use your iPad, iPhone or even regular digital cameras to capture a series of pictures from an object (can be a human too, as long as they don’t move!) and send it to Autodesk’s servers where it will be rendered into a 3D model.

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I decided to model a wooden statue of the legendary Takin, Bhutan’s national animal. I started by placing the statue on a table in my house and using the tips on Autodesk’s website about the light not shining directly on the object and trying to take two series of overlapping pictures (the circles forming two circles around the object at two different angles). Using an iPad, I took about 30 pictures, took out a couple that were not zoomed properly or were overexposed and sent the rest to the cloud server. After about 15-20 minutes, my 3D model was ready and it looked surprisingly good!

After that I opened my cloud account from my laptop and inspected the model. The model needed some work in terms of clean up, getting rid of detached surfaces and holes, scaling and positioning and also getting rid of the ground surface under the statue. Once these changes were done, I exported the file as a STL file which is a standard graphic mesh file and opened it in the 3D printer’s software. From here, I did some more tweaking (mainly scaling and rotation) and then rendered the Cubify file which is basically the low level instruction file that goes to the printer.

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After this step, I tried to print the file and failed! The reason was that there is a big difference between the earrings and the Takin from a structural point of view. Notice that the Takin’s nose (and belly and some other parts) are not connected to the base, therefore, it is important to turn on both “raft” and “supports” in the Cube software. “Raft” refers to an initial foundational base that helps different parts of the model stick to the plat on which the printed object is placed and “supports” refers to the scaffolding parts that will be placed to hold the hanging parts up. Both of these can be removed after printing.

Here’s a picture of the Takin statue, next to its 3D printed model:

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Make 1: ReMix

September was a very busy and wildly creative month for me. While I got involved in many design and making project, I haven’t really had time to record my process or reflect on it in written form. So the next few posts will each take up one or more of these projects and describe what they are.

Important Note: This post is about an object that can be dangerous to use for people with epilepsy. If you decide to make or use a Dreamachine or a similar device please make sure you are not epileptic and warn people that using it might cause fits in people with epilepsy.

The first project is a remake of the Dreamachine, a brain stimulation machine originally made by artist Brion Gysin and technician Ian Sommerville. I came to know about this project from a Canadian movie called Flicker by Nik Sheehan. The idea behind Dreamachine is extremely simple: create a flickering source of light, if you set it to the right frequency and sit and look at it with closed eyes, you see visualizations and might actually go into a dream state, not unlike one induced by meditative visualizations or mild drugs.

Frankly, I was not very impressed with the movie or the endless fringe celebrity comments about the Dreamachine (most of them in the “oh, it’s so cool!” category!) that formed the bulk of the movie. But I was intrigued by a suggestion on the film’s website about making one of these machines at home via recycling broken gramophones. I love tinkering with “found” and nostalgic objects and this was a golden opportunity.

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A friend had already given a broken record player to my brother. The idea was to have a source of light in the middle of a cylinder that would be mounted on the gramophone and move with it. The cylinder would have large patterned holes in it that would let the flickering light out. One would sit in front of this contraption and close his or her eyes. Somehow, the idea of creating the cylinder from scratch (either metal or cardboard) was not appealing to me. Then, I found a beautiful hand-made Syrian candle holder on the street. The size of the base was perfect and once placed on the gramophone it made a beautiful Dreamachine.

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I decided to go for LED flashlights mounted on a stick rather than candles for safety and, voila, the Dreamachine was complete. Here’s what the final object looks like:

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