In an effort to get more doing into my life I've been switching from interviewing and enjoying the work of creators in wearable tech, digital installations and device design to doing as much hands-on as possible. I think what appealed to me about the Paper Computing Workshop at the Gray Area Foundation for the Arts (GAFFTA) was the speed with which you could try your ideas out. I love the idea of being able to recycle, reuse and tear apart my experiments in combining paper and electronics.
I was also excited when I saw the video of electronics in a painting that Jie Qi, a grad student at MIT in the High-Low tech group and the instructor for the class had created. Natalie Freed, the second instructor who has just completed a degree in Personal Robotics from MIT also showed a pop-up book example with more possibilities of paper switches and play. As I've started to weave metal into my canvases, it seems like a natural extension to find ways to allow people to interact with the paintings.
One of the things that I deeply appreciate about the people that I interact with that go to school at MIT is their understanding that we need to do to learn. Jie began the workshop by showing more examples of people working in paper computing as well as some of the examples that had been created to show all of the different types of projects we could try. Then they threw us in.
We learned how to create a battery holder with copper tape leads that grew into our first simple circuit. By placing the copper tape from the positive (+) side of the battery and the copper tape from the ground (-) into a closely aligned pattern we were able have multiple locations to add LEDs. Using Scotch tape we firmly pressed the tiny yellow and red LEDs down so the correct end touched the positive and negative copper tape. Voila. Our first circuit - in the first hour of class.
Jie quickly moved on to showing how to create extensions off of the main connection by soldering the intersections. And how to jump over the connections using a paper or tape bridge so you didn't accidentally complete the wrong circuit. And then how to solder the LEDs into place. And then how to make breaks in the tape, and create a small flap of paper and copper tape that when pressed down completed the circuit - and light the LED. Our first switch. All before lunch.
Pre-programmed Microcontroller (ATTiny85)
After lunch, things got even more interesting. Giving us an image with callouts of how things needed to end up, she began showing us how to create a more complex circuit that interfaced with a pre-programmed microcontroller chip. Starting with a simple fold-over battery holder we were soon hard at work creating the positive and negative connections we needed to use the microcontroller in our project.
I began by drawing the basic circuit diagram in pencil on my page so I could more quickly lay down the copper tape. This reminds me of the kind of complex wireframing that I do for my interaction design practice - one of my favorite tasks. Then I flattened and traced the microcontroller body and flattened prongs so I could see where each of the legs needed to have a connection meet. I started laying the tape down to get the ground line from the battery attached to the - lower-left leg of the microcontroller. Then the + battery connection to the upper-right + microcontroller input.
I quickly learned how to cut my copper tape into tinier strips to allow it to only hit a single leg of the microcontroller. After I got the basics soldered in place, Jie showed me a little variation that allowed me to have other LEDs flicker in the opposite pattern from the original LEDs by taking my - LED end and connecting it to both the battery + and output from the flicker leg of the microcontroller. Neat. And it all worked. Bliss.
That night I spent hours creating possible project fodder. I found old vector art from an interface I created for a Flash project and printed it on transparency film. I played with tons of different papers seeing how the LED was affected by shining through them. I even played with ways to create snow luminaria http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Luminaria patterns. And I had to bring along my paper flowers from my play at Teahouse Studios Jumpstart Creativity evening.
In the morning we explored creating a "slider" out of a thick area of pencil graphite. The closer your finger gets to the + end of the switch the more power flows through the circuit - making the LED brighter or cuing a set of programming on your microcontroller if it's watching for the power levels coming into the input leg.
Then we looked at different sensors we might use for our microcontroller project. We could use simple switches, paper sliders, a microphone input, or a touch input where your body completes the circuit.
I chose to create a circuit that was programmed so that when someone blew into the microphone it began lighting each of the LEDs from the bottom up. Drawing the circuitry actually took me longer than building it. I had missed a few things in the previous project, like how to add a reset switch to the project but I quickly hit stop points that allowed me to catch those missing pieces.
In the end, I had a fun little lattice that actually worked as advertised - although it had become a VERY slow art project via a misset timer in the microcontroller code that set each new light to turn on after 3 or so minutes. You'd have to know my fascination with all things slow to understand my delight with that little mixup.
Other people's projects were really fun as well, including a paper boat, touch circuit paper doll string, origami, boxes that light when closed and a really fun paper speaker. I'm very grateful to Jie and Natalie for sharing all of their knowledge and coaching.
I'm over the moon about how much I learned in the class. I've already begun creating a more attractive simple circuit project that I can bring along with me to interviews. While I'm not sure how I'll incorporate it into my art projects, I love how quickly I was able to get deeply into the electronics and really create. The fact that I've already picked up again is a good sign that I may have found a DIY form that I can keep playing in.