physical computing

Sweet mention on Make Magazine's blog from yesterday for the Arduino workshop I held with the Boston Dorkbots today.

It was great fun introducing Physical Computing to so many software developers. There was tons of interest with standing room only in our room. Even helped 4-5 people to stick around and build blinkys on their own Arduinos.

Derek Hoffend, sound artist and teacher at Boston's School of the Museum of Fine Arts presented tonight at Boston's monthly Dorkbot get-together. He showcased video of four very cool art installations he created that can be found in his online portfolio.

Listen to his full presentation below. If you're following along at home, you might want to walk through his portfolio videos on his website.

Derek presented the following projects, in this order:

  • Untitled Arrangement for Steel and Feedback II
  • Vis(c)area
  • Haptigenic
  • ...and an outdoor project in Union Square that I can't find on his site.

Derek's projects allow participants to interact directly with his physical installations to produce and control manufactured, complex soundscapes. To create and manipulate sound, he uses a combination of transducers, mics, analog and digital circuits, and Max/MSP software (depending on the project). Above is a picture of his Haptigenic sound circuit, using pressure sensors connected to manipulatable latex sculptures to control a rich audio experience.

Along with other Dorkbot members, I am presenting an introduction to physical computing with Arduino at this year's Barcamp Boston, May 17-18. An initial session that we're proposing for Saturday will cover the basics of the open source hardware/software platform Arduino. We'll also be demoing some projects to help demonstrate what's possible on this platform. My (not so secret) goal is to help software geeks build outside the PC and distribute creative new applications for open hardware platforms.

What is Physical Computing?
For hobbyists, physical computing refers to DIY projects that use sensors and microcontrollers (low-cost computer-on-a-chip) to translate input to a software system, and/or control electro-mechanical devices such as motors, lights, audio or other hardware. The Arduino is an open source hardware/software platform that greatly simplifies connecting a microcontroller to a PC, interfacing with analog and digital inputs and outputs, and loading your own code onto the device. Endless possibilities exist for projects that sense the environment and react/respond, collect data, or interact directly with other physical objects within range.

We're also hoping to do a follow-up hands-on workshop that would allow anyone to build their own projects with help from others. No prior experience necessary. We're trying to gauge interest in the workshop component, so let me know if you're interested.

And now, for something completely dorky. I have begun to play with DIY electronics. This is principally because it's tremendous fun. You should try it. Seriously. The possibilities are endless. Here is a video of a range test for my prototype homing device built with an Arduino microcontroller module and an XBee radio transceiver. The portable, handheld device cost me about $60 to make, but theoretically could be a lot less if you designed a PCB and didn't rely on prototyping components.


Short-term, I hope to join fellow Boston Dorkbot members to build on this prototype and construct a location-based game. Stay tuned... My longer-term goal is to develop a standardized radio/microntroller platform on which to load and share user-oriented software applications (like the homing software shown here) for proximity-based device communications. The range for the "homing device" seems to well exceed the 300' that the XBee specs claim. Cool. Please send me suggestions for improvements, other ideas, etc.


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