Arduino Error Bingo

Idea born of observing students feeling like they had failed when they saw an error message, and having difficulty persuading them that breaking things is often so much better for learning than getting it right the first time. With this, getting an error is a win! As it should be.

Download below, design and execution by my colleague Becca Rose. It has turned out great with our students! Share and enjoy (click on image for PDF version).

arduino bingo

Maker Stickers


Maker Stickers! I’m so excited about this. 🙂

It started with being dissatisfied with the difference between the beautifully designed craft supply storage that we drool over on craft blogs, and how electronics components are stored. All those little drawers may be brilliantly categorized, alongside handmade gadgets to measure resistors or light up drawers to find components, but goodness, the stacks of drawers are so ugly! For years I’ve been drawing my own little labels for both craft supplies and electronics in an attempt to make it all look more inviting, but I decided it would be awesome to do it properly. I daydreamed about having a set of labels people could download and use in all sorts of ways, and about selling colorful packages of labels for all kinds of crafty tools, and decided to hire a proper illustrator to draw them.

Chamisa Kellogg, the illustrator I chose, has been totally amazing to work with. She took all my photographs of miscellaneous little objects and turned them into nice and clean (and super adorable, in my opinion) line drawings. I’m now turning these into label sets. A preview below, and if you’d like to be notified when these are available to buy, sign up here! We’ll also eventually be releasing these under a Creative Commons license if you’d like to print your own or use them for things like tutorials.



These are also super inspired by the High Low Tech making space I was lucky enough to get to work in sometimes when I was going to school at the Media Lab. There were bins and drawers full of lovely supplies, and what I liked best is that all the tools were laid out as equals to each other. There was no sense that “this is the electronics stuff, this is the craft stuff,” and so on. Rather, the sewable materials  were by the sewing machine, the things that needed water by the sink, all the types of tape were in the tape rolls…the lines between things were fuzzy, and it made you feel that making had no hierarchy to it, “engineering” and “art” and “craft” could all be done at the same time.

Tide Book

I’m working on a notebook about tides and tidepools with a Spark Core inside to retrieve data about the latest tide levels. It works, hooray! (I say working on because I’m still adding to the notebook, which documents me learning both about tides and about the technical details of getting the wifi and electronics parts working :). There was this rather fun moment when it was finally receiving live tide data when it felt like the book suddenly came alive and became connected to the world – not in the social media, always-connected kind of way, but as though there was a thread tying it to a real thing far away.

Photos below by Jennifer Dick of Nexmap and the 21st Century Notebooking project. More documentation here, with more complete photos.

Here’s what I liked about the Spark Core:

  • Really nice and small, fits quite well into a notebook.
  • It’s quite fast to get up and running.
  • Unlike the Electric Imp, it works with Arduino (in a web IDE), so I could build on what I know, and prototype the electronics part without the Spark Core itself.

Here’s my wish list:

  • Right now Spark Core programs won’t run unless it can connect to the network, which means I can’t program in a default behavior for the notebook that runs before it can connect. This made me realize just how automatically I build in a backup behavior into things I make – a lesson learned from having so many demos fail! So it’s a bit frustrating not being able to build this in – but it sounds like they are working on it.
  • Some networks just don’t work. I do realize that for something like the notebook that I want to be able to move from place to place, a Bluetooth-tethered-to-phone solution would be better.
  • I wish they didn’t pre-solder header pins on! Much easier for paper electronics things, and other types of flexibility.
  • After poring over a lot of documentation, it seems like you can use a web call to run functions on the Spark Core, and you can subscribe to events like sensor readings, but you can’t actually have it retrieve data from the web on its own. To update the Tide Book with the latest tide readings, I created a cron job that runs on my server and runs a function on the Spark Core that changes the tide reading, which then controls the number of LEDs that fade in and out like waves. It makes much more sense to me that the microcontroller would be able to make its own requests and pull data rather than push it like this, so I’m not super happy with this solution. I very well may be missing something about the way this device works – especially because I’m not hugely experienced with web programming, and this project involved a lot of cobbling the bits I know together. Update! a helpful engineer at the Spark Core booth at Maker Faire pointed me to TCPClient, which I think is exactly what I needed. Some documentation here. More updates once I try this.

Internet of hugs?

I want a Makey Makey for remote hugs.

I’m using Tom Igoe’s term “remote hugs” for paired devices that communicate a simple message at a distance. Like these adorable lamps, pillows connected to a loved one’s heartbeat, or long-distance electronic scrapbooks. A simple remotely-connected button can be amazingly emotionally expressive when the meaning is personalized by the people who use it. Even more so, I would argue, if people could make these together.

good night lampImages: Good Night Lamp (TM)

tsbImages: Telescrapbook

Electronics tools like the Makey Makey or Bare Conductive’s new Touch Board are awesome because you can build them into something right away. You can make something personal before you get bogged down in the technical details – with paint, bananas, walls, cardboard, or your favorite materials. But you can also go deeper into the programming and electronics to make them do new things, because they are open and use a well-known, well-documented programming language.

So here’s the product idea: two Arduino-compatible microcontroller boards that can transmit pin states remotely, for building custom remote-communicating devices. A voltage detected on one pin of one board (or a touch, or even just a high or low) would be sent wirelessly to an output pin on another board anywhere in the world. Transparently, no need to mess around with wireless or web protocols, just choose which two devices to pair and start tinkering right away. But of course, it’s also open and hackable so that you can tweak it for more specific purposes.


The picture above is a (now slightly embarrassing!) prototype I made a while back with help from Hayes Raffle and Tico Ballagas, using a couple of Nokia Internet Tablets. It wasn’t super reliable, and the visual metaphors definitely needed work! But kids definitely had fun with it.

More recently I made a prototype for use with a Makey Makey using an instant messaging protocol. It needs a computer per user, but made me think that Raspberry Pis would be an inexpensive option.

I got excited about the Electric Imp, and spent some time tinkering with two of them with Jie Qi, but got a bit turned off by their proprietary programming language which is a bit hard to wrap your head around. Even once we get it figured out, it won’t be very shareable because it’s another language for people to learn, and it’s tied to the company’s “cloud.” I’m now really hopeful about the Spark Core, we’ll see how those are when they come out.

The hardware and software are really close to being readily available. The idea would still need a web infrastructure to handle the connections and for people to “pair” their devices with each other. Something which I just plain don’t have the bandwidth to build nor maintain, but would LOVE if someone wanted to run with the idea (*hint hint*).

Lots of interesting Internet-Of-Things products coming out, but most of them seem to be about devices talking to apps or devices taking to devices in the same space. I’d love to see devices talking directly to remote devices.

Anyone want to help me make this happen? Or is it out there already?


Spirogator is now online and downloadable.

It’s an application designed as a math, science, and art inquiry activity. You can use it to play with digital “spirograph” patterns, export those patterns, or export and fabricate the gears themselves to make physical patterns on paper.


More here.

Tutorial: Block printing with a cutting plotter


I recently got access to a Silhouette Cameo, a little cutting plotter designed for scrapbookers. What makes this much more awesome than some of the other tools in this category is that you can cut your own vector images, not just pre-made ones sold on cartridges. So they end up getting used for things other than papercraft – from making stencils for screen printing and spray painting to cutting circuits out of copper tape.


What I’ve recently become obsessed with making with this tool is block prints. I use a lot of pretty paper from art supply stores for projects, and it gets pricey. So I thought this might be a way to make myself as much paper as I wanted. I ended up doing a bunch of experimenting with different materials and thought I’d write up what I learned.

The short version (since I googled for this before trying it and didn’t find a good answer): you can cut self-adhesive 1mm craft foam using the deepest cut setting on the Silhouette Cameo (and most likely other craft plotters as well), and it makes pretty good and easy to assemble stamps.

The long version:

1. Make a roller
My goal was to make tiled images on large sheets of paper. I started out making individual tiles on flat blocks and stamping them one at a time onto the paper, but it took a really long time and was hard to align. I found some little wooden rolling pins at an art store (Blick) and found that rolled on designs worked really well. The rolling pins were a little expensive for the size I wanted, so I started making them out of PVC pipe (which is CRAZY cheap – something like 2 bucks for 6 feet).

First, use a hacksaw to cut a length of PVC pipe to match your paper size.


Use a generous amount of hot glue to cap the ends, making sure no glue sticks out beyond the edge (which would make it not roll as smoothly). When the glue cools completely, use a power drill to drill a hole slightly larger than a rod or dowel that will form the handle. This image shows the hole already drilled and the rod inserted.


Stick the rod or dowel through the pipe, making sure it spins freely (if it doesn’t, it will be hard to get even pressure when you roll out your print). Here, I used a 1/8″ welding rod cut a few inches longer than the length of pipe.


2. Design your image.
I’ve been pretty impressed by the “trace” feature in the “Silhouette Studio” software that comes with the plotter. Other vector drawing programs such as Inkscape or Illustrator will also do this. Basically it takes a bitmap image (such as a photograph) and draws outlines around shapes in the image, creating lines that can be cut out. This opens up a bunch of possibilities for getting designs into the computer. I’ve been making designs from photographs of tiles around San Francisco (I love tiles!) and of hand-drawn doodles.

Take a photograph of what you’d like to turn into a print:

photo (7)

Open the photograph in Silhouette Studio.

Screen Shot 2013-02-16 at 9.04.20 PM Select the Trace feature. Click “select trace area” and draw around the shape you’re interested in. Adjust the settings until all the important shapes are filled in in yellow.

Screen Shot 2013-02-16 at 9.05.01 PM

Click “trace.” Now move the photograph away, and you should see some nice traced outlines in red.

Screen Shot 2013-02-16 at 9.05.17 PM

Measure the circumference of your roller to figure out the size you need for your print. If you don’t have a flexible measuring tape, you can wrap some string or tape around the pipe and then use a ruler to measure its length.



(You might ask why I didn’t just use the diameter written on the pipe to calculate the circumference…turns out that diameter describes the inside of the pipe, not the outside).

Use the circumference and length of the pipe to figure out how much room you have to lay out your stamp. Then scale your design accordingly. I decided to use some elements from the doodle and put them into little square tiles.

Screen Shot 2013-02-16 at 10.20.38 PM

3. Cut out your image
Here’s the step where I tried a bunch of different materials. I got excited about the idea of using craft foam, because it’s super cheap and you can buy it with an adhesive backing already attached. But it turns out the cutter can’t cut all the way through 2mm foam.

I tried using adhesive-backed magnet sheets, the thickest material the cutter can “officially” cut. It does cut well and is good for details, but it was a bit of a pain to remove the negative parts of the design, and it doesn’t pick up ink as well as I would like.

I then hunted through the piles of craft foam at Joann’s for thinner foam, and since they don’t seem to come totally even from the factory I found a few sheets that were thinner than the others. Those worked, but they were uneven in places and I still wanted something with a sticky backing.

I eventually found an eBay store that sells 1mm and 0.5mm foam, in both plain and adhesive backed (they sell kind of an odd assortment of things, but it turned out legit and shipped super fast). 1mm turns out to cut and print quite well.

Okay, so back to the tutorial. Move anything you don’t want cut away from the cutting area in the software. Set the blade to a depth of 10 (both on the physical blade itself and in the cutting software). Select double cut, it seems to help.

ready to cut

Place some 1mm adhesive backed craft foam on the cutting mat. The peel-off backing is super slippery, so I added some double sided tape to the cutting mat for good measure.


And go!



It’s a bit hard to see, but here’s the result:


4. Attach the foam to the roller

Cut out around the completed stamp. Leave some of the edge around it, it will help align it.


Peel off the backing and turn the stamp over, adhesive side up. Careful, it’s crazy sticky and will stick to you and/or other things and start coming apart if you aren’t careful not to touch the sticky side as you turn it over.


Place the roller at the top of the sticky stamp, and roll it out so that the stamp wraps around it.


Like so:


Now start peeling up the negative shapes. This is fiddly but satisfying.




It will totally help you clean up afterwards if you stick all the little bits to a handy piece of scrap paper as you go rather than sticking them to the edge of your desk, as I did the first time.


5. Roll out your print
Squeeze some block printing ink onto a piece of scratch paper or a tray, and roll it out using a brayer (a rubber roller you can buy at any large art store).
I’m currently using Speedball water-based ink. Acrylic paint supposedly dries too fast, and I didn’t like the clean-up needed for oil-based inks, although they do give you a more permanent print. It was cheaper, but I found Blick store brand water-based block printing ink to be terrible (specifically, it was watery and uneven, and it did not make smooth prints. And I tried a few different colors with the same results).



Roll the stamp roller itself over the ink that was smoothed and spread by the brayer. Always roll in the same direction for maximum coating efficiency (otherwise, you keep adding more ink to the same part of the roller).


Roll the roller down the paper you want to print on.



Tada! Not a perfect print, the roller slipped – hence the stretched-out second row.


Lay your prints out neatly to dry where they won’t get in anyone’s way:


Here are some other prints I’ve made this way:

DSC00491 And their corresponding stamps.


The flower tiles (small and large) are made from adhesive backed magnet sheets, the others are made from craft foam. Backings are whatever I had on hand, including cardboard, wooden blocks, and hard plastic scraps from TAP Plastics.

Most of the prints I’ve made so far are designs that look “handmade” – either drawn freehand or photographs of painted (or designed to look that way) tiles. I’m using the digital capabilities of the tool to make it possible to use processes that I like (drawing and taking photographs, rather than carving blocks – not that that’s not fun, but I’m pretty good at stabbing myself with linoleum cutters). Also, to scale up – if you want to cover an entire page, you can just as easily print rows and rows of tiles. But I’m also working on ways of designing digitally…more on this soon.


Concept: aesthetic investment.
Motivation through making something your own, getting it just right in look and feel. I was thinking about this in the context of feeling increasingly excited about Le Fonduephone after I’d put in some time cleaning the space (the projected environment) and improving the layout and look.
Being able to make something your own in a way that meshes with your value system has big implications for education. This is so obvious and well-established it seems trivial to say, but I think I understand it better. Now to figure out how to explain it…we’ll say this is a placeholder.

Projected fruit

Le Fonduephone update: mouse-draggable projected fruit, application written in Processing. These are just photoshopped web images of fruit I used as a test, looks surprisingly nice though. I think it’s the color that works well.


I’m making a fork with IR LEDs for Le Fonduephone, so it can be tracked and used to pick up and move the projected fruit. Press-fit battery holder and conductive paint in laser cut traces techniques from Hannah Perner-Wilson’s Kit of No Parts. So many iterations but I think I’ve figured out a better way in the process. Instead of trying to track three LEDs (to get orientation), easier to place an LED so that it illuminates the tip of the fork. The camera will be quite far from the table and the fork will be tilted, so measuring the relative distances between the three closely-spaced bright LEDs was going to be unreliable.