Instructables

Field report: Mads Hobye as an Artist-in-residence at Instructables

Mads Hobye was granted an artist-in-residence at Instructables for September 2012. Instructables is a web-based documentation platform where passionate people share projects they do, and how to do it. Because of the creative nature of the website, Instructables also have lab facilities for their own co-workers and for artist-in-residences. During September, Mads had the honor to use their lab to build and document multiple prototypes to be shared on their website.

I choose to put my focus on building interactive noise machines, since this ties into my PhD and my interest in creating non-trivial internal complexity. I have been working long into the night most days and it has been really interesting to have the chance to focus on one thing at the time.

Although the primary purpose of the stay was to explore the potentials of designing interactive sound machines, a couple of other side outcomes were also planned. First, to see how Instructables organized their creative workspace and get inspiration for organizing the upcoming Connectivity Lab at Medea. Second, to see if Instructables would be a suitable platform for documenting the creative practices at Medea.

Take aways from Instructables as a creative workspace
Although Instructables primarily is a company running a website, they have quite extensive lab facilities. This consisted of a small lab at the office (sewing, electronics and woodwork) and two blocks down they had a whole space filled with laser cutters and 3D printers. This is located right beside the Techshop, which is a full-fledged lab for everything from metal to 3D printing. I have picked up the following things that struck me as really good ways of structuring lab work:

Documentation table: A documentation table with lamps, camera and a white sheet of paper as background enables people to quickly document their projects with a nice white background. It was interesting to see how this improved the overall quality of the documentation. Suddenly a breadboard and some wires became a piece of art or a pedagogical platform for show and tell instead of an unfinished project.

Show-and-tell meetings: Twice a week they meet at two o'clock to do a show and tell. Here they take a round and everyone says what they are working on in one or two sentences. This is a really easy way to get everyone updated and it takes no time at all. If you are not present you can email out one sentence telling everyone what you are doing. Once a week it is about the specific day and once a week it is about the coming week.

Have everything in the same lab: The separation between the labs has confirmed to me the importance of having everything in the same space. It takes time to walk two blocks to lasercut which limits the creative process of iterating between e.g. lasercutting and soldering.

Instructables as a workspace was one of the most easy going creative loving workspaces I have ever had the chance to be a part of. Although I never got to know the formal rules, you had a clear sense that people had the freedom to prioritise their own work day and combine it with creative side projects (as long as they documented them of course).

Instructables as a knowledge sharing platform for the Medea Connectivity lab
Instructables works well for sharing individual recipes for others to use, but what came as a surprise to me was the ability to create groups as individually branded websites. This enables a group of people to collect their recipes under a common theme or brand. We will use this as a common platform to share the knowledge created in the Medea Connectivity Lab. This way people can get an overview of the projects done in the lab. This will become a mandatory part of using the lab in the sense that students and co-workers will be encouraged to document their projects and publish them in the group.

So far my experience with posting instructables has been quite interesting and overwhelming. Where projects normally ends as interesting portfolio documentation, the detailed documentation of the build process enables others to recreate your designs or their own versions of them. So far this has resulted in multiple people making their own version. One example is the Arduino implementation of the touche shield (http://www.instructables.com/id/Touche-for-Arduino-Advanced-touch-sensing/). This was published in May 2012. As of now, I know of ten people who have recreated the design and just as many has made suggestions for improvement. Another project has been rewritten by an enthusiast in Dubai. It now runs faster and uses less memory.

You can find the preliminary group for Medea connectivity lab here.

Non-trivial-internal Complexity as facilitator for curiosity = making noise machines
As a part of being an artist-in-residence at Instructables, I took it upon myself to build of couple of noise machines / music boxes. My interest was in designing objects that would enable people to explore the world of sound synthesis and for me to get a better understanding of how the different interfaces enables different interactions and sound qualities. This is a part of an ongoing investigation on creating interactions for curiosity.

It has been an intense experience. Trying to build as many interfaces as possible within one month. I have tried to make all of them stand-out as finished, while still being hackable pieces. Everything I have done is published on Instructables for others to experiment with.

All of the projects consist of a few basic components: An interface and sometimes a screen or a led matrix. The basic sound component is either a Gameduino or a software synth written for the Arduino platform.

You can find an overview of the results here and I will introduce them in this article as well.

Although arduinos are good for simple action <-> reaction interactivity, there are a limited amount of examples that work with more complex interactions. Here I mean beyond game design’s way of working with narratives, but more in the sense of adding personality to your projects. Personality not as much in the way of looks (e.g. putting an Arduino into a teddy bear), but more in the way of complex interactions that makes you curious about its devices potential possibilities.

My interest as an artist-in-residence at Instructables were to design different machines that would spark the user’s curiosity. Here, simply put, curiosity lies between the extremes of chaos and predictability. Where chaos becomes uninteresting (from an interaction design point of view) because of its uncontrollable nature and order becomes so predictable that the interaction itself slides into the background of the end-product of the interaction itself. One such example is the light switch. As an adult you usually do not notice your interaction with it.

The core question then became how to make people who are interacting with it drawn by their own curiosity of not being able to decode the interaction pattern, all at the same time having a sense that their actions are the main contributor to the sounds.

Most of these machines would have been simpler to make as software programs on a computer or even as multitouch applications on a smartphone, but I wanted to have an aesthetic criteria as a frame for my experiments: I wanted to create simple tangible interfaces that would inspire curiosity. The objects themselves should welcome the user to try out and explore their interfaces. Last, I wanted each experiment to be self-contained. Instead of them becoming interfaces for a laptop, they should be the ones who created the music.

The end results are still crude and mostly serves as interaction enclosures with future potentials, although they do hint at different interesting interaction qualities. You can find an overview of the boxes here.

The singing plant plays with a classic trick of sparking people’s curiosity by adding unconventional interaction qualities to a familiar object.

The Kaosduino serves as a platform to explore the complexity of touch on x-y surfaces.

The Matrix machine serves as a platform to explore the potential of emergent sound patterns converted from particle systems.

The algorithmic noise machine serves as platform to explore the boundaries between chaos and order through complex bit shifting algorithms.


Better ways to debug the internals of the Arduino board
As a side project, I decided to improve on the debugging capabilities of the Arduino platform. This was in line with working with internal complexity which can be hard to comprehend as the code grows. The program enables you to visualize realtime data on the Arduino board. You are usually stuck with the standard serial output. As the complexity of your Arduino code grows, this makes it impossible to comprehend what is actually going on inside the board. To solve this I have created a little library that will enable you to create your own custom GUI for your Arduino projects. Watch this video to get a demonstration of a basic hello world with a potmeter and a diode:


The following are a few key features of the tool:

Custom design your interface from the Arduino board: You define which sliders, graphs and buttons you need for your interface. You do this in your Arduino sketch which means that the GUI program acts as a slave to the sketch. All information is stored in your board.

Visualize and manipulate realtime data: Whether you are making an RGB light controller or a robot arm, getting a graphical feedback is crucial to understand what is going on inside the board. This enables you to understand whether it is your hardware or the code that is causing problem. Further, the sliders and buttons enable you to tweak the individual parameters in realtime. This way you can see what effect different thresholds have on the interaction.

Use the same app for all your Arduino projects: I have made tons of small apps for different projects. My problem is always to find them again a year later. Because we save everything in the Arduino, I only need to keep one app around the Arduino and it will automatically configure the app for the current project.

Prototype the interface before you turn on the soldering iron: Because you can design the GUI as you like it (within reasonable limits), you can prototype the interface before you have made a physical interface. This also enables you to divide the tasks between multiple people, e.g. one person is working on the hardware and another person is working on the code. When you have made the physical interface the Guino will integrate seamlessly.

You can find the instructables for the Guino interface here.

About the author
Mads Hobye (b. 1980) is a PhD student in interaction design at Medea Collaborative Media Initiative, Malmö University, Sweden, and co-founder of the Illutron collaborative interactive art studio. He focuses on how digital material can be used for exploring social transformative play situated in the context of everyday life. He has done several large-scale installations and working prototypes, which he is using as a basis for his PhD research. More information is available on Hobye’s work at www.hobye.dk.


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