Introduction: Interactive Paper With Makey Makey

This concept is surprisingly easy to build and can be used in practical and entertainment purposes. It costs next to nothing aside from the Makey Makey and most supplies can be already found in most places. Also, these projects do not take much precision to work, so they can be a great educational tool for elementary and middle school children. This project was originally intended to act as a game controller, but after thought and inspiration from other projects, it can be adapted to do much more, such as creating interactive displays or objects, or even a cheap conductivity detector for water. The first iteration of the idea was made in early January, 2020, but over the span of the two or so months has developed to become more than what it used to be. This project can be a great educational tool, as well as being practical in some situations (admittedly, many are impractical).


To make this project, you will need the following:

  • Makey Makey - You will only need one for each computer you want to use. Both the normal and GO versions will work.
  • Alligator clips - Depending on the number of inputs and what type of Makey Makey you have, the quantity will change.
  • Normal wire (optional) - somewhat easy to get, only really needed if you need to use the ports on the bottom of the Makey Makey

For each interactive object you will need:

  • Paper/Other materials - This will become the front and back of your controller, so other materials such as construction paper, cardboard, or even plastic could be used instead. Mainly depends on your intent.
  • Graph paper - This will be the template for the electronics. Other thin paper types can work, but graph paper allows for precise drawing.
  • Aluminum foil - This will act as the electronics. it should be not much smaller than the dimensions of the graph paper, as all the templates need to fit on it.

Tools that will be helpful:

  • Writing utensil - Used for drawing the templates and/or drawing of the finished controller.
  • Scissors - Used to cut out the templates and the foil. Small children should not handle scissors; be careful.
  • Glue / gluestick - Very useful for gluing paper templates to the foil and for gluing all parts of the controller together. Other adhesives could be used, none tested.
  • Art supplies (optional) - Used to decorate final products and make it more appealing

Other materials may be needed depending on the application, such as:

  • A rubber band - Used for a grounding bracelet, one of many ways to ground yourself
  • Hot glue - Used to hold together thicker materials

Step 1: Prepare Materials

This image shows the materials required to make the game controller laid out. Laying out materials to make projects can help make sure you have everything, although often you may need something other than what you originally laid out or you may change design plans mid-way through a project. In this case I use normal paper for the surrounding material so that you can easily bend and transport it. Using aluminum foil compliments this function, as it is one of a few thin, conductive, and durable(ish) materials.

Step 2: Draw Template

The template is ultimately what decides the function of your final product. To have a working product, each interactive button giving a unique input must corrospond to a certain alligator clip connection point. To connect the two, the button, connection point, and connecting line must be a single piece. Sketching it roughly first to get an idea of the button layout should be done before making a final template. It is a good idea to place the points that the alligator clips will connect to on a single edge of the paper, as close to the side as possible. In this picture, you can see that the points are all located at one edge of the paper. However, these points are not located close enough to the edge of the paper, and a solution will have to be found later. For simpler designs, you will not want any of the button/connection point shapes to be touching any others. This may lead to false triggering of certain key inputs. The shown template follows these rules. In more complicated templates, however, pieces may be able to overlap as long as there is a non-conductive material (some form of paper being the best) in-between.

Step 3: Prepare Foil

Once you have drawn out your template, it is now time to make it conductive. Start by cutting out the templates you have just made. You will want to gather all the pieces intended to be conductive. NOTE: DO NOT THROW OUT THE REST OF THE TEMPLATE - YOU SHOULD USE THE HOLES TO TRACE LINES IN YOUR COVER MATERIAL FOR BUTTONS AND CONNECTION POINTS. Do this now so that you don't forget later. Once you have gathered all the pieces, use a glue stick or other thin adhesive material to glue the front of the template to the shinyside of the foil. This step is very important. If you do not use the front side of the template, the foil piece will be reversed, and will likely not fit very well in the final product. Also, gluing the template to the shiny, less conductive side will allow the side you interact with the more conductive side leading to a better connection. The glued templates are shown in the pictures

Step 4: Cut Templates

Once you have glued the templates (make sure you have done it well), you will need to cut the foil out. Make sure you do this along the sides of the paper templates you glue on. This part may be challenging because aluminum foil is quite fragile and can easily tear. This is why we glued the templates on. While it does lead to some extra thickness in the final result, it is much easier to cut the templates accurately and entirely. If you glued the templates to the more conductive side of the foil, fine grit sandpaper can optionally be used to lightly rough up the surface of the foil, giving it more surface area and increasing conductivity.

Step 5: Prepare Front Piece

If you did not already use the template scraps to mark the holes for the buttons and connection points, do this now. If you are unable to do this, you may be able to use the foil pieces to mark locations of where to cut. This should be avoided if possible, because it is much harder to line up the holes and the button layout may look messy. At this point, you can cut holes for where you want your buttons to be on your front piece try and cut them as straight/rounded as possible, as it will be difficult to change later. If you wish, you could cut new holes on a new piece of paper and place it over the old one, but it is better to do it correctly the first time. Other methods can be used to cut precise holes, such as large hole punches, but most people don't have easy access to one of these tools.

Step 6: Glue Templates and Make a Sandwich

There are two main ways of gluing the templates: gluing the foil to the back piece and placing the front piece on top, or gluing the foil to the front piece, and gluing the back side to the front. Either method will work. The first method works best if you first trace the outline of the holes in the front piece to the back. This will help you align the foil pieces without directly basing it off the front holes. The downside of this is that the foil can tear when applying adhesive to the back piece and foil pieces. The second method allows you to skip tracing holes and to directly glue the foil to the front piece. You can then completely cover the back piece with adhesive, and press the front piece/foil assembly into place. In my example I opted to use the first method, but the second would have worked just as well, if not better. Make sure you use more adhesive than you think you will need, and make sure the edges are very well covered, because you don't want to have to re-glue the sides or have your controller fall apart.

Step 7: Grounding

This step is very important in order for your project to work. The way Makey Makeys receive an input is to complete a circuit, with one side grounded, and another side acting as the button. Luckily, the Makey Makey is very sensitive, so as long as we are touching the grounding wire with any part of our body when pressing buttons, the Makey Makey will receive an input. There are multiple methods on how to ground yourself. Shown above are the steps to make a grounding bracelet and ring, which are convenient due to their small size and location when used, but the simplest (and probably most painful) is to just clip an alligator clip to yourself somewhere. You can make a second piece of paper with a large grounding button that you touch in somewhere, or even wrap your arm in foil and clip an alligator clip to it. Just about any method works.

Step 8: Decorate

Steps 8 and 9 can be completed in any order. Congrats, you have finished the functional part of your interactive paper! At this point, feel free to decorate your creation. You may want to label your buttons and connection points so that each button has visual correspondence to its matching connection point. This can be with colors, or symbols as I have done. If you are using this to create an interactive display, this is the step where you put information or pictures. Feel free to go crazy. Personally, I chose not to add any extra colors, because I myself like to see the "brains" of the controller when holding it up to a light source, as seen above. I also recommend to label the buttons for what they do, such as a left pointing arrow to indicate a left arrow button press (or A key in WASD), although this may not be applicable if you plan on changing what inputs correspond to what on the Makey Makey (using the same controller for different games). You may also want to decorate your project according to the use. If you are making a Tetris controller, for example, you may want to decorate it in a Tetris-y style, with blocks or something.

Step 9: Test

Steps 8 and 9 can be completed in any order. At this point, you are ready to test your project. first, get one alligator clip for each unique button on your controller, plus at least one extra for grounding. Plug the alligator clips into the Makey Makey inputs you plan on using. If needed, you can remap the keyboard inputs here. Next, attach the clips to the corresponding connection points on your creation (this is why labeling can be helpful). If you did not put your connection points close to the edge enough (like I did), you may find that your alligator clips do not make good contact with the foil, especially if you use thicker materials like cardboard. My solution to this was to put extra foil on the alligator clips so that they have a longer reach, but different solutions may be possible other than re-creating the entire project. connect the grounding alligator clip to something like a grounding bracelet or ring (instructions shown earlier), or for the time being, if you don't have a way to ground, just hold the exposed end. At this point, you can connect the USB cord to your computer, connect the other end to the Makey Makey, and test each button. If you use the six large buttons on the front of the Makey Makey classic, or any of the buttons on the Makey Makey GO!, they will light up when the button is pressed. If they do not light up, you likely have an issue. If you are using any of the more special ports on the underside of the Makey Makey classic, you may have to find another way to test, which shouldn't be very hard. Go ahead and pull up a game, scratch project, or whatever else you will be using your project for. Give it a try!

Step 10: Using Different Materials

The basic idea of this concept is very simple, but it can be taken much further than a piece of paper. For example, other materials than paper can be used, such as cardboard or foam board. This can make projects more durable and have more 'mass.' Say you are wanting to build a cube that changes color on a screen when you are touching a certain side. Paper would not be very suitable for this application. How about a game controller that you can hold comfortably in your hands? Different materials can also be used for the front and back. For example, if you want to add buttons on a poster board, but don't want to have a textured surface, while still keeping the wires hidden, butcher paper (large rolls of paper) can be used on the front layer while cardboard is used in the back to give structure. All in all, just about any similar material can work in place of paper, as long as it is not conductive, otherwise you may get some crazy results.

Step 11: Multi-layering

Depending on the situation, having just one layer of foil may not work in all applications, one example being that you need to cross wires. This is where multi-layering comes in. To do multi-layering, you must place a thin layer of something non-conductive, normal paper being a prime example, and place it between the two layers of conductive material, in this case foil, so that both conductive parts don't make contact. This is especially useful when working with thin projects, such conductivity detectors, or something like an interactive bookmark. This can also reduce the stress of trying to cut thin pieces of foil in tight situations.

Step 12: Coding

While getting your creation to press certain keys when you touch a button can be helpful, it now becomes the question: What are you going to do with those keyboard inputs? Often times, you may make a controller for a game that already exists, like Tetris, or Pac-Man, but you may want to have custom functions. If you are new to programming, Scratch is a perfect online tool for learning to code, and has extensions especially built for Makey Makey. There are many online sources that can easily teach you to code in Scratch if you are having trouble, and you can find some here:

Other programming languages will support the Makey Makey, as long as they receive are keyboard inputs. For creating more advanced games, using a versatile coding language such as Java can be helpful. NetBeans and Eclipse, both programming 'helper' softwares can be found here and here, respectively. A link to Scratch can be found here. As a warning, setting up IDEs such as NetBeans or Eclipse can be difficult and time-consuming.

Step 13: Other Project Ideas

Some other ideas I have came up with that you can try or get inspired by

  • Other game controllers:
    • Tetris
    • Simon (memory game)
    • Mario
    • .io games (usually have simple controls)
    • Retro games (one paper can be used for many - joystick, A, and B buttons)
    • Most other games will work, as long as they do not require mouse movements, such as pointing or aiming with a mouse or track pad
  • Interactive image (for example, "parts of the body") -
  • Interactive display (similar to image, could have more structure, like a cardboard box) -
  • Cardboard guitar (could use multi-layering) -
  • Cardboard game controller (can also use multi-layering, can hold in your hand) -
  • Water conductivity detector (a popsicle stick or piece of paper with foil on both sides, dip in a liquid and see if you get a key trigger) -
  • Interactive bookmark (Record your page number and track your reading, prime example of multi-layering) -
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