A top down view of my prototype for a motion sensor, the photovoltaic sensor I used is peeking out of the box on the hole to the right with two strips of electric tape attaching it to the box.

This past fall I was accepted as a student scholar in the Ammerman Center for Arts & Technology. The Center is one of five academic centers on campus, which provide resources to students and faculty doing interdisciplinary work on a specific subject. As a scholar in the Ammerman Center, I collaborate and learn from other scholars and professors to accomplish my goal of creating connections between my major (philosophy), the arts, and technology; I will graduate with a certificate in arts and technology, which reflects my participation in classes, seminars, independent studies, center sponsored activities, and an internship relating to the field. This is the first in a regular series of posts I’ll be writing in the spring semester about finding my path as a new member of the Center.  

At the end of winter break, I came back to campus a week early to participate in a technology workshop about physical computing sponsored by the Ammerman Center. Led by media artist Katherine Bennett, the workshop was my first formal experience as a scholar in the Center, and I found it to be an intense and challenging but enjoyable one.

During the first day of the workshop we did a lot of physical work creating switches rather than actual computing. I don’t mean that we were duplicating the switches and buttons you’d find around your house for your lights or laptop. Instead, Katherine showed us how conductive materials could be used to create switches that respond to various effects. For example, we looked at a switch that consisted of two pieces of cardboard stacked on top of each other with strips of copper running along the insides. The switch turned on if pressure was applied to the pieces, for example, when a person stepped on it, allowing the copper strips to connect. Katherine then challenged us to create our own unique switches. I decided to create switches that would turn on when I placed a pen on a piece of paper. I sewed conductive thread through the paper in order to create this effect. A switch would turn on if the pen touched its corresponding thread.

As the week progressed, we began building more complex circuits using circuit boards, and programming certain effects on our circuits using a microcontroller called an Arduino. I found this part of the workshop more challenging since in order to succeed I had to have both my code and my circuit in good working order; there were many moving parts and I was often frustrated by the complexity of it all and the many problems I ran into.

For a final project at the end of the week, I attempted to create a prototype of a box that housed a light sensor, which played sounds whenever something moved near it (because motion around the sensor would significantly alter the amount of light it sensed). While I successfully  created the circuit and its housing, I ran into constant difficulties on the programming end of things, which meant that my prototype did not turn out in the way I envisioned.

Despite this setback with my prototype, I’m still happy to have had the chance to try physical computing. After the workshop was over, on the first day of classes, a professor of mine who is involved in the Ammerman Center pointed out that knowing about it will be incredibly useful as I take on new challenges in the Center. As he told me this I realized that even though I did not succeed in the way I wanted to in the workshop, I still gained a basic understanding of physical computing, enough that I will feel confident in myself when I attempt another project that requires me to use it. After all, that was what Katherine had been encouraging us to do the entire time.