Building the Orrery

For the last 10 months or so I’ve been building the Orrery – an electromechanical device that, ultimately, is powered by someone making a journey by bike. And by someone left at home wondering how they’re getting on.

At the core of the Orrery for Landscape, Sinew and Serendipity project, the Orrery is intended as a way in to talking about themes of effort, landscape, weather, bodies, home and connectedness that perhaps get tidied away when we use tools such as online map-based trackers to follow someone’s progress.

As I embark on the phase of the project where I’m meeting up with various people to discuss the potentials wrapped up in the Orrery, I wanted to look back and retrace the journey of its making. There’s been a lot of making. In keeping with the theme of making the effort visible, here’s an overview of how the Orrery came into being…

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Most of the development work was done through a residency at Wolverhampton School of Art. This gave me access to tools, knowhow and a bit of space in which to work – things you learn to value when typically you’re making stuff in your front room!

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The pilot project from a few years ago had taken the form of a person-sized box with a sort of porthole at chest height that you peered through to see the components levering, spinning and glowing inside. This time around I wanted to keep the act of peering in order to look inside, but shift to a smaller form that was more reminiscent of a locket.

Not being entirely sure if this would work, I started on some maquettes out of paper and masking tape.

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This showed enough promise that I decided to develop this approach further however, after some time contemplating curvy bottoms, I decided that rather than having a shape like this that would then also need a plinth with a matching curve in which to stand, I would amalgamate both aspects into the bottom half of the Orrery.

More cardboard required!

 

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Here’s the new strategy for an all-in-one rectangular base taking shape.

By now I’ve also switched to building up the form from a series of flat sheets. This was for some very practical reasons relating to what I would actually be able to build with the resources available …but also the echo of contour lines was rather nice too.

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I needed to figure out how I was going to join the layers. I couldn’t glue them because I would need access in order to instal, remove and tweak the various electrical and mechanical components that would be going inside the Orrery.

I still didn’t know exactly what these components would be, and I was struggling to visualise the layout working with this model which was about of a quarter of the size of the final thing.

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More cardboard?

No. I decided to bite the bullet and make a full-size model out of MDF. I knew the final version would be made out of plywood, but couldn’t afford to pay for two lots of that if I messed up, however I figured that making a model out of cheaper MDF, would pay for itself in time saved staring at cardboard and trying to scale things up in my mind’s eye.

I wouldn’t be cutting layers of MDF with a craft knife though. This was a job for the CNC router, and that meant drawing digital outlines of every layer so that the machine had some cutting files to work from.

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A bit of jiggery pokery to get from open source software to the file format required by the router, and we were ready to start cutting.

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STOP!

NOT THERE!

WHY IS IT CUTTING THERE?!

Oh dear, the router was having all sorts of problems trying to cut out the sheets. Bits were snapping off and jamming, then, just when we thought we’d got on top of that, it started cutting things out in random places, ruining the sheets that it overlapped with. ARGH!

I didn’t get much out of the whole endeavour other than the shapes shown below. And the realisation that I’d have to reduce the thickness of all the layers by about half.

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A trip to the sawmill to do some touching, feeling, squinting, imagining the future and costing up of materials:

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Having confirmed what thickness the plywood came in, I tried a different approach for making the model – foamboard. The School of Art was about to close down for the holidays – Easter by this stage, I think – so I needed something I could work with at home.

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With a bit of large format printing and a substantial amount of the foamboard stock from the art school’s shop (conveniently about the same thickness as the plywood), I spent some quality time with sharps and my biggest cutting mat.

 

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Ooh! Nice! I like these moments when the tangibility of the project you’re working on takes a leap forward. I was kind of commited to it from a production point of view, but this model totally sold me on the layered approach from an aesthetic point of view – those forms just kept on giving as the light in my front room changed throughout the day.

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I also got to play with it in the dark and with internal lighting. Sort of.

…And then, many photos later, it was time to start hacking into the layers and figuring out where all the other bits of stuff would go. Now I was working to full scale, I had the major advantage of being able to use the actual components.

This was particularly useful for the lid, which was to house several stepper motors. Without 3D CAD skills, the only way to figure out clearances behind the panel they would be mounted through was to try it.

Several times.

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Back at the art school, I also started making some of the mechanisms that would go into the Orrery. Here’s a quick return mechanism that was particularly satisfying to make with a combination of mallet, chisel and geometry.

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Quick return 2

Sweet.

With application of a few more tools of the trade, the location for the quick return mechanism was decided:

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With application of lasers, I added this to the collection too:

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I spent some time trying to make a few components out of metal, but with access to workshops getting increasingly less straightforward (assessments approaching) I had to give up on that. Here are a few things that didn’t quite make it into the build:

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Bits of the chain (from my touring bike) may or may not make it into the Orrery – I’m still pondering that one.

Meanwhile, back to the wood…

Time to bite the bullet, buy a lot of plywood, and get cutting!

Nope, wait! Measure twice, cut once…

Let’s look at those cutting files really closely before sending them to the router.

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Printing out the layers helped me to catch a few snags, which were dealt with and then, then, it was time to send them to the router.

This time around I was using the FabLab facilities at Enginuity in Coalbrookdale. Phil the manager there knows his onions (and his cutting tools) so we got all the bits cut out without incident (and with only one mistake that had slipped through the net earlier).

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The CNC routing leaves these little tabs to hold the parts in place until cutting on the machine has finished. Then you need to have at them with a Stanley knife to pop the cut parts out of the big sheet.

And then….

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… a not insignificant amount of dremmeling to get rid of the tabs.

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The layers looked good stacked up on top of each other, and the cunning plan for fixing them together worked effectively too.

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There was still the question of how to join the top half to the bottom half, though. Ideally I would be able to do this without the need for a prop, as that would obscure the view into the Orrery. After a lot of searching around, I found these friction hinges. I couldn’t find the ones rated for greater torque available in the UK, so it would have to be a case of fitting them, building the rest of the lid and seeing what happened.

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All good so far with the first few layers fitted…

…then of course I had to take them apart again…

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More sanding.

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And then a lot more sanding.

Now mostly working at Umake open access workshops, I spent several days sanding down the layers to get them ready for waxing and staining. A brief interlude in all the sanding (did I mention there was a lot?) was provided courtesy of Physics and these dancing piles of dust that appeared one evening:

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Meanwhile, Kim had been working hard on the Raspberry Pi end of things that would take the data coming in from Jez and Mike’s creations and set the Orrery in motion.

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Then came the time when I had to make some fairly irreversible decisions about the size of the containing box that everything had to fit inside. Determining vertical height first, then bandsawing slices off the top sheet to get length and width down.

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The original plan for the sides had been to use laths of plywood to keep the edge-on effect, but I had to make the call that there just wasn’t time to do this and that I would instead use sheets on their sides to make the walls of the box.

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Here are the panels freshly cut to size and with fixing batons being glued into place:

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…and then, some time later, the magic moment when it’s all assembled and for the first time I saw the thing that up until now had only really existed in my mind’s eye!

 

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Phew! That was the thing that I had wanted to build!

Onwards with the waxing and staining. Again Umake came in very useful with their large workbenches.

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And assembled again:

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A few extra details to finish off the main structure:

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Very small – but also very strong – magnets.

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Some channels for wiring.

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And some confidently wonky props. (As it turned out that the friction hinges weren’t strong enough on their own to support the lid.)

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Here’s a photo of a milliput bird resting on some grapes.

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Yeah, so, that didn’t work out so well.

 

Next attempt: lasers!

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Keep reading to find out how they turned out :-)

 

What else?

Lots of epoxy glue happened at about that time. Here’s a winding drum about to be fixed to a stepper motor hub:

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And here’s the full set in position:

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By now the main focus was on getting all the mechanical doodads installed and working properly. There was much attaching and removing of the lid, soldering, heatshrinking, drilling, knot-tying and even a few cable ties.

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The hinges got some rubber shims out of the traditional material:

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The timing belt was sewn and fitted:

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Some somewhat more delicate sewing was done:

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And a lot of string was strung:

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The image above shows the lighting strip in place too. Here it is before it got its diffuser:

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The Clacker was one of the last components to get made. I’d planned to get it cut at the same time as doing all the CNC routing at Enginuity, but we couldn’t get the files to read correctly, so I ended up cutting it ‘by hand’ on the bandsaw.

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It just needed a little something extra to complete, which had me scratching my head for a while but The Draw of Random Bits of Stuff came up with a winner:

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The birds came out nice in the end too:

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And then that was pretty much it in terms of the build…

October 2015 to July 2016: a lot of prototyping and eventually using facilities across Birmingham, and in Wolverhampton and Coalbrookdale to gain access to the tools I needed. Not too many mess-ups, and an end result I’m proud of. …except it’s not quite finished yet as we still have a lot of work to do to get the physical structure functioning in response to various data sources.

We’re (we being myself, Kim Wall, Mike Cummins and Jez Higgins) going to keep chipping away at that over the next few months, which is when I’ll also be out and about recording some conversations with different people in response to the Orrery.

Below are a few teaser shots which I hope will entice you to come and see the whole of the Orrery when it is on display in Wolverhampton Art Gallery in October – watch this space for more details closer to the time.

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Announcing ‘Orrery…’ and ‘Links & Shifts’

After what feels like a small eternity of putting things into place, I’m really excited to now be able to announce a major project that explores questions about the physical and emotional experiences of cycling (and of being the person left at home); the frictions of data visualisation; and different practices of finding-out-by-doing.

Over the coming months I’ll be building a sculptural object that responds to data generated by people as they undertake journeys by bike. I’ll then be putting it into use to explore how it might shift our relationships and awarenesses in different ways. Alongside this there’ll be an event at Birmingham Open Media with guest speakers Kat Jungnickel and Emily Chappell, and the project will be in an exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery in October.

Read on to find out more…

Orrery for Landscape, Sinew and Serendipity

An alternative approach to visualising long cycle journeys: what happens when you shift from thinking about markers on a map to an awareness of the changing rhythms of effort and terrain?

Trackleaders mapping of the ridersin the Transcontinental Race, 2015

Trackleaders mapping of the riders in the Transcontinental Race, 2015

The Orrery is intended as a device for exploring how our conversations and connectedness change when we have a moving sculptural object constantly communicating progress rather than us occasionally clicking to refresh a map on a webpage. It’s there as a prop for thinking with and also as a physical thing made out of stuff that can be lived with and related to over time. Not an answer, but a tool for asking questions.

Although driven by what’s effectively the same GPS data that services such as Trackleaders (above) and other platforms use, rather than utilising this to give precise location and to draw lines on a map the Orrery gives no information as to the whereabouts of the person you’re tracking. Instead the Orrery uses cams, cranks, pulleys and changing light levels to give cues for envisioning if they are experiencing a grinding uphill slog, the simple pleasure of a tailwind or the liminality of cycling into the dawn.

The Orrery reacts to data as the miles pass by, muscles contract, views are revealed, strangers encountered and trains of thought dance. How on earth do you begin to convey some sort of essence of that to someone on the other end of an internet connection? Should you?

Accompanying the Orrery will be recorded conversations with a selection of people who have either undertaken significant [there’s a chewy word – more on this later!] journeys or been the person remaining at home wondering how they’re getting on. I’m aiming to record about six conversations in total, here are the ones that have been planned so far:

Hannah Nicklin

"Standing in cool morning air, being kept warm by my mum and brother." Hannah waiting for the start of the Outlaw triathlon.

“Standing in cool morning air, being kept warm by my mum and brother.” Hannah waiting for the start of the Outaw triathlon.

Theatre maker, poet, game designer, producer and sometime academic, Hannah Nicklin is interested in community storytelling and the spaces between ‘what is’ and ‘what if’ where new thinking happens. Last year this involved training for an ironman triathlon whilst making theatre based on that experience and the stories weaving through and around it.

Our conversation starts with my experience of anxiously hitting refresh on the triathlon’s results webpage, waiting for an indication of whether or not she had made it across the finishing line.

Together we’ll return to the 112 mile cycling section of the course and retrace in situ the highs and lows Hannah encountered during the race a year earlier.

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Hannah’s performance Equations for a Moving Body will be showing in Edinburgh during August – follow Hannah to find out more details as they’re released.

Tina Tylen

Tina and Kajsa

Tina and Kajsa

Tina Tylen’s daughter Kajsa is currently attempting to beat the women’s year cycling record by cycling more than 29,603 miles before the end of 2016.

Tina uses an online tracking service several times daily to check in on Kajsa’s progress. At the time of writing, Kajsa’s tracker is showing 16,127 km (10,021 miles) ridden since the start of the year.

What is it like to simultaneously structure every day for a whole year around a journey made 77 years ago and your daughter who is out there in the wind and rain right now? As we watch the accumulation of lines showing all the roads ridden, amongst all the armchair analysis of average speeds and breaking records, is it worth reminding ourselves that the tracker is also a convenient tool for knowing when to have dinner and a hot bath ready?

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Kajsa’s challenge runs throughout 2016. You can follow her progress tracker-style or catch up on scone reviews, headwinds and weary legs with the video diary.

Emily Chappell

Emily and her father

Emily and her father

Adventure cyclist and writer Emily Chappell has toured across continents, fatbiked across snow and ice, and raced across Europe. She recently published a book about her time as a cycle courier in London and regularly writes for the Guardian’s Bike Blog.

What are the common threads woven through these experiences of cycling and what of these are captured by the spreadsheets compiled by her father? What are the pressures that come from knowing your location is being precisely tracked and what are the frustrations of not quite having enough information to know how someone far away but important to you is getting on?

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Emily will be competing in the Transcontinental Race in August, there’ll no doubt be a map full of markers for you to follow along with…

… or you can come to …

Links & Shifts

21st August at Birmingham Open Media
Doors open 2:30 for a 3pm start
Link for tickets: https://linksandshifts.eventbrite.co.uk

At this event I’ll be joined by Kat Jungnickel and Emily Chappell for an exploration of understanding-through-doing; questions around sensescapes; our relationships to place; the affordances of bodies and technology in motion; and how we tell the stories of the physical, emotional and intellectual journeys we go on.

bloomers

Sociologist Kat Jungnickel has been researching the social, political and material challenges to the freedom of movement experienced by Victorian women. The resulting research – Bikes and Bloomers – has at its core the making and wearing of a collection of transformable cycling garments patented at the time.

Emily will be recently-returned from racing something of the order of 3,800 km (2,360 miles) between Muur van Geraardsbergen (Belgium) and Çanakkale (Turkey). Join us for the post-race stream of consciousness where memories start to be shaped into stories, links are made and the process of reflection gathers momentum.

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Places for Links & Shifts will be limited, so if you want to find out about ticketing when the time comes make sure you’re either signed up on my mailing list or following me on Twitter, @nikkipugh.

Update: tickets will be available from https://linksandshifts.eventbrite.co.uk

Moving forward

There are so many people behind the scenes helping to make this project happen. Lists are a bit inadequate at properly expressing gratitude, but here’s one anyway. Thank you!

Wolverhampton School of Art – A residency there has enabled me to do a lot of the prototyping for the Orrery. Time, space and tools for developing ideas are immensely valuable.
Arts Council England – Who have awarded me a grant that will enable production of the Orrery, recording of the conversations and some of the events linked to the project.
Mike Cummins – Chief data-wrangler, stoking the code that turns data into Orrery fuel.
Kim Wall – Making sure the Orrery can talk to the databases and keep all the spinny things spinning.
Jez Higgins – Who coded the phone app we use for live tracking of journeys.
Birmingham Open Media – Providing venue and support for the Links & Shifts event.
People of the internet – Everyone who has riffed with me on various trains of thought that have fed into and shaped this project.
Also of course Hannah, Tina, Emily and Kat who took a punt on this project whilst it was still very much in its nascent stages.

The exhibition at Wolverhampton Art Gallery will be open between the 1st and the 9th of October, so get those dates and the 21st of August into your diaries, stand by for more information and consider this an invitation for conversation in the meantime.

Cause and effect

I’ve been commissioned by Andre de Jong at the artist-led space VINYL to produce a piece of work for this Autumn, the set-up being that I’ve been paired with artist Nita Newman and Andre’s leaving us to riff off each other and see what happens.

A while ago Nita and I went for a stroll around Digbeth looking for inspiration. We explored a few different spaces and ideas, but we kept coming back to the Duddeston viaduct: 355 yards of futile endeavour.

Duddeston viaduct

… originally built to connect the GWR‘s B&OJR line to the LNWR‘s Curzon Street station. As stated elsewhere, the GWR fell victim to the LNWR’s politicking which meant that whilst the LNWR stopped the GWR gaining access to their station, the LNWR still demanded the viaduct be built even though they knew it would never be used.warwickshirerailways.com

Nita’s developing a site specific audio composition (call for participants currently on her website at http://nitanewman.wordpress.com/news/), so I’m taking my cues as being the following:

  • effort
  • journeying
  • separation
  • railways and engineering

I have some proto ideas that I’m investigating for feasibility since they’ll involve some data-streaming from a moving bicycle.

In the meantime I’ve also been doing some exploring of old railway lines and cunning mechanisms.

Stop. Look. Listen.

Machinery!

Machinery!

mill pr0n

mill pr0n

mill pr0n

mill pr0n

Initial results from the Chin Up Chapeau

Having made a hat to measure my posture as I walk around different parts of the city, I’ve spent the last few days testing it and getting a feel for what sort of results it produces.

Chin Up Chapeau - initial results.

Diagram showing position, direction I'm facing and the angle of my head. Click for a much larger version...

Pretty much exactly as I was expecting really, which is probably a good reason to avoid drawing any sweeping conclusions from it – at least until I’ve got to the stage where I collect data without being aware that I’m doing so…

On the plus side, it does reveal lots of unexpected things – posing yet more questions in the process – and that, I believe, is the sign of a good tool!

For these renderings, green represents a neutral head position, with the pointer getting redder as my gaze is lowered. Here are some noticings:

The lower, horizontal section shows me walking along a fairly busy road: eyes front, head direction and angle reasonably constant. The upper section is along a footpath next to a river: my interest is drawn in all sorts of directions and this is shown by the inconsistency in pointer direction and colour

Close-up of a high interest area - head angle changes a lot, as does the direction I'm facing

Head angle decreases slowly as I approach the High Street, but returns to a neutral position a lot quicker as I leave it behind me

High Street Mode gets switched off as soon as I go into the Post Office, on another day it fades slowly as I walk away.

It’s becoming apparent that I need to include some sort of calibration so that I can more reasonably compare tracks from different walks. Currently, differences in how I’m wearing the hat are too easily read as differences in head angle when I put all the traces on the same diagram.

I’ve also expanded the arduino code so that I log date, time, latitude, longitude, altitude, course, speed, bearing, pitch and roll. I think there are some very interesting potential correlations to investigate (for example: when my head angle decreases, do I also walk faster?) and, whilst I may not be investigating them right now, I want to make sure I’ve got the data when I do!

Introducing the Chin Up Chapeau

[or the Shin Up Shapeau. Or the Chin Up Chap! Oh!]

The Chin Up Chapeau

I’ve been thinking a lot about how my posture changes in relation to whereabouts I am as I walk around Birmingham.

As I approach what I perceive to be high risk areas I believe I adopt a significantly more defensive stance: lowering my gaze and stooping slightly. Of course, there are hunches and there are hunches…

I made the Chin Up Chapeau to measure the angle of my head and log it along with locational data so I can see exactly how my posture relates to space. Do I really stoop, or is it, y’know, all in my head? Where are the danger zones? Are the boundaries clearly defined?

The Chin Up Chapeau sports a gps receiver [EM 406a], a tilt-compensated compass[CMPS10], a logging device [OpenLog] and an arduino clone microcontroller [RBBB] along with a few other accoutrements like a soft switch and an indicator LED.

There are still a few niceties to be sorted out, but here’s a visualisation of a quick walk last night:

Head angle, bearing, location ...and a loaf of bread from the Co-op

I’m going to log data as I walk around the city, but I’m very aware of how easy it would be to ‘fake’ the outcomes to match what I think they should be.

Or perhaps I’ll be concious that I’m watching myself and instead make an effort to keep my chin up at all times…

At the very least I now have an electrically heated hat to keep me cosy!



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