Place interfaces – thoughts on bubblewrap, bees and lumps of clay

Here’s the audio and visual for the Lunchtime Talk I did on Friday for the Pervasive Media Studio in Bristol. I’m afraid I couldn’t add the wax pods

In the talk I outline how I first got critical of interfaces and then use 3 recent projects (Colony, Dust and Waggle) to talk around approaches and experiences relating to using physical interfaces to mediate between people and place as well as between people and tech (and people and other people).

Dust documentation

Lorna Parsons has made this video to whet your appetite for Dust:

Mike Cummins has also sent me a few photos:

And Paul Conneally sent me this image of the dust mote he is looking after:

Dust Mote Farmer and Pigs

In 2012 Hannah and I will be looking for opportunities to develop Dust into a finished piece of work – if you have any leads for us (or any documentation of the work in progress we presented recently), do let us know.

Dust: tech write-up

Now we’re the other side of Dust and safe from dropping any major spoilers, here’s a quick overview of how the Dust Balls were put together.

Dust balls? Here’s an extract from the explanatory text Hannah’s published on her blog:

The Dust Balls are large fragments of the city. They are formed out of open source electronics, clay, hope and optimism. They begin by introducing themselves to the listeners, and instruct them to point the device in different directions in order to ‘pick up’ stories of individuals in the areas surrounding them. Depending on the timing and direction in which you are facing, different stories will be heard.

They are heavy, and designed to be listened to by two people at once – the weight and bulk of the object meaning that two are required to support it. The two people sharing each experience of overhearing the stories should be strangers.

Quite a design brief there, with some technologies I’d never worked with before (audio and direction-sensing). Fortunately I know where I am with clay!

Fragments of the city

The finished Dust Balls

There’s a whole other post-worth of talk about the whys, wherefores and processes relating to the clay, but this post is about what went inside the Dust Balls.

Short answer: lots of electronics.

Dust bunny brains

Location, location, location

Once we’d decided to site the Dust event on top of the Vyse Street car park, I spent several hours up there over 3 or 4 visits after work. We didn’t have much in the way of lead-in, but this was time well spent getting to know the feel of the location and details such as how loud the ambient noise of the traffic below is, how busy the car park is at that time and generally getting to know the lie of the land.

View from the top deck of the car park towards Snow Hill station and Colmore Square.

From here we were able to locate the 5 story threads that Hannah had written amalgamating objects and memories submitted by different contributors.

Thread 1: a visitor to Birmingham is reminded of being in love; Thread 2: a man feels like a boy as he listens to a recording of the grandfather he never met; Thread 3: an office-worker battling deadlines and spreadsheet puts a hand to the pocket containing one of his son's toys; Thread 4; a victim runs through the city streets at the feet of the tower blocks; Thread 5: a friend bearing a gift walks purposefully towards the hospital.

Working from a tracing from a fold-out A-Z map of Birmingham, I drew out the segments for each thread and used a protractor to get the bearings for the boundaries between threads. This working diagram was then orientated to North and taped to the table-top in preparation for testing the the next stages…

Locating story fragments

The compass module

After some research into different options, I decided to use this CMPS10 tilt-compensated compass module. The tilt compensation was important (since we couldn’t guarantee the Dust Balls would be held horizontally) but it was also selected because of the range of communication methods (serial, I2C, pwm) and the documentation and example code available. Given the lack of time and my lack of coding chops, this is the sort of bet-hedging that was required!

Compass module

It was easy enough to get the compass module working with an Arduino using the example code. I initially tried serial communication, but I couldn’t get this working via the NewSoftSerial library when I came to combine it with the mp3 shield.

The switch to I2C communication required the addition of a couple of pull-up resistors, which I made into a stripboard ‘shield’ that I could plug into the Arduino stack.

I2C and reset 'shield'

This made things a bit more robust for placing them inside the Dust Balls, as well as being a nice convenient modular approach.

I also added in a push-to-make switch between the ground and reset pins. This would allow me to place the the electronics at the back of the Dust Ball where they wouldn’t interfere so much with the compass readings, but to still have reasonable easy access to reset the kit between users.

mp3 shield

The remaining component of the set-up is the mp3 player shield. I used this one from SparkFun, and it worked, although I may well choose something different next time around…

Dust bunny innards

The main thing to be aware of with this shield is the lack of a line out. There’s a headphone socket and somewhere to connect a speaker, but using an amplifier without also adding in protection against electrostatic discharge runs the risk of frying the audio chip. We’ve been lucky so far using portable speakers in the headphone socket, YMMV and you have been warned.

When using these shields you also need to be careful to install the SDFat library correctly (only the ‘SdFat’ folder from the zip file) and ensure you make the necessary changes to the Sd2PinMap.h file as documented in the mp3 player example.

The comments on the product page are well worth a read through too.

Anyway, I got it working eventually…

et enfin

The final stack looked like this:

Stack: Arduino, mp3 shield and I2C/reset gubbins

Arduino Uno, mp3 player shield and homebrew I2C/reset shield, also connected to the compass module and the portable speaker. All powered with a PP3 9 volt battery connected to the Arduino’s power jack.

I added in some hot melt glue to protect the soldered joints that were prone to flexing and breaking and also used black insulation tape to cover over some of the power LEDs (I didn’t want the Dust Balls to look like they were powered by Kryptonite!).

Strips of velcro were used to hold the components in place during use, whilst still leaving them removable when required.

The code takes its main functionality from the compass and mp3 player examples, with some logic to select which audio track to play depending on which direction you’re facing and what’s been played before.

As ever, there’s room for improvement, but hopefully there’s enough here to get you started with your own projects. There’s also a set of photos from the make on Flickr.

We will not be afraid to get our hands dirty.

We will make and share our own tools as appropriate.
We will collaborate.
We will be generous.
We will be porousexcerpt from the Splacist Manifesto 2.0


I see you.

I always see you.

I hold you up and speak to you in the rush of the trees or the skittering of a crisp packet across your path.

I see you now. Standing on a rooftop in the wind. I’m whispering past you. I brought you here. Because I’ve been listening to you, all of you for so long, and today, for a moment, I want you to hear me. Hear me tell you about what it feels like to see and touch and know all of you. Show you things you don’t see. Things lost and found and dropped and broken and fixed. I wrap myself around you.

You give me so much. I have given you something in return. I echo out of this fragment of the city. Turn me, press your ears, and turn, as you face different directions and you will be able to hear me speak about the things that you see. The stories in the faces and traces of the people you move past every day.

Listen to me.


Dust at "Who are the Splacists?" event, hosted by MADE

Dust at "Who are the Splacists?" event, hosted by MADE

Dust at "Who are the Splacists?" event, hosted by MADE

Hannah has the explanations.

Flickr has the rest of my photos.

These people have our gratitude:

MADE, for their unwavering hope and optimism in commissioning and supporting Dust and the process that resulted in it.
– Everyone who shared their memories with us via various channels.
– Garry Bulmer, for being a knowledgeable sounding board for the tech …and pointing out the obvious.
– Jules and Jen, for their help and giggles whilst making 200 Brazilian thumbpots.
– Bournville and Margaret Street, for last-minute supplies of clay.
– Maggie at Active Robots, for being nice.
Black Boe, for the wind sample.
– Everyone who came and stood on a cold, dark, wet carpark roof with us last night.

Interface for electronics

For beating hearts and trembling hands.
The ground pressed to your cheek.
She sees you.
Hold her, listen to her.

interface for electronics

interface for electronics

interface for electronics

Many thanks to Jules at Jen for all their help and tangents.

Switching audio via direction

A short, self-congratulatory post to say I DID IT!

Compass module connected to mp3 shield connected to arduino. And they're all talking to each other!

Fruits of our labours

After about 14 hours today spent slaving over keyboard, soldering iron and a fold-out A-Z map of Birmingham, we now have a rather nice set-up that will play different fragments of audio depending on what direction the compass is pointing. Phew!

Tomorrow we break out the clay…

Dust deliveries

Having yesterday met up with Hannah for a second time in preparation for sharing our collaborative work-in-progress Dust on Wednesday, I’m now gearing up for a weekend of making.

“Gearing up” in this particular instance consists of deliveries of various items…

25kg of clay

Back-up 50kg of clay

Arduino microcontrollers, mp3 shields and things for connecting them together...

Today I’ve also bought a speaker, some clothes pegs, and some index cards as well as acquiring some duvet covers and a camouflage tarpaulin. I’m really hoping the delivery of compasses arrives tomorrow.

Tonight I’ll get the best delivery though – the sound files from Hannah, who’s spent the day writing in response to the objects and memories people have been contributing to the project. How exciting!

Bird’s eye views

We’re being very ambitious with our plans for Dust, in lots of different ways. The one that I’m most nervous about at the moment is the new technology I need to master in a very short amount of time – compass and mp3 player modules for the Arduino platform.

Quick test of wave shield and switching between files

Despite the temptation to BUY, BUY, BUY immediately, I’ve spent the last couple of evenings doing lots of internet research, trying things out and asking around for the opinion of others. It all still looks possible and I’ve just clicked the button on a couple of large component orders. Fingers crossed!

This scoping out of the tech has been complemented with a site visit to our main location.

View looking towards the city centre

Cemetary tree

Street corner

I like how the height of the car park takes you up to a height just above most of the surrounding buildings and also gives you a kind of buffer zone of space horizontally as well.

Share Dust with us

pool light

On Wednesday the 30th of November we’re going to gather people together on and around a car park in the Jewellery Quarter to search out some motes of memories. We’d love it if you’d join us. (It’s free, but there is a registration list so we can gauge numbers.)

“Dust” will be the result of a collaboration between myself and Hannah Nicklin, commissioned by MADE. MADE is a centre for architecture and built environment; Hannah makes lovely, thought-provoking theatre-y experiences; and I’m thinking hard about interfaces for locative technology at the moment. That should give you a rough idea of what to expect, but Hannah has blogged the thought processes that came out of our ideas session yesterday if you’d like to delve a little deeper.

Here’s the brief we ended up giving ourselves:

... to make something that ... examines interfaces and how to create resonance in space and place. Looking fabric pre-woven and overlaid. Of narrative/moments.That heats and lights and races hearts.

We have only two more days working together between now and the 30th, so we’d like to ask you for a little contribution to help seed the piece.

Please tell us about an object you own that is tied to a particular memory.

The soap in my bathroom reminds me of an afterthought, a twinkle in an eye and a delicious sense of humour.

What objects trigger memories for you?

You can share your objects and memories with us via Twitter by using the hashtag ‘#dust’, or write it in a couple of sentences in the comments for either this blog post or the one on Hannah’s site.

You don’t have to go into much detail; about the amount of writing you could fit on a post-it or in a tweet or two. You can send pictures if you like, but please briefly tell us about an object that is significant to you and why.

Thank you.

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