Sonar goggle detector

Since some friends went on a bat and moth walk (and I’d idly Googled bat detector kits) I’ve been curious about building my own bat detector.

A few things came together and we ended having a lot of fizzPOP conversation about bat detectors. Then I started work on a school project for which an ultrasound detector would be rather nice.

It was kind of inevitable that I’d make one then!

Working from Tony Messina’s Simple Bat Detector project, I gathered together the basic components and tonight managed to get a breadboarded prototype working.

It occurred to me that building something that reacts to ultrasound may not be the easiest of circuits to test… Fortunately, I had some sonar goggles to hand and the detector reacts to them!

Breadboarded circuit with sonar goggles looming overhead

Breadboarded circuit with sonar goggles looming overhead

sonar goggle detector from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Mr Mabbett also suggested placing the detector near a TV set (which I don’t have) or some jangling keys (which I do!) to test it. There are some good clicks coming from the keys test too, so next step is to get the circuit soldered up onto stripboard and into an enclosure of some sort.

As well as the schools stuff – where we would be using the detector to reveal sounds beyond our hearing – I’m interested in running workshops for people to build their own detectors. I also have some crazy game ideas…

Circuit-bending workshop at the British Science Festival

On Sunday the 19th of September I’m running three 1-hour circuit-bending workshops as part of the It’s a Geek’s World event, 10-4 at Aston University’s Students’ Guild Hall. (geeks_world on Twitter.)

Toy mp3 player, soon to be more with light and sound than the manufacturer anticipated...

Toy mp3 player, soon to be more with light and sound than the manufacturer anticipated!

We’ll be converting one of these toy mp3 players so that the sound it makes is controlled and distorted by light.

Circuit bend for It’s a Geek’s World. from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

The mod is pretty simple – so don’t worry if you’ve never soldered before – and as you can see from the video above the results are very engrossing. The kits come with earphones, so you can even play with them for as long as you like without risking familial discord! Alternatively… there’ll be another workshop where you can make your own audio amp. Yeah!

We'll switch over a couple of components to make the toy sensitive to light.

We'll switch over a couple of components to make the toy sensitive to light.

The workshop costs £3.50 and at the end of it you’ll have your very own bleepy chirpy tinkly thing to keep.
To reserve your place in advance you need to register on the It’s a Geek’s World website and then you can sign up for the different activities. There will also be a few places available to snap up on the day. My workshop runs at 10:15, 12:15 and 3:15.

The website is mostly booking system and doesn’t really show much of what will be going on, but take it from me: if you like gadgets, robots, and/or electronic noise then this is the place to be.

There are several workshops on offer throughout the day, ranging from learning to solder through to making a Beat Box sequencer with Mr Underwood. Something for everyone!

Nottinghack will be there with Drawdio kits. We had a fab evening when they came to fizzPOP for a Drawdio workshop, so that’s also tried, tested and approved!

We’re not neglecting the blinky light side of things either – there will be workshops for making these colour-changing boxes and a few other LED treats too.

Colour-changing light box

Colour-changing light box

As well as the workshops there will be people from Curious Minds (they of the Star Wars Force Trainer), oomlout, RobotBits and others. Expect interesting things to see, touch and interact with.

Others from fizzPOP will of course be there too, so come along and say hi – we’ll say hi back if we can hear you over all the bleeping noises!

DIY Arduino

Over at fizzPOP we’re exploring group dynamics and how to strengthen our community at the same time as running compelling events and extending our skills.

We’ve been doing free-style hack sessions for over a year now and we’ve also run a fair number of workshops and events (Such as Howduino and Theremin Day) on specific areas. We’ve been paying attention and, whereas the atmosphere at the events we run is absolutely fantastic, it’s not sustainable for us to run things at this level on more than an occasional basis. We can however incorporate elements of the big events into the little things we do every fortnight.

Right back in the beginning we pondered on the importance of shared goals and working as a group. We’ve recently returned to this with themed sessions – Hack a Toy and Processing Anonymous being two examples.

Starting on Wednesday the 18th of August we’ll be experimenting with themed hacksessions on a more formalised basis. You’re still welcome to come along and work on individual projects if you like, but the steering group and other members of fizzPOP will be taking it in turns to initiate and coordinate clusters of activities around particular themes. It’s really interesting watching theses themes get negotiated online as people discuss what skills they can share and also what skills they would like to acquire.

This Wednesday the theme will be DIY Arduino – home-made versions of the Arduino board that are more minimal, less expensive, or simply do a specific job – and it is I who has been herding the cats. There are a range of different interests and skill levels at fizzPOP (all are welcome!) but several common focal points seem to have emerged in the online discussion:

  • building a barebones arduino board, either on stripboard or breadboard
  • burning the bootloader using ArduinoISP and building daughterboards to make this easier
  • designing and building low power variants
  • and using the barebones board as a case study for learning about PCB design

Since there’s a bunch of us interested in building our own modules, I’ve been able to buy a load of components in for a lower price than compared to smaller quantities. I’ll be selling components for a bare bones Arduino (NB, it really is just the basics!) for £4.50.

This kit of components (plus battery connector) will be available for £4.50

This kit of components (plus battery connector) will be available for £4.50

This is significantly cheaper than the £25 or so you’ll pay for the full-blown board and, as an artist, it’s what makes multiples and building things like the sonar goggles possible in my work.

So, if you’ve dabbled with Arduino before and are looking to take things to the next level, or perhaps you’ve not yet dipped a toe in because you’ve found the cost prohibitively expensive, than this is the session for you. It won’t be a formal, led workshop, but there will be a room full of people applying their brains to related challenges and with assorted relevant kit etc. Think of it as being in a room with 20 mentors.

There is more information on the fizzPOP website:
and a sign-up page on the wiki:

Theremin Day

For the last month or so I’ve been helping Mr Underwood get the planning together for Theremin Day: an afternoon workshop building an optical theremin followed by an evening of film and performance, including a live set on theremin from Ms Hypnotique

Hard work, but what a great day!

The workshop had a great vibe, especially as the sounds of working optical theremin began to mingle with those of drilling and the occasional piano performance:


Pretty much everyone got their noise boxes finished and working, with some great playing styles starting to emerge:

noise boxes from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

After the workshop we did a quick changeover and re-arranged The Edge ready for the evening performances. There was much packing away of soldering tools; construction of staging; testing of audio and visual equipment. It all stopped when Susi started to play on her theremin. What an amazing sound: so different to anything else. Everyone was transfixed!


The evening event kicked off with a selection of short films exploring the historical, technical and fun sides of the theremin. This was then followed by a set from 8bit Pete and his Thingamagoops. This included a live mic off to the side of the stage where people could come up and contribute to the maelstrom of bleepy noises and flashy lights with the workshop-built theremin(s). [What is the plural?!]

Next up was Mr Underwood’s performance of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music for optical theremin and torch. Brilliant. Pete Ashton has posted a nice video extract.

After that was the theremin set from Ms Hypnotique who performed a wide range of music for us. In her own words, the set list was described as: “Varese, Walter Carlos and forgotten scifi soundtracks”. She did an excellent job of interspersing the music with interesting explanations and anecdotes – entertaining and educational!

Here are my photos from the evening event followed by a couple of videos of Ms Hypnotique playing. The last video is how she ended the set. Perfect!

Ms Hypnotique performs from a visual score from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Ms Hypnotique knows her audience from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Thanks to everyone who supported and participated in the day.

invisible noise

invisible noise from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

Just a quick note to say that, although things may seem a little quiet around here in terms of my own personal projects, many exciting things are happening over at fizzPOP (the hackerspace I’ve been co-running with Antonio Roberts.)

If you’re interested in collaborative learning or creative use of technology, then you should check it out:

Discussion Group:
Announcements mailing list:

We meet on a fortnightly basis at The Edge for our informal hacksessions at which you can just pop in, have a mooch and/or work on a project (we can always find stuff for you to get involved with if you’re a beginner).

This year we’ve also been ramping up the volume with a programme of workshops and events. The next of these will be Theremin Day as organised by Sam Underwood (also featuring in the video above!).

The afternoon workshop sold out rather rapidly, but tickets are still available for the evening of live performances.

Ms Hypnotique

This is an opportunity to see one of the nation’s most renowned Theremin players. She has trained with Lydia Kavina, the grand-niece of Leon Theremin, and performs in many genres from classical to surf-rock to industrial. She has given numerous performances and recordings for artists including Bob Moog, Damien Hirst and TV appearances include “James May’s 20th Century” and “New Paul O’Grady Show”. In 2009 she performed on the fourth plinth, Trafalgar Square, as part of Anthony Gormley’s “One and Other” project and in April 2010 she will perform at Ether Fest at Royal Festival Hall in a 20-piece Theremin orchestra.

Mr. Underwood & Friends

Yes, me! I’ll be doing a super rare performance of Steve Reich’s Pendulum Music, using four torches and four Optical Theremins (of the same kind made in the afternoon workshop). The performance will be in darkness and will peak in a cacophony of squealing sound.

Pete Ashton

Pete will be wowing us with his Thingamagoop (see video below) and some 8-bit sounds. He will also be collaborating with Ms Hypnotique and myself in an improv session.

In May fizzPOP will be in residence at independent artist studios The Lombard Method for an intense two weeks of workshops and making of stuff, 1st – 16th of May. Stand by for more details of how you can get involved with making contraptions and contributing to blinky light extravaganzas!

There’s loads more in the pipeline too, with the British Science Festival in September, exciting partnerships with Aston University Eng Soc, robots, Arduinos and dorkbotbrum. No surprise then that we’ll be moving to weekly hacksessions after Easter in order to try and fit in everything that we want to do!

Moving forward with the secret knock in a box

A few months ago I made a box with a secret knock in it for an interview for a school project:

box with a secret knock in it. from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

It’s proved to be very popular, so it’s time to take it out of its prototyping stage and into something a bit more robust.

The version I’ve been using so far runs off a Real Bare Bones Board mounted on a breadboard. It’s OK, but I need to keep checking it all the time to make sure the wires haven’t come out. Not ideal if you’ve got a dozen young children clamouring around to try and guess the hidden knock!

I could move it to perfboard or something similar, but I suspect I’m going to be making several of these in the future, so I’m using it as a project to learn a bit about making Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs).

The first stage has been to eliminate the RBBB and move to a freestanding chip. I followed the approach on the Standalone Arduino / ATMega chip on breadboard Instructable.

I then combined this with the power supply from this ITP tutorial on breadboarding an Arduino. And finally added all the switches and gubbins from the original circuit.

Freestanding ATMEGA with additional project circuitry

Freestanding ATMEGA with additional project circuitry

It worked!

…and was a nice bit of learning too – I feel all empowered now!

Putting it all together. With arrows.

Putting it all together. With arrows.

Having ascertained that it wasn’t all going to go fizz or POP, the next stage is to start arranging all the bits into a nice PCB layout.

…And for me to profusely thank Dr Sugden and the Eng Soc students at Aston University who are proving to be top notch fizzPOP collaborators and walked me through this afternoon’s learning. Much appreciated.

What’s next?!

fizzPOP enters its second year

Last night at our fizzPOP hack session we celebrated the group’s first birthday.

Chocolate brownies, jammie dodgers, humidity sensor LED candle.

Chocolate brownies, jammie dodgers, humidity sensor LED candle.

fizzPOP (so named as a reference to the Lunar Society) came into being just as I returned form a residency at the Banff New Media Institute and was pondering how on earth I was going to develop my skills and practice in a city with an apparent lack of peer group.

I’ve been heavily involved in the organisation of the hackspace (working with Antonio Roberts and others) since the early days and seen it grow from laptop-orientated meetings in pubs through to regular practical sessions held at The Edge. I’m happy to be able to report that I’ve learned loads and am constantly meeting new people who provide skills and ideas that feed into my work (and play!).

There are big plans for our second year – look out for more in the way of events and workshops, as well as continuing to develop the hacksessions that form the core of what fizzPOP is about.



LED matrix

LED matrix: GB contemplates colour mixing, simple graphics and very small numbers.

fizzPOP: thoughts about meeting, sharing and learning

Following on from the artist-led spaces podcast, there have been various other fizzPOP-centred events and conversations recently.

[Quick recap: fizzPOP is a hackerspace I’m involved with; hackerspaces being a place where people from all sorts of backgrounds can work on projects that typically involve varying degrees of programming, electronics, craft and/or jiggery-pokery.]

Antonio Roberts presenting at Eastside Projects

Antonio Roberts presenting at Eastside Projects

On Thursday 19th of November, Antonio Roberts gave a presentation to the Eastside Projects associate members. In the short time available he gave a very good, comprehensive, whistle-stop tour of how the hackerspace came about, what we do there and what our aims for the future might be.

The bit that has stuck with me most though, was when someone in the audience asked what kit we hoped might furnish a more established fizzPOP with. Antonio’s response included the usual basic toolkit of soldering irons etc etc, but then for his ambitious one-day-we’d-like-to-have item he went on to mention web servers. That would never have even occurred to me!

Now, Antonio comes from a graphics/code sort of a background, and I come from more of a maker/sculptural background. If I’d have been asked the same question, I would have answered with something along the lines of a laser cutter or a rep rap for rapid prototyping of physical objects. My point is not that one or other of these answers is right or wrong, just that it was a timely, healthy reminder that fizzPOP plays host to a really diverse range of people and that, if we asked 20 people that question, we’d quite likely get 20 different answers!

Right from the beginning we’ve said that the community is our number one priority and as fizzPOP grows it will be interesting to see what shape things settle down into.

drones eye view (we wish) of a small part of the fizzPOP Howduino event in full swing

drone's eye view (we wish) of a small part of the fizzPOP Howduino event in full swing

On Saturday the 21st of November, fizzPOP and Howduino joined forces to host a day-long hacking event at VIVID as part of the Hello Digital fringe events programme. This is something we’ve been itching to do for some time since our regular Wednesday evening haunt, The Edge, can only hold about 15-20 people and we’re only there for a couple of hours in the evening once a fortnight.

Saturday was intense and involved about 40 people, whatever stuff they bought with them and lots and lots of ideas. It was amazing to see how all these ingredients got circulated around over the course of the day. We certainly filled the space!

Marie and Helen blink like mad

Marie and Helen blink like mad

fizzPOP regular GB did a sterling job of compiling and delivering beginners’ workshops introducing people to the basics of the Arduino platform.

This led to messages such as “Woo Hoo! I’ve downloaded a program onto the board & successfully have an LED winking @ me! :) Thanks 2 the wonderfully patient Howduino team” [@IonaMakiola] and “My first ardunio (technically a freeduino) Never been so proud of turning on a light on before” [@TigersHungry] being posted on Twitter. TigersHungry has also written a fuller account of her learning experience on her blog.

At the other end of the skills spectrum, we also had two proficient hackers teaming up to work on projects together. Arvydas and Stewart could be seen running around the gallery space testing the autonomous robot car they’d programmed to recognise and avoid obstacles in its path. Check it out in this video avoiding even a pencil-sized object!

Arvydas has written up the project on his website, and there’s also another video from the show and tell session at the end of the event.

Whilst that was going on kids were making lego robots, Antonio was making wailing noises, Bubblino was doing its thing and, in return for a bit of soldering instruction, Helen helped me patch up my sinister glowy-eyed teddy.

Evil Ted gets patched up after having LEDs inserted behind his eyes and an Arduino implanted in his head

Evil Ted gets patched up after having LEDs inserted behind his eyes and an Arduino implanted in his head

Nicky Getgood and her mum popped in for a bit and were moderately baffled by the whole thing. When, whilst being interviewed by 6-year-olds the following Monday I described the “inventors’ club” my friends and I had set up, their eyes sparkled with excitement!

I’ve indicated as much before, but it’s worth saying again: I love fizzPOP as a space where I can go to learn things, to teach things, to be exposed to new ideas and to just try things out without risk of ridicule if it all goes horribly wrong.

Evidently other people feel the same way: several people clocked up round journeys of about 200 miles to attend the Howduino event (Bath, London, Milton Keynes, Hertfordshire and, of course, Adrian and Thom coming from Liverpool). Others came from Leamington and near Banbury, as well as a more local Birmingham contingent being present.

Despite going from strength to strength at the moment, fizzPOP will be going a bit quiet over the coming months due to the combined effects of heating costs for the warehouse space we hold our hack sessions in and a Christmas break. We’re looking to hold at least one more hack session before we go – add your name and preferred day to this poll.

Though we may become quiet in practical terms, behind the scenes we’re also beginning to think about how we can develop fizzPOP’s activities and give it a more stable base from which it can operate. We’ve seen that the demand for this sort of a space exists, and we know we won’t be able to hold our hack sessions at The Edge indefinitely, because at some stage it will need to be reclaimed as a studio and exhibition space.

If you know of anything you think we should be aware of – be it a potential advocate, source of funding to help us get started up, or some bricks and mortar that are available, please get in touch.

Also, if you have any spare web servers or rapid prototyping machines…

hippo joy

hippo joy from nikkipugh on Vimeo.

I’m liking this circuit-bending stuff. It’s making me do things I don’t want to do.

The particular comfort zone edges I’ve noticed are:

  • Restraining myself from immediately unscrewing the back and tinkering with the innards without having properly explored what the ‘normal’ behaviour is first. I must make more of an effort to document this too.
  • Choosing the 3 or 4 bends from several that I’ll try and work with. This is usually a balance between the “awesome!” and the practicality of getting wires and soldering irons where they need to get to. I ‘lost’ a really nice bend in the hippo – the behaviour changed when I soldered the switch wires onto the board. I’m starting to get into the habit of making audio recordings of the initial noodling noises. [audio:]
  • Revising the previous decisions, based on what switches you can accommodate in the shell.
  • Making the first incision. Usually my electric drill is hilariously large compared to the toy I’m working on: one of these days the toy’s just going to disintegrate. It’s also a very definite point of no return.
  • I’m slowly getting better at drilling holes a few sizes too slow and then taking them up to size with a file. Neater results, but there’s still room for a lot more improvement. I’ve also started thinking a bit more about the feel of the switches – adding in rubber o-rings to cushion body contact points etc.
  • Similarly for the first solder, but given extra edge by the memory of all the circuit boards I’ve managed to kill in the past.
  • I’ve circuit-bent a few toys now, all with similar push-to-make switches and body contacts. An important edge is coming up where I’ll have to learn new stuff. With the hippo bend I made myself repurpose the existing switches. It’s a bit of a bodge, but it was worth the brain-wracking to come up with a (hopefully more than temporary) solution that a) works and b) is satisfying in the way that it looks and touches.

A Flickr set of images showing the hippo’s internal gubbins is at

extra wires and re-purposed switches. also masking tape.

project space

I just wanted to say that the fizzPOP hackerspace is increasingly becoming the communal, collaborative production space for unpredictable creative things that I was hoping for when I left art school.

Actually, come to think about it, in many ways it’s quite like what I hoped art school would be.

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