Evolving Bits

Fri Jan 09 2009

Finding Energy in the Mix of Art and Physical Computing

Santa brought me an Arduino this year - an open-hardware and open-software platform for connecting computers to the physical world -- used by artists, designers, geeks, entrepreneurs who often find interesting things to create.

Now I'm finding renewal in a mix of art, physical computing, and the new concepts and ideas that come along with that.

What would you do with a platform where you can buy interesting off-the-shelf components (such as GPS, wired/wireless Internet connectivity, mini-cameras, color/light sensors, accelerometers) that you could put together then control via a small $35 micro-controller, or easily connect to your computer as input or output?

The possibilities are endless. Try searching for "physical computing" or "arduino" on YouTube.com for some ideas, or see Arduino Playground.

Josh Kopel's Presentation at Dorkbot Seattle

Creating gizmos that interact with the physical world make keyboards and computer screens pretty darn boring.

Personal note: Renewal is always very energizing. In regard to my software engineering interests, when I discovered Open Source in 2000, I learned everything I could about Linux and Open Source software, gave talks, ran Linux as my main desktop for many years. When I discovered Zope and Plone and Python in 2002, I helped fuel a local Plone community, and based my whole business on Plone (RagingWeb.com and now at WebCollective.coop) and never looked back. More recently I continue to find interesting projects in Plone and Django, while playing with Google App Engine, the Apple iPhone and the myriad of social applications that keep popping up.

What's happening with Physical Computing in Seattle?

I missed an Arduino class in November, but discovered dorkbot seattle and attended my first meeting last night at 911media.org. I found a vibrant every-seat-taken mini-auditorium full of people ready to hear the night's line-up (see photo above).

Here was the [paraphrased] lineup:

First, all three presenters are established artists with interesting projects. My brief takeaways don't do justice to their work and knowledge. Please check out the links to their blogs for many cool projects and exhibits.

  1. "Josh Kopel: "Out of Control" a quick review of the micro-controller and DIY electronics explosion that was 2008. 2008 might well be called the year of Arduino, as the little micro-controller from Italy invaded the DIY scene and showed up just about everywhere. Beyond just the Arduino, 2008 also saw a vast increase of interest in micro-controllers and unique interfaces for use in the arts."

Some takeaways: I hadn't realized Arduino was open hardware and all the variations that have arisen from that, such as the LilyPad Arduino that is a tiny wearable computer. Josh was mentioning that the mix of an open, inexpensive, and easy to leverage platforms (Arduino is just one of many platforms out there) plus the fact that you can find and buy components in sizes of 1 (versus years ago when you had to buy large quantities of parts) has brought this technology to the masses. Try searching for Arduino in Google Trends. One project where the husband hooked up a home-made gizmo to his wife that measured each time his unborn baby kicked with a "I kicked Mommy at 5:21pm" Twitter message got a pretty good laugh from the audience.

  1. "Tina Aufiero: Computers, wireless cameras, electronics, and swans. Tina will talk about using computers, a wireless camera, and some electronics to marry the abstract concepts and representational forms in her works, which includes "project_swancam". We know Tina as the Education Director at 911 Media Arts Center."

Some takeaways: Swans are definitely interesting birds! Tina demonstrated a mix of her art, growing knowledge and experimentation with technology such as video manipulation and wireless camera, and her love for swans - which she has made into many interesting exhibits, and used to support her activism.

  1. "Hugo Solis Garcia: Juum, a framework for multimedia production and composition. In his talk, Hugo will talk about Juum, a framework for multimedia production and composition that he has been developing during the last year. The tool has evolved because of the artistic requirements and the art pieces have been influenced by the program."

Some takeaways: Hugo was able to augment his talents as a musician by creating new composition techniques using visual programming tools and home-made hardware. Too difficult to summarize, but my favorite piece was Tell-Tale Piano, which was a chair on top of a box that contained a used piano within. People could sit in the chair and experience dramatic music being created below their feet electronically via the piano which followed the theme of Edgar Allen Poe's "Tell Tale Heart".

What's Next?

I've started my first Arduino project, now with additional inspiration from last night's meeting, which I plan to blog about as the pieces come together...