One of the ways we’ve tried to differentiate some of our recent and upcoming products, like the Krampus and RBG RGB badge, is by using some of the tiniest ATTiny microcontrollers we can get our hands on. For these boards we picked the ATtiny4, which has just 6 pins, 256B (not KB!) of EEPROM and SRAM, and 512B (not MB!) of flash, providing a hearty challenge to hackers who may be accustomed to more spacious resources. But before we dive into hacking with that most minimalist MCU, let’s take a general look at the basics of programming AVR chips without all of the abstraction provided by tools like Arduino – or as it is sometimes called: bare-metal programming.
When you order the Hacker Challenge edition of our Krampus kit, it comes with a USBasp programmer (which we’ve updated for you to be able to handle the TPI protocol – but that’s another blog for another day!), so that’s what we’ll be focusing on here. Plenty of fancier, more expensive options exist, but like an in-circuit Xzibit, the USBasp is basically a simple AVR circuit … for programming your simple AVR circuits! Instead of the ATtiny4, we’re going to luxuriate ourselves with the ATmega168, as found in the original Arduino Diecimila (these instructions will work for the 328 series as well – just change all the instances of “168” to “328”). With a whopping 16 KB of flash – 32 times the amount found on the ATtiny4, the ATmega168 – and its 32K sibling, the ATmega328 (any guesses as to how they came up with these names?) are capable of “full” Arduino compatibility, i.e. running sketches, using libraries etc. – which is why they can be found at the heart of Arduino’s most popular boards.
If you’ve ever taken a close look at an Arduino board before, you may have noticed that it is fairly-well populated beyond the ATmega chip. Most of the components you’ll find on the Uno PCB for example are for supporting a range of power supplies, as well as onboard USB-to-serial, so that all that is required for programming is a standard USB cable. Given the visual complexity of the Arduino, it may surprise you to discover that the ATmega168 chip itself comes with everything you need for basic operation right inside the package! One of the components you’ll see on the board is an external crystal, which allows the 168 to operate at 16mHz, but the 168 is actually capable of running at 8mHz with its own onboard clock. So other than the above-mentioned programmer to flash it, and a 5V power source, none of that other fancy stuff is actually required for basic operation!
So let’s wire up our programmer and DIP ATmega168 on a breadboard and see how easy it is to flash a program on bare metal hardware. In order to complete the age-old ritual of getting to blinky, let’s also add an LED and resistor to our simple circuit. The USBasp has 6 pins: VCC, GND, MOSI, MISO, SCK, and RST. VCC and GND we will connect to the respectively-named pins on the 168 (7 and 8 (or 22) respectively), providing it with 5V and ground. MOSI and MISO are used to provide a Serial Peripheral Interface (SPI) so that our devices can talk. The preferred modern expansion of this initialism in our context is Microcontroller Out/Serial In and Microcontroller In/Serial Out, although you may see other terms used. We’re going to connect them to pins 17 and 18 on our DIP. The SCK pin provides our clock so that our data transmission remains in sync, and on the 168 that’s pin 19. Finally, RST allows us to halt operations on our microcontroller and flash our new program, then restart and run the new code; on the 168, that’s pin 1. Our LED we could connect in a number of places, but let’s hook the positive side to pin 14 at the end, and the negative to ground via a resistor of the appropriate value (220 ohms or so should work, or you can calculate a more precise value using an LED series resistance calculator). When you’ve completed these steps, your breadboard should look like this:
A few things to check on the USBasp before we move on: make sure it is set to 5V power (the curiously labeled "JP21" with the yellow jumper on the ones we stock (it should logically be "JP2"), positioned toward the ISP header/away from the USB end), or if you are powering the board from another source, go ahead and leave that jumper off completely. If you are using our ISP with Power board, make sure the switch is on, meaning the USBasp is providing power, and once everything is plugged in (not yet!), confirm that the LED is lit, indicating successful power delivery. If you want to power your breadboard separately from another 5V source, leave the switch off (common ground is still provided).
That’s it for hardware! But don’t plug the USBasp into your machine yet – let’s get things set up on the software side first! There are plenty of resources online with detailed explanations of how to install the required tools, but the short version is that we’re going to need gcc-avr to compile our code, and AVRDUDE to flash it. If you’re on Ubuntu/Debian, it’s as easy as:
Windows users can use WinAVR, which despite its age, should do everything you’ll need:
or AVRDUDESS – a GUI for AVRDUDE:
macOS users can find everything they need in CrossPack:
With our compiler and Downloader/UploaDEr installed (get it? DUDE??), let’s load some blinky code! This blog post is already rather long, and I can tell you’re anxious to see that LED blink, so let’s just grab some pre-compiled code and not worry too much about how it was built from a .c file or what it’s doing – there are more blog posts coming in future where we will get into compiling and makefiles and ports and pins and bit masking and all of that! We used a nicely commented piece of example code "blinkLED.c" from the repo for Make: AVR Programming (474 pages of raw AVR goodness centered around projects which demonstrate key microcontroller concepts – pick up a copy from the Maker Shed!). We forked their repo and added the compiled hex file to ours here:
Grab the raw version of that, paste it into a file called blinkLED.hex. Then you can use either command line tools or a GUI to load it into your processor! Note that even though this has been compiled for the ATMega168, it still runs on an ATMega328P, so you can try it out on either.
Programming via AVRDUDESS GUI on Windows:
The below screenshot shows settings for the 328P.
The file listed under "Flash" should be the blinkLED.hex file you just saved on your computer. It's good to first verify that your computer can talk to your processor by clicking the "detect" button. You'll get output in the bottom window that looks like this:
If you get the below error, it likely means you don't have the right driver installed for the USBasp. On Windows, we use Zadig to swap drivers to the libusbK, though libusb-win32 may also work.
If you're re-programming a 328P chip, make sure the fuse settings match those above for a 1 MHz default clock, otherwise your LED may blink at a different rate! Click the read button to read your fuse bits. If you need to change them, enter the new values and then click write. You can check out default fuse settings for other chips, and what each fuse setting does via this handy fuse calculator tool.
Note that you may also need to change the bit clock to properly communicate with the chip - 187.5 kHz is used for a chip with a 1 MHz clock, and 1.5 MHz is used for a chip with an 8 MHz clock.
If everything is set up and communicating correctly, mash that "Program!" button! Your output should look like this, and your LED should blink!
Programming via avrdude Command Line on Linux:
This is for you keyboard warriors out there who like to keep things simple and direct! First we're going to confirm that we're able to talk to the chip, and this example is for an ATMega168. Type in the below command. Before you hit enter, go ahead and plug the USB end of the USBasp into your computer. Monitor your circuit to make sure no magic smoke or anything appears (unlikely, but better safe than sorry!)
Then hit enter. You should see something like this:
This confirms that we’re able to talk to the chip, without actually flashing anything yet. If you get an error, read some of our notes above in the GUI section about drivers and fuse settings, and try searching the web for solutions – chances are someone else has run into this before. You can also type "avrdude --help" to see a list of available settings and commands. Lastly, feel free to drop us a note in the comments and we’d be more than happy to try to help diagnose, though it may take us a few days.
If everything went well, you're ready to load the compiled hex file!
You should see output like:
Your LED should start blinking after the reset. If not, try power-cycling it. If your LED is still not blinking after power-cycling, try searching for solutions to any errors, or drop us a comment and we’ll do our best to help figure out what’s up.
SO, you did it! Compiled and flashed code to a bare metal AVR microcontroller without an Arduino IDE or board in sight! How does it feel!? If you’re anything like us, riding this close to the rails provides a new thrill and feeling of mastery that clicking the old Upload button never could. And if you enjoyed this foray into AVR development, let us know, as we’re planning a series of blog posts about it! Let us know your ideas and interests in the comments! 😊
This week Carrie and Hannah of @HannahMakes got together and soldered up their projects - a sawtooth organ kit and NFC companion cubes, respectively. They got to chatting about Hannah's introduction to STEM, her current work as a special effects specialist, her NFC PCBs and what she plans on using them for, her Stormtrooper lamp project, tea dunking robot arm, and her latest work in progress - an NFT attached to real physical hardware!
You can find Hannah on Twitter and YouTube!
(1:14 – 12:44) Education and Path into STEM
Carrie: I would love to know about your path into STEM. When did you first know that you were kind of excited about technology and things and electronics? How did you get into it? You have a master's in theoretical physics, if I’m correct?
Hannah: I do, yeah.
Carrie: How did you get from there, which is very abstract, to actually making real-world things with your hands which is very, not abstract.
Hannah: Definitely. Well, it's weird because my journey into STEM started in quite a traditional way, just doing a pure science degree thing. I super enjoyed it. But then when I finished my master's, I was thinking, well, where do I go now? It's quite common to do a PhD afterwards, but I didn't find that one vein of science that was my niche – the thing that I really felt like I could commit myself to for three years. I'm too much of a magpie; there are too many things that grab my attention. There was no way I could settle down and do one area of science for three years. So, I was like, well, what do I do now?
Carrie: What were you studying in theoretical physics? What drew you to that to that course of study?
Hannah: Well, I got really into particle physics when I was younger, I think, because I was kind of growing up around the time that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) came online. So, it was kind of just when I was getting to the really exciting science in school, there was a big, real-world thing that was science in action. I kind of wanted to be a part of it. I love telling the story how I was nearly, technically, sort of a co-discoverer of the Higgs boson.
Carrie: What! That is super cool. I now want your autograph for sure.
Hannah: I’ll stick one in the post. But I think that the story of being almost a co-discoverer of the Higgs boson is actually just as good as being a co-discoverer of the Higgs boson. So, when I was doing my masters, one of the projects that we could choose to do was the background calculations for the LHC. Because, of course, to know that you've got a signal, you need to know what background you're expecting to be able to subtract that off and see your signal. But it turns out that these background calculations, you need tons and tons and tons of them. They're actually really tedious to do, so they were just getting loads and loads of masters students to do these calculations, so that they get their names on the papers, having contributed research that had helped to discover the Higgs boson. But in return, they had to do a year if some of the most boring calculations. So I was on the fence, like, oh, wouldn't it be great to be able to say I was a co-discoverer of the Higgs boson, but then I realized that the story of saying I was nearly a co-discoverer of the Higgs boson was just as good, but I don't have to do any of the boring calculations.
Carrie: Like, I could have been, but it was just too boring for me. I like it. So, you were like, yeah, this is too boring, I need to put together some cool electronics.
Hannah: Well, for my masters, I did. It was like solid state physics; I was researching thin films of helium adhered on a graphite substrate to see if they go super fluid, but only theoretically, I didn't touch anything practical. In fact, I switched to the theoretical because I did some practical labs lower down in my undergrad and I was so bad at them. I was actually a danger to myself and other people in the lab. So, I switched onto the theoretical degree and now I've just sort of come full circle back to making physical things and kind of doing the practical aspect much later. I'm pleased to report I'm a lot safer now than I was back then; I remember this one particular lab that we had, that we were meant to just be doing an experiment, to calculate the magnetic field. I managed to get it so wrong that I was out by two orders of magnitude! If the Earth's magnetic field is actually that strong, all the iron would be pulled out of your blood.
Carrie: That totally reminds me of a lab that we did in undergrad. It was the infamous bucket lab. All engineers had to go through this one course, and it was a lab course in a whole bunch of different disciplines. There was this bucket lab where the general problem was you had a bucket with water filled up to a certain level, suspended on a string and you had a sign for a storefront on this string. You had to calculate the level of water needed in the bucket so that when you twisted it, it would rotate and change once per second. Because, you know, storefront owners, this is a totally common way to put a sign out, you know? But yeah, you didn't have exactly the bucket in the store, so you've had to sort of model it and then perform your experiments in the lab and then extrapolated onto the actual bucket and all of that stuff. I’m pretty sure the amount of water in our bucket was light years.
Hannah: That is excellent.
Carrie: Nobody knew what the right answer was. This lab was absolutely the lab with the story that every year you heard about it before you took this course. It was the bucket lab and people got nano meters of water all the way up to light years, like we did.
Hannah: I think it's better to be over-prepared so having more water than you needed, even if it's a couple of galaxies worth, is definitely the right way to go.
Carrie: Right? It's a good resource. Oh, that's hilarious. So, how did you very first get into STEM? Was it in high school, before that, did you always kind of play with toys that were a little geeky and nerdy?
Hannah: Yeah, I think definitely. Just a nerd from the start. I mean, everybody loves Lego. But all of those kinds of kits, I remember distinctly now, and it's a memory that I'd forgotten for a really long time. Now kind of recently since getting into electronics more specifically, I remember getting Real Robots magazine when I was a kid and I used to absolutely love it. You don't see so many of these now, because I guess print media with the internet is kind of not what it used to be in terms of popularity, but it was a magazine and every week you got another little piece of your robot that you would add on and there'd be a couple of pages for how to plug it in, which bits to connect. It was all really simple, just JST connectors or something to kind of plug all the boards in together and just a couple of screws and standoffs. But you built over weeks, this robot that went from just being a thing that blinked a couple of lights to it can follow a line. Then in fifth season or something, you got to make a remote control and you could drive your robot around. The idea that you built that was just mind blowing.
Carrie: That’s super cool.
Hannah: Yeah, and I absolutely adored that. It was so funny because I just kind of remember looking at those circuit boards and thinking that's actual magic. This thing has a brain; it can do stuff and this tiny little square with these just anonymous bits of metal on is making it do that and I wanted to know how all that works. I kind of don't know where I sort of fell out of love with it, and now I've come all the way back to it. It’s a nice feeling.
Carrie: That is super awesome. So, then you're in school and you have master's degree and what kind of propelled you into playing in the realm of the physical again?
Hannah: Well, I started working for New Scientist Magazine pretty much straight out of Uni. I had no idea what I wanted to do. It had to be something STEM related, but beyond that, I had no idea. I remember going to a career fair and being just so lost and not knowing what I wanted to do that I just decided I was going to work for whoever gave me the best freebies. I came away from there and I looked at my bag and I went; I actually don't think the atomic weapons establishment is me. Maybe this was a bad strategy. Maybe I'll have to try and look for a proper job in a more traditional the way. I just got really lucky; New Scientist was advertising for an intern just when I was searching for something. I applied and I got in and I spent five beautiful years being a sort of editor and sort of general dog's body.
Hannah: I kind of had this idea that the maker movement was happening; people were in their bedrooms and making these cool things with technology and as a science and technology magazine, shouldn't that be something that we're covering? So, I started asking around and saying, “Why isn't this something that we're talking about? Why aren't we writing anything about it?” Eventually they said, “Well, if you think it's so good, why don't you write about it?” At the time I just kind of knew it was a thing, but I was nowhere near it. I didn't have a 3D printer and I didn't know how any of it worked. I heard of an Arduino, but I'd never bought one or used one. They were like, “Why don't you write about it?” So, I started writing about it and I thought, “Actually I’m going to have to kind of get involved to kind of know what it's about.” So, I bought an Arduino, and I made a little project and thought, “Well, actually that was quite cool, and everyone seemed to enjoy that.” So, then it started, and it grew into this column where every week I'd make a daft invention and write about it. Over time, I just realized that I liked coming up with the ideas and making the dumb thing more than I enjoyed writing about it and the rest of my day job. So, I was kind of like, I wonder if I can just make that the whole job instead of having to do the other bits.
(12:50 – 19:05) Special Effects & Other Projects
Carrie: So how long have you been pretty much full-time maker, content creator on your own?
Hannah: At the minute, I am a special effects technician.
Carrie: Oh, okay, cool.
Hannah: I've been doing that for about a year and it has been a wild year. It has been amazing! I'm just incredibly lucky that it kind of, in the couple of years that I was working part-time and trying to build up some skills with the idea that I wanted to do something that was more practical and more connected to physically making things. I just got this opportunity. I'd managed to teach myself just about enough that somebody took a chance on me and let me come and work in their workshop. I've just spent a year trying to catch up to all the incredible people that I work with, who are all so talented and know so much about making. I could barely use a hand drill a year ago when I got there and now, I’m doing 7-axis CNC just like, “Yeah, that's fine, that's normal,” but it's just such a lot of fun. I'm so lucky to have all the cool things to play on now.
Carrie: That's cool. So, you're actually in the realm of physical object, special effects, not computer-generated special effects, which is what I think, and a lot of people think, of as special effects these days are people creating massive explosions on the computer. So, can you talk about any of the things that you've done? Is that okay to ask?
[Hannah: There's probably some that I can, there's definitely some that I can't and for some reason, whenever somebody asks me the question, the ones that I can't talk about are the ones that to come to the forefront of my mind. But I remember one of the first things I did, it was making an alarm. That just sort of like blew my mind. Because I kind of thought, surely you can find one of these, these exists. Why do I need to make one?
Carrie: I guess, what is the line between, I guess the prop department and the special effects department when it comes to physical objects like that? Or is there kind of really a no line there?
Hannah: Yeah, I think it comes down to what they needed to do. Because this alarm clock, they had this one that they wanted me to basically copy. They were like, “We want this, but we want it an inch bigger. We need to be able to control the time off screen. We want to zoom in and we want to push a button to have the minute tick over between two different times.” But then it still has to be a clock because it's going to be in the background of the scene. It was a harder problem than it kind of seemed, because you kind of go, “Yeah, I can make a clock.” Then 10 minutes later, “Oh, my God, nobody makes any screens that are square and those dimensions, this might not be possible.” Then you’re trying to design a little menu so that the people who were on set with this prop will be able to set the time and do what they need to do.
Hannah: You're like, oh, I guess I need to make that way more obvious. Because if I'm kind of touching the buttons, I know how to use the raspberry PI desktop, but maybe they haven't seen it before and it's going to need to launch automatically. It's just a whole different level of thinking, which you folks probably experienced with kind of making kits and soldering kits for people. It's really different to make something for yourself that you know how to use. That was kind of an adjustment; figuring out how to design for somebody else to be able to interact with what you've made.
Carrie: Definitely, definitely. Some of our stuff has kind of popped up a little bit sporadically so far. Based upon things that it was like, “Oh, I need this thing and if I put a little bit of extra time into it, I could actually make it into a product that I think that people could use.” But yeah, there are definitely challenges because you don't know necessarily what people are going to have trouble with and they're going to be different things. I have trouble with being more experienced and stuff, but it's definitely helpful having Robyn design some of the soldering kits because she's newer to electronics. Those were some of the first kits and boards that she designed so having a person who's at that level, designing a kit for other people who are close to that level, is a little bit of a better fit.
Hannah: Yeah, it's really hard to predict sometimes when you have some knowledge of some information, what things other people will or won't know about the same thing. That's the really difficult thing about even writing tutorials, knowing which things to describe or not; that's the dark art of tutorial writing. Really.
Carrie: Yeah. Trying to pretend that you're a blank slate, right. Come at it from that perspective. I mean, UIs take a lot of code. The first one that I developed was for this accessory for a yarn winding tools, so it was a controller for this yarn winding tool. I had made a prototype where you hit a button and it did this and it started and stopped and I was like, “Woohoo!” I thought that that was going to be the majority of the code and the hard part. Then it turns out that the user interface for handling button presses and going through a menu structure and pressing up and down and incrementing things – that actually was most of the code. The control scheme for the winder was super easy.
Hannah: Yeah, I can imagine. You have to ask yourself questions, like what would happen if they pressed every button at once? You have to stop that part of your brain that's like, why would somebody do that? Because somebody will, somebody will do it just to see what happens and you have to be prepared for that eventuality.
Carrie: Yup, absolutely.
(20:59 - 28:17) RF Tag PCB
Carrie: I would totally love to see more of your RFID tag PCB. And please tell us all about designing it because that was your first PCB design and that is a super impressive first project. It's a meaty one. Our first projects around here are blinky boards and yours was just like RFID tag.
Hannah: I'm just actually- I'm just really, really bad at things like scope creep. I just kind of, you know, it started off as a board with an LED on it and it ended up as, “Actually why don't I just add an NFC tag?” That was completely straightforward, a natural progression, but yeah, I'll get them out.
Carrie: That makes sense.
Hannah: I'll bring one close.
Carrie: Oh, that is so cool. I really love how there are skinny pieces of solder mask just to support the silk screen that's on top of them.
Hannah: Yeah. Yeah.
Carrie: I saw that on your photo, and I was like, “Oh, that's clever.”
Hannah: I keep moving it the wrong way. I don't know my left from my right.
Carrie: That is cool. Nice.
Hannah: Well, I heard, because I don’t know since this is my first board, I haven't experimented with solder mask and silkscreen before. But I'd heard that silkscreen doesn't adhere that well on its own to the copper or the FR4, that adheres better to the solder mask and that some board houses, if there's any silkscreen that's going over copper, they'll remove it because they assume that you've made a mistake. It was a thing that was a preemptive design idea to put the solder mask under but I actually really liked the way it's turned out. So, it's been a really good, good thing to do.
Carrie: Yeah, no, it's super cool. And you're exactly right. I think a fair number of board houses use automatic software that actually imports your Gerbers and automatically cuts out any silk screen that is overlapping a bare copper part. Usually for a normal board design, that would mean that you accidentally put silk screen, like a reference designator or was overlapping a pad something and then if you do have a poxy silkscreen on that part, then it's hard to solder to it, you know? I mean, I remember the good old days when they didn't do those kinds of checks and when they weren't built into your circuit board layout programs and you would get boards that would have that problem if you weren't careful about it.
Hannah: Because it is confusing when you first open up all the different layers and then even just daft things, like it took me I don't know how long to figure out there's text on the back of the board and to figure out which way that had to appear on screen.
Carrie: Can you hold that up? That's the- oh, okay. So that is, is it a cutout? Both in the silkscreen and in the copper?
Hannah: Yup. So, it's just the bare FR4 there. The thinking is that when you kind of hold it up to the light, the light should kind of shine through the letters. I would've loved to have the lettering in copper but because it’s an RFID antenna, you don't want to have any copper in the middle of where the antenna is.
Carrie: Yeah, did you use KiCAD for it?
Hannah: I used Eagle.
Carrie: Eagle, oh okay, I’m not as familiar.
Hannah: That's what we use in work. I haven't needed to use it for anything in my job yet, but this has been my project to try and skill up so I can bring that to what I'm doing. For Eagle I couldn't find a really easy way of bringing the artwork in or drawing the artwork. There was one user language program that would take a bit map and basically turn it into lots of tiny polygons to try and approximate the art. I've heard that it's slightly easier in KiCAD.
Carrie: Yeah, it's easier in- I go back and forth between “Key-cad” and “Kai-cad”. I don't know, I don't care however you say it. It’s actually easier there than it is even in Altium, which I've used a lot professionally. It's still a very difficult process in all circuit board layout software, which I think is kind of interesting because yes, the automatic ones, like Altium, will do some converting of a Microsoft bitmap or something like that. Basically, you have to go through this crazy obscure process of pasting an image into Word, copying it, and then pasting it into the circuit board layout program. Then it does this convoluted process of creating a whole bunch of polygons from your artwork.
Carrie: Most of the time it creates a shape that is so complex that anytime you try to manipulate it, it just crashes or bogs way down. I mean, the good part about how it's done in Altium is that you do actually have the ability to scale it after you've imported. KiCAD makes you import it as part of a footprint, which is a little weird, and once you import it, the size is fixed. So, trying to get something to fit perfectly, there's a lot of back and forth and back and forth and that's painful. I don't know if the Shenzhen 2, an add on for KiCAD that I haven't really played with much that's for Inkscape, but I don't know if that's any better. I've also heard that it doesn't, it might not work with the latest version of Inkscape yet.
Hannah: KiCAD is something I definitely want to get into, because I just think any free open-source software, like big tick. I mean the good thing is that Eagle is at least free for just two-layer boards. So, it's something that beginners can just download and use and make a simpler two-layer board where it's for free. In general, I try as much as I can to just use free open-source software where it's easy and available. Because I just think that it's a great thing to support and if I can, I will. So KiCAD is definitely on my list.
(31:01 – 35:53) Stormtrooper Project
Carrie: Tell us about some of the other cool things that I'm seeing on your desk.
Hannah: What else have I got around here.
Carrie: Tell us more about the storm trooper, that one is backlit. What is it? What do you got going on there?
Hannah: I can take it apart. So, it's just, this wasn't really- this was a sort of one day build, type quick project for Valentine’s Day.
Carrie: One day? Dang, I'm very impressed by the speed in which you crank out a project. That looks legitimately way nicer than what one of my one day projects would have looked.
Hannah: Oh, I’m sure that's not true. It's just because it's far enough away from the camera that nobody can tell what a mess it secretly is. I'll show you the wiring now it's just, there's literally-
Carrie: All I can see are beautiful LEDs.
Hannah: It was hot glued in there and it's now literally not anymore. It's not too much of a mess in there; I can't remember if I've actually got one that turns all of these [LEDs] off, I think. But that was just a Valentine’s Day project. I realized that the things that I bought for Valentine’s Day weren't going to arrive in time and I was like, “I'm going to have to make something.” I can't really take credit completely for the design because it was entirely inspired by this really cool dinosaur lamp that I saw on Thingiverse.
Hannah: There was a link to it in the tweet that I did about this. I should have had the link ready. I can't take credit for the idea, but there's just kind of dinosaur shaped, and I thought it was a really neat little idea because it's just a really simple 3D print. All you've got to do is kind of extrude the outer edge of the shape that you want the lamp. Then to diffuse the LEDs, it's just a two or three-layer, white PLA print. It's a panel that just slots into that print like that. Because there's an inch or two between the back panel and the front, that's just enough distance to diffuse the LEDs really nicely. I hadn’t seen 3D prints used for diffusing LEDs much before, and then I saw them on this dinosaur lamp and I thought, “Hey, that's such a great idea. That's \ the bane of every maker's existence – how do I diffuse my LEDs?
Carrie: Yes, yes, it is a challenge.
Hannah: That was a really fun strategy, I thought, to just use it. It's nice because a lot of the makers that I know and that I follow, have 3D printers or have access to 3D printer. That's becoming a lot easier now and as the prices are getting lower and there's more information out there; it's way more feasible for people to either own a 3D printer or have access to one. Whereas sometimes you see really amazing builds, and you want to kind of make one yourself and then you figure out that you need a metal mill and a lathe and all the equipment that you don't quite have room for in a flat in London. It's just nice that the project is so self-contained and if you have a 3D printer, or access to a 3D printer, and a soldering iron that's basically all you need to make something like that. It feels like quite a chunky, kind of significant build for those more easily accessible tools, I guess.
Carrie: Yeah. Definitely. I was going to say, I thought just from looking at it, I was like, “Oh, that was probably laser cut. Right? Because it looks like acrylic, you know?” So that's really cool that it was 3D printed because a lot of times more people have access to 3D printers than laser cutters, at their homes at least. Maker spaces will generally have both, but yeah. Cool. Very cool.
Hannah: Yeah. I guess, so I recycle a lot of the parts from old builds. So many of the things that I've made, they’re in pieces or have been recycled into kind of other things. But that always means that when I kind of do show and tell I'm just like, I have a pile of wires, like this was a robot, which is a lot less impressive than having an actual robot.
41:39 – 44:50) Tea Dunking Robot
Carrie: So, the other thing I want to know more about, because I was trying to find a video on it, but I didn't see one. The tea bag dunking robot, because I was like, “That's cool and I think super useful.”
Hannah: You know what, I think I have bits of him under the table. If I could disappear for a minute. So, his brain has been recycled for another project sadly, and I don't know if you can tell, but he's actually extremely dusty.
Carrie: Nope, looks great. 720P it'll look fantastic to all of the viewers!
Hannah: Yeah, I couldn't part with it, it's one of the very first projects I made and it's kind of terrible and wonderful and it will always occupy a special place in my heart. We've got our on/off switch there and then a dial so that you can select your number of dunks.
Carrie: Nice, excellent.
Hannah: Some team might need longer and then a little LCD screen that will tell you the number of dunks that you selected and then the number of dunks remaining. Then a tiny, extremely underpowered, wobbly servo arm to do the dunking with I think a bit of Lego that I've just cut a piece out of to make the teabag hook and quite a lot of tape.
Carrie: I totally want to make one of these for my mom.
Hannah: The very first time I switched it on, I just absolutely hadn't thought about trying to ramp the motion at all. So, it was extremely aggressive tea bag dunking. By the time we stopped laughing I think more than half of the water in the mug had been distributed around my kitchen.
Carrie: Nice, I feel like that should be a setting, dunking aggressiveness.
Hannah: Overly aggressive, hopefully version 2 will have an adjustable aggressiveness of the dunking.
Carrie: Oh my gosh.
(1:42:50 – 1:51:02) NFT Project
Carrie: Is there anything else that you want to talk about that you're doing, that you want to share or links or stuff, ways for people to support you and your projects?
Hannah: Follow me on Twitter @hannahmakes; there'll be more YouTube stuff coming eventually. Wedding planning has taken over my life. But all of the fun things that we're making for the wedding, like the fun save the dates, we've got these beautiful boards that I've been making on the stream tonight. Then for our wedding invitations, they involve some illusion [Holds up invitation and a pair of anaglyph glasses]. Another thing that I will have coming up, in the not-too-distant future, is a project I'm working on with DesignSpark. If I can move all the mess on my desk to free this wonderful device, this is DesignSpark’s air quality sensor kit which I should really plug in, but I think I've actually run out of power sockets.
Hannah: When it’s powered on it's got a CO2 sensor, it's got PM2.5 through PM10 or something, a volatile organic sensor, temperature, and humidity. It's like a little air quality dashboard and it also communicates all that data via MQTT. So, either on a local network or if you connect it to wifi, you can configure it so that it will put that data to the cloud and then you can get that data from the cloud. So, there's a group of us who were doing fun projects with this equity sensor data. You might have already seen Allie of Geeky Faye has done a really cool LED necklace project.
Carrie: I just saw that gorgeous, gorgeous work.
Hannah: Yeah. My project is a bit weird and maybe a bit controversial, but I'm going to be making an NFT.
Carrie: I see, I see why the controversy. Yes.
Hannah: The idea is that this NFT is going to be able to change over time with air quality data from that sensor and like update and change and showcase some of the cooler sides of the technological aspects of blockchain and NFT technology. Also, if it gets sold, we're going to sell it to try and raise money for a carbon offset charity. Hopefully, it will turn into air quality art that benefits the planet rather than being terrible for the planet, but it’s all a bit complicated.
Carrie: It is.
Hannah: A fraught subject, but hopefully it will be just a little kind of harmless exploration of it that will get people talking about air quality.
Carrie: Yeah, I mean, that's interesting that it's also tied to a physical thing, which most NFT’s are not, so I like that aspect of it as well. So, does the person who purchases the NFT, will they get the sensor itself or is it just the sensor lives apart from the owner of the NFT?
Hannah: The sensor lives apart from the owner of the NFT. So actually, I think what I'm probably going to do is have it update off of this specific air quality sensor for a duration of time. Then for the longevity of it, because if the sensor goes offline or unplug it, then you don't want the NFT to just never update again. So, it might transition to taking that data from a public API that has air quality data and serves that from multiple servers so that it can build a little bit more robustness into that process. But yeah, certainly to begin with, it's going to be taking data live from my air quality sensor.
Carrie: “Live from Hannah’s desk. Ooh, I think Hannah might be soldering right now, the air quality has really gone down.”
Hannah: “Why did I buy this NFT? It looks like garbage now.” Yeah, so that should be an interesting project. It was one that we started quite a long time ago and I knew absolutely nothing about NFTs when I started it. I wrote a really long article for DesignSpark on all the things that I found out when I was researching them. It's messy and difficult, but I think it's less black and white than I've seen some commentary about it, because I think that's true of most technology. I think my personal motto is that “Technology is a tool.” There's always been a massive outcry about social media. I mean, for me personally, I found it to be a hugely positive force in my life because it's allowed me to connect with a whole bunch of people across the planet that do things that I like and that I can hang out with. Without social media, I wouldn't be here hanging out with all sorts of amazing people, like you, and soldering projects. That's a great thing, but also undeniably, social media has been used for terrible nefarious purposes, but technology is ultimately a tool and it's about how you put it to work that makes the difference. I think that the technology that underpins NFTs there’s maybe even a potential kind of second life for that as a different system, but as it stands, like the way it's being used [Hannah shrugs].
Carrie: Yeah. The majority of the uses are not very good, but I totally agree with you that yes, technology is a tool, and the uses are various. I mean, blockchain in and of itself is really interesting to prove a digital possession of something. Right. I think that is a very useful thing in very many cases, but there are a lot of different ways to enact it. I think it's interesting that people are looking for more sustainable ways to, I mean, it's definitely come a long way since the kind of brute force Bitcoin blockchain method was invented, I guess. But yeah, it's very interesting. There are a lot of pros and cons to all of the different proof of stake versus proof of work. It's a big topic. It's a very big topic, but the shame is popularity of the very, I would say, more frivolous uses of it – to buy memes and it's like, “What does that even mean…”
Hannah: Absolutely, just the wild speculation. People just bidding billions of pounds on a JPEG that somebody’s friend made in five minutes and it just kind of doesn't seem; we've got this potentially powerful technology that can do interesting things, and to me, that doesn't seem like the most interesting use of it. So, having NFTs that can update over time and take data from off-chain and to do something with it on-chain. That was something I didn't know was possible and something that I think kind of adds flexibility and potential. I'm not an expert in the technology so I couldn't say for sure if that means that it's got a use case that makes it a vital and useful technology. It's emerging and it's a kind of a technology that hasn't found its niche and its groove, but we’re finding out some of the different things that it can do that aren’t just JPEGs of monkeys and that’s interesting to me. So yeah, hoping to just explore that a little bit.
Carrie: Yeah. I think that's cool. I think that's super cool.
For solder sesh #36 we had a special guest from Australia, Steph Piper, join us! Steph is the founder of Elkei Education on Twitter and Instagram. We chatted about her experience in STEM and college, her intro into 3D printing and its application in bio-fabrication, her beautiful 2-colored solder mask PCBs, what it took to find a company to manufacture them, her 2-meter The Party Button art installation, and Arduino workshops where she teaches people to make companion critters!
She's on Twitter and Instagram and you can buy her stuff on Tindie and Etsy!
(1:49 – 9:54) STEM/3D Printers
Carrie: So, before we get into the specifics of the boards can you tell us a little bit about how did you get into stem in the first place and what was your path like there? Who encouraged you and gave you tools to play with along the way?
Steph: Oh yeah, so I always had a really strong love for science, and I had science as my number one career choice for a while. I had an epic science camp that I went to in high school and an awesome chemistry teacher who’d bring in a Barbie doll and she'd put it in the different types of acids.
Steph: Loved all of that stuff. I started doing a Bachelor of Science at Uni and while I was doing that, all the medical stuff around 3D printing started to come out and I was like, oh my gosh, this is the stuff, this is what I want to be into! At the time it was like, 2012 and it was prime Prusa Mendel era. So of course, I went and bought myself a little Prusa Mendel kit online, and I put it together and I started having a go at a bit of 3D printing in my room at college where I was staying in the university campus. The first time I fired it up I had a crowd of other students in there with me. We're all just sitting there like, oh my God. It was peak hype at the time. And honestly, it still is a little bit for me. I'll catch myself watching the machine being like, stares in anticipation.
Carrie: It is very Zen and fascinating. Yes.
Steph: Yeah, it is definitely. So, with that, I was able to go and approach a professor at another university who was working on bio-fabrication, and I was able to show him some parts that I'd made on a machine that I built, and he was like, “You’re on the team.”
Steph: Yeah, I got to work on medical 3D printing for a bit, which was pretty wild. It all sort of transitioned me into hackerspaces and maker spaces. I feel like 3D printing has been by original sort of excitement but being able to go off and do electronics and art and all kinds of other things has been a really fantastic maker journey.
Carrie: Cool. Well, before we get into electronics, I'm interested in what kind of medical parts you got to print or design or both.
Steph: Yeah, it's actually pretty funny, I was actually making breast implants.
Carrie: Wow, that is something I did not expect would be 3D printed.
Steph: So, I can explain.
Carrie: Wouldn’t it create hard points?
Steph: And that really was just the tip of the nipple of the project. But anyway, so the idea was that so if someone has breast cancer, they may need to go in for a mastectomy or lumpectomy to have that cancer removed. At that point they are sort of faced with a bit of a decision as to whether to just go completely without natural breasts at which point, they can be having some kind of self-identity issues, which is not good. Or they can go and get silicon or saline implants put in which are even worse, to be honest. The research around the terrible things that can happen with those and how painful they can be and how they need to be removed every 10 years.
Carrie: That was one thing I didn't know until a friend went through that, unfortunately, but talking to her about it, I was like, wait, what, breast implants have to be replaced? They don't just stay in there? I was completely unaware of that.
Steph: Yeah, yeah. Gosh. So, we were sort of working on an alternative where you could 3d print out a biodegradable scaffold and over two years it would biodegrade into just fat tissue in the body. You'd end up with something that was a bit more of a lifetime solution that still looked like a breast.
Carrie: That's super interesting. Would there be anything else behind the scaffold, like saline or anything like that? Or just, just the scaffold?
Steph: Yeah, it would just dissolve away; you'd have seated fat and connective tissue in there. It still remained to be seen whether the project actually would work in practice. We were doing animal trials and it was a pretty wild project, to be honest. I feel like I'm not sure if I would want to test out that project at all, but it was a great trial run to actually test it out and use a whole range of different 3D printers that we had in the lab. Which was what I was all about.
Carrie: Very cool. Awesome. So then how did you get into circuit boards and electronics?
Steph: Yes. That is a good question. I think seeing circuit boards and electronics has always been a little bit of magic to me. It's been that next thing that like, if you can perfect coding, you can figure out how to add cute blinking lights to everything, you know? I was pretty keen to try and challenge myself and figure it out. My first electronic stuff was with Arduino, and I managed to get in and have a crack at some Arduino by doing a, expensive workshop. Which I sort of wished that I had someone who was able to sit down and teach me. Even during the workshop, I sort of came across some casual sexism type stuff. One of the ladies in the course was like, “Oh, can someone help me, my female brain can understand this.” And yeah, I feel like I've sort of come across that a few steps along the way. But now I'm able to actually teach Arduino workshops and sort of bridge across a lot of the barriers that I faced when I was trying to learn. Which feels really good to get the community on and make sure that people do know how to do this in an affordable and free way through the Uni.
Carrie: Yeah, definitely. So, was that then still while you were at Uni when you did that workshop and started into that? What was the majority of your coursework in, out of curiosity? What did you end up with a degree in and things like that?
Steph: Yeah. So, I ended up with a Bachelor of Biomedical Science and I did my honors year in vaccine development, which I didn't enjoy as much, and then went on to that PhD project and I ended up only lasting about a year there. While I was doing all that, I got super involved in the Brisbane Hackerspace, which is the biggest hacker space in Australia. I used to go out there pretty regularly on the open nights and go hang out there. Soon enough, I ended up becoming president out there for two years. Just managing the space out there and seeing all the fantastic projects people were working on was just constant inspiration for what was possible. I really adored the show and tell times where people would be like, “Yeah, I built this weird contraption, check it out!” That was definitely the inspiration; it was around then that I started to get really excited about what's possible with electronics.
Carrie: Cool. So, electronics wasn't specific coursework that you pursued in Uni, but it was around that time and after.
(10:36 – 17:50) PCB design
Carrie: Tell us about these circuit boards. One of the first things that I noticed, in particular being somebody else who makes circuit boards, is that I'm like, “Huh, she's got at least two colors of solder mask going here.” Two colors of solder mask, which you've kind of created different tones by making parts of it over copper. So, this part that's a little bit lighter I can tell is over a copper pour. Then this part, which is a little darker is probably over the bare fiber glass.
Carrie: Then definitely the face is bare fiberglass, which I'm assuming that's where the light shines through maybe, but you also have blue and I'm guessing that the white is actually silkscreen.
Steph: Yes, that's correct.
Carrie: Okay. Yeah, but still two colors of solder mask, that is not a typical thing. Can you tell me about how you got board houses to do that for you? And did it cost arm and a leg to do that? Because that's, of course, what I would assume.
Steph: Yeah. That's exactly right. We wanted to do something that was pretty unique and different and stood out as something that is obviously not your standard green, classic boards, which are, to be honest, fairly uninspiring. I feel like, this kind of board really shows the power of having diverse thinkers in your design team to actually make something that is so different from the norm. Anyway, to make this, so to wind back a few steps, Elkei came out of a startup weekend competition. I pitched the idea of electronics for girls at a startup weekend, formed a team and met my business partner there. We ended up pitching on that weekend and winning that weekend in the local competition, and we got to move on to the international competition.
Steph: So, we got to pitch again and traveled to Bali to the international finals which was epic and pitch again against teams from China, Malaysia, Brunei, Japan – all kinds of places. We ended up winning that one as well, and we thought, “Wow, maybe this idea has some legs.” Through many failed and tried ideas on what we could actually make as a company, we settled on your minimum viable product that we probably should have picked in the first place, which is just a small soldiering kit. We ended up traveling to Shenzhen; we went to China and visited a circuit board expo to try and get an idea of what was possible and who could do what. We had a translator in tow and we're walking around this huge, expansive, ridiculously large facility with hundreds of circuit board factory contacts. And we're asking each one as we go, can you make more colors on a circuit board?
Carrie: Right, more than one.
Steph: Yeah, more than one. Two colors. Every time the translator would come back and be like, “Ah, okay, so they've said, why would you want to do that? Circuit board is for function, not for pretty. Circuit board goes in box, goes in enclosure, why you put nice things on circuit, no one looks at circuit boards, fool. What are you doing here?”
Carrie: What year was this, out of curiosity?
Steph: This was like August 2019. A bit terrified on the scale of COVID.
Carrie: Oh yeah. I didn't even think about that, terrifying for that for sure. I would have thought that at that point in time, there were definitely more, at least I feel like I was seeing more, interesting artwork on circuit boards by that point, and it was a little more common place.
Steph: Yeah, badge life is definitely a thing. That's definitely what inspired me down this path. I knew it was possible; there's a big badge with a face on it from, I think, Mr. Robot, that has skin color solder mask on it. So, I knew it was possible, I knew they could do weird things. I was like, I know you could do it if you tried. Anyway, we managed to find one factory that would actually do it and when they said, “Yes,” we were like, “Are you sure?” They're like, “Yeah, we'll try it.” And I was like, do you understand what I meant?
Carrie: Right, you realize I want two colors, on the same side, too. That's another thing I would have expected. Maybe they would be like, oh, we could do one color on the front and one color on the back or something. Interesting.
Steph: Yeah, they managed to say yes, and I just had to specify to their customer rep which sections on the board should be which color and where, and it was done.
Carrie: That's super cool and they did a fantastic job. I mean, these boards look awesome. The other thing that I'm really impressed with, and maybe, I might switch over to microscope view here to show this, but I was really impressed with the fact that even the silk screen kind of comes right up to the edge of your exposed copper. There’s barely any back-off or clearance there. I feel like most typical board houses will kind of automatically include a little bit of a back-off between silkscreen and exposed copper areas as a matter of course because on a functional circuit board, you don't want the silk screen overlapping in an exposed copper area because the assumption is that you're trying to solder to that area. It was cool that they even were very precise with that as well.
Steph: I didn't realize that. I just didn't bother changing it just out of ignorance.
Carrie: Well, it might be that they saw these and it was kind of obvious as to what your goal was with them. Since the normal rules didn't apply, maybe none of the normal rules apply too.
(43:39 – 53:15) Party Button
Carrie: So, tell us about some of the art things that you're doing these days. What made you start to do them and be interested in doing larger scale art projects?
Steph: Yeah, so last year, I had my first larger art sculpture on display called The Party Button and it's essentially a two-meter-tall polished, stainless steel, fake crosswalk looking thing. I can approach it and press the button, like an actual big crosswalk button, and it plays 1 of 20 randomized party tracks. You can do a little dance and the little characters at the top and little walking men will also do a little dance with you.
Carrie: Nice, nice.
Steph: Yeah. That was very cool to build. It began with a crappy prototype as all things do.
Carrie: Of course. Let's see if we can do a screen share really quick. I want to screen-share the party button because it's kind of amazing and you need to see photos of it in order to fully appreciate it. Cool. Oh, there it is.
Steph: You beauty.
Carrie: I know. That's really cool. I love how it's this whole thing and I really like the circuit board aesthetic on the bottom too. I think that's super cool.
Steph: Yeah. Hell yeah. The project began with one day, someone bringing me some real, walking men traffic lights that had been, I think, cycled out of rotation and replaced.
Carrie: We have some of those.
Steph: Yeah. So, I got this, and I was like, “Yeah, I got to do something with this.” I ripped out all the old green LEDs in it and replaced them with those rainbow LEDs.
Carrie: Oh, it was an individual LED traffic light. That's cool. Ours is a single, crazy bright LED in the middle with a giant lens around it.
Carrie: Yeah, but the individual LED style ones, which I don't know if we have any of the ones on the actual street around here –the style that I just described, which is the single one. All the ones locally seem to be the multiple LEDs per light. But that's cool that it gave you the option of replacing them with rainbows, because how cool would some weird rainbow LED traffic light be? Right. How would people behave at intersection?
Carrie: If it was purple in one direction and blue in the other, what would they do? Would it lead to disaster? Let's do the experiment.
Steph: Yeah, so I ended up putting it together in a crappy prototype, mounting it on a swivel chair base that had a PVC pipe through the middle of it. Got one of those Spark Fun wave triggers to play some music with it and zip-tied a bunch of stuff around this PVC pipe. Suddenly, you could press a button on it and it would play Darude’s “Sandstorm” and a whole bunch of main tracks I had on there. You could just walk up to the Makerspace at work where I had it on display and I would just encourage you to press the button and see what happens.
Carrie: I love it.
Steph: I ended up sandwiching all the electronics inside a couple of clear acrylic pieces so that you could actually see what the brains were and understand how the Arduinos took the button input and gave it to the wave trigger and different things happened.
Carrie: Awesome. So, I imagine though that for it to be on the street, you would have to have a reasonably powerful speaker driving it in order for it to be heard.
Steph: Definitely, yeah. So that was the crappy prototype and I applied for a grant to turn it into something real. I wrote in, and I said, “I can make this work, here's my prototype, it works. Let me do you a 2m tall version of this that's fully ready for outdoor display. What do you think?” I got a call back and they said, “Yep, we love your idea. Do you want to build two for twice the money?” Which was 30 grand in Australian dollars. I was like, “Oh God, okay. Oh lord, I have to build two now.” So, I ended up putting that together and we ended up using a full-on studio monitor speaker to go in the base and it’s pretty loud. Put it all the way up to 11.
Steph: Doing this project in the 6 months that they gave you to build it, it ended up getting cut pretty close. A bit too close for comfort to be honest, and trying to get the LED matrixes to do cool things in sequence with a button, and have randomized display; there wasn't any good code examples for that. I should have gone and done a bit more coding before I started this project. I was lucky that Larry the Optimizer, @fast_code_r_us on Twitter, pulled through and helped me with that one, it was an absolute lifesaver. A week before it was meant to go on display, I got a message from our engineers who were meant to certify it, instead say that you can't go on public display because you can't bolt it down, it has to be freestanding. Of course, something that tall is, liable to topple over if it's not weighed down properly. If someone's biking around on an electric scooter and clock into it, you want to make sure it stays there. They came back and said, “Look, we've gone and done the math on it and you're going to need to put an extra 350 kilos in the base.”
Carrie: That's a lot of weight. Holy crap.
Steph: And I'm doing my own math here… If I go to in the store and get some flat plate gym weights the volume would be too large as it currently is. At the time I was like, “Oh my God, what am I going to do here? It's not going to get on display. I'm going to have to break into the defense base and steal some uranium weight. I’m going to be sneaking into the science department at night, grabbing some tungsten cubes. Like, how am I going to weigh this thing down?” Lucky for me, I called up my metal worker who built the whole outside of it and I said, “What am I going to do?” He's like, “I can just knock over some stacked, flat steel plates that are sort of in a bit of a ziggurat shape.” And lucky for me, he knocked it over the weekend before it was meant to go on display. However, that was a real close one and now I have these huge piles of weights that need to go with the art installation whenever it is on display somewhere.
Carrie: It's logistically difficult. How do you move the 350-kilo ziggurat around?
Steph: They're all stacked so you can pick them up individually.
Carrie: But still that's-
Steph: Painful. Yeah, if you're trying to pick them up all at once. Just have to hit the protein shakes.
Carrie: Okay, just good old brute force. Wow. That's a lot of work. That is like, literally, a labor of love.
(1:20:41 – 1:26:08) Russel Crow
Steph: I've got one more project sitting on my desk that I haven't talked about yet.
Carrie: Ooh, please show us.
Steph: So, this one here is a little bit broken at the moment, but he's a little companion robot. But he's been traveling too much, and he's been crushed in a bag.
Carrie: He’s like a little sort of fat little crow.
Steph: Yeah, a little birdy. Chubby little bird.
Carrie: Nice, so does it have a name?
Steph: Yes, Russell Crow.
Carrie: That is awesome. Hello, Mr. Russell Crow. It is nice to meet you. I had Russell Crow on my livestream. That's fantastic. What kind of animations do you have him do?
Steph: Yeah, so he's beak moves. It opens and closes. It doesn't make a noise there; I just make a noise for him. [Reads comment: A shoulder chicken.] Yes, thank you. Yeah, in difference to our Australian bin chickens that we have. His little eyeball turns on as well, a little red light that comes on.
Steph: But yeah, this little project was the prototype, like a demo bot for a workshop that I did. At the moment, when you sit down and you teach, when I teach Arduino, I've sort of been doing the same old blink an LED, move a servo motor type stuff for a little while, and it gets the point across but it's not quite as inspiring and fun. I feel like making your own project is a bit more along the lines of something people can actually see something cool come out of what they've done. More recently I designed an open-source workshop type thing where you can actually 3D print a range of different chassis types. So, this is the Peabody chassis that this is built around. See the little 3d printed skeleton under there?
Carrie: Cool, yeah.
Steph: There's also one that is designed to sit on your shoulder, and a couple that are a big and small desk style. The idea is that you can sit down and learn Arduino and make lights blink and motors move, but you can make something, a little creature, come to life as you're doing it.
Carrie: I think that that's super cool. I mean, really for anybody, I was going to say especially for kids, but I think the appeal of things that move and come to life is pretty universal.
Steph: Oh yeah. When you look at standard Arduino classes as well, for someone who's not traditionally interested in electronics, it's a bit of a hard sell to sit down and do complex things all day.
Carrie: It is, and it's hard to, I think, get the excitement across and without having like some sort of end project that is interactive, at least. Because if it's just moving a servo, it's like, well, okay but why would you do that kind of a thing, for people who aren't in this world already. The idea is to try to bring more people into this world and get that spark in their brain going and thinking, “Oh, maybe I could make this thing that's of interest to me.” So that's super cool that you're doing the companion bot things. I haven't quite gotten into that yet, but I want to and have some ideas there.
Steph: Yeah. It's I think one of the best examples of STEAM activities versus STEM activities, I suppose. Where you're actually getting a chance to be creative and make a creature of your own design while learning all this Arduino stuff along the way. I am really keen to teach more of these types of classes where people can build their own little creatures. The rest of the bot is pretty much just all crafting, really. All of this stuff is e-waste or industrial waste. So, the little fluffy front there is the off cuts from a car seat.
Carrie: Oh, cool. Where do you get these materials?
Steph: There's a lady in my town who runs a company called Junk Maid and she does junk workshops.
Carrie: That is fantastic. Wow.
Steph: She will give you junk in exchange for a donation to a local animal shelter.
Steph: Yeah. I was lucky that she just gave me four boxes of miscellaneous things that people could use. But as long as you've got like some decent selections of wire to build out a skeleton, little wire head here, and little wire feet. As long as you've got some wire that you can start to build some shapes and make the character start to be fleshed out, then this kind of thing is very possible.
This week we invited Amanda Preske of Circuit Breaker Labs and Because Science to join our livestream! Carrie and Amanda got to talking about Amanda's experience getting a PhD while running Circuit Breaker Labs, turning a webstore into a retail front and the different challenges faced, her PCB upcycle program, and the process of making custom pieces for people.
You can find her on Twitter @CBLAmanda and on Instagram @becausescience_dc
Check out her website and newsletter!
(0:00 – 5:52) How Amanda got Started with Science & Her Business
Carrie: Hello everyone! It is Wednesday, another solder sesh, and I am super excited because Amanda Preske is here. She is of both Circuit Breaker Labs and Because Science and I'm excited to have her here. She does amazing artwork with recycled PCBs. [You can see some examples of this right here.] She does some really cool, framed wall art with scrap PCBs and she's also open to retail store in DC called Because Science. Welcome to the show.
Amanda: Thank you so much.
Carrie: So, I would love to hear how did it all start? How did you get into science first? I guess that's a good place to start.
Amanda: Growing up I loved art and science. I filled my course schedule with as much of both as I possibly could. Of course, there wasn't even enough room to do everything I wanted to do. When it came time to go to college, art school was low on the list in the family, so, I became a chemist instead. Chemistry was one of the sciences that at least when I was 17, I thought I really liked, and I definitely do. It was the right science for me. It's a very hands-on, maker-centric science. It's about as Make-y as you can get.
Carrie: Very fundamentally Make-y.
Amanda: Yeah, you can’t really see what you're making, but sometimes you can, Sidebar here – I used to be really good at using a transmission electron microscope in order to image my stuff because it was too small to use the light microscope; so, I could see what I was making just not directly with my own eyes. But I have been making stuff since I was a teenager and selling it on the side and it wasn't until undergrad that I started getting a little bit more science-y with what I was making.
Amanda: That's when I started to find broken lab equipment sitting around our labs and I thought, “I wonder what's inside. What does this look like?” That's the curiosity in me and how I discovered that I really, really liked the way circuit boards looked. I started just seeing what I could do with them and because I was also doing craft shows at the same time and Etsy was just getting started around that time as well. I had a lot of feedback and people liked it. I think I was kind of shocked because up to that point I'd been making other jewelry, beaded stuff, resin stuff. It was okay, but when I started putting that out, people are like, okay, this is neat. So, I was very compelled to keep seeing where that would lead. I ended up going to grad school for chemistry because I was getting my bachelor's right around the recession, and I didn't think I was going to be able to get a job. I didn't go to college thinking I'd get a PhD. I didn't even know what it was or why you would even want one. It wasn't part of my plan.
Amanda: STEM fields usually end up being paid gigs. So, I thought, what's the harm of getting an education and getting paid to do research at the same time. My business kept going and going and going and then when I defended [my thesis], I was like, huh, I got a business here, what do I do. I decided ultimately because I had built a solid following online and I sort of figured out how e-commerce had worked. It seemed stable enough that going the route of being an entrepreneur instead of becoming a professional laboratory researcher seemed like the better option for me. That was about six years ago. We've been operating Circuit Breaker Labs and just this last year we became Because Science.
Amanda: The whole, Because Science part of the business is all shiny and new. The whole point behind that was that the last five years, my work has been getting even more and more science-y. When I got routers, which are those big black boxes behind me, it really opened up the possibilities for what I could create. I could go from say, just making circles and covering them in resin to doing actual, cut out pieces and art. So of course, because I'm a nerd, I started making Erlenmeyer flasks and DNA shapes and things like that.
Carrie: I love it. I love the variety of stuff you have in the store because there's basically every kind of science represented. I believe I saw some dinosaurs at some point at one point in time; there's biology represented. There's obviously chemistry represented. I think I've seen atoms and you've even done stuff that maybe isn't science-y, but I want to say you've done names and flags and all sorts of things. So that's, that's super cool!
(5:56 - 12:18) The Process of Upcycling PCBs
Amanda: I love the rainbow stuff. Orange and purple PCBs are really hard to come by. I just love rainbows, my hair's actually dyed rainbow – just super faded. [Amanda holds up a rainbow pendant in resin] I’ll put this one up close, if you can see that. They’re individual strips of PCB!
Carrie: Yeah, I can see it when you kind of move it around.
Amanda: I like showing off as many colors within a single piece as I can.
Carrie: I'm surprised the purple's hard to come by with all of us maker people always using OSH Park for things. Do we just not give up our circuit boards very easily? Is that what I'm hearing?
Amanda: Possibly, just like, I'd expect to see a lot more turquoise, like Arduino color. Most of what I end up using are motherboards and server boards. Larger scale items work better with my process, as well. I have gotten some purple boards by way of makers upcycling their materials with me – which is awesome! I have an upcycling program. So, I encourage people if they've got boards that they want to get rid of, we give store credit.
Carrie: Ah, there you go. So how does that process work? Because I'm sure that there will be some people watching either now or later that will definitely have spare circuit boards lying around that they could send you.
Amanda: Yeah, we have the details spelled out on our website, but basically get in touch! Let me know what you have, because I can't necessarily take everything. I've taken on this sort of mantra for keeping the studio tidier, in that I'd prefer to not buy supplies or take on materials that I can't immediately assign a purpose to. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to see over any desk because it would be covered in stuff that I could turn into something someday. I'm sure all creators can relate to that. So, I have to sort of filter what comes in, but motherboards are a go, for sure.
Carrie: So, do you prefer to have components on your boards or not? Or do you prefer to have only surface Mount to a certain height and the through holes all removed?
Amanda: It depends on what we're making. If we're making an art piece and space in the frame permits, I'll keep as many components as I can. Just like when I’m making jewelry items, we use metal cups called bezels so that all the edges and back are completely covered. It's an aesthetic thing, but it's also kind of a safety thing. I don't think you really want PCB rubbing on your skin.
Carrie: Yeah, fiberglass splinters are no good.
Amanda: [Amanda holds up an example of donated PCB] Depending on how deep they are, like these deeper ones, these are almost 4mm tall. You can fit almost anything except the really big stuff. Voltage regulators will fit in here crystal oscillators will fit in here, but I have to clip big capacitors and PCI stuff. I prefer to keep on as much as I can.
Carrie: So probably no connectors of most sorts, but anything up to 4mm or so tall. Speaking of fiberglass splinters and things like that, circuit boards or not, I can't imagine that they are actually a fun material to work with because the dust is really, I'm not sure if toxic is necessarily the right word. It definitely is glass so inhaling it can cut up your lungs and things like that. Even though glass as material itself is relatively inert with your body.
Amanda: Yeah, change the size of stuff and it changes how it interacts with your body.
Carrie: Yeah. I can sort of see your routers and the first thing that I noticed is that they're completely enclosed. Do you have a vacuum system going and a capture system for dust? How does that all work?
Amanda: That's basically it. If we have to do anything outside, we'll work under a shop-vac hooked up to a clamp. I'm sure you can see over my shoulder, there's respirators and face shields and safety goggles and all sorts of stuff back there. I really love rubber coated garden gloves to protect my hands when I'm handling stuff. Not only is dust not getting into my skin, I'm also not getting any of the wires poking through so I can handle things.
Amanda: You can actually look at my hands and not tell I've been working with circuit boards all day. When it comes to routing, there's vacuum systems there as you mentioned and an enclosed system which was very important to me. Someday, we'll have to graduate away from these. These are Carveys [series of CNC machine by Inventables] but because Inventables doesn’t make them anymore, they're barely servicing them anymore and they have no more replacement parts. We're just going to run these until we can't anymore. Then we'll have to build a custom enclosure system, because that's really important to me, especially if this is a longer-term project for us where we're years and years working with circuit boards. I don't want any of that stuff building up in the studio, in our lungs, or on our skin since we've got to consider both sides of it.
Carrie: Yeah, I guess I was just kind of thinking of the fiberglass in particular, but I'm sure that you get lead-based solder and things like that. So, it actually is pretty toxic to be grinding all that stuff up into small pieces and breathing. This is probably not something that you want to do at home, unless you have really geared yourself out, have a well-ventilated area, and aren't contaminating your garden with.
Amanda: Exactly, I have studio clothes and studio shoes, so all that stuff is contained within this area. I also don't want this contaminating my own house or other people I interact with. The other thing is, that's why we also don't laser cut them because I don't want any of that possibly leaking into our air. If there are any ventilation issues, it's just not a risk I'm willing to take.
(23:16 - 35:53) Applying Science to Business & Handmade Items
Amanda: We opened Because Science, the retail storefront in October of last year, and we ran it for five months. We just closed up at the end of last month.
Carrie: That was the plan at the beginning to sort of be a pop-up shop?
Amanda: Yes, it was planned to be a pop-up so that I could gather data. I wanted to know what people would want to buy, what they'd be interested in. Merchandising in a store is a whole different can of worms than merchandising for craft shows. I wanted to sort of learn the ropes of that; I wanted to know things like conversion rates and if people came in off the street, would they buy stuff? I'm only used to conversion rates with respect to online and craft shows and they're very different.
Amanda: That proved to be the case for the store. It was also very different, in a good way. So, with that data now, I have a much better idea of what to do. Because Science 2.0 will be hopefully a permanent location. We already know what sort of KPIs to look for when it comes to choosing a location. Foot counts, area income levels, and how many people transit the road in front of the store every single day. Things like that can help me make informed decisions about what our revenue capabilities are. If advertising is not part of the solution. If we were just a store relying only on foot traffic, would we survive? Which is an important baseline to establish, because if you can't pay rent, you can't pay rent. It has to work out of the box immediately. Now that we're looking for new places, I can apply that data to build fairly trustworthy projections so I can make sound decisions. When you walked into the store, I had it organized to not scare away nonscientists. Plants and animals were in the front and then further back you get into space and dinosaurs, which I consider natural history, but it ended up just being all dinosaur stuff. Then even further back, you start to get into mathematics, chemistry, biology, computer science, and engineering.
Amanda: The way I organized the store, it was partially by item type. We had a whole stationary wall, we had a whole wall for mugs, and all the jewelry for the most part was together. But then other than those specific sections, it was organized by science. So, if someone wanted a chemistry gift, they'd go straight to the chemistry section. I knew exactly how much space we had for each section. So that informed my buying decisions. If we've got a gap in chemistry, it's time to go look for another product to fill this. We've already got mugs, we've already got jewelry, I've got scarves. What else can we get that will fill that? It turns out finding handmade science stuff is really hard and very limited. I ended up choosing some not handmade items, so things like these 3d puzzle things that I found that are really cool.
Carrie: Yeah. So, talk to me about the handmade aspect and also what your definition of handmade is because of course, like Etsy's definition has changed a lot over the years. What portion of it has to be made by hand, is small business okay?
Amanda: That's sort of how I see it. Part of that metamorphosis has also been from being in DC. So, where I was before in Rochester-
Carrie: That answers Tom’s question, which is, where was your store located? Which was Washington DC.
Amanda: It was technically Vienna, Virginia, just outside of DC. We are hoping a 2.0 will be actually located in DC. So, in DC, when I do craft shows and things they're usually billed as vendor events. A notable example is the downtown holiday market where they promote small business. These tend to be like micro businesses – very, very small. But a lot of people here – because DC is such a multicultural city – it's extremely diverse. Maybe I'll be next to a vendor who is Turkish, and she designs jewelry; maybe she has people in her village she grew up in making [jewelry], she's not making it, but it's handmade. It wouldn't be considered handmade for a craft show, but is still handmade, just not by the business owner all the time.
Amanda: It gets a little gray. So that's small business to me. That's what I want to end up supporting as best I can. I did carry things from solo-preneurs where it was just them [working with] bigger agencies. Like these pencil sets I have, I love these, these are biodomes and atmospheres. Each different color is supposed to represent a different layer of the atmosphere or different biodome colors; aquatic is blue, grassland is green. I think they're incredibly nerdy and are a lot of fun, but the company that makes then is a little bit bigger. But I know that they're stamping these in-house, maybe the pencil blanks come from somewhere else, but they're still basically handmade. As you can tell I use a lot of machines in the work I make, but it's all hand finished, so our hands are still involved in that making process. I just want to, best I can, select things that are handmade, small business made, or locally made. Not exclusively, I don't want to limit myself because it would be very hard to stock a whole science gift shop with very tight restrictions. If I ran a handmade gift shop or locally made gift shop, that wouldn't be hard at all. There’re so many artists around here, but when I narrow the focus to science, it becomes very difficult. For example, there aren't very many science artists locally. I know a handful and that would not be enough to stock an entire store.
Carrie: Yeah. Things that are handmade, made in small quantities and small batches, they tend to be more expensive. So, having a little bit of a range of price points must be nice, too, so that everybody can find a little something.
Amanda: Yeah. I think that works a lot better in retail stores. For the longest time, I tried to not have a super low price point, like below $15 online, because there's so much work that goes into preparing a shipment that the profit you end up with is barely worth the effort. But when you're in a store and you're pricing things in bulk, you get economy of scale, and even though it's a small scale, it's still more scale than what you can do with shipping. So, it's much easier to have little stickers, pencil sets, lower price point items and have it actually be worth your time. That also helps with the conversion rate, too. Someone comes in and they don't really want to leave empty handed. So, if we give them opportunities to spend even $5 it ends up being a much better situation overall for everybody.
Carrie: Yeah, absolutely. We hear you on the “it being difficult to make things that are at small price points worthwhile and efficient for online stuff.” I definitely have some of those same struggles with some of our soldering kits, which is part of the reason that we don't really have any soldering kits that are under $10; not only do we have to do all the kitting for them ourselves, but the amount of time it takes just to print the label, pack up the order, and stuff like that is a factor. I mean, Robyn's pretty darn good at it and she's pretty efficient, but still. We have a few things that are under that [price point], but they're pretty much just the circuit board rulers, which, we just grab and package and that's it. They don’t require any kitting or any work when they come in. What else do you have in the store? What are the specific science disciplines that you absolutely try to cover? You talked about chemistry, math, physics, and biology. What about computer science?
Amanda: Definitely. It's harder to find stuff for computer science, but I find other roundabout ways. So maybe it's hard to find a punny coding sticker, but it's less hard to find Ada Lovelace stuff, or I design it myself. I designed this card set, for example, it has eight greeting cards with quotes from women in STEM. I tried to cover as much variety in terms of where in the world they're from, what discipline they studied, some people are well-known, some people folks have never heard of. That's the other great thing about being a maker with a store, if I'm having trouble filling an area of the store, I can just design it myself. That's a lot of where our greeting cards are, too. I think our greeting cards, which has sort of been a new adventure in the last year or so, is popular because you can't really find science cards and you never have more than one option for an occasion. So, all our cards are all science. We have science puns, science holidays, laboratory warmings, PhD defense cards, and things like that – things that you don't really find anywhere else. We have to design it ourselves because they literally exist nowhere, but I think they're worthwhile having and it's always fun to watch people hanging out over by the card section. I can always hear giggling. I'm really big on science puns and it's really striking a chord with customers, too. I love that.
(41:00 – 47:37) Making Custom Pieces
Carrie: So, you mentioned taking custom orders. How do people contact you about that and what kind of custom work do you take on?
Amanda: For simple, straightforward things, [for example, the skylines] we have a specific listing just for skylines. You pick the size, you tell us what color you want and what city, and then we make it. With the site redesign, we'll have an image upload feature so if there's a specific skyline you want us to work from, it'll be roped into the whole checkout process instead of you having to email us it. Same thing for flags or other straight forward things. We have a simple listing for states. We haven't made every state yet… If you want you know, West Virginia, we've never made it before, but it's not exactly a stretch to create that for anybody. I call those straightforward customs. Then for more adventurous projects, right now we're working on a system to help with that, to help outline what that actually looks like.
Amanda: An example I actually just have sitting on my desk [Amanda holds up a custom brochure]. I'm redoing this. This was our old custom brochure to help people sort of see what we can do; whether it's ornaments, art, key chains or whatever, but within those product categories, what can we actually do? It's very hard for people to understand how we turn circuit boards into this stuff, let alone what we can do with it. It's just not something people can brain very well.
Carrie: Yeah, they need to be shown examples.
Amanda: Examples are very helpful, and we've definitely gotten a lot more custom work the more we put them out at shows. It gives people a much better visual on what can be done, or they might say, “Hey, I see you've got this, can you do USB?” “Can you change the color, or can you change the size?” Simple stuff like that. Some of the other things we also take on, for example, are corporate gifting kinds of orders where we'll put logos on stuff. Like these badge reels that we make, I can embed in that resin layer somebody's logo, I can do those sorts of projects. The ones that I find most fascinating are the wall installations. We've got a couple under our belt at this point and each one is different and completely customized to the client and what they want. Generally, I think all the things we've done so far have been logos. The biggest one we did was about five feet wide.
Carrie: Wow. So how many circuit boards are involved with that? I imagine you'd have to map out the pieces and cut them in different shapes. How do you do that?
Amanda: Yeah, so it depends specifically on what we're doing. The most challenging one was an equilateral triangle made up of three regular trapezoids, and when you organize the trapezoids, the inside negative space makes an equal lateral triangle. It was not a solid piece because where it would connect on the vertices was nothing – it was just an intersection point. I had to create it using bar stock; I can't think of the word, but basically, I used these connector pieces to create their logo as it would be free-standing because they wanted one solid piece, not multiple pieces to hang on the wall. So that was a bit of an engineering feat. That project because of its size ended up, I think we used 22 circuit boards to make that happen.
Carrie: Wow. Did they all have to be the same color too?
Amanda: It depends. For that project, each trapezoid was a different shade of blue. We tried our hardest to pull out three different shades of blue, which is difficult when you're working with e-waste. Basically, it was a cobalt blue, a royal blue, and a turquoise used to get the three different shades. It didn't exactly match their logo, but they didn’t really care; they just wanted the difference to be there. Color matching is not really a thing we can do. It gets as close as it gets.
Carrie: Yeah. You're not going to be able to Pantone match a circuit board logo, sorry.
Amanda: No, with your logo [Alpenglow], I wouldn't be able to do it exactly, but I could get creative using pixels of circuit boards to create that visual effect where if you stood back, it would look like a gradient. So, I’ve got some funky workarounds to make that work. Just like if someone wants their logo 23” wide; I can't fit a 23” circuit board on my router and I'd be hard pressed to find a circuit board that's that big. They’re out there, but not in my stash and probably not in a color they'd want. I use Photoshop and various other programs to sort of chop it up into sensible sub shapes so we can build a composite image.
Carrie: Cool. That sounds like a lot of work for a custom piece. Like, a lot of work. How do you go about estimating the price for that? Because you might not know how difficult that logo is or if you have enough stock on hand to do it. How does that process work?
Amanda: I have a spreadsheet for that. Based on the size, I can figure it out how many circuit boards I need, and then I can calculate based on surface area and assign a rate to either surface area or whatever metric I want to use, based on the project. Then, there's a series of assumptions that go into it, like the costs. It's pretty levelized by area. So, it's actually not too bad to estimate. Now that we've done a few, I sort of have stuff to work from. I can tell by looking at a project if it’s one that’s going to be a pain in the butt or if it's going to be more straightforward.
Carrie: There might be a little bit of a pain in the butt upcharge because I know this one is going to take me a few more hours in Photoshop of piecing this thing up. Yeah, that makes sense.
(1:12:23 – 1:18:34) Diversity and Getting People Interested in Sciences
Carrie: That reminds me. I wanted to do a shout out for your newsletter because your newsletter is awesome! It's called New Science Friday and it's a little fun thing that pops up in my mailbox every Friday. And it's like, oh, let's see what Amanda has going on this week and you always feature a really cool, usually woman, scientist. How do you do your research on that? How do you get ideas for who to feature or do you just know everybody?
Amanda: Well, no, I hardly ever know anyone I'm posting about. It's just someone I find on Instagram who posted something interesting. So sometimes it's, “this is what it's like,” “this really sucks,” “this is really great,” or “here's what I'm struggling with right now,” “here's what it took me to get to my PhD” or whatever they're doing. We specifically pick POC or LGBT people to feature because those groups are always extremely underrepresented in the sciences. I want to help normalize diversity in STEM. I think it's incredibly important and there've been research studies that say research groups are more effective when they're diverse. So, I want to build that up as much as I can. So that's what I'm doing with that, and definitely focusing on women and women identifying people as much as I can, because again, that's another area that needs a representation.
Amanda: A lot of times what I'm seeing by doing this, is that I've read all these posts and see what people say about not having role models growing up or not knowing anyone else who was in their field. Social media has really helped people get connected and feel not so isolated. I want to make sure that if anyone's reading our newsletter or comes across stuff we do, maybe there's this person they didn't know before that they know of now. I want to help share that.
Carrie: Yeah, that's awesome because I'm not only keeping track of what you're doing and stuff, but I'm always learning about somebody that I didn't know about before and that's really cool.
Amanda: It's also very down to earth. I could run bios on Ada Lovelace and Marie Curie, but I don't think it's as impactful as hearing from someone who is in it right now, going through it right now. Talking about things like imposter syndrome and all the other issues you come across when you're trying to advance in the sciences. But also, I'll cover people maybe not even on a science track but related somehow like I'm really excited about Black birding week and bringing citizens science.
Carrie: What is that?
Amanda: It's just a bunch of Black birders who post certain hashtags and bring awareness about birdwatching.
Amanda: One of the things that I also wanted to achieve with Because Science specifically was making science fun, making science not this scary incomprehensible block. One of the ways to do that, I think is by, putting plants and animals in the front of the store. Ultimately, I wanted to install bird feeders and bee boxes and bat boxes and whatever else it was that we could do to bring citizen science into the equation. So, when people walk into the store, they can do something, learn something. We have a microscope in the store and with a sign that says, “Turn it on, see what it does!” Occasionally, I'll bring out diffraction gratings and be like here take this, go look at a light, see what it does, and tell me what you see. There's no quiz, there's no test. It's low pressure. It's just like, look at this. Isn't this cool. We can explain it later. I just want to hook you on this cool thing that we have that.
Carrie: Totally. I think that a lot of that is what I strive to do. What we here strive to do with the circuit board designs is make them fun or funny or cute or something like that. Through them being relatable in that way, then use them to teach soldering or teach Arduino coding or something else. Now that you've identified with this. Now, here's how it works. I think that there are a lot of self-imposed barriers, especially in women, especially in anybody who hasn't really actively been encouraged in science from the time that they were kids, that science is hard, or I can't understand science. That's for other people, it's not for me. I think that trying to break down those barriers is really important because science is for everybody. A lot of things, especially that we do as engineers, are skillsets that are developed through just a lot of practice and familiarity with things. Once you start in on something and getting that practice and getting that familiarity, you can actually learn a lot just on your own. I think a lot of people just don't know that. They think, I had to go to school in order to do this or I had to have a degree in it or whatever.
Amanda: Yeah, that's awesome. I loved it when people were walking around and they come up and they'd be like, so I just wanted to see what this was. I'm not a scientist, but this is cool. Can you tell me what this joke means? Or maybe they found a joke and laughed at it. I mix in hard science with softer stuff.
Carrie and Sabine aka @bleeptrack get to programming and using Bleeptrack's PicoPlanet capacitive touch input device! They also dive into Bleeptrack's generative art pieces and how they came into fruition!
Be sure to check out and follow @bleeptrack on Twitter and Instagram!
(0:05 – 7:40) The PicoPlanet!
Carrie: We have Sabine here who is @bleeptrack on Instagram, Twitter, and everywhere else on the internet. Let's talk PicoPlanets and generative art because, well, we love circuit board art here, circuit board art is one of the coolest types of art in my humble opinion. I think that it's so interesting to combine machine learning and algorithms into art on a circuit board, but then it's also functional art on the PicoPlanet – which is even cooler! I would love to hear about how the project started, what you were thinking, and all about the process for generating the different individual layouts.
Bleeptrack: Oh man, this was quite a journey. Also, thanks for having me! The PicoPlanets I started to do them in the beginning of Corona. I really enjoy doing different tech projects and I always wanted to learn how to make PCBs, but I’ve never done this before. I had the idea of creating a little keyboard, let's say three or five buttons or something, that I can connect to my PC and control it. This was my first project.
Carrie: Oh my gosh, that is amazing. I am incredibly impressed.
Bleeptrack: I had a lot of help from amazing friends. They guided me through all the different steps and learning KiCad and stuff. I do a lot of generative art projects, which means I really like to write code that creates images of some sort. I often do projects with different materials; I have a CNC machine where I cut out shapes from wood or use pen plotters to draw images and stuff. I thought when I do PCBs, I should do something generative. I learned that KiCad can import SVG and at the time it was quite a new feature, but it didn't work out too well for me to be honest. Instead, I found a very nice plug-in for Inkscape that could transfer SVG graphics to footprints and I thought that's a great route to go. I thought, when I want to incorporate some sort of art onto my PCBs, it would be nice to have some sort of capacitive touch because that's just easy to implement and can change and it's not too big of a deal. So, I created these three planets and they became touch buttons. I also wanted to play a bit with the material, you can see the swirls in the background. These are parts where I left the copper on the PCB, but still have the solder mask on so we have that different solder mask color.
Carrie: Yeah, It's more like a texture.
Bleeptrack: Right, then the white parts are just the silkscreen print and the yellowish stars here are parts where you don't have copper and don't have the solder mask. So, you could shine through some lights and it sparkles a bit; that was the idea. I need to check if I have the nice image somewhere because I made a very nice shot against the sun and then it looks really sparkly.
Bleeptrack: The problem with PCB manufacturing is PCBs become cheap when you manufacture a lot of them. It feels a bit contrary to having generative art, where every piece is unique, so I went the middle route and ordered 10 pieces per design. If you have the package from your PicoPlanet you can see there's a number on it. You have design #15.9 – so you have the 9th board from the 15th design; they each have their own number so you can check for the uniqueness.
Carrie: I remember when I was ordering it I was going through the different ones and I thought oh, that one's cool. I like the rocket on this one, but I like the planets on this other one better. It was fun to be able to pick.
Bleeptrack: Yeah, absolutely. Not a problem, per se, but an interesting fact I encountered is that you can see the planets, they all look very different – especially the suns, they have these rings around them. The problem is when they look different the threshold value for capacitive touch changes, and I hadn't thought about that prior. So, in my code example in the GitHub repository, I made a remark to be careful because you might need to adjust this for your specific board since all the planets look different.
Carrie: That's okay, that's just part of it. That's part of the uniqueness.
Bleeptrack: That's the uniqueness., yeah. I really enjoyed them, and I also made different batches with black designs and bronze-colored planets. They look really nice, but I have to say I really enjoyed the bluish ones because they look really cool and shine through when you put some light behind them.
(58:34 – 1:04:12) Generative Art Stamps
Carrie: So, you have some more show and tell, yes?
Bleeptrack: I am currently doing residency as an artist in residence at 42 Heilbronn, it's a coding school and a fun place to be. I had a chat with the boss of the Institute, and she was like, oh man, I love your generative stuff! Someday you should do some stamps and I thought generative stamps sounds like a good idea. In December, I got my own laser cutter finally, and I got inspired to do some generative stamps. I do stamp sets of three pieces, and they fit together sort of like Domino's, maybe that’s the wrong word, but they interface each other and there's always a stamp which only has one side that interfaces, one that has two sides, and one that has three sides. You can put them together in different arrangements and form images.
Carrie: I love it. It’s kind of a cross between a Celtic knot and a maze.
Bleeptrack: Yeah, exactly it's like a Celtic knot or maybe also a bit of art nouveau. I want to make stamp sets where you have all the variations; like one side, two side, or all sides. If you have a square, you get a lot of different variations because you can have the opposing sides connecting or the matching side and you have even more variations. Man, sets get so huge with the squares, let's do triangles first. It’s really fun and, of course, the stamp sets themselves are unique because they are generative, but you can also make unique patterns with your unique stamp. So, it’s double unique.
Carrie: I love that!
Bleeptrack: They are fun so far. I don't sell them currently, but I was planning to put them somewhere on Etsy or finally find the time to set up my own shop on my own website. I sent them out to my patrons and on my patron website I have a tier where you can pay $10 or more and then you will get nice generative goodies twice a year.
Carrie: Yes! Subscribe, join Patrion, follow you on all of the things @bleeptrack on Instagram and Twitter and everything. So, what are the different variables that are being manipulated for the stamps? There has to be something for how many exits per edge there are, are they small or big?
Bleeptrack: Yeah, you're exactly right. I have these points where they interface. I choose a random number between, currently, it's two and four points and I choose a random place on half of one of the edges, then I mirror them over to the other half. So, it makes sure that all of them can connect. There's a lot of randomness in how the swirls go. Of course, I need to make sure that the lines that connect have the same thickness because the thickness also changes in the pattern. Those are the main constraints, and the rest is more or less a big punch of randomness.
Carrie: That's cool though. I think one of the most interesting things about generative art is that mix of certain things that are fixed, yet randomness is controlling it all.
Bleeptrack: Absolutely. I like to imagine it on a scale, there are two extremes – you can under define it where everything is random and it's a mess. You can also over define it in that extreme case that you only have one solution, which also defeats the purpose of generative art because you want to have a nice variety and find that sweet spot in the middle. I think that's the really fun and interesting thing when coding.
(1:04:18 - 1:08:13) How Bleeptrack Got into STEM
Carrie: How did you first get into STEM and into programming? What made you choose computer science?
Bleeptrack: So, I think I was always sort of interested in tech. When I was 10, I think, I got my first computer, and it was more of a gaming machine. I really enjoyed gaming and I had a game that was called Pets. It was like a Tamagotchi game where you had cats and dogs. I figured out that the files that define the cat or the dog could be manipulated in a text editor. I found like tutorials online and a fun actual German community. They had tutorials on how to open the text editor or find the right spot in that file, change value so you get blue dogs or something and that was my first introduction into hacking of some sorts. I never realized that it was some form of hacking until like 20 years later, when in retrospect I was manipulating files with a text editor, and I was 10 is actually quite mind-blowing.
Carrie: Charlene who's @Chardane on Twitter. She has a very similar story where she first got interested in coding through a pet game where you could actually make your own little pets and avatars and things like that.
Bleeptrack: That's awesome. I think when I was in school, my main idea was I wanted to study something with design or theater or I don't know, something very different. I realized that I really enjoy coding, but sadly in my school we didn't really have coding classes. The teacher either really couldn't hold themselves or sometimes we had students from university give coding courses. That was fine, but they were maybe not always the best teachers. But I realized that I really enjoy that and then I started digging a bit into a very obscure game engine where you could make point-and-click adventures and fell into that rabbit hole because I enjoyed drawing the sprites for the game.
Bleeptrack: I decided to study media computer science because I was afraid that the regular computer science curriculum was too difficult for me, in hindsight, it turns out in my university that media computer science has more computer science in it than the regular one. In the regular one you have to choose from a different subtopic like mathematics or physics or something. The media computer science people, they do computer science for human machine interaction. It was by accident, but a very good choice. I did my bachelor's, did my master's, and currently I'm also doing a PhD, but I have to say in the Corona times I’m a bit slow in doing research because I also have so much fun and doing my own projects.
(1:13:11 – 1:19:40) Bleeptrack’s Other Generative Projects
Bleeptrack: I can also show you, if you're interested, a bit of an older project. I wanted to create garden chair for me; some sort of wooden lounge chair and I wanted to do something on my CNC machine. I stumbled upon a paper where they described a really simple and nice algorithm that simulates the vein growth in leaves. I really like to be inspired from nature! Nature has so many cool patterns that give that intricate and entangled structure that would fit well to the chair idea that I had in mind. I threw it on my CNC machine… [oh, well that CNC machine… it's a bit wobbly and I'm not really trusting it too much. That’s why I stand beside it; also, I don't have an automatic vacuum suction thingy attached and that took forever – in the stream, bleeptrack is playing a video of when the pattern was carved out on her CNC machine.] I think just that one part was like five hours of only milling, but the chair that came out of that was really nice. It looks a bit flimsy, but it's actually quite sturdy! It's 22mm Birch plywood in these fine layers and this was very sturdy. It works really well, but the problem with being an artist is you build something to use it and then it ends up in a museum.
Bleeptrack: I brought it to Chaos Communication Camp, which is a really big hacker camp in Europe. I headed there for a week and then I came back and had to put it in a museum for a few months. So, I could only enjoy it after that time, but yeah, I still really like it. Oh man, and I very underestimated the surface you create because when you mill it, especially from a floozy CNC mill, you need to sand it down by hand. If you use a design that creates such a huge surface and tiny details, then you are sanding forever.
Carrie: I can only imagine. So, could people who are visiting in the museum actually sit in the chair or was it just viewing only?
Bleeptrack: It was not planned for them to do, but I mean if someone did, I don’t know.
Carrie: Would you get kicked out for sitting in the chair?
Bleeptrack: Maybe, I'm not sure how the staff of the museum would have reacted; I don't know. I had several people sit on it and it works quite well. If someone out there wants to mill it themselves, I have the files on my website, but I cannot really recommend it because it just takes forever!
Carrie: But that's why it's the CNC mill, right?
Bleeptrack: Right, but if you have a flimsy CNC mill as I do, you have to wait forever. I had hearing protection and was vacuuming for five hours.
Bleeptrack: I also have this video that's a nice example I always show when I talk about the generative spectrum. This is a project that is also four years old or something. It's called Over Flower and it creates these images that are a mandala, flower, succulent mixture. These are, I think, a really nice example where you create images that fit together but each one is interesting enough on its own, too.
Carrie: Super cool! I love that light table that's underneath the pen plotter, too.
Bleeptrack: That was a total accidental discovery. That’s an AxiDraw which is a super nice device. So, if some of you are searching for a pen plotter get an AxiDraw they are really awesome and Evil Mad Scientist are cool people.
Carrie: They're awesome, Lenore has been on the livestream.
Bleeptrack: I brought the pen plotter to Chaos Communication Congress, which is also quite a big Hecker event in Europe and Germany every year when there's no Corona, at least. It was fun and I was plotting stuff, but it’s quite dark in there. Hacker people like dark areas and you have a drawing machine, which is nice, but no one really looks at it because it's so dark. I thought, next year I need to get some spotlights or something. Then I stumbled upon these drawing tables are usually used for animation drawings, and they are super cheap, like $20 or something. That's what I bought, and it works so well; it's like flies to a lamp. People are like, oh, it's drawing this, or something is happening. What is going on? People are instantly swarming around the machine. So yeah, if you have a pen plotter that you need to exhibit somewhere, get a light table.
Carrie: Yeah, that's super cool. It definitely draws my attention that's for sure.