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.