Last week we ran a hardware hacking session at BBC Audio & Music Interactive. Two teams of three, formed from across discipines, came together on a Monday morning. At their disposal they had a Phidgets interface kit, a servo kit, a couple of RFID kits, a slightly handicapped Teleo board (the cleaners threw a load of sensors away on Thursday night!) and a Nabaztag wireless bunny.
We were aiming for something that would get people making stuff and having fun, as well as being a good team building exercise and providing a new perspective on interface design. We like the quote from the Arduino booklet...
Physical Computing is about prototyping with electronics, turning sensors, actuators and microcontrollers into materials for designers and artists. It involves the design of interactive objects that can communicate with humans using sensors and actuators controlled by a behaviour implemented as software running inside a microcontroller.
The brief we gave to the teams was to build something to do with discovering new music, but using a physical interface. And preferably involving data from the internet. 10 working hours later they had built an RFID-reading, profile creating, music recommending rabbit and a monster who rates your iTunes tracks.
The first team built Zoltar, the music predicting rabbit. This worked by swiping a number of RFID-enabled objects to build up a musical profile. These objects represented bands or genres of music; Oasis (the popular fruit drink), rock, cheese, a glitterball (disco) and a couple of red hot chilli peppers (kind of). Once the profile was complete, swiping the OK tag caused music recommendations to be generated (via last.fm) and read out by a Nabaztag rabbit.
The second team built iRate - a monster that is used to rate your tracks in iTunes. His LED teeth indicate the rating of the currently playing iTunes track and his arm can then be moved up and down to change the rating in real time. Poking the microswitch in his eye causes iTunes to skip to the next track. There was also a virtual interface showing iRate's current expression on-screen. I love the monster/box - apparently inspired by http://www.readymech.com/; free flat-pack toys to print and build.
Overall I was extremely impressed with what the teams built in such a short time. Particularly as they came to hardware hacking with little or no experience. Ideally we'd have had a day of just tinkering and hacking to get to know what the hardware and the software can do together, then we'd have a couple of days of actually building something. But, I think, everyone had fun and we had a packed demo session at the end of the second day. One of the remits of the R&D team here is to encourage innovation, in both thinking and doing, and I think this was pretty successful in getting people fired up, thinking differently and just doing stuff.