Monday, March 28, 2016

Thirsty Llama at Cotopaxi – A Scratch Project

To start, click on the green flag. Then move the Llama with the left and right arrow keyboard keys. When the Llama touches a raindrop there is a popping sound and the Llama smiles. Unfortunately, the Llama is picky and does not smile at each rain drop.

After opening the Scratch community website, logging into my account, and starting to ponder about which project to make, one particular project instantly caught my eye. It was called Hot Air (a game) and it was listed in the "featured project" section on the front page, center screen. Hot Air showed a green island in blue water with a hovering hot-air balloon. The simplicity and clarity of the graphics, clearly contrasting other featured projects, pulled me in. I clicked on it and tried it out. Underscoring its graphical clarity, the project also had simple and straight forward inter-actions. Up, down, left, right keyboard arrows moved the hot-air balloon, and the aim of the project was to avoid seagulls that entered the screen from the left and right side. There were also two numbers on the screen. A counter kept track of the seconds I managed the "stay alive", and a fixed number seemed to indicate the longest amount of time anyone every managed to "stay alive".

What further attracted me about Hot Air were the enthusiastic notes the creator left in the comments section, for example: "22/3/2016 FEATURED 2nd time!!! I won't be able to reply to most of your comments. DON'T ADVERTISE!!!!" The note communicated the excitement of the creators of being highlighted, their felt responsibility to connect with anyone who reached out to them, and a realization as well as apology for not being able to meet all requests for the creators' time. By writing "don't advertise" the creator seems to asked people to refrain from further sharing. And the comment seems to imply that the curator is of the impression that the felt added responsibility is a result of the project being featured.

The enthusiasm connected with responsibility to the other Scratchers paired with the simplicity of the design was fascinating to me, so I decided to try to make my own project inspired by this project. Since I am not an experienced Scratcher, I wanted my first shared project build up from the bottom, rather than remixing existing projects.

The code of Hot Air next to the code of my project.

The island looked much like a mountain, and I remembered my recent visit to Ecuador. During my first visit to Quito, one of the surprises I experienced was that a volcano was visible from the city. The Cotopaxi is an active volcano located close to Quito, the capital of Ecuador, and is part of the Pacific Ring of Fire. This experience inspired me to use a photograph of the Cotopaxi as backdrop for my Scratch project. I decided to replace the hot-air balloon with a Llama, mainly because Llamas are likely to live close to the Cotopaxi, and because they are friendly animals. My plan was an elaborate project in which the Llama would change its looks when hit by a rain drop and after being hit 3 times the game would be over, much like the Hot Air project. However, the coding of the project was more challenging that I imagined. Especially after seeing the code of the Hot Air project, which made use of many variables and even its own built blocks, I decided to simplify.

The popping sounds I added to the Llama when touching a raindrop changed the entire narrative of the project. It was such a satisfying sound, that I decided to give the Llama a grateful expression when it touched the raindrop. Changing the costume introduced a bug into the software. While a popping sound is produced every time the raindrop touches the Llama, the Llama does not change its appearance every time. I tried to resolve the bug by going through some of the tutorials that were conveniently available on the left of the screen. Eventually, I gave up on trying to fix it and changed the narrative of the project to feature a picky Llama that is not satisfied by every raindrop.

While working on the project, the way in which the active community, the featured projects feature, the see inside feature, and the tutorials came together and informed the development of my project was fascinating. Exploring the grammar of the language itself made me think of the many different ways I could have continued to expand the project. The community features helped me get inspired and generate idea for getting started and to persevere. The tutorials helped me get unstuck. While everything was mostly easy to get to, I created my own drawing board or pallet and through-lines on the site that I was at times challenging to keep present, e.g., opening up several tabs of the Hot Air project to be able to flip through codes more quickly, or opening up the tutorials in one tab while working on another. This made my wonder what an analysis of the intra-actions between Scratchers and the Scratch website might tell us about aspects of the sites to further expand the rich learning opportunities of the community.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Wind-up Toy Hack

Taking apart toy, exploring their inner workings, and remixing different kind of characters using scissors, tape, screwdrivers, and thread can disturbingly destructive while being at the same time satisfyingly creative. During this week's activity, we were asked to hack a toy in the context of the constructivist idea of evocative objects. Turkle (2007) describes evocative objects as those everyday materials that bring together practice and thinking. Through the doing with an objects new ways of thinking about the world can emerge in action. Through interactions with these materials, often surprisingly mundane objects, the materials can ground deep understanding about knowing and being in everyday practice and in this way teach us about ourselves (Turkle, 2007).

While I brought a few toys to class with me, I was most drawn to a plastic round character of a mummy. Turning a knob in the back of the mummy made it waddle forward. Maybe a character from a television program, this figure seems to have the power to inspire playful stories and adventures when brought together with other play-things. An evocative object? It seemed like it was made for adventurous storytellers, easy to get started and potentially leading to complex plots.

To get to its inner workings, I carefully observed how it might have been constructed. There was a crease that indicated that two pieces of molded plastic were put together - the mummy's front and back side. There were holes where the legs could stick out, having enough room to waddle. In the back of the mummy, a small button was positioned to wind-up the toy. The screws that held the body together were not common, and I had to find a special shape to unscrew the little guy. To my surprise, the two molds of the body did not fall open once the screws were out. The plastic firmly stayed in place. It seemed responsible, given the target age for the toy, however, less convenient for my purposes. The careful deconstruction was over, and I started pecking away plastic with a wire stripper. The plastic, bent away with little effort and as I slowly made my way along the crease that held the mummy together I lost connection to the mummy and started feeling more interest towards the gear based mechanical motor inside of the plastic mold. It was the material that blew movement into the character for me, the material that made it waddle. It was perhaps something I could use to create something else, something bigger, something fun.

In the design of powerful objects that are created in an attempt to call out these kind of entanglements between people and objects, Resnick and Silverman (2005) present ten design principles based on their experiences of designing construction kits for children. One that particularly resonated with me while engaged with the mummy, was Resnick and Silverman's (2005) design principle Choose Black Boxes Carefully that explains a way of selecting the materials and components that are part of a construction kit for children. Similar to the idea of evocative objects, Resnick and Silverman (2005) argue that materials invite children to explore ideas that can be far reaching and ways to understand the world. Ideas are entangled with materials and they can become graspable through the active engagement with materials. Hence, the choice of kind and form of materials inside of a construction kit can have implications on the kinds of ideas that unravel in play. The idea of black box references a certain transparency of the construction kit materials, asking the designer's to responsibly consider how easy it it to explore the bits and pieces or inner-workings of a toy or parts of a toy.


It was not easy to get to the mechanical machine, and the desingers of the toy likely did not consider this as part of the play-activity of the storytellers they might have designed for. Once the opening in the mold was large enough, I used the wire stripper to prop open the mold even further. I reached into the mummy with my hands, and, careful not to break it, I pulled out the wind-up motor. It was a white, rectangular box with a handle to wind up the gears on one side, and a flat circle that had translated the motion of the gears to the legs. On the thin sides of the box, there were holds that revealed the gears inside. Repeatedly I would up the gears to observe how they worked. It was quite fascinating to watch, and I discovered that the flat circle was not centered, which seemed to have caused the waddling effect. I placed different objects, including a 3d printed sphere, on top of the moving flat circle to see how this combination might behave. The exploration inspired me to think about different sets of adapters that could be part of a construction kit along with the wind up motor for children to create their own imaginative waddling characters and to explore the motion in relation to position and shape of materials – I hope that I will find time to continue exploring this idea!  

Resnick, M., & Silverman, B. (2005, June). Some Reflections on Designing Construction Kits for Kids. In Proceedings of the 2005 Conference on Interaction Design and Children (pp. 117-122). ACM.

Turkle, Sherry. "Introduction: The things that matter." Evocative objects: things we think with (2007): 3-10.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Tinkering with a Motor

Timelaps video of my Scribble Bot

Crafting this slow moving Scribble Bot was an exploration of materials and motion. Immediately drawn to the shiny solver tin, I selected tape and paper materials that would match with the silver color nicely. Getting the motor to run without the additional materials was easy, add on lead to the positive side of the battery and the other lead to the negative side of the battery. Depending on which lead you add where, the motor spins in a different direction. For my purposes, it did not matter in which direction the motor would spin.

The tip of the motor started rotating, giving me immediate feedback that what I had done was correct. Although I made motors spin many times before, I felt somewhat gratified. The technology told me I was treating it like it should. My approach to creating the rest of the Scribble Bot was through tinkering with the materials I selected. 

Tinkering is a playful, experimental, iterative, and bottom up way of learning. Tinkering can foster important ways for children to grow and educate their creativity and agility in preparation to recognize and make disappear future challenges adults cannot anticipate while educating children (Resnick & Rosenbaum, 2013). When thinking about designing contexts for tinkerability, Resnick & Rosenbaum (2013) reflected on 6 key aspects: emphasizing process over product, setting themes not challenges, highlighting diverse examples, tinkering with space, encouraging engagement with people not just material, combining diving in with stepping back.

While for me, these aspects seemed to have played a role in how I approached the design of the Scribble Bot, it is challenging to cleanly differentiate one aspect from another. Nevertheless, I am exploring my Scribble Bot building activity through these aspects to better understand the overlaps.

Emphasizing process over product – Form the beginning I knew that this Scribble Bot is going to have to use a motor and that it should move. Since there was a clear goal to the task, I tried to focus my explorations on the process of getting there. In the beginning I took notes, made scribbles, and even took pictures of the kinds of speed-bumps I encountered, e.g., avoiding short circuits when battery and tin can touch, or balancing the tin can so that the motor could spin a pipe cleaner. However, these challenges, while seeming to slow down my process overall, seemed to drive my project forward and into the shape it ended up being.

Setting themes not challenges – The activity was framed as an exploratory task. Although the task of creating a self-moving Scribble Bot was in the back of my mind, working with discarded and everyday maker materials seemed to help lower the feeling of having to get it down. There were so many different ways of getting it down, the theme of self-moving creature was open ended for anyone to interpret. 

Highlighting diverse examples & encouraging engagement with people not just material We started creating the Scribble Bots together at the Make Innovate Learn Lab (see also my site description   and 360° pictures of the MILL Makerspace). Everyone had their own approach. One person made the tip of the motor touch the table for the Scribble Bot to rapidly spin in circles, another person attached a string and a pen to the tip of the motor and let it dangle over a piece of paper to create abstract looking imagery. Seeing everyone's approaches unfold alongside my own was encouraging and helpful. While at first I did not know how to translate the motor's motion to the tin, I learned from watching and interacting with others how to unbalance the motor (in theory). It required some trickery, watching other projects, and talking with others to make it work.

Tinkering with space – Creating the Scribble Bot required some trickery, watching other projects, and talking with others to make it work. The material arrangement on the table supported the seeing of other projects and interacting with people. For example, the hot-glue gun was positioned at the opposite end of the table. To attach the popsicle sticks to my tin, I walked over and saw another person's project in action. The goodly eyes another person had left on the table invited me to attach eyes to my Scribble Bot. 

Combining diving in with stepping back – I could not finish my robot at the Make Innovate Learn Lab, and planned to continue working with it another day from my office. Revisiting the project after a few days, I turned it on and did not see the tin moving at all. After watching it for some time, I noticed that it was moving - just very slowly. I took a timelapse video (see above) to capture the Scribble Bot's slow motion.