Combining science inquiry and making for only $5

The awesome folks over at Raspberry Pi (RPi) recently announced their newest version of the RaspberryPI, the Pi Zerro, coming in at only $5!!!


To me this really signals a shift in small, inexpensive hobbyist computing and offers huge potential for classroom and informal maker-style learning environments. Up until now if you wanted to get a classroom started with making you would have to shell out $25 for a full-fledged Raspberry Pi, which in addition to being much more expensive is significantly bulkier. And while Adafruit carries the similarly sized Arduino Pro Mini and the Arduino Gemma, both of them are about twice the price (and I know $5 vs. $10 doesn’t seem like much, but when you’re outfitting 40 kids in a classroom it begins to add up!), don’t have much in the way of storage space, and getting them to communicate back and forth over a network can be a huge hassle (as I learned in one of my earlier projects).

Ok, now that we have a pretty powerful computer in a teeny tiny package what do we do with it? Well, one of the things that I’m passionate about is inspiring kids to ask questions about the world around them and engaging in practices that are authentic to Science, Technology, Engineer, and Math (STEM) careers. And while I’ve done some projects (such as the smart prosthetics workshop) where participants designed and built things, they never were released “into the wild” – mostly because until now the hardware was too expensive and it was difficult to store and retrieve the data in a reliable way. This meant that students were often forced to use “black boxed” sensors and devices… and to me this only gives students half the experience.

But at only $5, the Pi Zero has made things very, very interesting!

With its ability to connect to WiFi, having HDMI video out, and the ability to use a wide array of sensors, we finally have a cost-effective way to have kids design and refine the tools that drive their investigations! For instance, we could task a class with designing a tool that tests how “good” their neighborhoods are for growing a garden. We can let them decide if they want to build a tool that captures an area’s sunlight, moisture, pH levels in the soil, or even take pictures to see if there are “predators” (like rabbits that will eat their crops!). By doing this we get to give students agency, which is critical for engaging them in sustained inquiry. And by leveraging the WiFi capabilities,  all the data can be broadcast back into the classroom, to be aggregated and visualized for the students to examine (AT ANY TIME!!!). This is a big deal and offers true ubiquitous “always-on” opportunities for learning.


Now there are still hurdles to overcome – making some of these tools can take a bit of work and they still have to be programmed – but with the rise of visual programming languages (such as Scratch or Blocky Talky from CU Bolder) we are nearing an exciting point in learning where students are in the driver’s seat throughout the inquiry cycle: asking the driving questions; designing the tools to answer them; implementing them in their classrooms, homes, and neighborhoods; capturing the data; answering questions; and refining their designs.

Personally, I can’t wait to get my hands on a pile of these and start working with teachers and makerspaces to develop some exciting hands-on constructionist activities!

RPA – Developing a Framework for Tangible and Embodied Interactions

RPA – Developing a Framework for Tangible and Embodied Interactions

Rock, Paper, Awesome!

Rock, Paper, Awesome (RPA) was Encore Lab’s initial foray into developing the means for tangible and embodied interactions that would connect to our S3 technology framework. The goal for RPA was simple; individual labs could create their own unique tangible or embodied interactions through which they played rock, paper, scissors with other labs that were physically distributed around the world.

The Theory

We chose rock, paper, and scissors as our test-bed because it provided us with not only a well-defined set of semantics (i.e., win, lose, draw, player ready, player gone), but also a very loose coupling in how we enacted those semantics. For instance how a player chose “rock” in one space could be entirely different from how a lab chose it in another (e.g., standing in a particular spot in the room, versus pushing a button). This allowed us to think deeply about what it meant to convey the same message through various tangible and embodied interactions, and to begin building an understanding of how these different interactions affected the meaning making of the participants. In essence we built a “reverse tower of babel” where multiple languages could all be interpreted through S3, allowing recipients at both ends to effectively communicate through their own designs.

Screen Shot 2013-12-02 at 10.14.47 PM

In this way, RPA is more than just a game of rock, paper, scissors – it is an avenue for us to begin investigating novel ways for users to interact with the world, and for connecting these investigations within a broader knowledge community. We aim to not only connect these communities, but also to add a layer of user-contributed design to their interactions, where community members engage in creative fabrication and exchange of tangible, interactive media that reflect their ideas, workflow or presence, bridging the distances and connecting the community.

Three critical questions guided our development of RPA and this component of S3 in general:

  • How can we bring distributed communities together through tangible and embodied interactions?
  • What are the possible roles for tangible and physical computing, and ambient or interactive media that are deeply connected to the semantics, workflow, physical presence, ideas, activities, and interests of the distributed communities?
  • How does the temporality of the interactions (synchronous versus asynchronous) determine the selection of appropriate kinds of interactions and representations?

We are currently sending out kits, first versions of the code, and design documents to labs at the Learning Technologies Group at the University of Chicago, and Intermedia at the University of Oslo. We are excited to see how they will develop and contribute new interactive designs that represent their own representations of space and meaning within the game.

The Technology

The physical interactions and ambient feedback is handled by an Arduino microcontroller. The Arduino allows users to develop a wide array of inputs (e.g. proximity, light, and sound sensors, buttons and levers), and outputs (e.g. sound, light, movement). Using the S3 framework, RPA facilitates different game “events” (e.g., joining the game, choosing Rock) by sending messages over an XMPP chatroom (conference). We originally attempted to implement these messages over the XMPP server only using the Arduino  – however, given the relatively limited amount of RAM on the Arduino board (2KB) this turned out to be overly restrictive and we started looking at other solutions.

As a solution to this issue, we made a simplified set of event messages (i.e., single text characters) that were sent over the Arduino’s serial port to a connected computer. For testing purposes we used a laptop. However, in permanent installations, we envision RPA having a more compact and flexible setup. In order to achieve this, we connected the Arduino board to a Raspberry Pi. The benefits of the Raspberry Pi is that it is small and cheap, allowing us to dedicate a Pi for each game installation, and to have the “brains” of RPA be as unobtrusive as possible.

In order to connect the various RPA installations we use node.js as an intermediary between the XMPP chatroom and RaspberryPI. Messages that are posted to the XMPP chatroom are picked up by the node.js server and sent over serial port to the Arduino, which then executes the user-designed action, such as turning on a light or playing a chime. Respectively, any event trigger on the Arduino (e.g. a button is pressed), is sent over the serial port to node.js and translated into a XMPP message.

Sample Arduino code for RPA and the node.js setup code can all be freely downloaded, tinkered with and customized from github.

The Run

We set up two “stations” at OISE, one on the third floor and one on the 11th floor. Players challenged each other to a game of rock, paper, scissors (see the video below).

Each location had different tangible, audible, and visual inputs and outputs providing players unique multi-modal experiences that conveyed the same message. At the third floor location, a “servo motor” swung a dial to let the player know a challenger was waiting to play. At the eleventh floor location, an LED flashed to convey the challenge. We have tested other designs (not shown here) that used proximity sensors to detect where players were within a room, using their location to trigger an event (such as choosing rock). In another instance, a light sensor conveyed one player’s availability to other players (in remote locations) when the lights in the original player’s room were on.

Going Live! RPA at TEI 2013

We submitted RPA to TEI 2013′s student design challenge. The conference was held in Barcelona Spain and provided an ideal opportunity for us to try out RPA (and S3) in a live setting with users who had no experience with it. We had stations running at the site and at labs site running in Toronto allowing us to observe a wide range of interactions and gain feedback from participants. We also added a new layer to RPA which connected a real-time visualization of win/lose/draw results to the game – although this visualization duplicated some of the functionality of the tangible RPA elements it did represent a significant step in merging the tangible elements of S3 with a key element of the existing architecture.


The importance of narrative in design for children

The importance of narrative in design for children

Last week as part of the Interaction Design and Children Conference (IDC) in NYC Rebecca Cober and I had a chance to take part in a workshop at the New York Hall of Science (NYSCI) entitled: Narrative Contexts as a Design Element. The workshop was organized by Peggy Monahan, and Dorothy Bennett, with special guests Jessie Hopkins and David Glauber from Sesame Street Workshop (JOY!). The goal of the workshop was to look at some of the existing exhibits at NYSCI and try to improve them by adding a rich layer of narrative through the addition of simple low-fi prototypes (e.g., using cardboard, felt, string, or just pen and paper). What was really amazing about the experience was that our designs were for live exhibits. Within minutes we got to see how the narrative elements we added, using felt and cardboard, affected the experience of children and their parents in the museum!

We started by observing children interacting with exhibits in the light and optics area of NYSCI. The light and optics area was chosen by the workshop organizers because most of the displays had little or no narrative elements, making them like “blank canvases” for the workshop participants.  Based on what we had just learned concerning narrative elements (see box below), we discussed what could be altered in each display to make it i) more engaging and ii) more likely that children (and their parents) would think and talk about the underlying scientific principles of each display. Once we had a good sense of which display we wanted to tackle we broke into groups and sat down to the hard work of actually constructing the narrative and building the prototypes.

In thinking about the narrative Jessie and David has us focus on four “narrative ingredients”:

1. The Mood

  • It’s achieved through the visual contexts of the interactions, and through sound, atmosphere, music and other sensory cues.
  • It’s a quick and effective means for connecting with the participants on an emotional level

2. The Protagonist

  • Tell the user who they are and why it matters that they are there. Why is their participation in the story critical for it’s outcome?

3. The Relationships

  • They tell us how and why we matter to others, and should involve at least two people (these people can be both real and/or made up people… or animals, robots etc.)

4. Humor

  • Jokes are always good (especially with children), and especially slapstick over clever jokes (it’s about the audience not you!)
    • A critical question that should always be asked is where are the bananas and underpants!

The project we selected to work on was a large (approx. 2 meter by 2 meter) “light wheel” where a single LED bar flashed, sped up or slowed its rotation, and brightened or dimmed depending on the position of three dials on a control board: Frequency, RPM, and Voltage. During the initial observation we noticed that children (and parents alike) tended to walk up to the exhibit, turn the knobs (apparently) randomly for a few seconds and walk away. There was little to no discussion among participants, and their the “experimentation” lacked any sort of methodology to indicate the children were thinking deeply about the concepts.

Exhibit's dials without scaffolds
Exhibit’s dials without scaffolds

While observing the exhibit, we looked at the patterns the LED bar made while spinning and asked ourselves “If this could be something other than a boring box, what could it be?” We wanted something that would not only get the students to engage with the exhibit, but to do so critically and required them to think about how each of the dials affected the shape made by the flashing LED bar. After several brief discussions Rebecca and I realized that at certain points in during the bar’s rotation the lights looked exactly like a cat’s whiskers! We thought that by making the exhibit a challenge (making the cat’s whiskers align with its face), we could get the kids to more critically focus on how each dial affected the pattern and helped them to achieve the goal.

Whiskers Full Shot
Full shot of Friskers in action

Once we had our concept we set about making the design a reality – We had a little over an hour; so using felt, cardboard, string and glue we began to transform the black screen into a black cat! Thinking about the need to build a narrative we wanted to give participants a reason to play with our exhibit, so we gave the cat the name “Friskers” and built a story around the participants needing to help Friskers find his whiskers (by adjusting the knobs) and Rebecca drew up some large signs to explain this.

Rebecca's Narrative for Friskers
Rebecca’s Narrative for Friskers

With the exhibit up and running we sat down to observe children and their parents with the exhibit. We noticed that immediately children were drawn to the exhibit – running over to it to see what it was excited by the large cat– however they didn’t spend a lot of time really trying to “solve” exhibit, they turned the knobs but didn’t seem to focus on what each meant (and neither did the parents). We wanted to figure out why this was, and we realized that the notions of “Frequency, RPM, and Voltage” were simply too abstract for the children to draw connections to in a short period of time (and even many of the parents). In response we created three scaffolding signs to help children make connections between each term and what they did in terms of the lights (image below).

Once we did that the whole experience changed! Children started spending far more time (often minutes) on the exhibit, and actually discussing it with their friends (and parents)! The scaffolds helped the children better experiment and inquire about the science going on with the exhibit, and also helped parents make connections to each of the terms to start to talk with their kids about it more in-depth.

Friskers dials with instructions
Friskers dials with instructions

The end result was a massive shift in the engagement and discussion around the exhibit, to the point where the NYSCI coordinators wanted to keep it up after our trial! We “demoed” it to the rest of the IDC participants later in the week and one attendee spent over 40 minutes playing with Friskers and talking to others about it. Overall it really drove home to us how critical it is to think about the narrative of the educational interventions that you design, the role of carefully designed scaffolds, and the need to iterate based on watching your designs “in the wild”.

Ingress – Finally doing augmented reality right and what it means for education

Ingress – Finally doing augmented reality right and what it means for education

Ingress User Screen
An example of a user’s ingress information screen

So I’ve been playing Ingress for about a week now (after bailing on it after only a few hours the first time) and it’s pretty cool that it has essentially spawned the existence of a “sub-reality” that is very actively happening unbeknown to the general population, who are going about their daily lives around the city. This is really the most salient version of “augmented reality” that I’ve seen. I’ve tried out many other failed attempts at Augmented Reality (AR) which use mobile cameras to overlay information on the real lanscape. Generally you spend most of your time spinning around trying to get your camera to the exact right position to see the information that someone has tagged to a physical space (like a building) and almost never works right. Instead, Ingress has bypassed the need to orient a camera on specific objects, opting instead for a “mostly” accurate GPS positioning that puts you in the vicinity of real-world objects. You can interact with these objects (which have digitally imprinted information on them) on your smart phone. In the case of Ingress this involves two teams battling for “global supremacy” by taking control of portals that show up in the app on a modified version of Google Maps. Users interact with these portals by clicking on them and then choosing actions such as powering up their own portals (to withstand enemy attacks) or attacking their opponents (to try and take them over for your side).

An example of an Ingress portal interaction screen, where you can power-up your own or attack an enemy portal

This is just a smarter way of doing it… and it works surprisingly very well. Google has done making the game inherently and deeply social, and that’s what makes the game so interesting. You can play alone, but your experience will be fairly stunted and so will your progress – you need to work as a team to complete objectives and to help you along the way. What perhaps is even more interesting is suddenly being aware of those around you who are playing – people you only notice once you’re part of the game. Being in an area and having your portal attacked makes you look around to find the other people with their heads in their Android  phones in an effort to try and figure out who attacked you. I had one encounter where I was trying to figure out who was attacking me and I saw another guy look up from his phone, smile at me, nod and walk about 20 meter farther away still tapping away at his phone. We were both sharing a rather unique, highly interactive, and deeply social moment, and we were the only two people in a large crowd who knew it – now that’s great AR

It makes me think more about how these kinds of applications might fit in an educational setting and what kind of information we can or should be overlaying within a physical space to augment student-learning practices. Fine-grained tracking of students within a space is very tricky, and therefore learning designs that aim to use such positioning information often struggle to provide meaningful interactions. For many of these projects, designers must address the challenges of balancing the desire for the system to automatically detect students and react to their position versus having students intentionally log into a space to “announce” their presence. In the case of the latter, you reduce the variability of incorrectly positioning the student, but similarly you reduce the spontaneity of simply walking into a location. It also requires providing carefully placed stations for logging in or specific interfaces on the student device (which provide their own risks of students logging into the wrong space).

Student engaging in Ambient Wood
An example of a student using a handheld at a station in Ambient Wood

Some projects however like Ambient Wood, have done some very interesting work in automatically leveraging students’ physical location for unique learning opportunities. In Ambient Wood students conduct investigations in an outdoor wooded area, and their mobile devices served to augment their investigations by providing them with context specific information based on where they were within the woodlands. Ambient Wood actually blends automatic detection in some areas with intentional student driven login at others. What Ambient Wood doesn’t do, which is something that I’ve tried in my own work in projects like neoPLACE and Roadshow (admittedly only with the intentional student centered authentication), is the development of ad-hoc social networks based on location, that is to say connecting the users in real-time to those that occupy a physically and semantically similar space. Through these means we have the opportunity to have students collaborate and build meaning together to potentially connect this meaning making to others dynamically and in real-time.

The semantic aspect I mention above is something that Ingress does really well (with each team having their own representations of the “game state”) and I think has real potential for education. Stephen Graham called these the “invisible spaces” that sit on top of and between the fabric of traditional geographic space – a varied skein of networks that weave through our varied physical spaces. To me this holds promise for designing learner and context specific representations of the learning environment customized to the individual goals of the learner within that space, and to connecting the learner to the information and people that are relevant to them (and perhaps more importantly filtering out what is not, or is simply “noise”).

Imagine multiple students investigating driving inquiry questions within a physical space, receiving timely and context specific tasks on their personal device based on where they are and who else is sharing their space – working with their peers to advance their own understanding and that of the larger knowledge community. As they move through the space, an intelligent software agent tracks and understands their evolving learning pathway, connects them with a new group of students and sends new context-relevant information and specialized overlays about their surroundings to their device. An augmented reality focused on learning where both space and context are deeply interwoven into students interactions – not just a great AR, but a great AR for learning

Non-Standard Bodies

Non-Standard Bodies

Non-Standard Bodies Dress Front

This project was part of a 4 month exhibition at the Ontario Science Center’s !dea Gallery as part of Mirror, Mirror…Reflections on Body Image

We are constantly assailed with body images and standards in which we as individuals and as a society must fit – are you a small, a medium, a large? How short is your dress? What does your neckline say about you? These questions are at the heart of Non-Standard Bodies. The project, initially conceived as a way of exploring the influence of external factors on the comfort and presentation of the individual, has come to tell a story about the impact of standards on our daily lives and the impact of remote decisions on our perception and presentation of self.

Except in the case of bespoke clothing, the garments we wear are traditionally based on standardized sizes, sometimes reflecting national or international decisions, sometimes reflecting the decisions of individual clothing designers and manufacturers. These garments cannot, by necessity, be a perfect fit for each wearer. They are, instead, good enough, aiming to reflect a reasonably popular or common set of measurements.

This idea of garment sizes being imposed from the outside, by invisible hands, is one persistent with the principles of standardization. Standards setting has, historically, been the province of experts, educated individuals situated within official organizations. These twin ideas of outside influences and “one size fits none” standards are the themes running through Non-Standard Bodies. The project, from an abstract viewpoint, is a physical manifestation of the invisible hands of standardization making decisions about the appearance, presentation and bodyimage of its wearer. Practically speaking, Non-Standard Bodies is an adjustable dress. It is, in its ground state, large and voluminous, beige cotton cloth, fashioned after a monk’s habit and worn over a structural plastic frame.

The dress has both a wearer and a user. The two functions, unlike with normal clothing, are distinct. The user becomes the subject, the wearer the object. This metaphorical representation of standards setting (with the user as subject at a distance) takes place through the manipulation of the fit of the dress. The fit of the dress is manipulated through the adjustment of a series of controls, arrayed along its spine (and therefor inaccessible by the wearer). These controls provide input to an Arduino microcontroller, which manipulates a number of motors. Those motors wind up spools of cord, which lift the hem of the dress, shorten its sleeves and adjust the fit of its waist. Thus, through activities unseen by the wearer (because, in fact, the user is behind her), her appearance and presentation of self are changed. This is the metaphorical representation which runs through the heart of the work and presents, in an evocative and whimsical way, the issue of the politics of standardized clothing sizes.

Radical Design Workshop

Radical Design Workshop

This workshop was designed as part of the Knowledge Media Design Institute‘s (KMDI) Radical Design Series entitled: Malleable Designs – Using Play-Doh to Design the Future.

The goal of the workshop was to engage the participants in thinking about how the future of communicative technologies will provide new ways for people to connect, share, and grow in their communities. Participants used Play-Doh as a medium to articulate and develop their ideas both tactilely and visually. Play-Doh was especially effective for this as the medium itself is so malleable and flexible that the participants didn’t have to conform their thinking to rigid structural limitations.

The workshop combined open, guided discussion and hands-on investigations with the Play-Doh. As a group we looked at 4 main themes: 1) What does it mean to communicate? 2) How do we define our communication networks and communities? 3) What is a disruptive technology? And how are current disruptive technologies changing the way we connect and relate to each other? 4) What do we envision the future landscape of communicative and community technologies to be?