Atoms are the new bits

So says Chris Anderson, in this month’s cover story of Wired. It’s worth reading – he makes a good case for how individual access to tools and manufacturing pipelines will alter the workforce and change how business is done. In typical Chris Anderson style, it’s a bit over-the-top, but also largely correct. Well, if that’s the case, then I’d better start assembling some atoms, eh?

I’m taking two courses this term that are largely skills classes in “atoms-building,” in this sense. The first, “Gadgetry”, focuses on the atoms of electronics – covering everything from PCB layout and production to low-level microcontroller programming (and I mean low-level – if anyone can tell me what registers to enable to turn on PWM waveform generation on an attiny25, let me know, because these data sheets aren’t exactly light reading.)

The second, “Digital Fabrication for the Arts”, focuses on atoms of all things *except* electronics. Basically, it’s a crash course in rapid prototyping – laser cutting, 3d printing, plastic molding, CNC, etcetra. Each week we hit a new tool, and attempt to make interesting things with that tool, with a final project at the end. We’re only two weeks in, and I’ve already made two things! Wanna see? Well, unfortunately, my blog is only so adept at dynamic conversation – so you don’t get much a choice.

Here’s my Week One design for “dFab” – a pair of sunglasses made on the laser cutter. The prompt was to “design an item a cult might use” – combining that, with my girlfriend’s desire for me to make the sunglasses Lady-Gaga esque, led to this strange design, with curves blocking ones view. (The idea being that this cult would be such slaves to fashion that functionality was verboten.)

And here’s my Week Two design – a USB drive ring, made in plastic on a 3D printer. The prompt was to “design a prosthesis that works on a part of your body”. I designed this thing to let myself ask what would happen if digital data was part of my physical body, and you physically “plugged yourself in” to things to communicate with them. (Now that the thing exists, I can say that it’s surprisingly comfortable to wear – but its mere existence begs questions about how it’d be used and misused.)

Yep, that’s a real flash drive in there! I was happy I was able to pull that off. Making things to the dimensions of real, physical items is tough – object measurements for the flash drive on Amazon are great for shipping, but they’re not sufficient for custom-machining a slot that would fit the flash drive snuggly while still allowing it to slide in. I was off by a millimeter or so, so the drive had to be glued in. Still, the fact that it fit in there at all – and that the ring fits on my finger! – was good news to me.

These assignments were somewhat bound, in particular, to get us thinking about the human form and how parts need to be designed to real-world physical constraints. This has been useful for me, in that I’m still very used to my designs being abstract – even as mobile and ubiquitous computing is concerned, one rarely has to deal with things fitting together nicely and adhering to naturally occurring shapes until they really get into making “stuff”. We’ve been working in Solidworks so far – fortunately other students in the MTID program are mechanical engineers and industrial designers, so I bother them frequently when things go awry.

If you put these two courses together, you probably get something roughly equivalent of MIT Media Lab’s “How To Make Almost Anything” course. I always wanted to take it at MIT, but never could – and getting coursework in fabrication like that course was a big reason that I picked my Tangible Interaction Design degree in the first place. So I’m extremely happy, and excited to see what I’ll be able to make for my final projects at the end of term.
(BTW, the Media Lab’s course site has fabulous resources on these topics and more. It’s quite self-serve, but they have everything from demo eagle files, to serial communication python code, to lists of graphics libraries. I’d put it on any aspiring Maker’s list of bookmarks.)

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