New automata activity development: Cranky Contraptions

We have been prototyping a new automata activity called “Cranky Contraptions” using simple materials such as wooden blocks, wire, and foamies. Now that it’s been about a month that we have been testing the activity with the visitors, I wanted to take a moment to share about this new activity, how it all started, and what people have been making.

What is Cranky Contraption?
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Cranky contraptions are a type of moving toys that utilize a 'crank slider' motion mechanism. They have a little crank handle and each of these samples in the photo creates a different motion when you crank it: some goes Up & Down, or side-to-side, some swings or flaps, and so on. You can see how each motion example works in the video below.

How Cranky Contraption has been developed:
For a long time, we have been making automata in the Tinkering Studio with many different materials. Using cardboard is our classic way of making automata, but we’ve also tried making one entirely from food, trash, wire, and wood. While we enjoy different materials for making automata, we have always considered how to shorten the time spent making the frame so that visitors can quickly get to the point where they can tinker with mechanisms and animate the sculpture.

The first big hint came from a twitter feed: A clothespin automata! This gave us the idea to use a familiar object, such as a clothespin, as a frame for the mechanism so people can quickly start making the animated sculpture. We also liked that it lets people experiment with lever and linkage-based mechanisms which have more possibilities than the spinning cams or the up & down cams that people use in cardboard automata.

However, after trying it out for a couple of days in the Tinkering Studio, we found that it was not so easy especially for children to bend wire precisely around such tiny clothespins. The scale needed to be larger. Also, using clothespins without taking advantage of their open/closing function was counter intuitive for people to understand what this was about.

Another big hint came from Carlos Zapata’s automata. He is an artist in residence and spent two weeks with us during the Curious Contraption show. He was using a 1x1 wooden block with a hole as a frame to build the crank mechanism. We liked the size, it looked much more manageable especially for young children. The day after we saw this, we started using wooden blocks instead of clothespins. This was an improvement, but we still had a problem(?) to solve. We were looping the end of the wire around the crank to joint with the vertical rod: most children found this too difficult to do.

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The next big hint came from another artist in residence, Hernán Lira. He threaded a piece of cork on the crank shaft loosely enough that it could spin, and then tied the vertical rod to the cork. The simple solution inspired us to experiment with the substitution for the cork. We tried it with a piece of foamie (just because it was around) and simply poked the wire into the foam. It worked.

Thanks to those two breakthrough, we were able to lower the threshold of this activity. Providing a wooden block as a frame made it much quicker for people to get started, and the technique of using a piece of foamie for the crank slider joint made it easier for people to get to the point where they can tinker with the motion mechanism. As a result, they spend longer time working on the mechanism (very short time on making the frame), and they focus more on tweaking the motion mechanism to animate the sculptures.

The last thing to figure out was how to make a guide that goes on top of the block to hold the vertical rod. For that, we have been experimenting with three different ways of making the guide: wire, popsicle stick, and thin foamie strip.

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They all do the same job: to hold the vertical wire straight up. For the popsicle stick one (photo in the middle), we provide a good hole punch "Crop-A-Dile" so people can make a clean hole without breaking the popsicle stick. The thin foamie strip (photo on the right) would be good if you are working with young children. Making a wire loop with a plier is a little bit tricky (photo on the left), but we've created a "loop making jig" so the job can be done in a few seconds.

Loop making jig: Put the wire end in the tiny hole and wrap the wire around the rod. Take it out. You got a loop!

And here is our short instruction video about how to make the most basic Cranky Contraption mechanism.

What people have been making:
It's been a month since we started this activity on the floor. The video below is showing the varieties of Cranky Contraptions that visitors to the Tinkering Studio made so far. It is amazing to see so many different motion mechanisms that a crank slider mechanism can produce. We are also really impressed to see the personal expressions and narrative elements that people pour in their contraptions. All in all, what excites me the most is that people spend more time on figuring out how the mechanism works, tweaking the motion, animating their own sculpture, and very little time on making the frame.

How to do it for yourself:
Here is a little handout that we have created so you can try it out in your own educational setting. As I said, this activity is still on our prototyping stage (so it is a "draft"), and I'm looking forward to further development. We are interested to hear your feedback about this new idea, and we are so excited and curious to see where you take this idea!


Collaborative prototyping - exploring computational tinkering with sound

We have been prototyping new computational tinkering activities that explore sound during the past 4 months, working collaboratively with our partners from the MIT Lifelong Kindergarten group and the LEGO Idea Studio.


During our first round of activity development with mechanisms and sound, back in Spring 2016, we came up with an activity we called "Kinetic Musicale" or "Robot Orchestra" in the early stages. We saw a lot of iteration as visitors were creating their "sound machines", however, deep investigations were focused mainly on mechanisms whereas "sound" felt more like a hook to draw people in.

A couple of months ago we picked up the topic of sound again, this time as part of our Computational Tinkering work (tinkering with computation in the digital world combined with tinkering in the real world). Our collaborators at LEGO Idea Studio started building small motorized sound making devices with LEGO WeDo and shared their experiments on Twitter. Unlike during our first explorations of sound and mechanisms, we had a clear intention that the mechanisms could be played together, controlled by a machine or computer. This is one of the early prototypes. The Idea Studio called this "Sound Circles"

This prototype from Amos and Liam at Idea Studio sparked a number of interesting new experiments and discussions about concepts of computation such as loops, events, sequences and physical computing in general. We were also reminded of some of the challenges we faced investigating sound during our first explorations with "Kinetic Musicale". Namely that participants wanted to play their "sound machines" together, but it was hard to do this without a common beat. (https://tinkering.exploratorium.edu/2016/05/12/lego-robotic-orchestra). One of the ideas that our teams got excited about during this 2nd prototyping phase with computation involved was that a group of people can collaborate and contribute their sound makers to a larger system that controls the individual sounds and composes them together. Following this idea, we experimented with a few more prototypes in recent weeks.

This is the next iteration of Sound Circles from the IdeaStudio, with more build-out sound elements or "Sound Tiles".

Here is a clone with a different type of trigger mechanism (a spinning disk) that I made in response to the Idea Studio's Sound Circle at the Tinkering Studio.

Since then we have had fun making more sound tiles controlled by Scratch code and LEGO WeDo. Each sound tile has a distance sensor and that way can be plugged into a larger system that controls it.

Here's a particularly intriguing Sound Tile that "Hernán Lira", one of our visiting artists made. I love the variety we see in these explorations, and how Hernán's work can be tied into a system even though the material set and aesthetic is very different from some of the sound tiles we made.

Now that we collaboratively made a variety of examples of "Sound Tiles", we will play with inventing systems that they can be plugged into. They could be played by a human conductor covering the distance sensors with their hands, triggered by a rotating mechanism, or even programmed by a drum similar to the mechanism used in mechanical music boxes. I am excited to invite visitors at the Tinkering Studio to come up with ways to trigger and combine sound tiles.

Revisiting sound with a focus on computation while frequently sharing ideas and experiences with our partners at MIT Lifelong Kindergarten and the LEGO Idea Studio has lead to interesting remixing of ideas and inspired new directions. I particularly like that physical prototypes inspired by each other's ideas often took the work in a slightly different direction and served as jumping off points for the whole group to investigate new areas. It's always reassuring to see the same qualities of Tinkering that we value in our workshops present in our own prototyping process.


Light Up Holiday Cards

During a member and donor night at the Exploratorium, we hosted an electronic greeting cards activity where we invited participants to make their own light up holiday cards. The activity featured paper circuit making with LEDs to embellish handmade cards.


The Tinkering Studio team experimented with paper circuits previously as a workshop on the floor as well as an activity brought to conferences and international workshops. Reflections on the activity through the lenses of facilitation, space set up, and working with visitors. The "wide walls" of the activity are evident with past explorations into combining paper circuits with Scratch and magazines collages. Additionally, we have brought paper circuits into the classroom in 2014 and 2016.




For this event, the focus was on using two types of LEDs: gumdrops and stickers. The premise of creating paper circuits without soldering surface mount LEDs was very appealing. We used a gumdrop LEDs in a variety of colors and sizes as well as Chibitronics LED stickers.

A switch sampler from Becca Rose (@beccaerose) and a paper circuit remix by Susan Klimczak (@zackboston) was an exciting addition to the activity.

Overall we had a successful night of card making. We saw many participants troubleshooting circuit designs as well as modifying and complexifying their creations.





Weaving 1.0

Although most of our recent explorations have been about sounds and mechanisms, a couple weeks ago I decided to take a detour into trying my hand at weaving. Weaving and looms are an ancient technology, and one thing that I find fascinating about them is how they are inherently computational. We have some Cricket looms I pulled out of storage to experiment with. The first step was just getting it set up and trying a simple over-under pattern for making an even textile. The loom keeps one set of threads at the center level (blue yarn), and moves a second set above or below them so when you pass the shuttle through (green yarn) it makes an even woven pattern.

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I knew with some looms it was possible to make more complex patterns, which was the next challenge I set for myself. I marked out four threads that I would skip on each pass, thinking this would make a square. For my first attempts, I skipped those ones moving the shuttle both directions, but it made the pattern look messy. For the second attempt, I only skipped those ones when passing the shuttle right to left and it made a much cleaner pattern.


The next challenge was to see if I could make a checker board so I marked out eight different threads to skip. The pattern was six passes skipping the ones marked with a blue dot, then six passes skipping the ones marked with a red dot.

I like that the fabric shows evidence of my learning over time. The process of figuring out how to shuttle the green thread across, when to skip blue threads, and even some "bugs" of mistakes are all apparent when you look at the fabric itself. For future explorations, I think it could be really interesting to try making a simple Jacquard-style loom that allows you to manually choose which threads to "skip" and potentially make more complex patterns than just squares. Another option could be to try making a simple scratch program that could draw out a pattern you could then recreate with physical materials.


Sound Harvesting

Sound R&D

We have been experimenting with ways of collecting and exploring interesting sounds. One of the first attempts at tackling this activity idea was to dust off our collection of piezo microphones, and try out a number of different ways of capturing captivating sounds from everyday or unexpected objects.

A piezo microphone is also knows as a contact mic, and will amplify tiny movements and vibrations of any surface it is in contact with—hence the name. We have been thinking about it as a “magnifying glass for your ears.”


As often is the case, before trying an activity, especially a new one, with the public, we like to immerse ourselves in it in the Learning Studio. So we mounted a few piezo mics on sticks, connected them to portable amplifiers and donned large headphones, and went on a sound harvesting “safari.”

Sound R&D

One of the first things we noticed was how immersive it is to listen to highly amplified sounds, especially with headphones on. We became floating listening vessels focused on our own experiences to the point of isolation, occasionally looking up to find, to our mild surprise, that there were other people in the room. We were all having very immersive experiences but no way of sharing them with others, you'd look up grinning because you had just discovered a delightfully unexpected sound from something really tiny, only to realize nobody else can hear what you can.

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Amy tried modifying her mic and interact with it by blowing on appendages.

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Meg tried squeezing air out of packing bubbles, and others tried listening to their own heartbeat, experimenting with metal bowls with different size balls in them, etc.

Sound R&D

We also tried recording the sounds in a prototype version of Scratch that allows for more sophisticated sound manipulation than the currently available version. We had initially imagined that we would spend little time exploring sounds and digitally manipulating them, and the majority of time actually building some kind of project using those sounds. An initial idea was to have several colored dots on the screen, each of which could be assigned a sound, and then interact with those either with the mouse or with another sprite, triggering sounds in rhythmical ways.

Sound R&D

Somewhat surprisingly we discovered that the initial part, the sound harvesting and exploration, was rich enough and complex enough to hold our attention for the whole duration of the prototyping session. There was much to discover and get lost in when looking for sounds, and no clear stopping point. Some people set little challenges for themselves, like making a long non-repeating sound for example. Others spent a long time with the sound editor in Scratch experimenting with slowing down or speeding up, adding echo, and distorting it.

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We’ll keep experimenting and trying to find a good balance between exploration and construction. Meanwhile an early test in the Tinkering Studio revealed itself successful! Kids stayed a long time and were very interested in this new “set of ears” that the piezo mics provided them with.