Meandering between inspiration, research, and making

Every once in a while I get into a particularly fulfilling path of exploration around a topic, one where the flow from inspiration to experimenting and back to researching feels effortless and natural. Last week got us into an interesting excursion around light projections. It started with a video artist in residence Becca Rose shared with me.

Loi Fuller, a dancer and pioneer of stage lighting techniques used special lighting equipment with gels to make her clothes appear to change color during her performances in the late eighteen hundreds. In this recreation of her original dance the effect of colored lights on her white clothes can be seen. In the original black and white film by the Luminer brothers of her dancing the color was actually added later on (the original video can be found here: https://youtu.be/bA-jbsqFXJA


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Inspired by the idea of using clothes as a projection surface, I decided to bring the white clothes I could find to work the next day to try and turn my body into a projection surface. My colleagues helped improvise a sarong from a piece of white plastic foil to complete the costume.

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Deanna and I had a great time playing, experimenting and taking photos, sometimes hiding in the paper forest of Becca's installation, sometimes trying to catch a particularly beautiful part of the video footage Becca projected.

After I shared our exploration via Twitter, a friend and collaborator pointed out that our own Exploratorium explainers had experimented with the idea of the body as a projection surface years ago, even adding reflective material to the mix.

I don't have any concrete plans to take this exploration further, but I feel the satisfaction of understanding light projections in yet another way and having added more techniques for tinkering with light and shadows to my repertoire.


Light Play at Lighthouse

Digital Light Play Lighthouse

For our last visit of the semester (and our last day teaching in after school at Lighthouse), Lianna and I brought an activity called light play. Light play is a legacy activity in the Tinkering Studio and has seen many different incarnations over the years. Learners explore light, color and shadow using LED light sources, various materials, and a screen. The light shining on and through objects like reflective paper and plastic cups creates fascinating and surprising shadows.




Students created light and shadow sculptures over two class meetings. We introduced the activity using LED lights, motors, and a wide variety of materials and objects. We call this set up analog light play, as opposed to digital light play, which is a version of the activity that we brought the following week.


Day 1

We brought an analog light play set for the first week and were privileged (though surprised) to find that we had a class size that day that was three times larger than anticipated. The room was bustling with pairs and trios working inside cardboard light play boxes. Lighthouse has a classroom set of light play boxes made from cardboard and HDPE (high-density polyethylene) screens that we borrowed. We have found that 1/32" HDPE in a natural finish works best as a projection screen and we source them locally at TAP Plastics.

We structured the class by setting up each light play station with a light, a motor, and an interesting object or two. As students worked, they could walk over to the materials table and grab additional supplies to try. After groups worked on constructing their light and shadow sculptures, we gathered back together as a larger class and tasked groups to share out what they created so far and to give one another appreciations. Though it was hard for students to step away from their pieces, this was a great opportunity for others to take a break from their own work and to be inspired by their classmates.


One group was not able to use a motor in their box because we ran out of supplies. They wanted to have motion in their piece and took on the challenge of creating another type of movement. They decided to try sting and hung a piece of plexiglass from the inside of the cardboard box. The shadow of the star swayed gently and created a motion entirely different from other boxes that used motors.


Another box was entirely lined with mylar. Initially, they tried one piece of mylar, and were struck by the eery, sparkly effect that was produced on the screen. The mylar-lined box created even more bending of light.


After spending more time perfecting their pieces, we culminated class with building a light play wall, stacking the boxes on top of one another. I love to see all of the light play boxes together - seeing the similarities and differences between the boxes as well as taking in the full effect of the entire, cohesive piece.



Day 2

We had a much smaller class on the second day when the students experimented with programming the lights and motors of their light play boards. In partnership with the Scratch Team at the MIT Media Lab, we have been prototyping an app and board to incorporate into the activity to program the lights and motor. The app is designed to be an introduction into programming using blocks. Lights can fade between selected colors, and the motor can spin left and right.


And with that, we reached the end of the year at Lighthouse. A big thank you to the teachers and students at Lighthouse who made the past two years such a pleasure. I joined the team last fall, and being a teacher and collaborator in the Tinkering Club and with Lighthouse's after school team has been one of the highlights of my time with the Tinkering Studio.

Overdeck Family Foundation

This collaboration is funded by the Overdeck Foundation and the National Science Foundation.

More About Light Play

We facilitate light play in the Exploratorium within the Tinkering Studio, as well use it in professional development settings. We have introduced light play to Exploratorium High School Explainers, in the Art of Tinkering workshop, and for Maker Educator Meetups.

Recently, we have been actively working with light play, bringing the activity to LEGO headquarters in Billund, Denmark, to this year's Bay Area Maker Faire, and participating in this year's Scratch Day.

If you are interested in learning more about how to source and build the materials used for light play, check out our Instrucable.


Pinhole Cameras with Modesto Tamez

For the past two weeks we've had a special guest visiting us at Tinkering Club - artist and senior scientist at the Exploratorium Modesto Tamez! To continue our exploration of light and shadow, we worked with him to create Pinhole Cameras. We thought this would be a fun connection to previous weeks' ideas, but with a new twist. For example, when we made light paintings we were creating long exposure digital images. Pinhole cameras also use long exposure techniques, but the image created is completely analog.

To start off our exploration, Modesto demonstrated how a pinhole can focus light without a lens. He had us poke holes in a piece of paper using a push pin, then look at objects through the opening. We noticed that whatever object we looked at was in focus, no matter how far away it was. He also used red and green lightbulbs to demonstrate how a pinhole projects a reversed image, which would be important when we took our photos later.

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Next we dove into building our cameras. They're constructed out of quart size paint cans with a 1/4" hole drilled in the side, a piece of tin with a pinhole as the aperture, and a construction paper "shutter". Paint cans work well because they don't let light leak in, but we could have experimented with other containers as well. We placed photosensitive paper inside the cans opposite the shutter. To do this we had to turn the Creativity Lab into a darkroom so there's no photos of this process (the light from the camera screen and flash would ruin the paper!).


After building our cameras we went outside to the school's atrium to take our photos. Modesto showed us how to use a light meter to determine how long our exposure would have to be to expose the photographic paper. Since it was a moderately sunny afternoon, the light meter reading told us it would take about 10 seconds to capture a bright image. A cloudier day would have meant more time, and direct bright sun would have been less. (Fun fact: counting one hippopotamus, two hippopotamus, etc. gives you a pretty accurate measure of time - try it!)


We took two rounds of photos that day. The process required the whole group to take their pictures, then head back to the darkroom to develop them (again, couldn't take pictures at this point). The original images as they came out of the camera were negatives. By inverting the image using photo editing software we could create the positive print. It's amazing to me how ordinary objects look so different as negatives.
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There were definitely some challenges to taking pinhole photographs. One that happened for several people was that the photo paper wasn't lined up directly across from the aperture, so you ended up with a print of the pinhole itself or a partial print like this one:

Lily week 1A

Another thing we realized we had to be careful of after the first round was accidentally photographing our hands as we opened the shutter.

Amy week 1B

Still, we were able to capture some amazing images. The figurines were an element to incorporate since pinhole cameras allow you to play with size and scale in a way a regular camera won't. Because all parts of the image are in focus, tiny objects can look giant - like this seal hanging out in the atrium.

Shyanne week 1A

Our second week of the activity we did more experiments with trying to take photographs of other people. We realized faces need a lot more time to get a proper exposure than the surrounding environment. In the group collaboration below, we posed for almost 20 seconds, but the photograph was still a little dim. The photo also shows a good example of how the pinhole camera produces a reversed, negative image.

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This was the students in Tinkering Club's first time taking and developing analog photos. With so much to explore, tinkering with photography could be the topic of a whole future semester of after school investigations!

Overdeck Family Foundation

This collaboration is funded by the Overdeck Foundation and the National Science Foundation.


BAME meetup - Cardboard night

Last Thursday we hosted BAME (Bay Area Maker Educators) meet-up with the theme Cardboard. We love exploring familiar materials and finding new ways to tinker with them. Cardboard is definitely one of the materials that we’ve been using a lot in our daily prototypes as well as in the tinkering projects. Since the Exploratorium’s new exhibition WildCard is coming up soon, it seemed to be a good time for us and other maker educators to get together around the topic of cardboard and share out what we can do with cardboard in terms of tinkering in our museums and classrooms settings.

We started off the meeting by showing a video from OpenMake Cardboard event that we hosted a few years ago. It was a good introduction to overview what cardboard activities we’ve done in the past and who are the artists we’ve been working with. We also showed a couple of other projects that we've tried such as Cardboard pop-up tree and large scale stop motion animations.

Then we invited participants to dive into the Tinkering Studio's cardboard activities: some are our all time favorite and some are brand new (half-baked). Here is the line up for the activities:

Make your own Visual boards:

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The board idea to show different cardboard attachment methods originally came from Sarah Wyman, an art teacher at Festus Elementary School, and Deanna recreated this board with a few additions. We also created "Types of Cardboard" to show different kinds of cardboard. Since they both work as a good reference for cardboard construction projects (especially the attachment technique board has been embraced by STEAM educators over and over on the social media), we prepared extra boards and materials so that the participants can create their own for their classroom or maker space.

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And yes, people were busy making their own! It was great that they could learn a few attachment techniques while building a visual board for students.

Cardboard Automata:

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Cardboard automata is our long-time favorite activity. We love that simple materials such as cardboard and foamies can create a mechanical sculpture and let you explore machine elements such as cams and levers in a playful way. On the table, we spread a few basic motion examples to help people observe the mechanisms. We had an impression that many people are already familiar with this activity, but it's always good to revisit the same activity: you will always find something new. We also informed people that the new online Tinkering Fundamentals course that we are hosting on Coursera (Mike, Karen, and Luigi are the instructor) is about motion and mechanisms, and the cardboard automata activity will be featured in that course. It's starting at the end of July.

Cardboard Linkages:

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Inspired by Noga Elhassid, an artist from Israeli, we have been developing the activity and accumulated many examples of motion mechanisms and art pieces. To help our participants to get started, just like the cardboard automata, we had a few examples of very basic motions that we spread around the table.

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Cardboard corrugated gears are something we've been prototyping with but not being so sure what we could make out of those. I'm delighted to find that this rolling eyeballs were made in the night.

Cardboard Costumes:

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Love seeing cardboard boxes get transformed into something cool, and it's even cooler if you can wear it! We've done cardboard costumes several times on the floor, in the Tinkering Social Club and explainer trainings. We've made a few inspiring examples, and the guests were encouraged to use our favorite tools:


(From left to right)
- Or-ita: Cardboad scoring tool :An amazing cardboard scoring tool with a custom handmade blade by a Japanese artist, Makoto Orisaki.
- Titanium Snip Scissors :Great shears! Not only cardboard, this can cut many other materials such as chip board, thin aluminum, canvas, and plastic sheet.
- Klever kutter :Very safe cutter for cardboard. Great for classroom uses.
- Canary Corrugated Cardboard cutter :Different from Klever Kutter, this works more like a cardboard saw. It cuts with a back and forth motion. Feels like a knife through butter!
- Milwaukee Filip Knife :Our all time favorite!

IMG_1125(1)Our new high school project explainer intern MaryClare created this skirt with the cardboard packing materials. The necklace was made by Donna, a participant from east coast who happened to be in town that night!

The guests seemed to be fine with a freestyle building, but in the future, I would provide more obvious starting points to help people get started: it could be these simple head/shoulder bases. Also, I'd like to come up with a simple base model for creating various masks. For example, I've made a mask of wolf by downloading a template from here (It's actually for construction paper, not for cardboard) and made a modified lion mask based on that. It was not easy. But I know a lot of people want to make cool masks! It would be fun if we could come up with a simple base and people could make various masks from that.

Also, having a photo booth like this might be a good addition to encourage people to create costumes and document themselves for future events!

Cardboard Marble Machines:

Usually we build marble machines with peg boards and dowels, but you can also build one with cardboard. In fact, cardboard is more accessible and easier to manipulate! Deanna created this example, and I like that she used masking tape instead of hotglue: it allows people to adjust the positions of the tracks after building. The big circle was her attempt to create a marble wheel to pick up marble balls, which was still work in progress.

The educators from Lawrence Hall of Science Ingenuity Lab created their own marble run! Here is a Tweet from them.

Cardboard coin acceptor:

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This was an attempt to show that a simple coin acceptor can be made out of cardboard. For this particular example, we used Tim Hunkin's coin acceptor template, a low torque switch (we used this one from Adafruit), and Noga's linkage boat which was hooked up with a servo motor and arduino. When you insert a coin, it falls on a whisker trigger and activates the servo motor to sweep the oar back and forth. We printed Tim Hunkin's template on several cardboard sheets so people could take home and make their own coin-operated 'something', it could be a light, motor, or any arduino project.

Although she was not the participant of BAME meetup, Susan, who visited us in the week of BAME, made her own coin operated LED with our template!

Cardboard coin operated gumball machine:

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This was another attempt to make a coin operated mechanism out of cardboard. Being inspired by this example on youtube, I followed the instruction halfway through but decided not to cover the mechanism. Leaving the top open so that people could see how it works inside seemed to be more appropriate for the BAME meet-up. This was not meant to be an activity, but guests were encouraged to interact with the machine - drop a quarter coin, load gumballs, drop wrong kind of coins and see what happens, turn the handle in the opposite direction...etc.

Cardboard marble maze:

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Okay, you can't really build a coin operated machine within the short amount of activity time during the BAME meet-up, but how about building a cardboard marble maze? It's a sort of marble machines and you design the marble path. I've made one example and found that it was helpful to have grid lines on the board (so it can be used as a guide for placing internal walls) and lots of pre-cut strips available at hand. We prepared a lot of cardboard strips and printed subtle grid lines with two different patterns on both sides of the cardboard sheets.

Danielle drew a marble path with blue masking tape first, then she started building the internal wall pieces, making sure that they would not block the path that she designed. Using masking tape instead of pencils was a good idea because you can just peel it after building the maze, leaving no trace! There were also some people who didn't use any of these grid lines and created their own marble mazes from blank cardboard sheets (sorry, no picture).

I was also trying to find a good way to make circle holes on the cardboard sheet. For that night, we used a 3/4" diameter hole saw, but I found that the hole saw tends to scrape the back of the cardboard sheet when it comes through, so I used the hole saw to cut only halfway through and did the rest with a Xact knife. I'd say that this was still much easier way to make circle holes than cutting out entire holes with only a knife.

Sneak Preview at Wild Card - an installation by Cardboard Institute of Technology:

For the last 15 mins, we invited the guests to a sneak preview of the WildCard exhibition, where the members of Cardboard Institute of Technology (C.I.T) have been creating immersive cardboard environments in the Exploratorium's West Gallery.

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It was great the we had Allison as a participant that night, who had been coordinating this exhibit with C.I.T., and she took us to a journey through this immersive cardboard dreamscape! It felt like an interesting transition in terms of scale. While walking through this large scale environment of cardboard, we also encouraged people to look closely to find their favorite pieces: I personally loved this garbage truck (reminded me of my son's obsession). We were allowed to take lots of photos. I'm sure each one of us got really good inspiration for a next cardboard project!

All in all, I think the night was a success! 'Cardboard' in the context of tinkering & making is such a broad topic, but I think we were able to cover a wide range of cardboard projects. It was great that we had prepared several activity stations and the guests could choose which one to dive into. Some people were floating around from one activity to another, trying a little bit of everything. It was also good that there were connections to the works of the artists that we respect, because that's where we often get inspirations and come up with a new idea for the tinkering activities.

We really enjoyed the event including the preparation process. I recognized, once again, that cardboard is a great material! It is such an accessible material and easy to work with but also has lots of possibilities: your cardboard creation could go incredibly big like C.I.T's landscape, or it could be a small mechanism that you feel proud of. It could be a meticulous sculpture or costume with all kinds of building techniques. Or, you could add some other fun stuff to your cardboard projects, such as a motor, light, switch, arduino, etc.. Cardboard can always surprise people! Here in the Tinkering Studio, we have lots of cardboard creations displayed, some are even in use, such as a cardboard bear rug, a cardboard tentacle, a cardboard girl, cardboard tube walls, automata, linkages, a giant hammer and plier, and and I like hearing people say "Look! That is made of cardboard!"

I am so excited with doing more cardboard projects. This summer we will host a couple of events "Infinite Versatility of Cardboard" and will immerse ourselves in the world of cardboard! We'll keep posting what we try next!


Layering shadow play elements with Scratch

Combining digital and analogue projections


We have been exploring ways to add programming and computation to our light play tinkering activity during the last couple of months. Our experiments have mainly been focused on controlling lights and motors through programming, but we always allow for plenty of time to follow different paths within a theme and explore tangential ideas.

One of my recent prototyping adventures was inspired by the idea to directly mesh computer sprites with the beautiful light patterns that we see visitors create with light play. I had learned a little about overlay projection techniques due to my interest in the beautiful artwork of Miwa Matreyeck, and knew that a combination of front and back projection might work to combine light play and Scratch on the same screen.

A first prototype came to life 10 days ago as part of our Scratch day event in the Tinkering Studio. We improvised a front/back projection set-up with a projector connected to a laptop and a white fabric sheet in a PVC tube frame as a screen. After we figured out alignment and blocked the unwanted part of the computer screen with a cardboard template, digital and analogue projection merged almost seamless.

the set-up: a fabric screen with lights in front and projection from the back side

combining sprites and shadows - a first test

visitor adding a flying manta ray to the lightplay landscape


visitors experimenting with different backdrops for a Scratch programmed rocket and butterfly

I am encouraged by this first experiment and feel like there is a lot of potential for this type of set-up. The combined projection amounts to much more than the sum of its parts and it feels really satisfying to create light and shadow worlds with moving Scratch sprites, I discovered that often what is hard to achieve with Scratch code is easy to do in the analogue world and vice versa. One of the more compelling ideas so far is to prompt visitors to create inspiring and aesthetically beautiful static environments with lights and shadows and bring the environments to life with movement and stories via programmed scratch sprites.

To be continued….