After lugging our set of wooden electricity boards to Milan for our 'Intro to tinkering workshop' (see video for evidence of our packing moment of zen), I started thinking about making a lighter and more portable version of the activity to take for offsite conferences and workshops. I thought that it might be possible to use the inspiring techniques and materials for paper circuits that Jie Qi shared with us during her residency a few months ago. So I cut out 3in by 3in pieces of thin cardboard and mounted motors, LEDs, batteries, and tiny switches in the middle of each card. We went through a couple of variations figuring out the best way to connect the cards together. First we tried regular alligator clips and also a variation with wires soldered to paper clips, but the wires caused the lighter paper pieces to twist and flip. After some suggestions from Antonio, Meg and others, we figured out that the boards could just be pressed together and connected with binder clips to make stable circuits.
We also experimented with the arrangement of the copper tape leads. We tried H-shaped, M-shaped, and Z-shaped lines to get the copper tape. We wanted to figure out a way so that the connections could be both intuitive and flexible, letting kids jump right into messing about with electricity and not have to worry about 'learning the system' before digging into the meat of the activity. The tape has to run along the whole side of each block so that the pieces could be reversible, interchangeable, and arrangeable in non-linear patterns. For now, we are trying the 'M' for the battery and the 'H' for the components.
I like how the way of connecting the cards removes the step of clipping and unclipping wires which allows for even faster rapid prototyping by the participant. Instead of just a 'travel version' of our traditional boards, some of us have started to see the paper circuit cards as a unique experience good for an introduction to some of these unfamiliar materials in a friendly and (hopefully) easily understandable activity. I could imagine using these boards either by themselves or as part of a larger make-your-own paper circuit activity.
Another novel addition to the paper circuit board set is the inclusion of microcontrollers which can create all types of various cool input and output modifications. I spent an afternoon trying to use an arduino to program an attiny to run the blink program and finally succeeded thanks to help from Jie's online resources and more advice from Natalie in our new media department. The bigger circuit card creates a blinking effect in lights and buzzers, although the battery was not strong enough to get the motor going.
I'm really excited to see if I can create a set of boards that allows people to psychically combine programmed inputs and outputs in interesting ways. I could imagine having a 'wait until' input paired with a 'blink' and different outputs. It might turn out to be somewhat like little bits (something we've been messed around with before) but with pieces that are little easier to move around and see what's going on. I also will have to study up on my programming and arduino! We've talked about it before, but it's always fascinating to me how you only really learn how to use a tool when you have a project that you are personally motivated to work on. I think it's true for visitors as well as us! I'll keep working on the circuit cards and post updates as the project evolves. I'm also curious if people with more experience programming have other ideas of things to add!