Wired Science

Dave Barton chats to game design professor and pro maker/coder/creative, Jerry Belich, about his interactive gaming workshops and how Makey Makey helps lift the ‘fog of understanding’.

It’s always reassuring to discover that those teaching you aren’t just accumulators of knowledge; they’re active participants and practitioners of the craft they’re so passionate about.

Deep in the American Midwest you’ll find Miami University (the Ohio one). And it’s here that Jerry Belich, a game design professor, continues to inspire, engage, and educate students with his infectious enthusiasm for interactive gaming experiences.

A seasoned games designer, who’s also pursuing an MFA in Experience Design, Jerry’s been creating video games since high school, studying computer science and theatre at college, before embarking on a career in mobile development and digital marketing. He’s now teaching classes and running workshops on alternative controller design.

“My job at the university is pretty much the culmination of everything I’ve done in my career so far,” he says “I love creating experiences for people, telling stories, weaving narratives, and learning to create things people want to engage with.”

Jerry’s focus is on deconstructing existing games and getting students to understand the player experience, primarily using Teensy microcontrollers and Makey Makeys for alternative controller workshops.

“I really want students to start prototyping ideas as soon as they have them and begin building completely original games. For teaching, Makey Makey is priceless. It does such an excellent job of stripping away the fog of understanding: the scary bits about working with electronics, electricity, and even code.”

To explain his approach is, he gives the example of a workshop he ran as game designer-in-residence at Eastern Kentucky University, involving both adults and children.

“For the kids it was about giving them building blocks to understand ways to bring their ideas to life,” he says. “But most of the adults who came to the workshop had never worked directly with electronics, and were a bit embarrassed about how little they understood. But using tech like Makey Makey gave them small victories to get over that block.”

Armed with a box of Teensy microcontrollers, custom firmware, a few Makey Makeys, and lots of cardboard, wire, buttons, switches, and copper tape, the Kentucky workshop group created a four player ‘fencing’ game. Using wands tipped with tinfoil, players stabbed at a hanging ball after pressing buttons with their feet.

Here are some pictures of the game.
“A super simple computer app was made, using Sketch, to keep score. It was all possible with the Makey Makeys. They really helped to stimulate the whole group’s appetite for creativity,” he explains.

As Jerry continues to explore what he calls ‘the unique Venn intersection of game design, storytelling, and making’, his passion is also fuelled by a number of side projects -- including an interactive fiction arcade called The Choosatron, which started as a personal project, but has since gained over $75,000 of Kickstarter funding. Not bad considering the original goal was $22,000.

It’s being able to bring ideas to life that continues to send Jerry deeper down the rabbit hole of mad science.

“Teaching is going to be my bag for a while. The experience has allowed me to interact with other creators and students from all over the world, sharing everything I’ve learned and discovered. I'm just so excited to help teach game designers how to DESIGN.”

Thanks Jerry! Keep us in the loop on any other neat stuff you and your students bring to life.

Want to follow Jerry? Find him on Twitter @j3rrytron and check out his website: jerrytron.com

Meet Argentina’s Punk Grannies

Virginia Francia is an Italian artist working on an intriguing maker-tech-art fusion project; empowering elderly Argentinians to overcome their fear and frustration with technology by embracing the cathartic power of punk music. Using plants as instruments... Dave Barton found out more.

Elderly people? Playing punk music? On plants? Please explain!
I got tired of seeing socially-based art projects where artists assume the role of ‘savers’ while the subjects -- those directly involved -- get bored to death doing ‘therapeutic’ tasks such as making pasta necklaces (!). I also noticed that more playful interactive workshops are mainly directed at younger audiences rather than the elderly; who tend to have a lot more free time, even though they’re often lonely.

So, my response was to give them an opportunity to express themselves freely. And what’s the best way of doing that? By forming an experimental punk band, of course! From an artistic point of view, my main objective was to demystify the preconceived ideas imposed by society around how elderly people should behave. This included overcoming a fear of technology. I wanted to invite them to interact with it in a more playful way, and give non-musicians the chance to make music and see what younger generations take for granted as everyday elements with new eyes.

But… plants??
My vision is that a group of frustrated pensionados would cathartically scream their thoughts into voice-distorting microphones and perform songs titled something like: Nephew, I'll never buy you PlayStation 5! using accessible interactive instruments -- maybe aubergines, pumpkins, mushrooms; or perhaps even their favourite flowers.

SHUT. THE. FRONT. DOOR! Someone’s actually letting you do this!? How did this all come about??
I first came up with the idea when I was in Buenos Aires for a few months and I proposed it to La Paternal Espacio Proyecto (LPEP) -- a cultural centre that offers several artist residencies each year and has an inclination toward technology and socially-engaged art. They offered me a studio to work on it and I developed some introductory workshops at a senior citizens’ activity centre two blocks away. This helped me test some initial ideas and shape the project.

But it wasn’t easy. The ‘convincing process’ meant I had to attend the senior citizens’ disco every Saturday night, in order to gain their trust. I danced with them and eventually introduced myself on the PA system. They stared at me as if I was some sort of blasphemous alien, or simply a liar.

On reflection, perhaps my opening gambit, stating I was a non-musician who wanted to work with them to play punk music on plants, was a step too far...

It worked! Who’ve you got working with you?
I had a great team of talented artists working with me who really dedicated their time and energy to the project: Lucia Ananda Fernandez documented the workshops, while Juan Rodriguez (who goes by the artist name, Sleepy Caju) and Barbara Salazar curated the musical aspects. Lucia and Barbara were friends of mine, but Sleepy Caju was a total stranger; someone I met him at a concert, who I told about my idea. He’s a young and talented musician, so he’s a great addition to the project; which is basically about generational exchanges.

Moving forward, the project will take shape in a couple of different ways. Firstly, in partnership with LPEP and the senior citizen’s center in Buenos Aires, and secondly, at another site in Cazon, a very small rural village about 200 km from the city. I’m taking up another artist-in-residence position there, Trans Acciones Utopica at the Centro Rural De Arte, during the first half of November and will head back to Buenos Aires after that.

How do you see the whole thing -- well, both mini-projects -- taking shape?
In Cazon, I'm planning to use plants as the village has a vast plant nursery and I imagine the inhabitants there have a strong connection with nature and the outdoors. In Buenos Aires, as I'll have much more time to get to know the participants, so I'd like the instruments to be related to each participant’s personal stories and dreams.

I won't impose any preconceived creative ideas on the senior citizens, so this will keep momentum free flowing, meaning the project might shift in new and unpredictable ways. I might also consider developing the same project in different countries in the future.

I’d like to see some crossover between the two projects, but I also want them to grow organically. Even if the main structure and objectives of each project stay the same, I’m keen for them to constantly take different directions. I also aim to collaborate with musicians and artists from a number of different disciplines.

Once a band’s formed I'd like ‘the grannies’ perform in different venues -- to create a real exchange with various generations and to give them an opportunity to express their thoughts to an actual audience.

What led you to Makey Makey? Did you investigate other technology too?
I first thought about using Ototo, created by Dentaku studio (Yuri Suzuki and Mark McKeague) but this isn’t in production anymore and is quite expensive. But I decided against it for this specific project mainly because it has a very limited variety of sounds. I also looked at the CocoMake7, created by the Hackteria collective, which I discovered while visiting a friend at the Solitude Schools residency in Stuttgart, Germany. We ended up playing a mushroom which I'd picked in the forest! However, it involves some basic building and programming.

I finally decided to opt for Makey Makey as I think it’s one of the most straightforward and accessible pieces of kit available; particularly for this project, given the participants’ unfamiliarity with technology. In fact, for an elderly person who’s had little or no interaction with technology, every extra step -- such turning on a computer or launching an application -- is a huge achievement. What's so great about Makey Makey is that you just have to plug it in and it just works. It’s extremely user-friendly.

I first bought one as a Christmas present for my brother a few years ago and soon realized that I’d bought it for myself really :). I used it during a two week residency workshop at Fondazione Spinola Banna in Italy, working with a chef who secretly wanted to be a drummer. We created a performance in the residency kitchen in which he played a bossa nova drum kit made of fruit, built with Makey Makey, and connected to a MAXMSP.

I see the punk grannies piece coming together in a similar way.

What do you think will be the most challenging part of the project?
The most challenging part will definitely be changing the routines of elderly people. I think will be worth insisting they keep at it, and I hope they’ll love the experience once they trust the project enough to try something new.

Thanks Virginia! We look forward to hearing more very soon :)

Underground Sound

Boston-based mechanical engineering student, Alexandra Thaon, fused her love of live music with her passion for product design and computer science creativity; using Makey Makey to put some of the MBTA’s most prominent musicians firmly on ‘the map’...

Too much choice can be overwhelming, especially when you’re choosing what to major in at college and your heart is split between two subjects.

After a semester in Australia flirting with the idea of switching to computer science, Northeastern University freshman, Alexandra Thaon decided to stick with her original degree choice -- mechanical engineering -- after taking a class in design process; which kick-started her maker talents.

“I’ve always put a lot of effort into making projects creative and visually appealing,” she says. “But I wanted to be able to blend something digital with something more physical, which I was able to do in the design process class.”

The class gave her a chance to create a personal project piece, and after exploring student use of the Massachusetts Bay Transport Authority (MBTA) -- or the “T” as it’s more commonly known -- Alex came up with the idea of creating an interactive musical map, to showcase Boston’s multicultural subterranean music scene.

The final piece is a map of the T’s central section mounted on a large foam core board. Each station is represented by a button. Attached to each button is a thin strip of aluminum foil, which is connected to a Makey Makey via an alligator clip. By holding down the ‘Earth’ button, and pressing a station button, the user plays music recorded at that particular subway station.

“Although my tutor showed me a range of different technologies, like Arduinos, I found that Makey Makey was the most cost efficient and easy to use,” she explains. “Liam from JoyLabz was able to help me bridge the gap between Makey Makey and playing the songs; he suggested using Scratch as a medium through which I could connect different keys to playing different songs.”

During her underground musical adventure, Alex experienced a rich tapestry of music, including: hip-hop, country, jazz, Spanish, pop, and alternative.

“It was interesting to see the interactions that went on between the performers and the public. For example there’s a trombone player at the Back Bay station; an old man approached him suggesting he play a certain jazz song, and was thrilled to hear him play it. The hip-hop scene at Downtown Crossing, on the other hand, attracts many young people, some even join the circle and add their freestyle.”

Although she’s now planning for her second year of study, and another semester overseas, Alex has a few ideas on how her project could to evolve.

“I’d like to develop a screen that would sit above the map; to visually show subway performances,” she says. “It would also be interesting to implement some sort of app or Twitter account that could update which stations have live performers; in order to connect the musicians and provide more of a community.

“The overall response to the project was very positive and interested. A lot of my peers, after telling them about plans to take the project further were keen to give me advice and positive feedback.”

Thanks Alex! We’re really keen to see what else you come up with on your travels.

Parks and Renovation

Art and design student, Giovanni Gonzo was part of a task force that helped renovate a public park in Bolzano, Italy. However, rather than just ‘create’ something nice to look at, he and his team decided to make something innovative and interactive that everyone could enjoy.

Bolzano: the beating heart of Italy’s South Tyrol region. A picturesque town nestled up against the Alps, on the western fringes of the spectacular Dolomite Road. Home to Ötzi the Iceman, Castel Roncolo, and... Soundgarden.

No, not the Seattle-based grunge sensation (!). On the surface, this Soundgarden is a wooden, rectangular planter containing different edible plants -- including basil, coriander, and tomatoes. However, hidden beneath the soil is a small box containing a Makey Makey, a Raspberry Pi 3, and a power bank which transform this deceptively simple park garden feature into an interactive electronic keyboard.

The project was developed by University of Bolzano design students Giovanni Gonzo, Francesca Sannia, and Chiara Perrone, in response to a brief the local government put together to renovate a park -- Parco Pompei -- in the city. The design students were tasked with coming up with something that would encourage local people of all ages to visit the park more often and take better care of it.

“We wanted to create something that anyone could use and feel responsible for, to strengthen the idea that everyone should take care of public areas just like a private property,” explains Giovanni.

After a short analysis of the park, the team decided to focus on four core values: interaction, fun, sharing, and responsibility; and developed some ideas around them.

“It took us about month to come up with the final idea and two weeks to build it,” says Giovanni. “We were helped by the guys working in the university’s metal and wood workshops who taught us how to weld -- among other things.”.

Soundgarden can be played like a keyboard as every plant triggers a sound when touched. There are three stools around the planter; the perfect spot for people to sit and use the Soundgarden together.

On two corners of the planter there are two speakers of varying heights (one for children and the other for adults). Each speaker has metal box on top of it that the user pulls close to their ear. These boxes are actually connected to the Makey Makey’s ‘earth’ wire, meaning that touching them and the plants at the same time completes the circuit -- making the sound audible.

The speakers themselves are connected to the Raspberry Pi 3, which loads a Scratch program when it’s switched on.

“The Scratch app plays different sounds when the Makey Makey keys receive the input,” explains Giovanni. “I used Garageband to record the different notes from a minor pentatonic scale. This way every note always sounds good when played after or on top on another one, and there’s no way anyone could play a ‘bad’ melody.”

Giovanni discovered Makey Makey when looking for a way to produce sounds with plants and saw it as a very good alternative to the standard Arduino.

“Makey Makey’s easy to use, cheap, and ready to go as soon as you unbox it,” he says. “There are a lot of amazing things you can do with it; the potential is huge and it’s a technology that requires very basic IT knowledge.”

The project was on display in Parco Pompei in June, but the city’s administration is now considering making Soundgarden a permanent feature.

“Park visitors were very excited about the project and everyone was having fun making music just touching some plants,” Giovanni says. “Both children and adults learned how to play together producing more complex melodies and trying to reproduce famous songs. A group of three guys also started using the stools as a percussion to play a rhythm that sounded very nice together with the noises from each plant.

“Everyone enjoyed it and it was a big success in my opinion. I really enjoyed using Makey Makey and I’ll definitely use it again in future projects.”

Thanks Giovanni! We eagerly await your next efforts :)

History In The Making

The Smithsonian Institute in Washington DC is best known as ‘America’s attic’ -- a collection of 19 museums and galleries. But it’s also fast becoming a hotbed of maker innovation for the city’s teenagers. Introducing ARTLAB+.

Say ‘Smithsonian‘ and you’ll likely invoke references to such treasure troves as the National Museum of Natural History and the National Air and Space Museum. But nestled in the Hirshhorn Museum’s sunken sculpture garden is a very different space -- ARTLAB+: a tech-focused drop in center that’s increasingly popular with Washington DC teenagers.

ARTLAB+ was set up five years ago as part of a push to create community maker spaces. Today it’s a dedicated place for young people to socialize, learn about digital media, and participate in workshops.

Four times a week some 40 kids from across the city congregate for a couple of hours at this innovative youth program. But unlike other after-school programs, at ARTLAB+ teens have complete access to -- well -- pretty much every piece of cutting edge maker technology you could think of: including Macs, iPads, 3D scanners, 3D printers, game consoles, and Makey Makeys (!).

But there’s something else that ARTLAB+ offers that the kids wouldn’t normally get: mentorship. All of the lab’s mentors are industry pros -- a collection of game designers, 3D designers, photographers, and videographers.

“We don’t just have the equipment, we can actually show kids the best ways of using it. It’s much easier than learning from YouTube!” says Cody Coltharp, ARTLAB+’s 3D mentor. “We champion the HOMAGO process here: informal learning happens through Hanging Out and Messing Around, and eventually leads to Geeking Out! That said we’ve started to run some structured sessions once a week.”

One of the ARTLAB+’s current initiatives is a series of game design workshops in which teens scan themselves in 3D, rig and animate the model, and put their character into a game engine.

With this in mind, it’s odd to think that most kids start out at ARTLAB+ with very little technology experience. The majority quickly cut their teeth building with papercraft projects, before moving onto to more sophisticated software processes; like digital modeling and game design.

Makey Makey is another popular starting block.

“We introduce it when we teach the basics of circuitry and electricity,” says Cody. “But we also see lots of custom game controllers being built using Makey Makeys. We had one teen build one for walking around in the game Terraria and I’ve seen kids make new instruments for Garageband and use them in retro gaming. It all depends on what they’re interested in or what their aims are.”

As part of its mission to champion innovation and collaboration, one of ARTLAB+’s core aims is to be ‘radically inclusive’ -- as accessible as possible to every teen, no matter what their background. While most of the regulars come from traditionally underprivileged neighborhoods, others turn up with their own private drivers.

“It’s pretty rad that this is a place of equality, says Cody. “Everybody plays games together and works on projects together. And we’re getting more and more popular. To stay accessible we’ve started doing some off-site workshops; and to be honest, most schools don’t have the funding to provide the kind of technology we have access to.”

While the team has close partnerships with several schools and libraries in the city, most teens find out about ARTLAB+ through word of mouth. ARTLAB+ also benefits from being part of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the modern and contemporary art museum of the Smithsonian Institution. Cody and the team run game design workshops at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Indie Arcade events, and have been involved in a variety of events at other museums.

Moving forward, the mentors are keen to grow the city’s program, but ultimately the ambition is to scale the program itself.

“We’d always like more room, more mentors, and more cool toys,” says Cody. “But I’d also love to see what we do packaged up and adopted across the country, to continue its success.”

In terms of recent ARTLAB+ successes, Cody gives the example of a teen who was invited to the first ever White House Maker Faire for her original papercraft dinosaur head, and also recounts another’s effort to make a functioning Ironman mask.

“One day he walked in saying ‘I want to make a dope mask like that’. So he stated with a sketch, made a foam prototype, and eventually developed the metal version.

“But he didn’t stop there: he kept taking what he knew and leveling up, teaching himself about vacuum sealing, circuitry, epoxies.

“The fact he didn’t stop, that he continues to evolve his skillset, that’s what I would consider a success: the ability to inspire lifelong learning.”

For more info on ARTLAB+ please visit their website. More photos are available on their flickr and Facebook pages.

Absolute Beginners -- Part 1: The Unraveling

One of our blog’s regular contributors, Brit copywriter, Dave Barton, is a man on a mission: to make sure his kids don’t end up as technically inept as him. So we sent him a Makey Makey to see if he could a) make it work and b) show his kids how to make it work without breaking anything. So far, so good...

26 September 2015. The living room of a 3-bed semi detached house, in Gloucestershire, UK. It’s Noah’s sixth birthday. Unbeknown to him, he’s about to unleash the power of Makey Makey…

Wow! What is it?

It’s a Makey Makey.

What’s a Makey Makey?

It’s a kind of toy that you plug into the computer, and then plug into an object, so that you can control the computer with the object. You can play computer games with it.

What’s an ‘object’?

It’s a ‘thing’.

What kind of thing?


It makes anything into a computer?

Ummm...not really. Well, yes… kind of. It goes into your computer and lets you do different things. So instead of pressing buttons, you can plug the Makey Makey into an orange and use that to make stuff happen on the computer screen.

Why would you use an orange to control a computer?

Cos it’s fun!

Can we do it now?

Not really. It’s 7 am and you have to go to school today. This weekend though, yeah?

5 weeks later… Same location. Noah and his little sister Matilda (4) are poised to use Noah’s Makey Makey for the first time. Dave’s battered Chromebook is ready and waiting.

Is it ready yet?

No Tilda, we need some fruit!

Can’t we have chocolate instead? I’ve been good all day…

Guys! We’re having dinner soon -- the fruit is for the Makey Makey...

How do we put the fruit in the computer?

We have to attach it using special wires. I think.

There’s some stickers in the box it came in.

You can have those later…

Yeah ‘cos it’s mine.

You have to share them with me!

Right -- Matilda, can you get me two oranges please? And Noah, an apple and a banana please.

Dave loads up the Makey Makey website, furiously searching for that piano-input thing he found yesterday.

Here’s some oranges!

No apples left. But I found a kiwi fruit.

That’s fine. Good work team. Now I just need to figure this out...USB goes here… and then…

Five minutes later. Dave has found the Makey Makey How To page and managed to hook up the alligator clips to the console and the various pieces of fruit.

We’re playing drums with a banana! Oh it’s stopped working...

You need to keep your thumb on this (the neutral) clip… see?

Can we eat the fruit afterwards?

‘Course we can… you want a turn now, Matilda?

Do I have to play the drums?

No -- try the piano game instead.

Tilda, keep your thumb on this clip or it won’t work…

Ha! It’s so weird.

But it’s good, yeah??

Can Dave evolve this admittedly limited repertoire? What other materials will the kids want to try out? Will the fruit get eaten? Find out next time...

Lessons They Won’t Forget...

Emerging technologies like 3D printers, robotics, circuitry kits (and Makey Makeys) are fast becoming essential learning resources in every modern classroom. Helping busy teachers and trainees keep pace is no mean feat -- but that’s exactly what the SELF* Design Studio team at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro is dedicated to.
*Student Educator Learning Factory

‘Making learning fun’ is an old adage that either induces a collective groan, or conjures images of Big Bird and co. merrily exploiting the alphabet and numbers 1 thru 10 on uncharacteristically chipper New York City street corners.

But Matt Fisher is a man on a quest to make learning an enjoyable experience; for both teachers and students. Quests are something of a speciality at the SELF Design Studio -- a teacher education lab focused on STEAM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) -- where Matt works as assistant director. In fact they play a central role in the creative learning curve...

The studio is part of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s (UNCG) School of Education. It’s a dedicated makerspace designed to give pre-service teachers access to a variety of emerging technologies and tools -- like Arduinos, 3D printers, littleBits, and Makey Makeys -- providing them with opportunities to experiment with different resources.

“We call it play-testing,” says Matt. “Our aim is to help pre-service teachers understand how to use these amazing new tools -- to boost their confidence and enrich their classroom activities.”

The studio officially opened in Fall 2015 (thanks to a Teacher Quality Partnership grant from the US Department of Education), as both a campus space, teacher’s tool library, and as a way of fostering closer collaboration between the university and local schools.

“In our partner schools we have a lot of very experienced teachers, who often aren’t all that comfortable with technology” Matt explains. “Then we have maker tech-savvy pre-service teachers from UNCG who are looking for local internships. The relationship is mutually beneficial.”

The SELF team also holds regular maker workshops and professional development sessions for local teachers in their schools. But as Matt’s all too aware, a teacher’s time is stretched at the best of times.

“If a teacher is going to integrate technology, it has be meaningful, worthy of their time investment, and easy to use. If they they run into problems right away, you can bet they they’ll give up on it. That’s why we really like the Makey Makey; it’s one of the easiest tools we have. Teachers don’t have to install any drivers or download anything. USB in… Boom, you’re ready to roll.”

Every time a new group visits the studio, Matt and the team start their sessions by showing the Makey Makey intro video, before making ‘Human Bongos’. UNCG’s pre-service teachers can take part in Maker Quests; self-guided workshops in 3D modeling and printing, circuitry, basic tinkering, movie production and editing, (and more).

“We emphasize that the quests are an opportunity to play and experiment,” says Matt. “The connection to the curriculum or subject matter can come after the students understand how the tool works and what it’s limitations are.”

Makey Makey-specific projects include a Holocaust Survival Voice poster where the students linked real audio from holocaust survivors to a poster controlled with a Makey Makey; an ‘About Me’ project for a social studies method class; a Moon Phases Scratch game; a giant circuit board* made by wrapping huge objects in aluminum foil; and a Journey Through the Human Heart -- a project which was shown at a recent teachers’ conference.

“People were really were interested in seeing what they can feasibly create with students that would tie into curriculum; especially in the public school setting where lessons need to be taught in 45-60 minutes,” Matt explains.

Matt and the team also work with a lot of methods classes across the university’s School of Education; such as Writing, English, ESL, Science, Social Studies, Math, Specialized Education Services, and Professions in Deafness courses.

Matt has big plans for the studio; he aims to offer classes to any student across UNCG who is interested in integrating new technologies into their learning.

“The aim here at the SELF studio is to give our students a chance to learn in a way that really speaks to them,” he says. “I had a student say to me recently: ‘This place reminds me of my middle school because I was just so happy there.’ We aim to give students and teachers a similar experience: a chance to experience and create something meaningful with their own hands.”

“When I was in middle school, we had an amazing program in which I made a bench in wood shop, a tool box in metal shop, a skateboard pillow in sewing, and coded my first program in BASIC programming language in computer class. I like to think the SELF studio -- or any makerspace -- is a modern version of that environment.”

Best of luck Matt and co! For a closer look at the SELF Design studio, follow them on Facebook and Twitter. And be sure to check out their other great Makey Makey projects..

Here we are at #uncgmakers summer camps building crazy teamwork games. This is made with Scratch programmimg and a MaKey MaKey.

Posted by UNCG SELF Design Studio on Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Spin Me Right Round

Our old friend, prolific programmer and custom controller king, Alex Johansson, never ceases to amaze us with his creative spark. Since launching Narcissus -- his two-player movement mirroring masterpiece -- and stone-skimming shoot-em-up, Deathlection he’s been running custom controller workshops (and proudly flying the Makey Makey flag). We caught up with him to hear all about his new game, Flotate.

Soooo...what have you been up to, young man? It's been a busy old year! I’ve built a plethora of controllers: including boxing puppets for a game called Space Ragers and I’ve upgraded the design of Deathlection’s GUNtrollers! I've also been running custom controller workshops all over the world and seen some really amazing stuff come out of these sessions.

As for Narcissus, the computer version is live and the phone version’s in its final stages. Then of course there’s Flotate!

Aha! So, how would you describe Flotate? Well, essentially it’s a competitive pool tube wrestling game for 2-4 players. The objective is to paddle frantically in order to beat your opponent to the inflatable pool tube bobbing around the middle of the screen, and stay on it long enough to avoid being overturned/submerged by other swimmers!

The inspiration came from capsizing my brother -- and stealing his tube -- on holiday in Portugal. Once the idea had struck, I used my downtime around the pool to design the game, using Stencyl (software that lets you build games without code) to flesh it out.

It didn't take too long to plonk the basics together! Once I got back home, I spent a week or so polishing up the final game and quickly fashioned a few controller prototypes using Makey Makeys.

Did you always intend to use Makey Makey with Flotate? The game wouldn't be complete without the physical component and I wanted to put something together for an upcoming game jam in Dijon, France: Oujevipo.

The theme was “Kids” and participants were given a month to build a game and submit it online before the event. There was a list of constraints to make it a little harder. The one I chose involved creating a game with an alternative controller.

I’ve used Makey Makeys a lot over the past couple of years, so it just made sense. When I first created the game, I fashioned together a few circular controllers using rolls of sticky tape whilst co-running a controller workshop at the V&A Museum in London. After that I drew up some blueprints of how to build the game at a larger scale, so that the team in France could construct the final pieces (and I also made a French version of the game to sweeten the pill!).

What did you want the final controller to look like? What was your vision?
I wanted players to sit on/wear tires. To make this work, you’d need four tires -- one for each player. Once each one’s painted or colour-coded to match the on-screen characters, you’d glue two A5 conductive foil panels on either side of each tire before attaching Makey Makeys to each section. You’d then tap the front panels with your fingers to ‘paddle’ on screen, keeping the lower part of your hands on the back panels to ‘ground’ the connection.

I’ve put together a step-by-step guide on the Flotate website (scroll down towards the bottom of the page) so anyone can build them.

How did you fare in the competition?
The top 10 games won exhibiting space at Oujevipo and saw their game constructed into a full arcade cabinet, which toured France. I won a spot in the final selection and was able to see Flotate come to life during the game jam. Motorcycle tire tubes were used at the event, worn around players’ waists; kinda funny to see!

How many people have played it now?
I'd say the physical version has had about 500 people play it, and the online version a couple of thousand. UK gaming magazine, PCgamer, covered it in best free games of the week shortly after the launch, which was super nice.

Do you find that you tend to build controllers before games?
Not the case with Flotate, but there have been many games where I've designed the input first, which has led to some interesting innovations -- such as Morse. Whilst digging through some resources for a workshop, I came across a clothes peg and built a simple telegraph key. As a result, I designed a bunch of different games that used Morse Code as an input method, eventually coming up with a battleship-esque prototype.

What’s next?
Currently I'm very busy with work, but trying my hand at writing class content for future controller workshops, along with tinkering with other small projects. Later this month I'll be showing a game called Corporate Salmon in the North of England. Should be a blast.

Excellent work, Alex! Keep us in the loop on future developments.

Digital Tender

French artist Jordane Saunal is optimistic about technology’s relationship with nature. We caught up with her to talk assembly line robots, Bjork, and Makey Makey.

See Jordane's film Cross Product.

So.. technology, music, art, and nature: a heady mix!
I grew up in rural France, in a place called Aurillac -- which is basically countryside lost in the middle of the mountains -- so I put a lot of importance on taking care of nature.

As a student of art and music, inspiration comes from my surroundings, and I’ve always been interested in science, outer space, and new technologies -- especially the relationship between humans and machines.

Ah! The age old question: can people and machines live in harmony?
Technology and machines are subjects of both fascination and fear. Many movies play on these fears; depicting the image of robots dominating humanity. But I believe the future of technology is in our hands, and we have the power to make the story a positive one.

I trust in a technology which can help human beings look after the planet, and I wanted to reflect this optimism in my work: the hope of a better future. So I imagined a scenario in which technology and mankind work together for a common goal -- to look after nature.

And the result was your piece, Cross Product... tell us more!
Cross Product explores what lies at the intersection of humanity, nature, and technology. It aims to find common ground between them: a new harmony -- through music.

William Jay, a friend of mine describes it very well in a review he wrote:

"The artist sets herself an actual spaceship dashboard, made of a modern assembling robot, sound controllers and raw vegetation to offer the spectator a live performance. A singing one, where the organic resonance of the machine is made visible.”

Basically, I’m singing and playing an omnichord, whilst an assembly line robot tends a small garden filled with plants. Different sound samples play as it goes about its task.

By touching the plants, the robot is effectively ‘playing’ sounds.

How does it work?
The music is all played live, but the movements of the robot were pre-programmed into different cycles of movements, and I switch between these cycles using pedals.

In this project I'm using a Makey Makey to make the plant/robot connection. Essentially, the Makey Makey’s connected to the robot and the plants contain metal strips; which are activated when the robot touches them.

This is made possible by connecting the "earth" part of the Makey Makey to the conductive tip of the robot. When this point makes contact with the little metal strips, the electric contact is made and it sends a Midi signal to my Ableton Live session.

Had you used Makey Makey before? What made you use it for this project?
I tried it before during a workshop, and I saw a lot of amazing videos on the internet. I decided to use Makey Makey because it’s really fun and easy to use, it was perfect for what I wanted to do. It’s really intuitive. I had so much fun to setting up all the cables and sound samples (and I’m really noob at programming :D).

But you managed to build a robot??
I didn’t build the robot -- I borrowed it from Pôle Formation des Industries Technologiques in Reims It’s the kind that’s used in a factory. I only had it for a week! That just about gave me enough time to create the scenography, the music composition, and program in all of the robot’s movements… with the help of two engineers.

How many people have seen Cross Product in performance?
The first live performance was in June 2015. It could only be performed in front of a small audience (30 people) as I wanted to create the feeling of intimacy and comfort.

But the entire performance was filmed and was screened this summer at the Festival du Diamant Vert (a ‘green’ festival concerned with music, art, and nature). It was fantastic to have it shown between some trees, next to a small lake. It was also shown in September at the Le Cellier art center in Reims. And it won a prize!

Great stuff! Who would you say are you biggest artistic influences?
I love the work of artists like Laurie Anderson, Alvin Lucier, and Aurélien Borie. Icelandic singer, Bjork, is also a big influence -- particularly her album Biophilia and the music video for her song All is Full of Love.

What’s next for you?
I already have some projects in progress for the next few months. I will also certainly do artists’ residencies, exhibitions and carry on with this work about technology, actuality and future… and have fun!

Merci beaucoup Jordane!

Jordane Saunal is an artist and sound designer from Auvergne, France.


A previous version of this article included this short version of Cross Product and did not link to Jordane's website.

Musicking with Makey Makey

Melbourne, Australia-based music therapists, Asami Koike and Matt Lewin, are using Makey Makeys in a pioneering new community music initiative, to aid the recovery of those dealing with mental illness.

There can be no disputing the therapeutic qualities of music -- for listeners. But the ability to create music and use it as a means of self expression largely rests with skilled musicians… right?

This is a perception that Matt Lewin and Asami Koike, music therapy grad students at the University of Melbourne, want to change.

While working in mental health services, the pair noticed that although their patients were keen to engage with music in therapy sessions, many were held back by the idea that they needed to ‘be good’ at playing an instrument.

“Historically, music was an activity where people came together and joined in,” says Matt. “Nowadays, musicians are considered experts. This creates a barrier for others. But when performance and expertise are taken out of the equation, making music becomes much more open and free.”

Central to Matt and Asami’s therapeutic approach is the idea of ‘musicking’ -- a term used to describe making music with non-traditional instruments in a communal context.

“Community music is an open, supportive, and healthy activity,” Asami explains. “In this kind of environment, therapists and patients can ‘musick’ together on a more level playing field.”

The duo began to explore the creative potential of a number of non-traditional instruments, and were introduced to Makey Makey by a friend working in music education.

“We watched a number of Makey Makey videos and thought what an an incredible tool it would be in the music therapist’s kit bag,” says Matt. “Plus we both love audio technology and totally geeking out!”

Matt and Asami have been using Makey Makeys in their therapy programs ever since. They’ve experimented with origami and art materials, using sound software like Ableton Live and Scratch.

“The best way of facilitating interaction is to have a selection of sounds; so that the patient feels empowered to express themselves and to choose a sound that represents how they feel,” explains Asami. “With non-traditional instruments, there are no rules, and no mistakes. Using Makey Makey in therapy helps to create a sense of equality, creativity, and collaboration between patient and therapist. Often the instruments created are completely new and unique.”

Empowering patients is crucial in mental health services. Rather than labelling those in therapy as ‘unwell’. therapeutic activities that promote participation give patients the confidence to take a more active role in their own recovery.

As well as mental health recovery programs, Matt and Asami have also trialled their approach at a primary (elementary) school.

“Our aim was to give kids that hadn’t had music lessons chances to have cool music experiences,” Matt explains. “We set it up in the playground at lunchtime, connected a vegetable to it and the kids loved it. They were totally excited by it.”

Asami will soon be bringing the Makey Makey musicking experience to a drop-in centre for young people experiencing homelessness.

When Matt and Asami graduate (in December), their focus will be on developing a number of different music therapy programs to bolster their private practice. Their approach seems to be getting the right attention. Earlier this year they were invited to present their research to the Australian Music Therapy Association at a conference in Sydney.

“We got a positive response from therapists at the conference, who were really inspired by the possibilities,” says Asami. “Many were keen to give us their ideas, and wanted to discuss using Makey Makeys in their own work.”

Matt agrees. “By drawing attention to Makey Makey within the music therapy community, we hope that others will experiment, and that new and innovative ways of supporting healthy music engagement will emerge,” he says. “We’ll certainly continue to use it in our future work.”

Best of luck guys! Keep up the excellent work.
Check out a video of their presentation to the Australian Music Therapy Association here.