"Live Blogging" Daddy Robot Camp

Welcome robots! I'm leading my daughters and a friend through some summer fun building simple robots.

This is live prototyping at its finest (by all of us). I'm tweaking the hardware and software by night, and running "camp" at the kitchen table by day.

The main learning concept I'm aiming for: "If A is detected then B happens," like IFTTT does so well. It seems to be a good, base robot function. Also: Making robots is fun.

My hope is that the kids get to express hands-on creativity, and that I can get Arduino to help me bring their creations alive. As Liza Stark advised me, make sure they have their hands on the project more than I do. Let's see if that happens.

I'll keep posting here as we work through the week. The fun begins today!

The Plans

Given a set of "if" sensors (light, temperature, movement, distance, buttons) and a set of "then" actions (LEDs light, servos rotate), the girls each came up with a plan for a robot:

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Extinguishable LED Candles

We love Blinkies. Especially simple led throwies.

Lately, we've been playing with "candle flicker" LEDs, which contain a tiny chip that makes their warm light flicker like a flame.

Tape 'em to a battery and watch glow. They're great. But we wanted a version we could, essentially, blow out.

Enter the tilt switch.

This little component is a small cylinder, about the size of a bean, with a metal ball inside. When the cylinder is vertical, the ball rests on two metal leads at the bottom, completing a circuit. Tip it, and the ball rolls away, breaking the circuit.

So we combined tilt switches, flicker LEDs, coin batteries and some plastic battery holders to make 15 little candles.

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The Chartbeat LED Bar

We're always interested in how many folks are viewing our WNYC Data News projects at a given moment, and Chartbeat answers that question. But we don't always want to watch Chartbeat's dashboard for the latest info.

Enter the blinkies.

Using a string of colored LEDs, an Arduino and a little bit of code, we now have an ambient indicator that generally reflects our traffic and alerts us when thing get intense. A program running on my desktop computer checks Chartbeat for the latest number of simultaneous and passes that information across the room using Bluetooth, something I've wanted to play with for a while. 

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Making a Heartbeat Hoodie

I can wear my heartbeat on my sleeve.

Actually, I meant to put it on my sleeve, but turns out that sewing something inside of a sleeve is colossally frustrating. So it's along the front zipper.

The heartbeat hoodie is a blend of two things I wanted to play with: Soft circuits and consumer heartbeat monitors. I first made the basic LED hoodie, and later added on the heartbeat feature. And since the basic LED hoodie is easy and fun in its own right, I'll describe how I made that first, followed by the heartbeat addition.

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The Monthly Mood Cube

When Kristin is about to get her period, everyone in the house knows it.

A light on her nightstand tells us so.

What we now call the "Mood Cube" tracks my wife's cycles and has helped foster household harmony. It also makes Kristin smile every day.

It was easy to build. You can make one, too.

The backstory

The Mood Cube story really starts with Louise Ma, a great interaction designer and my colleague on the WNYC Data News Team. She knows her mood tracks closely with her menstrual cycle, so she put up a chart of different faces and hangs a rubber band on the face that matches her feelings. 

Stop by Louise's desk for a chat, and you immediately know where she's at. Talk about transparency!

Louise has made a hobby out of tracking her moods and cycles. Kristin had tried to track hers, too. She used several of the flowery iPhone apps designed to help, but didn't stick to them. She put the dates in Google calendar, but they never really lined up. 

And each month she was surprised by bouts of intense stress, frustration and agita -- always followed by her period just a day or two later. After a recent episode she texted me: "I want Louise's chart!"

I had another idea.

I wanted to make an ambient indicator -- something in Kristin's life that was subtle but clear. I wanted it to be peaceful, friendly and needinig no attention. And it shouldn't be harsh or shaming.

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LED Snowflake Ornament

Challenge to myself: Build an ornament for the Christmas tree in the few hours before Christmas Eve dinner.

I grabbed an Arduino the size of a coin I've been playing with called a "TinyDuino," from Tiny-Circuits, along with a little stash of LEDs I got from from Evil Mad Scientist.

Using the TinyDuino's prototyping board, I decided to solder the positive (long) ends of six LED's into the board so they radiated around it like this:

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Daddy-Daughters Project: Building a Minecraft Computer

To play Minecraft for real, we needed a new computer. So we decided to build one.

It should take a week or two. And with any luck, it'll cost less than $300.

For several months now, my daughters -- ages 8 and 10 -- have wanted to play the computer version of Minecraft. The computer version is far superior to the pocket version they've been playing, which, among other things, has no wolves, horses or dragons.

Buying a whole computer just to play the game didn't seem, well, appropriate. But making one? That we could do. 

So we're on our way. And I'll update this post en route to document our progress.

Episode One: The parts

Poking around the internet, I found the hardware requirements for Minecraft. A little more fishing landed this Lifehacker article about making your own PC. It included links to an entire computer-building lesson series and PC Part Picker, a service that helps you buy your parts and ensure they're compatible. 

Here's our parts list. It's based on the original Lifehacker article, minus the optical drive (we won't need it) and plus a wifi card (we will need that). We also upgraded the processor just a tad.

The first component to arrive, symbolically, was the shell into which we'll put the rest of the parts -- once they show up!

All the parts have finally arrived! Let the building begin.

SXSW Talk on Sensors & Journalism

At SXSW 2013 in Austin, I'm moderating and speaking on a panel looking at how sensors can play a role in journalism called "Sensoring the News: Detector-Driven Journalsm."

Joining me on the panel are:

Sarah Williams, Assistant Professor and Director the Civic Data Design Project at MIT. Sarah's slides are here.

Nadav Aharony, co-founder and CEO at Behavio.

Matt Waite, Professor and head of the Drone Journalism Lab at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Matt's video presentation is here.

And my slides are here.