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07. desember 2011

The sound of art and engineering colliding

When you finish high school in many places, you have to decide which direction you'd like to go in your life. By then, many of those decisions have already been made. People choose to go study finance, literature, engineering, or art. It is a necessity of life that you have to focus on something, or you will never master it. The problem is that when you become too focused, the highly attuned skills and perceptions can cause you to miss opportunities outside that realm of comfort. The question to ask (and I teach my students) is "Why?". In many walks of life, we need more than one specialty. This becomes particularly obvious in design.

Consider a university building. An team of architects is needed to interface with faculty of the school to ensure that there are proper classrooms and cafeterias. Plumbers and electricians route water and electricity. The list goes on and on. The problem occurs when these disciplines do not communicate efficiently. Each has its own rules, language, tools, and attitude. There is an assumption that the general contractor on a project ("the brain") can somehow keep track of how all of these elements will interact by centralizing communication. Such a belief is not realistic and things become overlooked. I believe that the solution too many of these miscommunication issues can be found in multi-disciplinary education, particularly for design and implementation. I implemented such a pilot project in VT HUN1013, Hönnun of Spring 2011.

Hönnun, a Tæknifræði class, traditionally focused on designing mechanical projects such as a liquid sealing or hay transport mechanism. From my own experience in mechanical design at iRobot and MIT, a significant amount of the challenge is not in the technical elements, but in everything else. In particular, interfacing with a customer and extracting relevant needs can be a significant challenge. Such things must be done before even trying to draw the first part! We use the methodology developed at MIT called Axiomatic Design; we systematically develop a set of functional requirements (FR) from the customer and focus them into design parameters (DP) that guide the design elements.

My students in the class were given a strange opportunity from their new American instructor. One of my colleagues at Iceland Academy of the Arts (IIA), Sigrún Harðardóttir, was teaching a 4 week class on Interactivity/Gagnvirkni in the Visual Arts department. We decided to collaborate during that time and have the visual arts students act as "customers" to my engineering students to build art making use of technology and science. Needless to say, my engineers had mixed reactions to this proposal, but they stepped up to the challenge.

Our two classes met the week before the official start date to begin collaboration with brainstorming of ideas. This also gave Sigrún and I the chance to order additional electronics based upon what ideas we saw. To minimize cost and maximize accessibility, we standardized on Arduino Uno microcontrollers as our control system of choice (30 USD + Shipping and Tax). The open-source hardware and software community provided excellent starting tools and examples for unfamiliar with microcontroller technology. I gave them a short seminar on programming the Arduino and interfacing it with sensors and actuators. Students from both groups were expected to have frequent meetings, and to further enable this we alternated between RU and IIA for class time. We made use of IIA for wood fabrication, painting. The RU machine shop and electronics lab were constantly busy as well.

The process of idea conception and implementation was modeled after traditional product design. The brainstorming sessions generated many ideas. These ideas were filtered down to a single concept that was then used to motivate the Axiomatic Design FR and DP specifications. These specifications were used to ensure that considered design elements meet the needs of the design. During one session, students created sketch-model prototypes out of foam, glue, tape, and string to get a feel for what they were proposing. Once the designs had been finalized, students simulated structures, generated drawings, and began fabrication of the final assemblies.

At the end of the four weeks, we presented the seven interactive art projects at IIA under the title “Emerging and Imposing Spaces” (“Vaxandi og uppáþrengjandi rými”) on March 1 - 6 2011. We were then invited to show a selection of projects to Hreindýraland Festival 2011 ( in Egilsstaðir on March 19 - 21 2011 where they were videotaped by RÚV (

Since then, many of the projects have continued to be displayed at RU events as demonstrations of what can happen when these two worlds collide in just the right way. This pilot project is being used as a basis for developing further collaborations with IIA, including a current proposal for a joint master's degree with IIA department of design.

A quick description of each project:

Clinging Tree by Eiríkur Rúnarsson, Erla Axelsdóttir, Jón Sverrisson - "To bring joy and music to people." A variety of household items were attached to a welded metal "tree". These items were hit by solenoids controlled by an Arduino Mega microcontroller connected to a large relay network. The microcontroller was given signals from a set of stepping switches hidden under a rug.

Vertigo by Óli Sævar Ólafsson, Smári Guðfinnsson, Hlynur - A round table with glass top was instrumented with ReAct symbols able to be read by a camera and fed to a MaxMSP/Jitter program. The location and orientation of the symbols, attached to the bottoms of blocks controlled the audio and video. If enough symbols were seen, the table began rotating, controlled by an Arduino and a relay.

Hér Fljótum Vér Eplin by Gunnlaugur Steinar Guðmundsson, Níels Breiðfjörð Jónsson, Sigmann Þórðarson -- A "fake" telescope providing an alternate reality. When you looked inside, you saw a video that made it appear that you were standing on a volcano. When you rotated the top of the volcano, the background also shifted. The video was assembled from numerous HD videos and controlled by a Arduino-based tachometer through MaxMSP/Jitter.

RobbiRobot by Sigurpáll Hjörvar Árnason, Ólöf Rún Benediktsdóttir, Örnólfur Örnólfsson -- This colorful little creature was easily frightened by people getting too close, resulting in a dazzle of color. The brains of this creature was an Arduino UNO controlling programmable color LEDs and an iRobot create as its body. Children often liked playing "ping-pong" with the scared little beast.

behindThoseWallStories by Fannar Andrason, Katrín Eyjólfsdóttir, Kristján Orri Magnússon, and Nina Frgic was an installation hard to describe without experiencing it. As the guest approached the entirely black piece in a darkened room, they would notice an eye on a large round table surrounded by angry, spiked, chairs. As they drew closer, elements of the piece would come alive: the eye would begin sparkling, a tentacled monster hidden in the corner would begin blowing bubbles, and finally an Arthur Ganson inspired robot with scissors began attacking the bubbles (and people if you got too close). The installation was controlled by a Zelio PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) industrial controller with distance information from a MaxBotix ultrasonic sensor. The PLC was also connected to a computer with Max/MSP to control the eye.

Forest by Lilah Leopold, Benedikt Bergmann Arason and Sveinn Haukur Albertsson -- Their vision was a dynamic forest with plants that would unexpectedly move as the guests entered the space and stayed for a while. The final version included a video loop of a lakeside shore projected on the canvas of "plants". Three plants were developed, each demonstrating a different kind of industrial control model using a single Arduino UNO. LEAF instantiated as a slowly swaying person-sized leaf, using a continuous servo which reversed upon a limit switch being closed. SAIL, one of the earliest concepts unfurled a single-petal flower by rolling semi-stiff stays in cloth over a welded rod slide with limit switches on both ends. MUSHROOM exemplified the growing concept by transforming from an unassuming pile of cloth into a 50 cm tall cylinder without any external support. This was accomplished using a pair of measuring tapes with machined guides to make a retractable structure controlled a single limit switch and a software timer.

Behind Dynamix by Sunneva Weisshappel, Hjálmar Þorvaldsson, and Rúnar Viggósson -- The goal of this performance piece was to create an instrument with interesting sounds that would complement and control a series of video streams: a quadruped robot BigDog demonstrating mobility under significant challenge, laryngoscope inspection of a patients vocal chords seeming to talk, and a black and white movie on the events at a circus sideshow telling a chilling story. The instrument had four bass strings connected to a set of guitar pickups and finally to a resonance chamber made from an oil drum. The output of the pickups were fed into a computer running MaxMSP to fade between the video streams depending upon the note played. The complete performance had the performer and a partner in full white-face clown and tutu sing while playing the instrument with bow and hammer.

Joseph Timothy Foley, specialist at Reykjavik University

All photos were taken by Joseph Timothy Foley

Skoðað: 2821 sinnum

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