BlinkM Smart LEDs

blinkm-lrgIn my search for the right LED to use in my most recent project, I came across the fully programmable and sequenceable BlinkM LEDs. These are very useful to those who want to create stunning light effects without going into the vagaries of Arduino programming. Simply use the colour sequencing tool, select your colour choices and let the colourful fun begin!

EL Wire or how Tron is still amazing in 2012

EL Wire (short for Electroluminescent Wire) is one piece of wearable electronics which has permeated public conscience more so than other materials, probably because of its variety of uses – be it in large scale sculptures (approved by Royalty as of 2012), home gadgetry, or to make freaky halloween costumes. It is relatively easy to use (there’s a great guide on how to connect and power El Wire here), quite cheap to buy and comes in many different colours for greater effect – perfect for illuminating that wearable electronics projects on one of those cold, dark winter evenings sprawling ahead uf us in the near future.

Aesthetically, EL Wire is of course entirely inspired by that great beacon of early Cyber Sci-Fi, Tron. Lambasted by the Academy for using CGI in 1982, and narrowly missing out on an Oscar because of it (using CGI was deemed ‘cheating’ in the special effects category it was nominated for back then), Tron featured those amazing costumes which seem to glow at the seams (not to mention the now iconic cybernetic race bikes that doubtlessly inspired the recent EL car modding craze). Those of you who have known me for a little while will also be aware of my fascination with Tron, and can imagine my mixture of tentative delight and fear when hearing about the Tron:Legacy film in 2010. Being a bit of a sci-fi and film buff, the recent trend of taking what was a perfect movie from the 70’s/80’s/90’s and pointlessly re-making it while totally missing the point and depriving the source material of any of its kitsch retro-charm, has all but driven me to despair (Total Recall anyone?). However, in favour of Tron:Legacy, they did try to create a proper sequel to the original film, which in my book puts it marginally above the rest, even if it’s not really up to much and structurally re-hashes the original in far too many ways. That and the absolutely killing sounds spun by Daft Punk throughout the film, making what could be bland and faintly reminiscent scenes of virtual gaming a joy to watch (look out for their cameo in the bar scene).

Naturally, another part of the fun of watching it was to figure out the use of EL Wire in the costumes, and I thought I would share this extensive article on creating the costumes by Chris Laverty (part 1 and part 2). Designer Mike Hardcastle from Light Tape UK used custom-made Light Tape instead of EL Wire, undoubtedly for its ability to cover larger and oddly shaped surface areas and flatness. Light Tape is based on the same principles as El Wire, of covering a conductive copper core with phosphorescent material and then laminating these two layers in transparent coloured plastic sheeting, giving the final product its colour and glow. As per usual in wearable electronics, battery life is the great killer – one charge only provided ten minutes’ worth of illumination to main character Sam Flynn’s suit! Nevertheless, the Tron aesthetic still rocks in 2012, and has certainly inspired this artist to dabble in EL…watch this space!

Learning Arduino…the long journey

Since starting my research at Dundee I have become more and more aware of the wonder that constitues the world of Arduino, also known as ‘Microcontroller Programming that Artists can understand”.

After an introductory lesson on the very basics of connecting and programming by our resident tech-whizz Ally in March (breadboard anyone?), my first self-devised project was to wow fellow materials researchers at the CIMTEC Conference with a fully interactive Poster that lights up on touch. Armed with this essential starter guide and a box full of semi-familiar components I set to work to teach myself Arduino. My initial plan – to fashion a switch out of conductive ink – failed due to the intricacies of the Royal Mail Postal Service, but after using a simple push switch and a sleepless night I got the poster to light up on demand as planned…

…for about 2 hours after which the battery (LiPo 110ma) was flat. As the conference organisers were opposed to me taking the poster down every two hours to re-charge the battery I finally had to admit defeat, but fortunately the poster with its silicone shapes and colourful visuals made enough of an impact as it was (and the non-functioning electronic components were well hidden, so no explanations were necessary). Power supply is a serious concern for the wearable electronics practitioner though, and unfortunately one for which there are currently no truly satisfactory answers. Not that that’s going to stop me from looking for them….

Anyway, on to my next Arduino venture. Heartened by the fact that I managed to set up and program a fully functional LED touch switch Arduino circuit (without blowing up the board – a Lilypad incidentally – or the LEDs) I have become more ambitious and want to greatly improve on my trial run. The opportunity presented itself in the shape of the Goldsmiths’ Fair 30 Year Anniversary exhibition, for which I am currently creating a piece that will respond to light changes by activating different groups of LEDs with differing levels of intensity according to ambient conditions. I am planning to use the Arduino Pro Mini 5V micro controller this time (for size reasons) to power about 10 LEDs, but only five at any one time. I am also thinking about using this color light sensor which can not only sense brightness levels but also the colour of light. There’s an extensive tutorial on how to program the device on this Blog, but to be fair I was already out of my depth after the first paragraph, so we’ll see how that goes, especially considering the deadline for handing the piece in. If all else fails, I will just use a bog-standard on/off light sensor and practice a bit more until deploying the other one in a different project.

Power supply is as per usual a great concern, and due to the nature of the exhibition I have decided that I will have to plump for the inelegant solution of a mains powered adaptor – there is no way I will be able to persuade anybody to change the battery once or twice a day and re-charge it when the piece is in situ at the exhibition.

So, that’s it on the Arduino front at the moment – I often think that the mountain I have to climb in terms of mastering microelectronics is still a large one, but at least I have started the ascent…

NiTiNol

Nickel Titanium Shape Memory Alloy is one of the more well-known smart materials, being used in all sorts from medical instruments to bendy spectacle frames. Shape Memory Alloys (or SMAs as I will be calling them henceforth) were the material that got me interested in my research area in the first place, back in 2006, when their use was still in its infancy within the Visual and Applied Arts community and the only textbook I could find was so scientifically written that I had only a vague notion of how these materials might be useful in my quest to make Jewellery come alive. When I subsequently arrived at the RCA, full of dreams of exploring these wondrous metals, I was told they would be utterly unsuitable for jewellery use in the way I imagined, and that I shouldn’t waste my time. Disheartened but unconvinced my creative path digressed, but in the back of my mind I always knew I would return to the world of ‘Smart’ eventually.

At the University of Dundee we have the fascinating department of Imaging and Technology at the Ninewells Medical Research centre, where a group of extremely talented researchers spend their days developing new surgical tools for use at the hospital. Needless to say, shape memory alloys play an important part in this task, coiled into tiny springs inside long laproscopes, which in turn are used to get into what were previously thought inaccessible areas of the human body.

On a less serious note, Shape Memory Alloys  have been used in a variety of applied arts projects, a few fun examples of which I came across on youtube recently (more fun to be had here,here and here). At CIMTEC I met the charming Dr Patrick Dyer of the University of Brighton, who has done quite a bit of research into combining SMAs with textile applications – a field that has been far more encouraging in finding a use for SMAs. Having seen the shape-shifting clothes created by Hussein Chalayan in 2007 at his retrospective at the London Design Museum, I think SMAs are as exciting as they come but have been seriously overlooked by jewellery artists thus far. It is time this changed, and hopefully I will be able to contribute to that through my research.