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@NUSTEMxmas: our festive, robotic, IoT glockenspiel

Every now and then, we (Jonathan and Joe) get an idea stuck in our heads. It’s usually a ridiculous idea, an idea that should never see the light of day. But then, one of us says it out loud…

We’d like to introduce you to the NUSTEM IoT Festive Glockenspiel™.

Whilst you pick your jaw up off the floor, we’ll explain what’s going on and offer a little background as to how we ended up with this creation in our office.

The Glockenspiel has the brains of a Raspberry Pi, and those brains are listening to Twitter. When anyone tweets to @NUSTEMxmas and requests a festive tune, our Pi picks up the message and quickly searches through our vast bank of early 00s mobile phone ringtones for a match. A command is then sent to another Pi elsewhere in the office, which decodes the ringtone and instructs yet another Pi to rev eight servos into action. Those servos move hammers which strike our home-made, only-slightly-out-of-tune, no-sharps-or-flats, plays-with-enough-enthusiasm-to-occasionally-break-itself glockenspiel. We also added flashing lights – synced to the music, obviously –  to enhance the festive mood, and a readout so we know who’s requested the song. One of the Pis (we forget which, but probably the first) also tweets a reply to the original requester.

If you’re interested in finding out more about how it works, we’ve documented our code on GitHub. You can download it and (in theory…) build one of these things yourself. Or poke around in our code for festive giggles: we cobbled this whole project together using bits of previous projects or longer-term incomplete ideas, so the system architecture is at the hilarious end of software engineering.

How we got here

The Glockenspiel is a spin-off from our Robot Orchestra workshop. We’ve been running this digital making activity with our schools and as a public drop-in for several years. The workshop (and the robots) have gradually developed, becoming a little cleverer each time:

  • First version: Arduino controllers move servos on a fixed beat pattern.
  • Second version: Arduinos ‘easily’ reprogrammable, and operating two servos.
  • Third version: Wemos D1 controllers commanded over wifi from a Raspberry Pi, hence all playing in sync.
  • Fourth version: Command system can parse saved patterns and so ‘play tunes’; controllers can respond to one of eight ‘channels’.
  • Fifth version: You know, things get a little hazy somewhere in here…
  • nth version: System controlled by a lovely light-up button board, or a less glamorous but more practical on-screen interface. This is both a super-modern visual programming environment, and something that looks uncannily similar to the sort of punched cards that were used to drive weaving looms and started all this stuff off in the first place.

We’ve built the various parts of our system in a modular sort of way, so it’s relatively easy to switch bits in, remove parts, or graft in new ideas. We use this approach in lots of our digital making projects, with the result that ideas and bits of code are easily shared across projects. We also have a habit of attempting projects which are right on the edge of what we think we can do, but which feel achievable because we’ve already solved half the problems in other projects.

(an early version of the robotic glockenspiel – from, like, Tuesday or thereabouts – showing the on-screen direct programming interface. This was before we built the parser for mobile phone ringtones.)

The new parts we’ve built for this version of the project include:

  • Using a Raspberry Pi as our servo controller, and driving eight (count ’em, eight!) servos from it. Thanks to Ben Nuttall for pointing us in the right direction for that.
  • Handling requests from Twitter. We’ve done this before, but we’ve done a better job of it this time.
  • We found a library of suitably festive songs … in RTTTL mobile phone ringtone format, which is one of those things that rather died out in 2004. So we dredged up music theory half-remembered from our pre-GCSE days and leaned on bits of code from others (RTTTL parser; frequency-to-note convertor), and ended up with code which plays ringtones on our…
  • …home-made copper pipe glockenspiel. Which was itself inspired by this Instructable. Big thanks to everyone who came to our Raspberry Jam last weekend and mucked in to help build this!
  • We added a Pimoroni Displayotron HAT screen, which was intended for a completely different project but was just too bling not to use. Only later did we realise there’s a whole monitor literally right next to it. Oh, well.
  • Finally, we hacked some of the older Wemos-based players so they drove twinkly lights rather than servos, and used them to increase the total amount of festive.

We’ll use bits of this system in a variety of ways throughout 2018, so it’s not even the case that we’ve been massively goofing off in work hours. Mostly. Sadly, we didn’t manage to get to ‘posting video clips back to Twitter’ – most of the recipes we’ve seen for that sort of thing are video-only, which wouldn’t work so well for a musical project. So if you tweet us, you’ll just have to trust that the system has indeed played a little tune for us in the NUSTEM office.

Hmm… a little belief? At Christmas? It’ll never catch on.

 

Tetrahedral Kite, Beamish

As part of Beamish Museum’s ‘Wind in Your Sails’ event, visitors today helped us make this amazing tetrahedral kite. It’s constructed from drinking straws, survival blanket, fishing line, and tape (OK, and a couple of cheeky lengths of dowelling to reinforce the keel and spine).

Built and flown (…and crashed) in the same day. Huge thanks to everyone who helped out. We hope you enjoyed building this as much as we did.

Alexander Graham Bell

Better-known for inventing the telephone, Scotsman Alexander Graham-Bell was also obsessed with kites. Specifically, box kites based on tetrahedral cells, just like our. There’s a terrific set of photographs of these at Public Domain Review, here’s just a taster:

Alexander Graham-Bell's 64-cell tetrahedral kite.

Alexander Graham-Bell’s 64-cell tetrahedral kite. Public domain.

Looks familiar?

Sunday

One of the neat features of this design is that it works at several different scales. If you think of the single tetrahedron as being one ‘cell’, then a 4-cell kite will fly pretty well. A 16-cell kite flies really well. Even in the gusty wind at Beamish, on Sunday Carol and Antonio managed this:

Thanks for all your help!

(Raspberry) Pioneers, Bright Ideas: opportunities for secondary students

The lovely people at the Raspberry Pi Foundation – the folks who spend the money made from selling all those zillions of credit-card sized computers – have launched their programme for 12-15 year-olds, Pioneers. The idea is: a group of friends gets together, they find a mentor (an adult who can help them along, and also sign things on their behalf), then they take part in a mass group challenge. There’s a fresh challenge every three months, and the first one’s just been announced; see the film above for details, but the basic idea is, “Use technology to make us laugh.”

There are prizes for the best japes, hence there’s a submission deadline of 22nd March 2017. The plan is also that the challenges produce starting points and examples for a huge range of projects, all using digital technology, so everyone can learn from everybody else. Or something like that.

Interested? There are more details at the Pioneers web page, along with links to register a team, information for mentors, suggestions for starting points, and so on.

We’ve been waiting keenly to see what the Pi Foundation ‘do’ at secondary to follow on from their Code Club offer for primary ages, and we look forward to seeing how Pioneers develops. We’re particularly looking forward to laughing at some of the creations from this first challenge.

Shell Bright Ideas Challenge

Meanwhile, if you’re after a more traditional sort of competition, Shell UK are again running their Bright Ideas Challenge. Unsurprisingly, their challenges are based around energy. Here’s the glossy introductory film:

There are a range of ‘what-if…?’ future technology challenges, along with resources for participants and teachers and further films to introduce each of the challenges, on the project website. Submissions are due by 21st April 2017.

Here at Think Physics orbiting world headquarters we have mixed feelings about competitions for secondary students. They certainly can be of value to students, but there are so many of them it’s hard to know which are worth investing time in. In this case, project resources look comprehensive and well-presented, so it should be straightforward to take a look and see if Bright Ideas seems a good fit for you and your students.

If your school took part in Bright Ideas last year, leave a comment below or drop us a line to let us know how it went, and whether you’d do it again.

Maker Faire UK 2017 announced

It’s baaa-aaaaack!

The greatest show (and tell) on Earth is returning to Newcastle with Maker Faire UK 2017, April 1st-2nd. It’s the biggest, loudest, most ridiculous and longest-running event of its kind in the UK. More than 300 makers, hackers, crafters, coders, artists and inventors from across the globe come together at the Centre for Life to showcase what they do, run workshops and activities, and generally loon around in the name of expressing themselves through things they make.

Think Physics built a magnificent pendulum wave sound sculpture for the 2015 Faire, which was accidentally chucked in a skip during renovation works at the University this year. Oops. This year we showed the Technology Wishing Well, which all worked for the first time about three minutes after the Faire opened. Both years we ran the beautiful Light Wall activity. What will we do for 2017? Watch this space!

Better still, sign up to the mailing list at the Maker Faire UK website, block out that first weekend of April in your diary, book your tickets as soon as they’re available, and – best of all – think whether you or your school have projects you could showcase yourselves, attending as fellow Makers. There’ll be a Call for proposals via the website soon.

Want to get a better idea of what the Faire’s about? A few years ago I filmed Make magazine founder Dale Dougherty as he took a wander while it was still quiet on the Sunday:

Raspberry Pi Day of Making: Apply now!

The Raspberry Pi Foundation (the lovely folks who spend the money brought in by those tiny computers we all love so much) are gearing up to launch a new programme for teenagers. As part of the build-up, they’re hosting a Day of Making in Cambridge on 23rd August.

For the day, they’re looking for energetic 12-18 year-olds who are very comfortable in front of a camera. It sounds like they’re going to film people completing projects, then use that footage in their project launch. Hence, they’re taking applications via Youtube film submission.

Deadline: Sunday 7th August (this Sunday!)
Application: via 30-60 sec Youtube film and web form here.

The Foundation will cover travel costs, and “…if you’re coming a really long way we can provide accommodation for you and your parent or guardian.” Yay!

The day could be amazing, and the Foundation folks are very, very cool indeed. So get your application in!

Chain Reactions (with electronics)

Like everyone else delivering ‘maker’ education, we use chain reaction machines in some of our workshops. There’s a lot of fun to be had, and some intriguing mechanisms to be discovered. But there are also some classic problems:

  1. Connecting bits of a chain reaction machine together is fraught with difficulty. It’s typically the links that fail, and that can lead to frustration when it’s not clear who ‘owns’ the connection.
  2. There’s a tendency for everything to start high and finish low, and hence for each stage to run out of energy somewhat.

One of the things we’ve been playing with attempts to solve both problems, by chucking a bit of electronics into the mix. We use Arduinos as control circuits, running some code which is fairly readily tweaked to handle one of a range of inputs, including:

  • Straightforward ‘short to ground’ switches
  • Light-dependent resistors
  • Force- and flex-sensitive resistors
  • IR distance sensors
  • Tilt switches
  • Hall Effect magnetic field switches

The software is configurable into a couple of different modes, but is typically set to trigger on a threshold reading and operate either a servo, or a continuous-rotation servo as a low-speed motor.

The resulting chain reaction machines integrate physical and electronic segments, and splicing them together is hence usually a case of running longer wires from a sensor at the end of one segment into the Arduino which controls the trigger for the next. Last week we ran an end-of-term workshop with 15 year-olds from one of our partner schools, who came up with the machines you see in these two films. We think they did a cracking job.

Now, we don’t use this workshop very often. The challenge, we find, is that there are so many alien pieces of technology that participants tend to freeze rather than try things out and explore. These groups worked particularly well, but more generally we (unexpectedly?) find this to be a better workshop with primary groups than secondary. Younger children tend to be more receptive to (or familiar with?) failure and iterative development.

However, when the workshop comes together it can produce some outstanding results. We think there’s some mileage in the approach, and we’ll continue to refine the idea.

The code we’re using is on Github, I’m afraid with rather minimal documentation at present. I’ll try to include part details for the sensors, but the code comments should walk you through most of it.

Go Ballistic! winners at Big Bang North East

Phew! We’re slowly recovering from a couple of crazy days at the Big Bang North East. We spun patterns and collected hopes and dreams for future tech with the Technology Wishing Well; explored the universe with our space-themed show; and launched ping pong balls with hundreds of catapults in our Go Ballistic! workshop.

We had about 18 booked groups through the workshop, and managed to squeeze in a few more schools too. We’re sorry if we had to turn you away, we were crazily popular. Apart from anything else, there are no more decent plastic spoons to be had anywhere in central Newcastle. We bought (and used) them all!

So here’s the moment you’ve all been waiting for, the grand reveal of the final standings on the leaderboard:

Click the image to see it larger, but here’s the leading portion of results of 4m and above:

  • Longest distance achieved: Royal Institution, 5.80m. However, see below!
  • Gosforth East Middle School (yr. 7): 5.00m (secondary winner!)
  • Academy 360 (yr. 8): 4.80m
  • Monkwearmouth (yr. 7), Washington (yr. 8): both 4.65m
  • Monkseaton Middle School (yr. 6), Bede Academy (6JRA): 4.40m (joint primary winners!)
  • Farringdon: 4.40m
  • Gosforth East Middle School (yr. 6): 4.30m
  • Heworth Grange: 4.10m
  • Southlands A: 4.00m
Emma King RI catapult

Dr. Emma J King of the Royal Institution with her redesigned catapult, which achieved a throw of 5.80m from a single elastic band.

Congratulations to the entrant from the Royal Institution in London, Emma J King, pictured left. Emma’s throw of 5.80m was the longest we saw on the day. The eagle-eyed amongst you will notice that her catapult design was dramatically different to anyone else’s, but you’ll also notice that Emma isn’t quite a school student. In fact she has a PhD in physics, and neither we nor she thought it was entirely fair to count her remarkable score against everyone else’s. Hence: she’s disqualified.

Our Secondary winners therefore remain Gosforth East Middle School (yr. 7), who landed a remarkable 5.00m to huge jubilation around the launching table. Academy 360 (yr. 8) were worthy runners-up, spending over an hour trying all manner of different approaches to eek out the next twenty centimetres they needed. Valiant determination!

Sterling performances also from Monkwearmouth yr. 7s and Washington yr. 8s, both groups with impressive bests of 4.65m.

Snapping at their heels were our joint Primary winners Monkseaton Middle School (yr. 6) and Bede Academy (class 6JRA), both at 4.40m.

We’ll be sending both primary and secondary winners suitable trophies, just as soon as they’ve emerged from our 3D printers.

Well done all, and our thanks for your enthusiasm and ideas. We had a blast running the workshop, and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. One of my favourite moments was when a chap from the Army was standing nearby for a good half hour, watching a couple of groups develop, test, and iterate. I wandered over and invited him to make his own catapult. “Not a chance,” he said, “I wouldn’t get close to what this lot are doing, and I’d never live that down: I’m Royal Artillery.”

Wise man.

Engineering principles: keep it simple

We’re developing a neat little workshop based around catapults, bits of which have sneaked out into the world in test events over the last couple of months. The core of the challenge is the simplest possible catapult we could dream up, which uses a paper cup, elastic band and a plastic spoon to fire a table tennis ball at least five metres. It’s tremendously satisfying, but it’s not quite enough on its own for the workshop.

My Mark II Catapult uses the same basic ingredients, but pivots the spoon on a kebab stick bearing. It’s even more satisfying, but a little more fiddly to make and – annoyingly – slightly less effective in range.

This morning: the Mark III Catapult, which uses the elastic band as a torsion spring. It’s fiddly to make, pushes the limits of cardboard cup rigidity even more than the other designs, and…

…is almost completely ineffective.

Back to the drawing board, with one key engineering principle ringing in our ears: keep it simple.

Watch this marble run with magnets

Brilliantly inventive. See if you can work out how all the different mechanisms work – there are some amazing and subtle ideas in here. Great stuff.

Tip of the hat to Joe for spotting this as it hit Digg this afternoon.

Computer training opportunities in Newcastle

Two outstanding computing events are coming to Newcastle in the next few weeks:

Picademy

untitledThe Raspberry Pi Foundation’s flagship teacher training experience, Picademy is a two-day extravaganza of all things “Pi in the classroom”. There doesn’t seem to be a course outline for what’s covered, but the events are very well-regarded by previous attendees.

The course is free, and being held on various dates at Google Digital Garage, Newcastle City Library. For more information and to apply for a place, see the Raspberry Pi website.

Apply very soon – the first dates are almost upon us!

BBC Micro:Bit Drop-in day

Micro:Bit boards are being distributed (free of charge) to every year 7 student in the country, assuming your school signed up to the scheme. The school also receives  a class set of boards, a few for teachers, and a few spare units for breakages.

There’s such a wealth of stuff around Micro:Bit it can be hard to know where to start. Most of the teacher training events have passed, but there’s a teacher / student / family drop-in style workshop event right here at Northumbria University on Saturday 25th June. So if you have a Micro:Bit and want some ideas or help, or if you’re trying to work out what to do when yours arrives, or if you’re plain curious – this could be your chance.

Free, but registration required (through the link above)

Events

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