Final Project Presentation: The Ambient Orb

Process on this project was divided into several distinct parts, chief of which include fabrication, programming, and thematic/theoretical elaboration.

For a recap on the fabrication aspect of this project—including initial sketching, modeling in Vectorworks and Rhino, and 3D printing—see this blog post.

For insight into the process behind the programming that fuels this project—including working with node, building the keylogger script at the heart of the orb’s functioning, and coding the neopixel LEDs—see this blog post.

For an overview of the initial theoretical and thematic underpinnings of my ambient orb—which, as you’ll learn below, have undergone changes over the course of the last several weeks—see this blog postContinue reading “Final Project Presentation: The Ambient Orb”

Design and Fabrication

Before even setting out on it, I knew that the fabrication aspect of this physical computing project was going to be about as much fun as it was going to be challenging. I have never worked with CAD software or 3D printing before, and have little to no experience with the design of physical, worldly objects. But the idea of slowly, gradually realizing a physical thing—beginning with no more than a sketch or a hazy idea in mind—is so exciting to me that the learning curve of everything involved in actually accomplishing this realization was almost negligible.

With that said, the single theme that most defines my path working on the fabrication component of this project is that of collaboration.

Continue reading “Design and Fabrication”

Final Project Planning Part II: Practical Considerations

With regards to material design and engineering, building this project will entail three main planks:

  1. Fabrication ||| Designing, constructing, and refining frosted/matte plastic orb enclosure.
  2. Arduino-computer communication ||| Making the computer and Arduino talk to each other via bluetooth, and mapping Arduino-powered LEDs with computer-run program via IDE.
  3. Program and programming ||| Building the keystroke frequency analyzer and activity measurement/timer.
  4. Bonus/Future ||| Build a more elegant interface for the customization and control of the orb.

Continue reading “Final Project Planning Part II: Practical Considerations”

Final Project Planning Part I: Conceptual Considerations

It’s become commonplace by now to remark on the omnipresence of screens and our unhealthy dependence on, and addiction to, them in a number of different capacities. Whether for work, for play, or the well-trodden middle-ground between the two, which can involve unconsciously drifting from website to website, mindlessly tumbling down endless feeds on social media, or slogging through the never-ending deluge of email.

Catch-all criticisms of screen-dominated patterns of work and life, however, tend to paint a more one-dimensional picture than is the reality of things. The screen, in the course of our engagement with it, is not always the glowing rectangle that, objectively speaking, it nevertheless is. The screen can be a window, a portal, a commons, a sinkhole or black hole, a resourceful coworker, a domineering boss, a sun lamp, and a gratuitous shot of caffeine at the end of a long day.

And the screen can shift between these different registers almost imperceptibly—from positive to delightful to neutral, from tiresome to wretched, from positively stimulating to undesirably so.

It wouldn’t at all be a stretch to say that the problem has less to do with screens, than a mindfulness of our relationship to them. A stunning lack of this sort of mindfulness, far from being harmless, can end up contributing to a number of uniquely 21st century neurotic or depressive conditions.

Writers and theorists, in recent years, have enumerated a few of these. Byung-Chul Han has coined the term “burnout society,” which, even without knowing explicitly what it refers to, almost anyone today can viscerally identify with or comprehend. The writer Jonathan Crary, meanwhile, has written about a pervasive condition he simply calls “24/7.” This condition entails a new economy of attention, enabled in large part by the omnipresence of screens, one which “dissolves the separation between the personal and professional, between entertainment and information, all overridden by a compulsory functionality of communication that is inherently and inescapably 24/7.”

There are a handful of applications that owe their popularity to the widespread desire to regulate or abate the new reality in which we live. Flux, for example, adjusts a computer screen’s color temperature according to place and time of day, with an aim to reducing both eye-strain and the disruption of natural sleep patterns. Self-Control allows users to blacklist and block certain websites for a period of time (people typically use this application for restricting access to time sinks such as social media and other addictive endless feed-style websites).

These applications are certainly useful. But they fail to adequately instill in us an awareness of our relation to our screens. In some cases, even, they serve to facilitate lengthier sessions at our computers or a more immersive environment in which to browse, work, dawdle, and so on. These existing safeguards, in a word, at once treat us like addicts, forcefully protecting us from ourselves, while also tacitly enabling us, extending our capacity to work well past when it might be appropriate or healthy to.

An object or application that aims to improve our screen hygiene should exist in the world, in the physical environment. Such an object or application, moreover, ought to communicate with us more tacitly, taking advantage of our environmental awareness, rather than sending out assertive notifications or enforcing hard and fast restrictions or state changes.

For my final project in physical computing, I would like to make something that resembles this sort of object or application. Something that is at once productivity tool—insofar as it serves to train our attention when we begin to wander a little too long, when the screen becomes a sinkhole—and mindfulness machine—insofar as it can remind us to peel ourselves from the screen in the first place, and remind us of the physical world around us.


Towards a final project…


Intuitively, I felt that the stones held a great amount of information. If I were able to input into my computer all the information coming from those stones, I’m sure it would freeze. Kenya Hara

So while much of the discussion of spatiality in interactive systems has conceptualized space as a passive ‘container’ within which decontextualized actions may be arrayed, our infrastructural perspective has attempted to highlight the mutually constitutive nature of space and practice. Paul Dourish & Genevieve Bell


Physical Computing Midterm: Spooky Fantasia

Without a doubt, the technology we’ve been working with in introduction to physical computing is primitive at best relative to what we’re surrounded by in our everyday lives.

All the same, owing to the fact that we’ve not only been interacting with them, but programming, building, and manipulating their form and functionality at so many different levels, both digital and physical, this “primitive” technology has accumulated something that is almost entirely absent in our conscious relation to the powerful smartphones, laptops, and other devices we use on a daily basis. That thing is magic, or something like it. Continue reading “Physical Computing Midterm: Spooky Fantasia”

Musical Distance-Sensing Alarm

Having tried a handful of things with photoresistors in the past few weeks, I was curious to experiment with an ultrasonic sensor. Whereas photoresistors are known to be messy in their readings, ultrasonic sensors measure distance using sound waves, and can produce far more precise readings, even if they also require cleaner conditions for working properly.







Musical Distance-Sensitive Alarm from Michael Blum on Vimeo.

Observing Interactive Technologies in the World

Once fickle and far less reliable than their human-operated counterparts, the self checkout machines in convenience stores now work well enough that in many stores, they’ve become the primary cashiers.

At the CVS near where I live, this is certainly the case.

The machines are clearly designed with a single imperative: cut labor costs by any means possible make it as hard as possible for customers to screw up.

Continue reading “Observing Interactive Technologies in the World”

What is Interaction?

On the face of it, interaction isn’t difficult to conceptualize or define.

I act on a thing. The thing reacts. Perhaps this reaction prompts me to further or differently act on the thing, in order to achieve my original goal or to work towards achieving a new one. Either way, this relay of action and reaction intertwines into a sort of dance—a pas de deux between the thing/machine/system and I, in which we exchange a series of variable moves. This dance is entered into in a variety of contexts: from simple or complex productivity tasks (i.e. taking the steps to gradually put together the website on which these words appear) to entertainment or play situations (navigating a virtual environment populated by A.I.-powered avatars). Continue reading “What is Interaction?”