Color Commons

I recently heard about Color Commons, an interactive public artwork created by New American Public Art. The idea is to allow the public to change the color of the Boston Greenway Light Blades via text message. You simply send an SMS to the Light Blades number (917.525.2337) that says what color you want the lights to be and within about 1 second, the lights will change.

I think this is an awesome project on several different levels. First is the element of interactivity – I really like art that engages viewers beyond a passive consumption level. I also think that the creativity and diversity of perspective embodied by “the public” can discover and create really interesting usage scenarios that the original artist would never have thought of (perhaps this just betrays a lack of confidence in my own creativity and artistic vision but nevertheless…).

It is also interesting to learn more about how the project was executed from an engineering perspective. The creators have generously published their source code and other details about their implementation to help inspire others – check out their project page here. In short, they used a Rascal MCU that runs Python and has a built-in web server and linked that module to a server, which they connected to Twilio to receive the text messages. When a message comes in, they parse it using a Python script to determine which color is being requested and then send the command to the Light Blades controller (a Color Kinetics iPlayer3 with ColorPlay software).

I love seeing this kind of project and hope it inspires others to create interactive art. Hopefully one of these days Pocobor will have time to put together one of the ideas that have been rattling around the office lately…

Studiomates in the NY Times

Recently our shared studio space in Brooklyn, Studiomates, was written up in the NY Times. It’s an interesting article discussing the recent trend of people wanting to work in spaces shared with other creative types, and not isolated at home or in a coffee shop. I completely agree with that premise.

Ball Balancing Robot

Over the last few years, inertial sensing systems have made significant progress as sensors and actuators have become more powerful and cheaper. For instance, although it did not change the world in the way that it was intended, the Segway has become ubiquitous enough that everyone knows what it is, and inertial sensing platforms are regularly included in consumer products from smart phones to golf clubs. However, this ball balancing robot from the Robot Development Engineering Laboratory at Tohoku Gakuin University in Japan is one of the coolest implementations of this type of system that I have seen.

Although ball balancing robots are not new (from a controls perspective, it is a great example of the classic inverted pendulum problem), there are several noteworthy features about this robot. First, the robot is omnidirectional and can rotate around its vertical axis (zero turning radius). Second, it has a passive control mode so you can push it around without exerting much force – the video shows some good examples of this. These two wrinkles considerably increase the versatility of the robot.

The other thing that is cool about this project is the accessibility of the hardware. It uses a 16-bit MCU with a few sets of accelerometers and gyros, all of which are readily available for on the order of a few dollars, even at prototype volumes. And, since the project was publicized in 2010, companies like Invensense, ST, and Kionix have released integrated 6-axis chips (a 3-axis accelerometer and 3-axis gyro on the same die with integrated signal processing) and announced the imminent release of 9-axis chips (add a 3-axis magnetometer for orientation using the earth’s magnetic field). Advances like these are just more evidence of how feasible it is becoming to implement remarkably cool functionality into consumer products. Personally, I can’t watch the video without imagining this robot as a mobile drink tray – hopefully something like it will be bringing me a beer before I know it.