Physical computing: Analog/Digital

First month in USA and I already fell ill. Not the greatest start to school and I was horribly behind on all the videos and assignments. But gradually, I managed to dig myself out of that hole and here is my combined blog on the Week 3/4 (digital and analog projects) for Physical computing.

As I was very short on time, I did not go with a big concept but chose to focus on making something which demonstrated my learning of the topics for week 3 & 4.

The project that I chose to work on was:

3 Buttons.

3 LEDs.

If you press the buttons in the correct order one after the other, the LEDs light up together.

If you don’t, the middle one lights up (Literally showing you the middle finger).

To make things more fun, I added in 1 motor which rotates a full 90 degrees when the buttons are in the correct order and gives a small shake when you don’t.

I did not run into major issues with the circuits after following the labs videos but the code to count the correct order of buttons was a bit tricky. My final code is a jumble of if/else statements but I think there is a more elegant way to do this. I shall speak to some residents and see if that can be done in a better way.

I did not get time to try out the speaker and tone (also, I did not have any speakers with me) but I am glad that I am not as behind as everyone as I was 1.5 weeks ago.

Onward and upward!

Currently listening: Drive-Incubus

Physical Computing: Let the games begin!

For the first assignment of Physical computing, we were asked to interpret a switch and come up with a creative version of it. My first reaction was to make some kind of a Rube Goldberg like contraption but as all my tools and kit was still back in India (Stupid US shipping times! 😠) I had to scale down my idea.

While chewing on the topic to come up with ideas, I started playing a mobile game (The shitty kind whose name I shall refuse to take because of total embarrassment!) I remembered the Oasis puzzle in Legend of Zelda: Wind waker. That puzzle was emblematic of the countless hours I have invested in computer games in finding buttons and switches and I thought that would be a good start to my Physical Computing journey.

Slipping & sliding

Slipping & sliding

So, armed with the enthusiasm. I fist went and got a pattern, cut it out and stuck it on cardboard, stuck silver foil below the cardboard in a way so that the pieces line up when placed in the correct pattern.


Did this work? Yeah, kinda, sorta. the pieces slid properly once of twice before the sliver foil below ripped off and it was unworkable. Thankfully, I managed to get a picture before that happened.

I was really satisfied with the idea and the first prototype. I just wish it had worked a bit longer. I think it will make an interesting fabrication project and I would like to take this ahead when Intro to Fabrication starts next month.

Looking forward to the next one!

Currently listening: Switch-Will Smith


And it’s a wrap.

Go listen to the sound-walk first before you read ahead.

Ok done? Now let’s go.

Continuing from where we left off, our project went pretty smoothly in creating a similar soundscape even though we were working on separate sections. We thought we were home high and dry before Mr. Murphy showed up. One of our project files was saved at 44.1kHz and the other two were at 48kHz. We ended up exporting one file as a separate audio file and inserted it before the other but it did leave a bad taste in the mouth. We are still not sure of a better solution but this worked well for our purposes for now.

Reflecting on the whole experience, I feel that my biggest gripe with the whole sound-walk was the ending. We didn’t really know how to end it so we invoked Deus-Red Machina and added her speech at the end (Bless her soul!). It was cliched and hokily sentimental but it was a desperate Hail Mary to finish the assignment on time.

Another challenge was timing it right with the elevators (and other spaces which have heavy, unpredictable footfall) The same problem was common with other groups’ sound-walks that we listened to. Providing a visual guide, providing explicit instructions and timing the speech with pauses are workarounds that most sound-walk designers use but I believe that there is quite a unused potential to use the sensors inside a smartphone to time and trigger sound experiences just right. There is a microphone that listens, a GPS that tracks you, an accelerometer that knows you orientation and som many other sensors that are stuffed in there! If we are putting up with all this tracking, might as well put it to some good use.

My favorite part was our world-building. Too many futuristic scenarios focus on pure utopias or dystopias and our interpretation felt a lot more mundane yet believable that I really enjoyed. And the description of the toilets! That was really inspired.

All in all, this was such a blast with 2 exceptionally lovely people that I really wanted to keep working them for all assignments. There was an unused idea for a speculative futuristic sound walk on an injectable male contraceptive and its effect on society. Hmm, stored for future reference.

Currently Listening: When the curtain falls- Greta Van Fleet

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Week-2 in ICM was pretty fun and deep. The class-work was focusing on manipulating shapes using variables and a short introduction to transformations (Link) As a take-away assignment, We were asked to create a piece in which:

  • One element controlled by the mouse.

  • One element that changes over time, independently of the mouse.

  • One element that is different every time you run the sketch.

While trying to figure out what to do, I chanced upon the clocks assignment which sent me down a deep rabbit-hole. (Thanks Cassie!) Going through John Maeda’s work has always been educational but the clocks piece blew me away. I also realised that its a wonderful, self-contained assignment for visual programming newbies to test the limits of their creativity. More details can be found below:

Maeda’s 12 clocks

The JS port of the original 12 clocks by Coding Train

Golan Levin’s assignment based on clocks

Golan Levin’s INSANELY DETAILED lecture on clocks, time-keeping and it’s representation in New Media. (It’s really worth your time to read through!)

As a first exploration, I decided to focus on being able to capture the current time and represent it using simple shape creation techniques that I learnt in Week 1. I got stuck with trying to calculate the arc angle but Shiffman’s coding challenge on clocks came to the rescue.

Tycho’s new album-cover. Prints available on request.

Tycho’s new album-cover. Prints available on request.

The first clock: Link

So now that I was confident of being able to capture and manipulate the time variables, I decided to go for a number representation. I was looking at Shiffman’s background fade sketch and that jittery pattern was quite interesting. I decided to use that as a base for the fill of my number shapes.

The numbers were then drawn with a simple grid and by manipulating the frame rate and opacity, you could achieve a nice blur effect:

Find light in the beautiful sea

Find light in the beautiful sea

I added some interactivity but being able to change the background color on mouse click. I did not have time to try out more effects (Which I am coming to believe will be the leitmotif of projects at ITP) but I was pretty happy with the outcome this time. The full sketch can be found at: Link

While I am pretty happy with the lessons so far, I think that I need to update my ability to manipulate shapes using Maths(!!!). I wonder if there is a “Maths for programming newbies”. Adding interactivity to shapes using co-ordinate based manipulation is not going to get me too far.


Confidence: +3

Missions: 3/3

Secrets: 0

Currently listening: Clocks-Coldplay

Week 2: Enter the Machine

Starting a project with unknown people at random is always pretty stressful for me. As an introvert who takes time to open up, it feels like going on a first date and with a tight deadline looming, my anxiety levels were pretty much through the roof.

Which turned out to be completely unfounded. Because my teammates are FREAKING awwwwwesome. (Is that a word? it should be a word).

In one corner is Lillian Ritchie, (She was on the production team on How to train your dragon 2, DAMNNIT!!!) Charming, humorous and so good at instinctively slicing a project into timelines and effort that will be needed to do it.

In another corner is Nuntinee who is equally pragmatic and wonderful at listening to everyone blabbering on about ideas and morphing them into a cohesive whole.

After our initial discussion, we zeroed on doing a speculative sound-walk in the future as ITP will move to a new building from next year. We all agreed on doing a sound walk set in the indeterminate future (where physical travel is optional) for incoming ITPers who would visit the physical space as a symbolic ritual.

WHICH IS WHERE THE MAGIC HAPPENED. I started on a draft version which the others just riffed on and we got the whole script down within a hour. It was a Grateful Dead concert on Google docs!

With Lillian’s exceptional doc and sheets ninja skills, we had a list of sounds task list in no time and off we went to collect the sounds! After a lot of flushing, clanging, marching, misplaced batteries, full SD cards and waiting for the ITP floor to quieten down, we had a list of sounds that we threw into Audition. Nun and Lillian took the lead and put a rough cut together and I trundled along with my part in their lead. One of the major issues we faced was finding a narrator voice which Lillian solved by discovering the “Normalize to -3dB” setting which gave us the perfect robotic but yet human voice that we needed. (And Oh! Lillian’s voice-over kicked ass).

In -3db we trust.

Also, note to self: Learn from Lillian’s planning. It going to come back and bite me back, I am sure. Will I learn?

<Deep sigh>

Currently Listening: Truckin’-Grateful Dead

The journey to MoMA

As a part of the first assignment for the sound and video course, we were asked to go on a sound walk and write our reflections on the same.

For people reading this who have no idea what that is, the wikipedia article is a good start. Link

The ITM Sound+Video has a nice collection of sound walks which can be found here. (If it’s not available, drop me a comment and I will send you the links).

From the ones on the list, The one on ‘Whale creek’ and ‘Central Park’ caught my eye because of the location.

Dull, grey and FULL!

Dull, grey and FULL!

But New York rains have the uncanny ability to show up when it’s the most inconvenient. Which is why I found myself on a grey, dull morning at the MoMA. (Central heating should be a human right!). The audio walk is called ‘Dust Gathering’ by artist Nina Katchadourian.

She takes the listeners on an audio journey across the MoMA through the unusual perspective of dust in the museum. Her idea of making the invisible visible caught my attention and I was looking forward to the experience which I expected to be similar to one of my favorite podcasts 99% Invisible. Add in the temptation of finally seeing a Picasso, Matisse, Monet and ‘Starry Night’ up close, I was sold!

The nuts & bolts:

The audio walk is divided into 14 audio pieces which are around 2-3 minutes long and they start on the first floor of the exhibition and end on the 5th floor.

The audios are accompanied by an audio guide which can be found here.

My experience:

One of the things that I forgot to consider was that this audio-walk was done 3 years ago which in MoMA time is ancient history. Artifacts are moved around, new exhibits come up and there is a general flux on the floor which makes it pretty unlikely that the original pieces will be found in the same location. Which threw a big curve-ball during the end of the walk. But more on that later.

The walk started on the first floor which was milling around with visitors and finding a spot to start listening to the walk became a challenge with people moving hastily in and around you. Throw in children, groups moving together and security guards hustling you along it became a big challenge. The audio walk settled into a good groove once the 1st floor talks were done but it did take away from the experience while having to look over your shoulder all the time.

One of the first things she mentions is the presence of a big dust catcher below the reception floor and invites the user to touch the vents to feel the layer of dust on it.

The vent was conveniently located next to the main door and a cop stood next to it. I was not really sure that as a brown-skinned guy, I could muster up the confidence to squeeze past a cop to touch a vent. So HARD PASS. And that brought me to my first observation:

When an audio talk invites people to touch and feel the environment, what assumptions are we already making about the person listening to it? As an international student who is on-alert all the time and would wish to do nothing to stand out, what kind of an audio experience would actually make me go touch and play with an alien environment?

The audio tour is essentially trying to make the invisible visible by a series of interesting facts about dust, its role in the museum, the weird places it gathers and the unusual ways of cleaning it. This is done primarily by the authors narration followed by interviews with a museum staff. The snippets are not information dense, the staff interviews are clear, insightful and are accompanied by a single image on the app.

This creates a situation where the listener does not have anything to look at except a picture and is busy staring at the distance while listening to the piece. This can get very distracting by the sheer amount of activity on the museum floor and I found myself zoning out even though I wanted to hear the whole thing. Through this whole experience, a bunch of questions were rapidly going on through my mind:

What kind of a narrative structure works for stimulating a person’s imagination? Could it have done with a tighter narrative and soundscape (ala 99% invisible and Radiolab)? How much freedom of movement do you give to your listener? What is the appropriate soundscape for use in noisy environments?

The eyes of the ladies of  The Young Ladies of Avignon  speak of the horror of being drenched in someone else’s spit. FOR ETERNITY.

The eyes of the ladies of The Young Ladies of Avignon speak of the horror of being drenched in someone else’s spit. FOR ETERNITY.

The peak experience was an old museum staff talking about how she regularly cleaned a Picasso with her spit.



Because the audio recording is so old, the museum shifted the pieces around and the Picasso mentioned in the talk was replaced by a completely different artist. But, no matter, I went and found a Picasso, stood in front of it and imagined a frail, matronly lady going over the whole painting with her tiny brush and spit.

It does make you giggle. A LOT.

Look on my Dust, ye Mighty, and despair!

Look on my Dust, ye Mighty, and despair!

The final interesting event that happened was that as someone coming from a country where dust is a part of your existence, I never noticed it while I was in India. It’s only after coming to the USA and not feeling it everyday, that I understand what dust-free means. But I was wondering if someone else would notice its presence.

Which lead me to my magical experience during the audio walk.

As the narrator was describing the sheer impossibility of cleaning the Bell-47D1 helicopter while I was pondering the same, a bunch of kids ran past me screaming, “It’s so dusty!”

That was pure joy. Would recommend 10/10.

Final thoughts:

While the audio walk was a pretty sub-par and broken experience, it still managed to create few moments of serendipity which suggests the inherent power of the medium. It will be interesting to see the possibilities which open up with location awareness, machine learning, environment detection and esp. augmented reality! The walk really opened my eyes up to the possibility of creating powerful experiences with sound and I hopefully will be able to incorporate a lot of this in my work in the future. I also, at some point, will be able to do the ‘Central Park’ and ‘Whale Creek’ ones and experience what people have been raving about.

Onto the ITP sound walk assignment! The sounds that we collected can be found here.

Currently listening: Sunday morning-Lou Reed

Current level: Code-Scavenger. Update in progress (1/14)...

ICM Assignment 1

Status report:

The task, which I chose to accept, was to use the primitive shapes of p5js and to create a screen drawing of my liking.

The constraints that I set on myself for this assignment were:

  • To use the limits of the videosit as a constraint instead of using concepts which I know of (loops, variables etc.) to make my life easier.

  • To focus on understanding the limitations of the shapes for creating an image and where it can get really hairy. One of the first questions in my mind was how would shapes could be parallel, perpendicular or aligned to each other when it was difficult to calculate the exact dimensions of its vertices. (For example: A rectangle which is perpendicular/ parallel to a hypotenuse of a triangle).

While I was thinking of shapes, I started thinking of Monument valley and how pretty the game was but built on repeating shapes and patterns. It seemed like a good enough template to try things with. Also, the player is tasked with recovering ‘sacred geometry’ in the game which fits into the theme of the assignment quite well. =)

So pretty!

I spent some time playing the game again (Hey! It was ‘research’ *Ahem*) and looking at it as a collection of basic shapes was quite illuminating. I also immediately realised the problem with creating isometric shapes with only co-ordinate values without using math-magic and vectors. Needless, I decided to press ahead and see where it would take me.

As test subjects, I decided to focus on the main character of the game, Ida and her awesome, mute side-kick, Totem. I felt that they had the right amount of curves and shapes that would make it a challenging trial.

I decided to start with the Totem first because he(?) is awesome. I immediately decided to not do it in an isometric view and go with a flat view instead. In the spirit of the challenge, I decided to focus on the shapes on Totem’s body on the left side as they would be more challenging to pull off.

It started out pretty well…


The first 2 shapes were very simple. I discovered the beginShape() function which made it a breeze. Though, the process of finding out the coordinates was quite onerous. I haven’t done counting like that since I was in High School!

My initial plan was to make the whole grid of boxes of the Totem which can be then printed and shaped into a 3-D paper object. The best laid plans of mice and men…

Seemingly satisfied with my progress, I decided to tackle the shape pattern inside the 2nd box. And the limitations of using a basic coordinate system were immediately laid bare.

Align weird shapes, they said. It will be easy, they said…

Align weird shapes, they said. It will be easy, they said…



I could not, for the life of me, figure out how to maintain a consistent distance at an angle between two shapes. Well, not that much of a hacker, I guess.

The failed sketch can be found at: Link

However, I could not leave Totem unfinished! He(?) has already been through a lot. Since I had 4 surfaces to choose from, I chose a relatively easier one and finished the sketch.

Screenshot 2018-09-12 05.30.09.png


The sketch can be found at: Link

I gave the curve functions a spin and I thought that I understood them. But when it came to re-creating Ada or anything with specific, controlled curves, I failed miserably. I have no idea how to control the curves to flow into shapes that I want.

Ada will have to wait. But, I shall be back!

Major learnings:

  • I might be missing something but shapes seem to not be useful without a relative coordinate system. We invented computers so that we don’t have to manually figure out coordinates. But I have no idea how to do that.

  • I have no idea how to use the curve functions to form any kind of a remotely controlled curve. My respect for the programmers who wrote Illustrator’s Pen tool went up by a 100.

  • Must learn curves.



Confidence: +1

Ego: -5

Missions: 1/2

Secrets: 1

Currently listening: Tycho-Awake


Logo. Basic. Hyper-talk. C++. Html.

Most computer programming origin stories begin with a young child magically coming up on these weird and strange markings with their first ever computer () and that sets them on a journey of discovery, ecstacy and self-loathing across bazaars and cathedrals.

That’s not my story.

But that’s not because I hated computers.

In fact, I loved them too much.

I chatted with people on IRC over a 28 kbps dial-up connection. I saw the first geocities website being born. I was amongst the first Indians on Myspace. Hell, I made a myspace page for a friend’s band with blinking tags(!) and all the visual disasters that only Myspace could allow. (Yes, I am THAT old.)

But I hated programming. Whether it be C, Logo, Basic or html; It sucked the living soul out of my body and it was my childhood version of a dementor. I hated my time spent in engineering and happily gave up on it by jumping ship to ‘easier’ (or so I thought) pastures of UX design.

Which is where life had a sucker-punch waiting for me. We had to pick up Flash to prototype our UX designs and it was love at first sight. Remember the first time you do something in code and it changes visually? HOLY SHIT! (Am I allowed to swear here?)

It’s funny how destiny does that. So it goes.

And the flash development UI is one of the greatest things ever made. I will fight you on this.

But, back to the story. After picking up flash, my journey has taken me across different UX/UI jobs where I have managed to call myself a code-scavenger. I can put multiple things together to make it work. I have also been equally frustrated in being not being able to articulate the exact intent of a gesture or an interaction and having to resort to hand-waving (A LOT OF HAND-WAVING!) while my developer friends look at me with a mixture of pity and frustration. Which brings me to ITP. A very expensive rehab for a frustrated aspiring programmer.

My intent with the course is pretty basic:

  • Level up on my programming stats. Less Barbarian. More Mage.

  • Learn enough to be able to pick up new languages without sweating buckets. Form a framework to approach any new language and treat it the same as I would treat any new software.

  • Decrease the gap between coming up interesting, interactive ideas and the ability to express them in a working piece rather than using some hand-wavy wizardry. More demo, less after-effects.

  • Learn enough to be able to program new art and use machine learning in generative pieces and installations. I look at generative and installation artists with envy. I do not want to keep envying them.

Currently listening: Muse-Starlight