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Can’t believe I have been silent on this blog for more than a year now. I would really like to get back to blogging more regularly, and hopefully this post serves as a good starting point. As the first order of business, I would like to showcase a number of student projects from a new class I taught at UMass in the Spring 2018 semester. It’s a brand-new class called Make — A Hands-on Introduction to Physical Computing. It covers basic electronics, circuits, Arduino programming, sensors, actuators, ESP8266, Processing, and rapid prototyping techniques. It’s a rather exciting adventure for me, as it’s the first time this course has ever been offered in my college, and it fulfills the college’s lab science credit. I have both the freedom to choose whatever topics I am passionate about teaching the students, and the burden of designing the complete set of lectures, weekly lab, homework, and exam.

The class ended with a final project where students work in two-person teams for 6 weeks to complete a project of their choice. The basic requirement is that it must be a physical computing project that involves both constructing hardware and developing software. The outcome was really satisfying as many of the projects are truly impressive and/or innovative. It’s particularly so as for many students this was the first time they have ever learned about electronics and Arduino. Below I briefly describe some of my favorite projects. I took videos of some projects, which you can find in this shared Google Photos album. The complete list of 27 project can be found in this folder of Google sites (I asked every team to create a Google site to document their project).

The most ambitious and visually marvelous project is the 8x8x8 Neopixel Cube project by Alex and Chris (warning, the site is loaded with pictures and videos so loads rather slowly). Though there is an abundance of LED cube projects you can find online, this one is based on Neopixels, so it’s a full-color LED cube and it’s slightly easier to solder than standard color LEDs. They’ve done a fantastic job constructing the cube, and solved a number engineering challenges such as power stability issues, and data transfer speed issues by splitting the cube into sections and providing data entry point for each section separately using the FastLED library. I have a video clip showing the project in action. I wish I had taken a longer video because there were a few really cool animations (e.g. visualizing 3D surfaces, video streaming, 3D snake game) that show off just how amazing a Neopixel cube is.

Then there is a smart mirror project, ironically called Dumb Mirror, by Sam. It’s constructed using a two-way mirror, with a Raspberry Pi driving a scavenged LCD display and a Neopixel ring. A Python program grabs time, news, and weather information and displays them to the LCD screen. There are also some buttons on the side for user interaction. I’ve two short video clips (video1 and video2) showing the project in action. It’s aesthetically beautiful and quite functional as well, makes me want to own one myself.

Next in line is the Mint Drawing Tin project by Paul. This is a really cute project constructed using an Arduino nano, 128×64 OLED display, buttons, Lithium battery, and a 3D printed front panel, snugly fit inside a Altoids tin. It’s like a mini version of Etch a Sketch, but much cooler as it can store image frames and play them back as an animation. I have a thing for mint-tin project, as my own journey of Making began many years ago with a mint-tin sprinkler controller.

Some students made custom PCBs for their projects. One of them is the PixelLight project by Julian. It’s constructed by many Neopixel tiles daisy-chained to make a larger display. Each tile is a custom PCB of 10cmx10cm in size containing 4 Neopixels. The original goal was that the user can connect the tiles in an arbitrary manner and the system can automatically identify the topology of the connections. That proved to be a bit of a challenge so in the end he settled with a pre-determined topology. Still, it’s a quite elegant and visually pleasing project, and the display patterns can be changed in dynamically in real-time by using a ESP8266-based microcontroller and the Blynk app.

Another custom PCB project is the Radio Fireflies by Nick and Emily. It simulates how fireflies in nature synchronize their flashing patterns. Each node is a custom-made circuit consisting of an ATtiny85 mcu, color LED, 433MHz RF transmitter and receiver, and buzzer. RF is used to simulate how individual fireflies communicate with each other, eventually leading to synchronized flashing pattern. It’s a cool and ambitious project, though the real-time demo didn’t work very well as the presentation room was full of RF interferences.

A really fun and entertaining project is the Voice-Controlled Pong by Mike and Garret. It’s made of an Arduino, a 16×16 Neopixel matrix, and two microphone sensors. Each of the two players uses their voice to control the movement of the bat, i.e. the louder the sound the higher the bat moves. At first, it looks somewhat silly that the two players just keep yelling ‘Ahhhh’ repeatedly towards the microphone sensors, but when you try it out yourself, you will find it’s absolutely a joyful and entertaining game to play.

And of course there has to be a pet-centered project. The Bone Appétit is a lovely project by Mary and Nick, perfect for pet owners — it’s made of a Raspberry Pi, camera, servo, load cell (for measuring food weight), tucked inside a lovely wooden box. Using a Blynk app, they can monitor the pet, release food up to a pre-defined weight, and snap a picture. The best part of their demonstration is that they brought an actual puppy, who must have had a great time drawing so much attention from the audience.

There are a number of other amazing projects, like color candy sorter, pocket synthesizer, smart curtain, mail checker, pellet stove monitor, secret knock door lock etc. It’s truly delightful and rewarding to see such a range of creative student projects. I am teaching the Make course a second time this semester and will update the post when this semester’s final presentation ends.

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