Necessary Distractions: Three Years of Tech Art

A girl with her arm around a black octopus cut out wearing paper plate headphones.

Long ago in the early 2000s when I was helping run the boutique (read: small and bad at sales) web consultancy I cofounded, we had a contract web developer named David. David worked on Drupal apps for us, and at the time the most notable thing about him to me, aside from the fact that apparently he’d infected one of my other co-founders girlfriends with chickenpox back in elementary school, is that David wanted to build dancing robots.

PHP community organizing apps (this was the era of CivicSpace) and dancing robots aren’t a super common crossover. At the time I didn’t really see how you could go from one to the other. When there’s so much web stuff to learn and new technologies constantly appear, it can feel like something like robotic art is just a distraction. I remember feeling that way when David and our office manager organized Austin’s first Maker Faire. I couldn’t really see how all this work could lead to selling any PHP or Rails web projects.

David didn’t see it that way. He did web development, but he also worked on his robots. I’m sure he passed up a lot of opportunities to make easy web dev money at a standard 9 to 5 job, but that wasn’t what he wanted. Eventually, with an amazing amount of talent and persistence, he ended up at the MIT Media Lab, where he got to make dancing robots. Fast forward to today, and many years later, he’s the Director of Technology and Digital Strategy at the MIT Museum. He kinda gets to do both. He also has a really great newsletter you should subscribe to.

David Nunez
David and his robotic marionette, Austin Maker Faire 2007

Dancing robots was never my dream. I have a big weak spot for systems that run and grow and evolve by themselves, like Conway’s Game of Life, and I also really like the idea of personal robots that you can develop a connection to, like Kuri, but the ramifications of a VC funded company developing and owning a member of your family are pretty dire. But for most of my time in tech I’ve stayed in my lane, which has been back end web development, hosting, and more recently data. I may have read an Arduino tutorial or watched a projection mapping video but I didn’t really commit myself to anything. At least, until dadageek.

In 2016 some organizers of the Austin Interactive Art meetup got together to create a school for creative coding called dadageek. They were 7-ish week classes, one class a week, around a specific tech art topic. I can’t remember how it caught my eye, but one of the three debut classes was called Create Generative Sculptures with Everyday Objects Using Processing. Finally, here was a structured, instructor-led class with a fixed start and end. Something I could commit to, with people who would be disappointed if I didn’t show up. It was outside of my lane, but safely.

I went a bit off the rails with that class. Jerome Martinez, who taught it, wanted to make it useful for all skill levels, so he started with the basics of algorithms, but at the end of the class, I’d made a game. It’s called Attackle of the Grackles, and your goal is to lead a flock of grackles around the screen to pick up tacos while you avoid getting them run over by a taco truck.

You can probably play it in your browser (warning: music). For the exhibition, which dadageek has after every set of classes, we set it up on an Android touchscreen computer and let people play it.

I also made a processing sketch of a cat in a sunbeam, and an interesting undulating lines sketch, both of which you can see in the interview video around 1:29 in.

I didn’t necessarily learn a ton about coding from the processing class, but I broke out of my lane. I made pretty things for the sake of them being pretty. I built my first visual game, and people played it.

The next spring I talked Irma into taking the classes with me. We booked our babysitter for extra hours, and signed up for not one, but two classes: Intro to Analog Audio Electronics by Mickey Delp of Delptronics and Intro to Arduino for Artists by John-Mike Reed of Bleep Labs.

In the 7 weeks of Intro to Analog Audio Electronics we learned the basics of soldering, capacitors, resistors, oscillators, power and ground, pitch. For our final project I built a seven note polyphonic analog synthesizer with a variable tempo drum machine, and Irma built a multi-oscillator buzz generator.

For Intro to Arduino for Artists we learned about making sound generators in Arduino, writing interactive code, controlling LEDs, and reading data from input sources. Irma made a beautiful ambient noise generator and LED light object. I went off the rails again, and made another game.

It’s kind of like a space war or missile command game, things drop from the top and you have to move the knob back and forth and press the fire button to shoot them. There’s a soundtrack that goes with it, and sound effects, I think. The trick may be to hold down the fire button and just sweep the knob back and forth. But it’s a physical object, and it’s a game, and all you need to play it is a USB power source, and I learned how to make it and made it in 7 weeks, and that’s kind of incredible.

In the spring of 2018 we were back, taking Matt Steinke’s Intro to Robotic Art class. The framework of that class is using a Digital Audio Workstation like Ableton to pass MIDI commands to an Arduino that’s connected to servos, motors, and solenoids, thus making an object move in controllable, scriptable ways.

For this project Irma made a gorgeous cherry tree in a metal cage, with LEDs, fans that blew the petals around, and birds that moved their heads. You can see it at 42 seconds into the video below.

Here’s a closer look at Irma’s project. She later ported the control script to Python so that it could respond to the beat in any music, took it to Baltimore, and showed it off at a conference for work.

And after all that, in the end, for my robotic art project… I made a dancing robot. Well, a dancing robotic octopus DJ. Behold, the Triptopus.

The Triptopus has 6 servos, a solenoid, 3 motors, and 2 LEDs. And an artistically untalented web development girl made it, by finding a way to get out of her lane.

To put a bow on this story, several months after I built Triptopus a friend of mine (who I’d told about my robotic art project, and whose girlfriend-now-wife had been the one to get chickenpox) pinged me about helping a startup he was working with. They needed someone to create a system to deliver precisely timed auditory stimulation during sleep in response to EEG data, for the purpose of improving memory.

There was a low cost open source Arduino EEG board we could use for the EEG bit. They needed someone to integrate that board into a physical device, write a user interface and control application for it, figure out how to play the sounds at precise times, and package it all together. It sounded like fun, and after all those dadageek classes, I wasn’t as terrified as I probably should have been.

I got my day job boss’s boss’s blessing and started working on it. After a lot of trial and error, I’m happy to say it works. The hardware and software I created using the same Arduino boards and coding approach as my robotic art project (with some wonderfully smart python from an actual, you know, brain scientist) actually seems to make people remember things better.

So, if I had any advice, I’d say find ways to get out of your lane. Find good distractions. Find smart, kind, interesting people who are willing to teach you what they know, pay them for it, and see what happens.