Philly Tech Week signature event

One of our lovely members, Jim Fisher, was kind enough to send me and a friend along to the Signature Event for Philly Tech Week because he liked my SketchUp class so much. Thanks Jim! There was an open bar, some food, and a big screen displaying a TwitterFall for the tag #phillytechweek. I’m not one to pass up an opportunity, but I didn’t have the right hardware to exploit such a lovely tweetstream. Instead I bugged Adam into doing my dirty work in exchange for a burrito. The result:

You might want to zoom in

Woot! Great success! High fives all around.

There was also a collaboration suggestion board where someone suggested that we team up with Breadboard to hack some art. Okey doke, let’s do it!


Philly Tech Week Events

For Philly Tech Week, we’re opening our doors every night of the week at 8pm, extending our normal Open House format to the entire week, for this week only. We have a variety of different activities planned. Check it out.

Useless Photo
It's gonna be hot!

Monday, 25th: Open Work Night
For the first night of Tech Week, we’ll be working in the space on projects together. Come stop by and say hi, lend a hand, or just to jibber-jabber about your own projects. This is a little different than normal Open Houses in that we typically curb work sessions for the night.

Tuesday, 26th: Micro-controller Show and Tell
Have an Arduino, MSP430, Propeller, or other MCU project that you want to show off? Want to learn some basics of gettings started with the MSP430? Come out this night and have fun with bit-twiddling, speaker beeping, and LED-blinking.

Wednesday, 27th: Regularly Scheduled Open House + Late Night Karaoke
Our regularly scheduled social hour. We have a hacktastic “karaoke machine” running on a Macbook that lets you queue songs through our IRC channel. We don’t usually start the Karaoke until 10pm, but if enough people are interested we’ll get it started early.

Thursday, 28th: DIY/Electronic Music
Step-tone generators, electric guitar effects pedals, sequencers, keyboards. Whether you’ve made your own instrument or not, any way you want to make music tonight, come on down and jam with us.

Friday, 29th: “Bricks and Grips” – Arm Wrestling/Puzzle Game Tournament
Based on a similar concept that we are not permitted to mention due to trademark issues, this game is a standard 2-player, head-to-head Tetrimino Puzzle Game, where players manipulate their pieces through an arm wrestling competition on a specially designed arm wrestling table-shaped controller.

Saturday, 30th: Artemis Game Session
For all you trekkies out there, Artemis Spaceship Bridge Simulator is a networked multiplayer game that simulates a spaceship’s bridge; much like what you’d see on Star Trek®.

Hive76/UArts Special Event, “Artisanal Technology”, April 23rd at UArts

Hive76 and The University of the Arts have teamed up for this one, and we managed to persuade Leah Buechley to bring a bit of the MIT Media Lab to Philly in the form of a special presentation titled “Artisanal Technology“.  Showtime is April 23, 11:30 A.M.  The location is 5th Floor, Terra Hall (211 S. Broad).

Leah Buechley demos some atrtistic options with the LilyPad, using Boulder's Pearl Street Mall as her canvas

In Leah’s words, “This talk proposes an alternate model for the production, distribution, and consumption of consumer electronics that emphasizes diversity, small scale production, and thoughtful consumption.  I will raise and discuss several questions, including: what kind of technologies can be artisanaly produced–crafted in small batches?  what benefits might society reap from artisanal technology? what benefits might we expect as designers and manufacturers? what tools need to be built to support an artisanal technology ecology?

You can get tickets here.  Admission is free and seating is limited, so we expect the event to fill up quickly.  If you are interested in attending, get your tickets ASAP.

The talk is inherently cross-disciplinary, and we have done our best to recruit some of the more colorful members of the Philly creative community to attend.

We are hoping to have some displays in the room that give a sampling of High Low Tech, Philly Style.  If you have some work that you’d like to display, please feel free to leave a comment — we’ll see what we can do.

Thanks, and hope to see you there!

User-Literate Technology

This is a broad-concept idea that I’ve had in my head for a while and have discussed with a few people. This post is mostly a direct adaptation of those discussions. I’ve taken to calling the idea “User-Literate Technology”, mostly because, in the same way we might say that a particular person is technology-literate, we should also be able to say that a particular technology is user-literate.

In some ways, this is similar to “user-friendly”, except that it places the burden on the technology to adapt to the user, rather than the technology making it easy for the user to adapt to it. Does some particular technology in question create its own gestures and idioms, while seeking to make them easy to learn, or does the technology capture idioms that are common in the culture for which the technology is intended? If the technology errs more on the latter side, then it is “User-Literate”, more than “User-Friendly”.

Before systems can become more User-Literate, they largely need to dispense of their most prevalent interface: the keyboard and mouse. The keyboard is a text and data entry tool, but as an interface into consumer computing, it is roughly 150 keys of confusion, distraction, and indirection. For example, why do we still have a Scroll Lock function on our keyboards? Scroll Lock hasn’t been a useful feature for the last 20 years; in other words, one of the most important and significant markets for consumer computing has never lived in an era that needs a Scroll Lock. It’s like issuing every new driver a buggy whip with their driver’s license.

Mice are nice for tasks that involve precise selection of elements on a 2D plain. It was designed in an era when graphical displays were not much larger than 640×480 pixels. Nowadays, I have a laptop with a native resolution of 1600×900, and I can hook up a second monitor to it to double that space. We’re talking about screen real estate that is five to ten times larger than when the mouse first became popular. To give you an idea of what that means, take a look at the 640×480 highlighted area on my desktop screenshot (and yes, I paid for Photoshop).

Imagine using only the lower-left corner

Computing has seen more huge leaps and bounds in usability than it has incremental improvements. Check out this screenshot of the Xerox Star GUI. I remind you that this is from 1981. Try to identify any functional elements from modern computer interfaces that are not in this image (protip: from a technical perspective, there aren’t any, they are all adaptations of concepts shown here).

Xerox Star GUI
The Graphical User Interface from the Xerox Star experimental OS, 1981

The early GUI interfaces like Star and its clones (including Macintosh and Windows) got something very right: they made functionality discoverable. There were two primary ways in which they did this, by providing visual cues on the screen immediately in the user’s field of view, and by providing multiple access points to the functionality to accommodate users who work in different ways. Having a menu option labeled “Help” is very inviting, but advanced users learn to ignore large portions of screen text, so it’s very important to make systems that cater to both the wide-eyed (literally) newb and the hardened veteran.

Regardless, monitors are only good if the user A) has a fully functional visual sense, and B) is able to devote their attention to the display. If the user is blind or distracted by other visual tasks (say, operating a heavy machine) then the display is a large, hot paperweight on the desk.

Luckily, we are starting to see some very basic work in this area hitting the consumer market. Between systems like the iPad and the hacktastic stuff being done with the Kinect, there is a lot going on with removing computing from its keyboard-and-mouse hegemony. Still, in many cases, they often rely on the user being able to memorize gestures and command sequences. If a user has to do something unnatural–even if it is done through advance motion sensing and image processing–then it might as well just be any other button-pushing interface.

This is why I never got into the Nintendo Wii. Yes, the motion tracking of the controller was a wonderful sweet-spot between price and precision. Despite that, few–if any–of the games were doing anything actually unique with it. Instead of waggling a joystick permanently affixed to a controller base and mashing buttons, you were… waggling a joystick in mid-air and mashing buttons. The user still had to learn new motion patterns and adapt to the system.

I think Google kind of picked up on the absurdity of most modern motion-tracking systems with this year’s April Fools prank, the “Gmail Motion“. Also, I think there are some good examples of user-literate technology on the market already.

I have a Wacom tablet here that is not only pressure- but also tilt-sensitive. I’ve found that the primary training hang-up is the disconnect between moving the stylus in one location and the drawing marks showing up in another; without strong hand-eye coordination that can be difficult to adjust to. Wacom has had LCD displays for a while now that have the full touch-and-tilt sensitivity built into them. I can’t imagine how amazing working with them must be (and probably won’t for a while, the smallest one is only 12” across and costs nearly $1000. The one that I would actually want is 2 kilobucks).

There is a weather station ran by MIT with a natural language processor that you can call on your phone called JUPITER. I’ll be damned if I couldn’t figure out how to trip this thing up. Even with a fake southern accent (though reasonable, I’ve spent enough time in the south to know what they actually sound like) I couldn’t baffle it. Anything that it faltered on, I had to admit that a human would have had a hard time understanding me anyway. It’s best feature was context tracking, you could ask for the weather on a certain day in a certain city, receive it, then make an extremely contextual query like “what about the day after?” and it would get it right, “and the next day?” and BAM, weather forecastery in your ear. I heard about this thing over 5 years ago, why don’t we have flying cars yet? I understand the technology was based on a DARPA project that was being used for automated logistics in battlefield scenarios. People getting shot at don’t have time to remember how to talk to a computer. So they built a computer that could understand a screaming, cussing US Marine.

My sister cued me in to a project being developed by a group of high-schoolers in Portland, OR. A team of two 11th graders are developing voice-emotion recognition technology that; they’ve already won the Siemens Science Award in the team category. You talk into a microphone and the computer judges the emotional state you were in when you spoke. The kids are currently envisioning developing a wristwatch for autistic children who have difficulty assessing others’ emotions. The watch will flash an emoticon indicating the emotional state of the person the child is talking to.

So what is the point of all of this talk? I am organizing a symposium/exposition for User-Literate Technology. I want it to be a spring-board for starting to talk about technology that adapts to and understands how people work, rather than having artificial systems that strive to be easy to learn. Hopefully, we can have it going either by the end of the year or by this time next year. I’d like it to be a multi-disciplinary event, with equal participation from industry and academics, from artists and computer scientists and engineers.  If you or your organization is interested in participating, you can reach me through the gmail with the name “smcbeth”.

We haven’t seen a major innovation in human-computer interaction in over 30 years. It’s time to start working on the problem.

How springs are made

I just thought I would take the time to post these videos of springs being made.  I apologize in advance for BLOWING YOUR MIND.

#1, #2, #3, #4, #5

P.S: The machine in that vid #5 looks totally make-able, no?

“Soldering is Easy!” Comic Book

Cover page to "Soldering Is Easy!"

There’s a great new comic about how to solder by Mitch Altman, Andie Nordgren and Jeff “Mightyohm” Keyzer . It’s based on a one-pager that Andie and Mitch made last year, and it’s totally cute and informative. It’s a fantastic example of friendly tech ed, and it’s shareable under a Creative Commons license. Apparently the comic will be part of a book on microcontrollers for beginners that Mitch and Jeff are publishing through No Starch Press later this year.

Here’s the pdf, and check out Jeff’s site for copies in other formats and languages, and even a no-text version if you want to make your own translation.

Learn to 3D print!

I’ve given up on 2D printers. 3D is the future!

print ninja
print ninja

Every single paper printer I have ever owned has been a constant source of pain and expense [example]. My experience with 3D printers thus far has been slightly better, but a magnitude cooler. The payoff for designing and printing your own real thing out of plastic is a real joy. That’s why some people call me obsessed with these 3D printers, and also why I feel the need to share!

Learn to print in 3D! We are running our SketchUp class again with 2 new dates: 4/17 and 5/1. Both Sundays and both from 10am – 3pm. [avoiding religion jokes here] These dates are separate; it’s not a 2-part class.

Grab a ticket today. $25 for either date:
SketchUp 4/17 SketchUp 5/1

Continue reading “Learn to 3D print!”

FDM2000 progress

Adam, Peejay, Justin, and I met Saturday to see just how fµ¢%ed our old enterprise Stratasys FDM 2000 is.


To catchup: we got a Stratasys FDM2000 from a garage sale for a song and it came with lots of unknowns. It has sat in our hackerspace and moved with us for almost 2 years.

These things are in good order:

  • All 3 axes
  • Two extruder steppers and gearboxes
  • Two extruder heaters and the envelope heater
  • Onboard controllers
  • Lights
  • Model liquefier hot end

Problems that we found:

  • Support liquefier blew out. Need to tear down and fix.
  • Can’t connect via software. May be related to Adam’s serial adapter.

Great news! We have tons of consumables! Spools and spools of ABS, support material, some cool looking elastomer and foam for the build platform.

Hive76 changing focus to D&D

Dice is for real

Last night in an emergency meeting of core membership and management, Hive76 has decided to switch its core mission from making stuff and blogging about it, to designing and playing all manner of role playing games. This includes Dungeons & Dragons, LARPing campaigns, and our new favorite: All Flesh Must Be Eaten. We will slowly transition the space into a dark and spooky dungeon that can host up to 3 games at a time. The current infrastructure such as the drill press and makerbot will used solely to support these games by printing D20‘s and crafting gaming tables. To clear out current space, the first 5 new members will receive a free USB Typewriter or BoomCase.

Under our new rules, all members are now board members as well, the password at the door is a Tolkien quote, and all members must host a non-lame game of their choosing at least once per season. All games should be women/trans friendly, but to garner more female interest in the groups, we will be running more unicorn–themed RPGs. Let us know if you can find any.

In addition, Hive76 will re refiling out 501(c)(3) applications as Awesome Dwarves, Inc. in order to reflect our new-found love of fantasy and beards. We will be running a logo contest to pick yet another graphic image for our new identity. The prize will be a tshirt.

Finally, we’d like to announce our newest venture: the South Philly Karaoke Concern. SPKC will hold bi-weekly meetings at Ray’s Happy Birthday Bar to discuss pressing karaoke and RPG related matters in the key of your choice. (Over 21 only please.) The SPKC has been funded from a generous donation by the Kaufman Beverage Elevator Corporation.