Course Wrap Up: CTIN 544
Thoughts and reflections on my Experiments in Interactivity II class, part of my MFA in Interactive Media at USC.
CTIN 544, or Experiments in Interactivity II, is a required class in the second semester of our MFA program. Its main focus, as the name suggests, is to experiment with a technology of our choosing, while also looking at a variety of different concepts and technologies that are relevant in the design of interactive experiences.
These are the goals for the course, according to the syllabus:
- Learn how to conduct an informed exploration of the aesthetic possibilities of a given technology;
- Acquire skills and general technical knowledge useful for prototyping new experiences;
- Practice observing own learning process when mastering a new tool;
Coming from a visual design background, I was very excited about this class and the opportunity to be in such experimental environment for an entire semester. I saw this as the perfect moment to brave into the wonderful world of physical computing. Back in 2013, while in Germany for a media design exchange at the Technical University of Dresden, I had my first contact with Arduino and all kinds of physical, interactive prototypes. I was truly amazed by the students’ work, in particular the interactive installations. This was during the junior year of my undergrad studies in Visual Communication & Digital Media, and I like to think that this was when a small seed was planted, leading 3 years later to the Interactive Media studies I am pursuing now.
I am also very much interested in alternative game controllers and experimental interfaces to augment a specific experience. In this practice, I see a great opportunity to explore the idea of what a game or interactive experience can be, without the boundaries set by a keyboard or a mouse, for example. One of my obsessions is the idea of repurposing objects that are no longer in use and turning them into something completely new and interactive. GDC’s Alt.Ctrl showcase is always a great source of inspiration, and I just love seeing the crazy, creative projects people come up with each year.
So this was my starting point for the class – an eagerness to learn all about the world of physical computing and challenge myself to make something I had never done before.
In this class, we were asked to bring a new prototype each week, exploring a new aspect of our chosen technology or concept.
I started with small Arduino experiments, mostly following the Starter’s Kit handbook. Obviously, it all started with a button and a LED light!
— Gabriela Purri (@GabiPurri) January 24, 2016
These small experiments were essential for me to understand more about electrical circuits and the many tools in my starter kit.
Moving on from these small exercises, I wanted to integrate Arduino with Unity, and understand a little more about the interaction of analog and virtual world.
— Gabriela Purri (@GabiPurri) February 7, 2016
At this point, it was still about exploring the creative possibilities of Arduino, and the different ways I could create interactions. Following the exercises above, I started creating more structured prototypes, mainly to test some ideas I had in mind. The first one was a moving diorama, which you can find more about here. After coming across some interactive paper projects, I made an experiment with capacitive sensors, documented here.
I decided it was time to look back at my original idea of repurposing existing objects and start looking for one I could start experimenting with. I spent almost an entire day at the Pasadena flea market looking for an interesting object I could hack and transform into a game controller. Since this was my first time doing something like this, I had been looking for something affordable and simple, yet special in its own way. Eventually I came across a CB radio from the 70’s, which turned out to be the main focus of my experiments for the weeks to come. You may follow my progress here.
Finally, to take my mind off the CB radio for a bit, I made my own arcade controls – which was probably one of the experiments I had most fun with!
Struggles & Things I Would’ve Done Differently
Looking back at this semester, I should say that I’m quite proud to have come this far in terms of learning things I never thought I would be capable of. 16-year-old me would be baffled to see 2016-me playing with electrical circuits and programming. I remember enjoying studying circuits back then, but I was quite mediocre at it, and since I excelled in the humanities, that’s where I thought I would belong … forever. Until today. Well, until I took a leap of faith and applied for this MFA back in 2014.
Anyway, back to my struggles and the things I would’ve done differently for this class.
I think my main problem was that I just got too caught up with the CB radio. The initial weeks were the most productive ones, where I definitely learned the most. I was genuinely having fun making these small, simple exercises… They truly opened my eyes to all the creative possibilities of micro-controllers, and it was really almost like an epiphany.
But then I got too confident, too fast. And actually just really excited to move forward! I had found that CB radio, and I had even developed a concept for it. This is surely one of my favorite moments in the design process … that initial excitement when a new idea hits, and when you start taking it apart and putting it back together to make more sense of it. Unfortunately, I got a little too lost in this process, and as the end of the semester approached, I suddenly put pressure on myself to get something solid done, something relevant to the initial proposal I had written in the first weeks of January. I challenged myself to make my idea happen, and maybe I was too persistent about it …
Taking that CB radio apart was a nightmare. These things were soldered by hand and were definitely not meant to be taken apart … ever. I had never dealt with electronics in such details, and while in the beginning I was quite excited about pretending to know what I was doing, I soon realized this was not as easy as I thought it would be. I lost focus for a couple of weeks, being worried about what kind of soldering kit I would need to buy, or how to scavenge for the buttons and potentiometers I needed.
When I finally realized I was wasting my time trying to taking the CB radio apart on my own, I went back to something I was planning to do while working on a Frogger reboot in another class. Making my own arcade controls was probably the most rewarding prototype in this class … I managed to combine all the knowledge acquired over the initial weeks, while having the creative freedom I was craving for. The CB turned out to be a creative constraint, which set me back when I should’ve kept going with the small prototypes and studies. I think I would’ve also worked better with someone with more knowledge on the subject, maybe an electronics enthusiast or an engineer. This reinforces my belief in the power of collaboration across disciplines to … create magic!
What did I learn about my learning process?
– I learn by doing. I love making things. And I love the feeling of making a system work. It’s refreshing, it’s empowering, and I feel like I can rule the world.
– If a problem arises, I become obsessed with finding a solution. I will relentlessly look for answers and not move on until I figure it out. I am persistent. If something that is supposed to work is not working, I will dig through the deepest places on the internet, read countless forum posts and decipher code I mostly don’t understand. But then my persistence becomes stubbornness, and I have a hard time admitting defeat. I need to learn to move on, and have the flexibility to do so even when things are not working. I’ve gotten better at it by the end of the semester, but I think I still need to work on finding a balance.
– Talking (or screaming) to myself while coding or debugging Arduino connections is very helpful, even if a little awkward at times.
– Seeking inspiration in instructables.com and other DIY online resources works really well for me, especially being new to this field and practice. It’s about seeing what is being done out there, and how I can take things a step further.
– Documenting my process with blog posts, videos and photos is very helpful. It creates a learning structure and makes it easier for me to set concrete goals, while building up from previous prototypes and exercises.
– I do well in open learning environments, maybe because there are SO MANY things I want to explore out there. The hardest part is narrowing things down.
– That said, I can only learn a certain amount of things in one semester, especially when it comes to tech. What worked for me was combining assignments and thinking, ‘how can I take this further?’. This was the case with Frogger. How could I make it more special and out of the box while also giving myself the chance to learn something new? It’s really about focus.
– Although the CB radio experiments were a little frustrating, I still see a great value in letting an idea emerge from this one object taking into consideration its historical and social contexts. This is something I would like to explore further in the future.
Physical computing is just so much fun. My initial interest grew into a new passion, which I am hoping to pursue in the semesters to come. Maybe my next step would be to make prototypes having larger-scale interactive exhibitions in mind, in a museum or theme park environment. These are driving forces behind my interest in interactive media, and I wonder how I could also combine these with cultural storytelling and education.