What I did on my Summer Vacation

One of my projects, circa 1983

In 1980, just after I graduated from York University with an MFA, I took up electronics. I was working part-time at a private radio station about an hour’s drive from Toronto; this radio station was one of the first in the world to go fully automated in the early 1970’s. Today automation in broadcasting is a given, but at that time it was a big deal. My job was to “program” the machine they called “OTTO” so that it could run overnight without any human intervention. Programming involved selecting square aluminum wafers of different colours that were about 8cm square, with 5mm holes bored through them. One colour square represented a music selection, a different colour represented a commercial, and another represented a weather report. I had to stack these about a hundred high in a holder according to the station log, which determined what advertisement should go when. Heaven help you if you did not close the stack holder properly–the squares might land in a pile all over the floor.

I got curious about electronics because at the time the station converted OTTO from a mechanical system to an electronic system–which meant that instead of stacking squares of metal, you stood in front of OTTO and punched in the program using a keypad.

I was interested in electronics because I wanted to create interactive box/sculptures that changed with human presence. I dove into the subject and although I was in some ways greatly hampered by a lack of mathematical skills, I became quite a competent designer of digital gizmos. I even built several microcomputers, one using the RCA 1802. My first entree to programming was flipping switches on this single board computer to make an LED flash on and off.

When the Macintosh came along, my interests moved elsewhere, and for the past fifteen years, until this year, I have been largely focused on interactive media using the web. My electronics workshop remained in boxes from 1985 to this past July, when I set things up again, and bought some new gear and new parts.

One of the parts I purchased was a microprocessor called the Arduino. It’s an open source prototyping computing platform used by many artists and designers around the world.

I’m still interested in human interaction with computers; I want to try to meld old interfaces and traditional materials with computers. One thing that will help me in my quest is a new service called “Pachube” (pronounced ‘patch-bay’): Pachube is “a service that enables you to connect, tag and share real time sensor data from objects, devices, buildings and environments around the world. The key aim is to facilitate interaction between remote environments, both physical and virtual.”

In my current experiment, I have connected some sensors to an Arduino, and the Arduino sends the sensor data to my home computer, which uploads the data to Pachube, which makes it available to others online. In this case, a widget called PachuDial takes the data and makes a Flash-enabled dial, which updates every few minutes on this blog. I could Twitter this information, and I can plot it to my home virtually on a Google SketchUp model, and publish my virtual home online (if I wanted). To see the most advanced work from Pachube, view this YouTube video.

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