If you’ve read Chris Anderson’s “The new industrial revolution” you’ll likely be infected with the virus of making. So are we. Chris writes about electronics, laser cutting, 3D printing and how this could lead to a new industrial revolution. It’s about connecting the physcal world to the internet. Expanding your reach to the physical world, which – as you know – is damn big! Among our hybris colleages, we discovered many that also “play” with robots, flying drones or automatic gardening systems. What previously looked like pure play got a serious touch as many of these things can be relevant even in an commerce setting. To explore physical frontends other than “just screens” in combination with ecommerce, we’re currently working on not just one, but already a few protoypes. This blog post will be the first one of (very likely) quite a few others that explore physical computing and “making”. If all works out, we’ll be presenting and talking about our experiences at the CultureTech Conference. Till then, a lot of making and learning has to happen!
Before we delve into our first prototype in more details, let me tell you one thing that we’ve learned already: connecting physical things to the internet, to your computer or to other systems requires a bit of learning, but it has been an extremely rewarding process. Learning how to make a box yourself via a lasercut service is simply awesome and a great skill to learn. Armed with some basic knowledge of electronics, like the Arduino board you quickly realize that pretty much everything is possible. Connecting arcade buttons to a in-store display? Easy. Create a physical keyboard as a frontend for a coupon-generating backend in the cloud? Done. Flying into space? Well…
Figuring out how to create the sensors was a challenge in itself. I initially prototyped a keyboard with a few pressure-sensistive resistors before Malte had the idea to use simple and cheap copper foil for capacitive sensors (we ordered copper foil from eBay and finance was *not* impressed). He created our own, custom PCB board, send it to a PCB manufacturing service and finally programmed an ATMega chip you control a special capacitive sensing chip. We had to solder all these SMD (=SUPER SMALL) components onto the board, later connect the cables and fine-tune the sensing. The original goal to use the keyboard with your foot was dismissed due to too much jitter in the signals, we’ll now hang the keyboard at a wall and you’ll have to use your hands to operate it.
A physical frontend, like our physical keyboard is not created overnight. It requires all kind of disciplines to be combined. A diverse set of skills hase to come together to make this happen. I went to a local stitcher and paid her for stitching the PVC foil so the sensors cannot move freely between the top and bottom layer. Malte and me soldered and I cannot tell you how many times I sat at home and tried out circuits and early prototypes connected via breadboard to the Arduino. For the software, I had to get into Node.js programming which I did via 2 hands-on books on my Kindle. I am still a total beginner when it comes to electronics but the basic knowledge is there and all the rest can be read on the internet. The diverse combination of disciplines is awesome, as it sparks creativity (diversity is a key principle of innovation).
In the end, we figured out that there is most likely and easier way to connect the keyboard to the web application :-) We’ve ordered two more keyboard foils and I am pretty confident that we’ll simplify the whole system.
Now that we have gained all this knowledge, we’re ready for a few more physical frontends. Likely, we’ll be creating gamification ideas using LED buttons, lasers and all kind of sensors. Stay tuned and go ask us questions. The hybris technology group on g+ is a great place to get in contact with us and discuss.
Exploring the physical world and connecting it to the internet was an awesome ride so far and the good news is that we just tapped into it!