How Might We … imagine & engage with electronics differently through different materials

Electronics was completely foreign to me, but in just a 5-day Electronics of Materials course with Hannah Perner-Wilson and Paula Te at the Copenhagen Institute of Interaction Design, I experienced the world of electronics from an entirely new perspective.

The Toy Piano Tear Down

A great introduction into the subject without diving straight into theory was the toy piano tear down activity. We learned through playing around with the instrument, followed by taking it apart to better understand how the mechanics worked. Such a tactile discovery process was particularly helpful to associate and draw connections between the science behind the electronics and the applied world.

New Materials & Swatches !

Snippets of the swatch book with materials such as carbon paint, conductive fabric and copper tape

Exposure to a whole new world of materials was exciting, especially the discovery of conductive properties in those seemingly ordinary (and accessible!) materials. We added new materials to our swatch books, created various electrical connections and tested its resistance using our multimeters.

I loved the fact that paper was used as a primary medium; inviting us to think of paper as an engineering material, and the infinite possibilities it can create when combined with electronics. We already see some of these in the market, such as Nintendo’s LABO and the Google Cardboard.

Here are some examples of the swatches:

Circuits created using copper tape, LEDs, resistors and a flat battery
Paper pressure sensor created by sandwiching a piece of velostat between two conductors. When pressed together, resistance through the velostat decreases and becomes more conductive (aka piezoresistive effect).

Visual Bells

As part of the final project, my teammate, PJ and I decided to create Visual Bells; a dual-sensory performance combining visual LED lights with music played on the xylophone.

This primarily involved the creation of (i) the circuit and (ii) the connection between the xylophone to the circuit. When exploring how to create a conductive surface on the xylophone, we experimented with different conductive materials such as carbon paint, copper wire and fabric tape. Noticing that the surface area of the material had a huge impact on the sound produced by the xylophone, we ultimately decided on the copper tape as it gave the most reliable results in terms of conductivity and audio output. Next, we mounted the copper tape onto each xylophone key, soldered wires onto the surface, and connected each wire to the circuit using alligator clips.

Based on experiences in circuit failures earlier in the week, we also adopted an incremental approach when creating the circuit. By building and testing the circuit in stages, we were able to better identify issues and troubleshoot than in a situation where the complete circuit was created in one go.

Learnings from Troubleshooting

Some of my biggest takeaways were from finding out why my circuits didn’t work the way as intended. Here are some of my learnings:

  • LED polarityalways check if the ends of the LED are connected in the right direction. The longer leg is always positive, and should connect to the positive end of the battery.
  • Resistancesometimes an LED may appear too dim because the other LED in the circuit requires a lot more energy to power. Always refer back to the data sheet, otherwise, you could try trial & error to figure out the appropriate resistance. Once the right resistance is added to the circuit, the dimmer LED will brighten up.
  • Short circuits double check connections to ensure there is no accidental diversion of the current that leaps towards the path of least resistance (e.g., where a much lower resistor is connected in parallel with another resistor, the lower-value resistor will carry more current than the higher-value resistor)
  • Batterysometimes it’s could just be a matter of replacing a battery that could be dying out
  • LED check the LED itself as it could be broken and has nothing to do with your circuit connections

Thanks for reading! If you’d like to talk more, feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn @kfhkwok. Would love to hear about your experiences with electronics and conductive materials.

Lawyer and designer, passionate about designing humane interactions that help us live more meaningfully.

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