In today’s blog post, I am extremely happy to announce Joe Hounsham (@joehounsham) as this year’s IBM Smarter Planet Award winner for Plymouth University.
His awesome project “Dico” really captures the imagination, and I just had to give him a call to find out how he put it all together.
A little background on the award
IBM has collaborated with Plymouth University since 2011 to help deliver a Smarter Planet module for the Digital Art and Technology (DAT) degree program.
This practical course teaches students the principles and technology of the three “I”s of the Smarter Planet vision (instrumented, interconnected and intelligent), and IBM recognizes the student that best demonstrates these principles in his or her final year project.
The course has evolved over time, with Java technology being replaced with new Internet of Things innovations such as Node-RED and node.js.
This year’s winner, Joe Hounsham and the Dico project
First, check out the video below to see the Dico in action:
Now that you’ve seen the video, if you’re anything like me then you will be dying to know how it works! I caught up with Joe to ask him a few questions:
What is the concept behind Dico and what was the inspiration behind it?
The DAT course holds an exhibition every year, and I wanted to create something that would work well in this setting for my final year project. I was inspired by a presentation from the IBM design team that contained the statement “injecting ubiquity into defunct technology.” Throughout my course I had enjoyed the concept of taking old technology and giving it new purpose, so this really resonated with me. The typewriter seemed to fit this concept nicely.
Also, because my dissertation was on “Securing the Internet of Things in Smarter Cities,” I wanted to create a piece that could allude to the importance of security with regard to the Internet of Things.
The name “Dico” is Latin for speaking, talking and playing an instrument.
How does it work?
The typewriter uses an ultrasound sensor to detect a person approaching it. This starts a node.js application that creates a connection to a random person somewhere using an internet chat service. Messages received from the stranger are then sent through Node-RED and MQTT to an Arduino micro controller. The Arduino controls solenoids that pull down the keys of the typewriter to type the message.
Every so often the system will randomly encrypt one of the messages, which can only be decrypted using a provided booklet. It added a little more fun to the user experience and was designed to pose the question “how do we secure our data in the new era of the Internet of Things?” In this case the decryption is taking place in the analogue world using the booklet, so it could be said to be “breaking the digital bridge.”
What technology did you use and why?
For the software I used the technology taught in the IBM Smarter Planet workshop:
- Arduino (C)
These technologies made the development relatively straightforward. Node-RED has been really useful; there is so much you can do with it. I like the way the interface is designed and how easy it is to manage the different application components. Node.js was also a very powerful development platform.
The hardware components were:
- 37 solenoids
- Five shift registers
- 37 MOSFET transistors
The transistors controlling the solenoids were connected to shift registers so only three digital outputs were required on the Arduino.
What was the most challenging part of the project?
The most challenging part was definitely the hardware side. I hadn’t used MOSFETs or shift registers before, so it took a fair bit of trial and error to get that right—especially trying to use 37 transistors on a breadboard! It was also quite difficult to find a source for the solenoids. I had to use a supplier from Germany in the end.
The software side wasn’t too bad as we had already covered much of this in the course. Node-RED and node.js are really easy to use, and the system is actually quite simple when you break it down.
What would you do differently?
I would try to build a proper circuit for the hardware. Keeping it on a breadboard became hard to manage. It might also be interesting to have the application connect to people nearby on mobile phones or to other typewriters rather than just internet chat rooms. I would also like to make the carriage return and paper advance fully automated.
What are your plans for the future?
Well I have been touring Vietnam since finishing my degree, so the typewriter has been collecting dust in my garage! But I would like to get around to enhancing it and maybe showing it at some more local exhibitions.
Congratulations and next steps
Once again, many congratulations to Joe and everyone in the Digital Art and Technology class of 2014. The standard of all the projects this year was exceptionally high!
If you’re inspired to create your own piece of digital art now, check out the following resources:
- Plymouth University Digital Art and Technology BA / BSc (Hons)
- Node-RED: A visual tool for wiring the Internet of Things
- IBM Bluemix: For a quick start on Node-RED, try out the boiler plate application
- MQTT: Internet of Things protocol
The IBM Academic Initiative is a global program that facilitates the collaboration between IBM and educators to teach students the information technology skills they need to be competitive and keep pace with changes in the workplace. It allows students open access to full versions of hundreds of IBM programs and software, providing real world experience on industry-proven software.
If you would like to know more, connect with me on Twitter @dombramley.