Printed Circuit Bird Family Calls For Us To Consider Analog

A bird-shaped yellow PCB with legs wound out of wire, perched on its creator's arm. The bird has a lot of through-hole components on it, as well as an assortment of different-colored LEDs.

On our favourite low-attention-span content site, [Kelly Heaton] has recently started sharing a series of “Printed Circuit Birds”. These are PCBs shaped like birds, looking like birds and chirping like birds – and they are fully analog! The sound is produced by a network of oscillators feeding into each other, and, once tuned, is hardly distinguishable from the bird songs you might hear outside your window. Care and love was put into making this bird life-like – it perches on Kelly’s arm with legs woven out of single-strand wire and talons made out of THT resistors, in the exact same way you would expect a regular bird to sit on your arm – that is, if you ever get lucky enough. It’s not just one bird – there’s a family of circuit animals, including a goose, a crow and even a cricket.

Why did these animals came to life – metaphorically, but also, literally? There must be more to a non-ordinary project like this, and we asked Kelly about it. These birds are part of her project to explore models of consciousness in ways that we typically don’t employ. Our habit is to approach complex problems in digital domains, but we tend to miss out on elegance and simplicity that analog circuits are capable of. After all, even our conventional understanding of a neural network is a matrix of analog coefficients that we then tune, a primitive imitation of how we assume human brains to work – and it’s this “analog” approach that has lately moved us ever so closer to reproducing “intelligence” in a computer.

Kelly’s work takes a concept that would have many of us get the digital toolkit, and makes it wonderfully life-like using a small bouquet of simple parts. It’s a challenge to our beliefs and approaches, compelling in its grace, urging us to consider and respect analog circuits more when it comes to modelling consciousness and behaviours. If it’s this simple to model sounds and behaviour of a biological organism, a task that’d have us writing DSP and math code to replicate on a microcontroller – what else are we missing from our models?

Kelly has more PCBs to arrive soon in preparation for her NYC exhibit in February, and will surely be posting updates on her Twitter page! We’ve covered her work before, and if you haven’t seen it yet, her Supercon 2019 talk on Electronic Naturalism would be a great place to start! Such projects tend to inspire fellow hackers to build other non-conventional projects, and this chirping pendant follows closely in Kelly’s footsteps! The direction of this venture reminds us a lot of BEAM robotics, which we’ve recently reminisced upon as something that’s impacted generations of hackers to look at electronics we create through an entirely different lens.

16 thoughts on “Printed Circuit Bird Family Calls For Us To Consider Analog

  1. Analog is very cool. I generally think of it as a more efficient but also magnitudes more difficult to design to fit a specification. Digital radically decreases the number of considerations needed via thresholds, which makes design easier but always far less efficient. Biology is the ultimate expression of analog and it’s so advanced that it’s function easily baffles us.

    Conspiracy headline: “Footage Leaked of Early Drone Prototype!”

    1. I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult than digital/programming. It’s different, that’s all. Digital synthesis of sound requires creation of some digital oscillators, feedback loops and other algorithms that perform the same function as their analog counterparts. For example compare any analog synth block diagram to it’s virtual equivalent. Hardware is just replaced with firmware/software that performs the same mathematical functions. I’d venture that doing it digitally is actually harder.

    2. Apart from radio I don’t see how it is more efficient. Miss me with the block artifacting monstrosity that DAB+ is. Less field strengths for sending? I have already poor reception in rooms that worked decades with FM stereo.

      Yeah this is a rant about DVB-T2 too.

      1. Digital in the commercial broadcast radio bands is crippled by power limitations, a small fraction of the analog signal. On a level playing field digital broadcast audio wins except in that small range of power between FM threshold and the level at which digital stops having excess uncorrectable errors.

        1. Thanks for your input. So is it the regulators or the stations saving money by limiting power? I just wish my indoor antennas would allow me to watch digital TV or listen to digital radio. As it worked flawlessly in the past. The transition from DVB-T1 to T2 was bad. FM to DAB+ was bad as well for me. It’s inconceivable, if I go to my roof I see the broadcast tower 10km away! My walls didn’t dampen the signal any time this bad before they changed their sending power!

  2. Analog versus digital, they both have their advantages and their downsides. But both require skills to do correctly.
    That’s a very nice looking printed circuit board there. And I like the wire legs and resistors for claws, nice touch there.

  3. Thank you everyone, especially Arsenijis and Hackaday, for your attention to my work! There is another important (timely) reason that we should care about analog: the global chip shortage is driven, to an extent, by over-engineering. Does your lawn mower really need digital technology to regulate its fuel consumption? Does your washing machine require a complex and highly miniaturized IC? While digital is wonderful and sometimes essential, many electronic devices could function perfectly well with “lower tech” analog circuitry, thus freeing up much-needed capacity for IC fabricators to make chips for those devices that really need them.

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