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.
If you’re one of the lucky ten thousand today who still haven’t tried programming electronics with the Arduino platform, this detailed guide by [Dafna Mordechai] should hopefully give you enough incentive to pick it up now and make a simple bit of Christmas-themed decoration with it.
The guide isn’t exactly aimed at complete ground-up beginners but it does give some pointers on where to look up whatever information you don’t have in order to follow along. Other than that, it’s very simple and has well-detailed steps, showing you how to turn a breadboard into a simple animated arrangement of LEDs in the shape of a Christmas tree, along with a piezo buzzer playing “Jingle Bells”. If you’ve never done this sort of stuff before, [Dafna] explains in pretty good detail which part of the code does what, making it pretty simple if you want to play around with it and customize it to your taste.
Digital electronics are all well and good, but it’s hard to ignore the organic, living qualities of the analog realm. It’s these circuits that Kelly Heaton spends her time with, building artistic creations that meld the fine arts with classic analog hardware to speak to the relationship between electronics and nature. During her talk at the 2019 Hackaday Superconference, Kelly shared the story of her journey toward what she calls Electronic Naturalism, and what the future might bring.
Kelly got her start like many in the maker scene. Hers was a journey that began by taking things apart, with the original Furby being a particular inspiration. After understanding the makeup of the device, she began to experiment, leading to the creation of the Reflection Loop sculpture in 2001, with the engineering assistance of Steven Grey. Featuring 400 reprogrammed Furbys, the device was just the beginning of Kelly’s artistic experimentation. With an interest in electronics that mimicked life, Kelly then moved on to the Tickle Me Elmo. Live Pelt (2003) put 64 of the shaking Muppets into a wearable coat, that no doubt became unnerving to wear for extended periods.
Analog electronics parallel living organisms while programmable logic merely simulates life.
Wanting to create art with a strong relationship to organic processes, Kelly focused on working with discrete components and analog circuitry. Basic building blocks such as the astable multivibrator became key tools that were used in different combinations to produce the desired effects. Through chaining several oscillators together, along with analog sequencers, circuits could be created that mimicked the sound of crickets in a backyard, or a Carolina wren singing in a tree.
Functional circuit sculptures have been gaining popularity with adventuring electronic artists who dare attempt the finicky art form of balancing structure and wire routing. [Kelly Heaton’s] sculptures however are on a whole other creative level.
Not only does she use the circuits powering her works as part of their physical component, there are no controllers or firmware to be seen anywhere; everything is discrete and analog. In her own words, she tries to balance the “logical planning” of the engineering side with the “unfettered expression” of artworks. The way she does this is by giving her circuits a lifelike quality, with disorganized circuit structures and trills and chirps that mimic those of wildlife.
One of her works, “Birds at My Feeder”, builds up on another previous work, the analog “pretty bird”. On their own, each one of the birds uses a photoresistor to affect its analog-generated chirps, providing both realistic and synthetic qualities to their calls. What the full work expands on is a sizable breadboard-mounted sequencer using only discrete components, controlling how each of the connected birds sing in a pleasing chorus. Additionally, the messy nature of the wires gives off the impression of the sequencer doubling as the birds’ nest.
There are other works as well in this project, such as the “Moth Electrolier”, in which she takes great care to keep structural integrity in mind in the design of the flexible board used there. Suffice to say, her work is nothing short of brilliant engineering and artistic prowess, and you can check one more example of it after the break. However, if you’re looking for something more methodical and clean, you can check out the entries on the circuit sculpture contest we ran last year.
We love seeing how things work. Exploded views are like mechanical eye-candy to most engineers, so when [Chris’] Kindle Touch died, he decided to give it new life… on his wall.
Inspired by others, he decided to mount all the components of his Kindle onto a piece of plastic that he could hang up on his wall. As an electronics design engineer, he’s always looking for new ideas and ways to design and build circuits — what better way to inspire creativity than to see a real product blown apart? Does anyone remember reading [Stephen Biesty’s] Incredible Cross Sections or Incredible Explosions as a child?
The construction is quite simple, relying on mounting holes where possible to screw parts directly to the board, or by using heavy duty double-sided tape. After finishing the Kindle, [Chris] found an old iPod of his and decided to give it the same ritual.