Box of tricks

Arduino, an inexpensive electronics kit based around an 8-bit microcontroller designed in Italy, has been growing in popularity among creatives. What can this open-source hardware tool do that makes it so alluring? 

“Well, what can’t it do?” asks Stuart Dearnaley, innovation lead at Manchester agency The Neighbourhood (the-neighbourhood.com). “As soon as I started to learn about the possibilities of Arduino, I was overwhelmed with ideas for projects – both large and small – and the desire to make something both tangible, real and interactive. This could be in the form of a souped-up etch-a-sketch that draws in shapes and colour, or even a string puppet that controls and animates a character rig in a 3D environment.”

Essentially a programmable circuit board with a USB port, Arduino provides a simple way to read data from a variety of different devices into your computer, and send output from your computer to a similarly wide range of devices. The image below right shows a project called The Hanging Garden, in which the Arduino reads moisture levels from sensors in plant pots and causes LEDs to light up when plants need watering. 

The best way to learn how to use an Arduino is simply to buy one and begin tinkering. “Start with the basics, develop mini-projects and gradually try more challenging circuits and sketches,” says Adrian Campbell at The Design Zoo, an app-focused agency based in Belfast (thedesignzoo.co.uk). 


Kits are priced in the tens of pounds, and can be bought directly from the manufacturer or from stores geared up to electronics hobbyists. There are also a large number of ‘shields’ available – modules that add more input and output interfaces so you can connect the Arduino to an Ethernet network or a motor, say. arduino.cc

Coming at you live

The groundbreaking performance visuals for electronica genius Amon Tobin’s ISAM tour, which began last September and lasts until mid-2012 at least, are projection-mapped onto a stage packed with stacked cube-like structures. “Reaction is what it’s all about,” says Jason White of Chicago studio Leviathan. “The energy in the crowd is amazing and different.”

Leviathan devised the ethereal CG images used, in collaboration with VJ Vello Virkhaus. The studio also developed a proprietary projection-alignment tool to ensure quick and accurate setup for the show, along with custom Kinect control and visualisation utilities for Tobin. 

Tools they turned to in creating the experience included 3D suites like Autodesk Maya and Max, compositing software like Adobe After Effects, and iPads for control. One of the most important pieces of software was the visual development platform TouchDesigner 077 from Derivative (touch077.com), which was used for the projection mapping, video playback, Kinect response, real-time effects and more. 

Naturally, Leviathan creations involve numerous designers and 3D artists and developers. However, complexity and cost are not always their bywords. TouchDesigner 077, for example, can be used with an inexpensive Arduino board.

At the shows, Jason concentrates on observing the audience rather than the onstage goings-on. “When the house lights turn off the anticipation grows to a frenzy. Then the stage lights blast on for the first time and boom, the crowd freaks out! [It’s] irreplaceable and awesome. I can’t imagine a better reaction to a projection experience.”

“[The] ISAM tour visuals set quite a high bar for these types of crowd experiences,” says Leviathan’s president and executive producer, Chad Hutson. Their goal, put simply, will now be to top this – and not necessarily in the context of a concert. 

“Clients that have reached out to us recently want something bigger, even more memorable than Amon Tobin’s show,” says Chad, “but for a consumer brand.” lvthn.com

Get stuck in

If all this talk of hacking, haptics and more has stimulated your inner nerd, consider tackling one or more of these projects:

Beginner

Syncing a camera flash to an event
bit.ly/AaDLlD 

Use sound or light input to set off a camera’s flash, allowing short-lived events like a splash to be photographed; Arduino-based. 

Image sequences in Processing 
bit.ly/wSiW6a 

Generate an image sequence with the open-source Processing programming language and import the results into After Effects or other animation programs.

Advanced 

Laser Harp bit.ly/fYqnnz 

Another Arduino project, in which you build a Theremin-like musical instrument which generates sound according to the position of the player’s hands. 

Turn a building into an equaliser display bit.ly/lCNW3r

This tutorial by Paris-based agency 1024 Architecture wraps a multicoloured graphic equaliser display to different surfaces in a shot of a building; it’s achieved using a combination of MadMapper plus Apple’s Quartz Composer.