Tuesday, 4 September 2018

Valli September walk

Valli eating brambles, September 2018
I went to Electromagnetic Field again this year with my children and since we were already in Gloucester, kept going afterwards to Skanda Vale for a friendly visit.

We went for a walk with Brother Peter and Valli, who has a permanent purple trunk at the moment due to her love of brambles.  She also enjoys foraging Rosebay Willowherb fluff...  I thought Valli would have enjoyed our record-breaking hot summer, but Peter says she's happier with traditional British weather, having grown up in Wales.

Brother Peter and I discussed some ideas for olfactory enrichment and I outlined my latest designs for acoustic toys.  I will hopefully return in early October with some prototypes for Valli to test.  Watch this space!
Valli loves willow herb, September 2018

Sunday, 5 August 2018

No elephants allowed in the workshop

Everyone has gone to Ireland, so I have a bit of time for making.

I want 3 identical tactile controls so I can see if Valli actually prefers to explore the one without any acoustic feedback.  I've chosen a range of materials with different tactile qualities that might be interesting for a trunk tip to explore - and made myself a handy template trunk tip to remind me of the dimensions of an elephant when I'm constructing stuff.

The bases are solid plywood, so we can bolt through the fence to secure as usual.  Then there's a layer of conductive material with a metal (iron) angle bolted across the face and protruding out the back.  We're going to use the entire face as a large capacitance sensor, which requires one wire attached to the angle (on elephant-free side of fence) back to microcontroller to provide a reading.

The other layers are glued on top of the conductive material, gradually building up a non-conductive surface through which the sensor will obtain readings.  Thus, at one end the reading is high, and at the other, it is low.  There should be four clearly different readings, depending on where Valli is touching the sensor, and these will be mapped to different outputs.


The materials used will have olfactory as well as tactile properties (eg. strip of leather, old rope) and no doubt everything will stink of glue to an elephant's super-sensitive appendage.  But I have long ago given up trying to tease apart the different sensory qualities of manufactured objects - at this stage I'm just using intuition and imagination, crafting what I can and then hoping to gain insight when I see Valli interact with the devices.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

Analog Slider Control

Testing conductive paint as resistive element for a slider potentiometer
Simple connection to Arduino analogue input
This post is about designing the physical and electronic aspects of giant slider control mechanism. A subsequent post will explore the quality of the acoustic output.

I'd like Valli to be able to control an aspect of the acoustic system we offer her.  I've considered a theramin-style device, but the conceptual mapping between proximity and output seems a bit vague and potentially hard to comprehend - after all, it's difficult for a human to master the controls.

Other possibilities might be a rotating knob or a lever that could be pulled.  While I believe she could learn to use a knob, turning things is not an obvious aspect of an elephant's usual repertoire of movements (except twisting leaves off a branch, for example).  Pulling (which is very natural behaviour) raises manufacturing challenges - how to create something sufficiently robust?

Humans use sliders to control acoustics in synthesiser hardware, and the mapping between wiper position and output seems intuitive to us, so I thought I'd try and design a massive version of a slider potentiometer.

Slider pots have a resistive element, which can be coiled resistance wire, carbon film, carbon-impregnated non-conductive material, foil etc.  A wiper moves freely along the element, sending different resistances back to the microcontroller (Arduino analogue pin). I have found that Bare Conductive electric paint is easy to use and provides a great element that can be sized to suit.

The wiper part became an interesting problem, as it needed to be sufficiently large and robust to be manipulated by an elephant, while maintaining contact with the element.   I investigated the potential for repurposing old drawer sliders, which have a lovely smooth mechanism, but the runners are plastic, so no contact is made with fixed section, and they are heavy.  A metal castor (see photograph) seemed easier to develop into a controller and worked well with the painted strip.
Giant slider from back

This is the current state of the device, seen from both sides.  Small brackets, bolted to the top of the castor, pass over a wooden frame and hold a rounded "handle" that can be used to slide the wheel across the resistive element (electric paint).  Aesthetics not yet finished.  

Giant slider from front

Friday, 24 November 2017

ACI Conference 2017

Spent an excellent 3 days in Milton Keynes at this year's ACI conference. 

We organized a workshop - FARMJAM 2017: http://www.zoojam.org/farmjam - on Tuesday, looking at developing enrichment for pigs, poultry and goats.  Sophie Collins, Sconaid Wastie and Sian Phillips from RSPCA Farm Animal Welfare, Eleonora Nannoni from Univ of Bologna and Billy Wallace from Makeway provided us with briefs. We hope some of the creative outputs will become future prototypes... Watch this space. DOI:   10.1145/3152130.3152154  

Then, on Wednesday I presented my paper: "Exploring Research through Design in Animal-Computer Interaction". 
  • DOI: 10.1145/3152130.3152147

  • I decided to focus on the process of developing elephant-devices, rather than any outputs generated, so I had a different perspective to show people.  So often, animal behaviour research seems to take the end product for granted and studies animal interactions with it, whereas I wanted to try and explain how the details of production informed the design and vice-versa.

    On Thursday, I was part of the doctoral consortium committee, offering feedback to other students.  There were plenty of opportunities to socialise, eat cakes and talk about elephants to anyone who was interested. Looking forward to catching up with colleagues to take some of our ideas forward.

    Wednesday, 9 August 2017

    Skanda Vale social visit

    Valli's tyre toys
    We stopped off at Skanda Vale for a social visit on the way back from Fishguard to London.

    Valli seemed to show pleasure at meeting my kids again - rumbling a lot and sniffing them. Stefan commented that she likes children because they have no fear and is apparently quite tolerant of dogs. However, Skomer (our terrier) revealed herself to be as terrified of elephants as she had been enthusiastic about rabbits in Cork. Although the smells were interesting, a glimpse of the great Valli sent her scuttling behind legs and tugging her lead away.

    My kids spent some time hiding treats (fruit and veg) for Valli inside the piles of tyres in her shed.  Stefan said he had given up on shower controls because she didn't seem interested in using them, but that he would like to try some enrichment with different smells.  We agreed to find some time soon to try some more toys.

    Thursday, 3 August 2017

    Testing beam-breaker with Skomer

    Skomer wondering if any biscuits are involved...
    For this tech test, I setet up a simple beam-breaker sensor that activates an acoustic output.  It uses 5mm IR Break Beam Sensor from Adafruit, connected to BBC Micro:bit (see Fritzing sketch below).

    The sensor comes in 2 parts - an emitter and a receiver - I mounted them in a plastic bowl that sits in an icecream container.  When something (eg. dog nose) passes between emitter and receiver, the beam is broken and the microcontroller captures this change as an input, then triggers an acoustic output which is amplified through speakers (see photo below). 

    In this case, the output was programmed in Python so I could use the speech library and offer robotic doggy feedback ("SKOWMERR..").  I used some catnip behind the sensor to encourage noses to investigate and in principle it works...   Skomer found it easy to use but was not particularly interested in the output. She's a 2 year old Yorkie/Jack Russell mix, very sociable, loves ball games and other interactive playful experiences - triggering weird noises not her thing (she's quite capable of generating her own).

    Skomer can activate the device easily.
    Fritzing sketch shows simple IR beam break circuit that outputs Python gnerated speech synthesis to a small speaker


    import speech
    from microbit import *
    print ("Beam Ready")
    while True:
         reading1 = pin1.read_analog()
         print (reading1)
         if (reading1 > 100):
         elif(reading1 < 10):
             speech.pronounce("#78SKOWWWW #94MMERRRR", speed=100)


    Thursday, 24 November 2016

    ACI 2016 Conference

    Screenshot from http://www.aci2017.org/
    I attended this year's ACI conference at The Open University, presenting a paper: "Exploring methods for interaction design with animals: a case study with Valli" and taking part in the doctoral consortium, where I received some useful and encouraging feedback.

    With international colleagues, I also organised a ZooJam workshop where participants worked in teams with tight deadlines to develop some enrichment concepts for hunting animals.  We were given briefs for penguins, sea lions and big cats - the ZooJam website (http://www.zoojam.org) explains the context and has links to media files showing the various outputs.