Weekending 12022012

This week in Barcelona started with the pleasure of having Quadrigram making the cut of the finalist of the Strata 2012 Startup Showcase. The tool is a couple of weeks away from seeing the light and the teaser video is now online. At Strata, I will present the tool with my friends at Bestiario right after my session on Sketching with Data.

On the invitation of Claro Partners to present the lab, I took the opportunity to present my experience working with network data, particularly focusing on the methods we employ to help innovate in the domain of ‘big’ data. Have a look at the slide deck: it starts with a reference to Napoléon Bonaparte ‘Un bon croquis vaut mieux qu’un long discours’, goes through the uses of sketches as part of any creative work exemplified by Le Corbusier, and concludes with Picasso and the art of sketching.

Okay. What else? In Los Angeles, we used a solder paste stencil for the first time. Impressed. Good stuff. Definitely worth $25-$50. You can tell in this video I haven’t used solder paste in awhile..I forgot to put the proper hot, hot air on so I’m basically just blowing balmy air on the board. More practice, again. I have to say, the stencil is definitely a time saver. Although, I’m still going to get a big-ass pick ‘n place machine cause that’d make it even faster to get boards done. ((That’s EarFreshener up in that video, by the way.))

Nicolas came to town on Saturday and Sunday we went to the crazy flea market at the Pasadena Coliseum, home of the Rose Bowl. We found weird things and Nicolas found a fantastic mint-condition Polaroid in its crushed red velvet case. Lucky old salt. Prior to that, his week was focused on both phone call with Lift12 speakers and the final presentation for the head-mounted display project, which went fairly well. Results from this field study are kind of secrets so far but there will eventually be a publication about that.

Weekending 05022012

In Geneva, where the cold winter is striking back, the week had been, for once!, very quiet with data analysis (head-mounted display project) and book writing (game controllers!). We’re also preparing two workshops for the upcoming Lift12 conference. The first one is about location-based games organized with Mathieu Castelli, who used to be the founder of New Game, a pionneer in this domain (they released Mogi, one of the first commercial LBG). The session will consist in a series of group activity based on Meatspace Invasion, a location-based game recently developed by C4M and Mekensleep. After a quick introduction about these, we will form groups who will test different combinations of game parameters. We will then go on the field in Geneva to test these scenarios and regroup after the game session to debrief the outcomes. The second workshop is organized with the friends from Superflux (Anab Jain and Justin Pickard). It’s called “Foresight suprise” and as the name indicates, I won’t tell much about it except that it’s going to be about futures and futurescaping.

Hi. It’s Julian. In Los Angeles last week we got back the PCBs for Ear Freshener. One thing that was wrong is I mucked up the holes for the little audio card that plops onto the controller card. It won’t go all the way through, but it’s fine for testing. I’ll also be trying out these PCB stencils for the solder paste process The entire week was devoted to audio design and prototyping and team wrangling, I’d say. Nick Foster was in the studio for the last few days of the week so we had time for planning the project, eating tacos, working on the future of the whoopie cushion and the like.

It was actually a bit of an existential week for the audio project insofar as I had to figure out what the fuck was up with a bit of anxiety I felt during the previous weekend’s bike ride. I don’t like anxiety on bike rides. It was best summed up as a consideration as to new team configurations and advanced design team best practices. The conclusion? In this particular Advanced Design team a few things happen. First, we are asked to put eyes on an existing project and help make it better than it would’ve been were it not possible to have an experienced team of thoughtful designers who are comfortable working in an unstructured. We are asked to work on new, emerging things that are being done in a traditional structured way. And we are expected to come up with new things. I’ve come to the conclusion that we treat the “asks” — the things that come from outside — with more urgency than the latter projects — the things where we’re expected to come up with new things. It seems that we respond to the “battle stations” klaxon as if it matters more than the things we believe in first. Those things disappear into the closet and desk drawers. Which felt a bit like self-loathing in a really horrid way. Like — when someone *else says jump, we jump. When we believe in something enough to jump, we sorta *shrug. Or put it to the side when a “client” asks for something from us, *even *when *we *don’t *believe in it.

(Although, have to say — not believing in something someone else is doing is often a great opportunity to collaborate to make it better and believable. Not to be too normative about it, but there are plenty of things that seem like lovely fancy door knobs with awesome new mechanics and latching technologies that someone will bring to us and basically ask — what sorta house do you think this should go on? And the problem is that the door knob was thought of without really thinking about either the house..or the people who might have to use the door knob and, pray — live in the house. That’s the curse of the technologists and accountants/business people and the opportunity for more collaboration with design from the get-go.)

I hope to correct this through the audio project because otherwise — what’s the point?

So, I’m treating this quite as if someone from somewhere else came down and “made” the team get to work. Which effectively they did. The team will consist of folks who can commit the majority of their time to the project — it’ll run short and sharp and be quite deliberate. Sorta no nonsense; no whining. Polite..but ruthless.

This week in Barcelona has been almost exclusively dedicated to Quadrigram performing some interface polishing and documentation tweaking with the help of Tim Stutts and Brava Büro. In the backstage, the pipes and wires are gently coming into place with some mind blowing resulting reaching the frontiers ‘Quine computing‘. All this will make sense in the near future.

I also took some time to step back and order my thoughts for an upcoming talk at Strata that will focus on our approaches and tools to work with network data. This week, I will test and rehearse a first iteration responding to the invitation to our friends at Claro Partners.

I will use our study hyper-congestion at the Louvre as one case study. A work that was actually featured yesterday in the newspaper El Periodico as a consequence of Yuji presenting some results in Sweden last week.

Finally, our measures of mobile phone network activity in Geneva have led to some beautiful visualizations and animations produced by Interactive Things. Keep your eyes wide open if you happen to stroll around the Geneva main train station during Lift12.

This Is What I Sent — The Ear Freshener PCB Design

Here’s the current PCB CAD for the Ear Freshener. It’s sorta got two sides, but on the top I basically have a carrier for another board that contains the audio codec device. The components around it are all the brains that control track selection from the potentiometer/knob — that people will think, hopefully, is the volume knob, but actually it isn’t.

The gag/provocation is that knob. It’s an audio thing with a knob..but the knob isn’t an on-off thing. Rather, it’s some kind of semantic intensity knob. You turn it “up” and you get more-of. You turn it “down” and you get less-of.

There’s also a spot to hook up a little button. The button switches the Ear Freshener sound idiom. So you can go through the seasons; or cities; or airports.

((We should figure out a good name for the gag/provocations that we always build into our little devices.))

To do this, I’m probably a little over-engineered, maybe. Maybe not. I use two Atmel Attiny25‘s that basically do the track selection through a data port control on the audio codec. Basically counting in binary, with the track selection one doing the low-order bits and the high-order bits selecting the sound idiom you’ll be freshening your earballs to.

There’s also a bit of circuitry for a step-up regulator. I want to run this off of a single, readily available battery cell — AAA or AA. I’m over USB charging for the time being. At least now. The extra crap you need is a headache. Sorta. I guess I just wanted to get back to that thing where your audio devices take a battery. Not that I want more batteries in the world, but the rechargeable ones? They’re fantastic nowadays. Lots of capacity.

You’ll notice there’s a bunch of nothing on the right. I put that there for mechanical mounting of a battery holder for now. I just didn’t want the battery dangling off in nowheresville. This way I can double-sided sticky tape it to for testing and carrying around.

That’s the deal. I sent off the data to AP Circuits for the first time. It was about $40 with shipping for two boards. The boards are about 2.1in by 2.3in, so sorta small. There was a bit of back and forth to get the data they needed, especially for the board outline. This always ends up being something I leave out — my CAM Processor script doesn’t have that layer built in as output. Need to look into that.

Why do I blog this? I need to keep going on making logs of activity for the various projects that go on here, even if it’s a quick note.

Sound Should Just Come Out Of It

I think going forward I should do a better job of talking around what we’re working on from a technical point of view, until such time as it’s okay to talk about what we’re doing from a principles, rituals and practices point of view. And, also — sometimes in the thick of a design-making-schematic-and-hot-air-baking fire-fight, I do something that I”ll likely have to do again, but without a good, thorough practice of writing things down to remember I, like..forget.

Here’s the thing. I’m making a little tiny audio device. It’s tiny and meant to be simple to use. Like Russell taught me — the thing about audio? You should be able to just turn it on and sound comes out.

I like that rule. That’s what radios used to do before all the knobs, settings, configuration preferences, long vertical scrollable lists and Internet connections fucked things up. You turn the little serrated rotary dial and *click* — radio sound. At worse? Static. But sound started. No swipes. No multi-finger gestures. No tyranny of the 10,000 hours of music & sound in the palm of your hand..and no idea what you want to hear.

There’s something lovely about that that is just pragmatic from an IxD and UX design point of view. I’m not being nostalgic.

So — translating this principle and making it active and not just a sweet, essentialist sounding statement into the guts of the things we’re making, I spent most of yesterday pondering how to make Ear Freshener exhibit and embody and be an exemplar of this design rule. Even to the point of saying, okay..no on-off switch.


Yeah, well — the Ear Freshener has the advantage of being a plug-y thing. No speaker. It’s an intimate audio headphone thing. You’d only expect sound out of it when you plug in your headphones. Otherwise — it’s just a little thing that’s quite opaque. There’s only the tell-tale 3.5mm hole that indicates — audio/sound/plug-in-y-ness.

So — simple enough. I decided that plugging-in should equal sound-coming-out. That means that the plug action should turn the actual electronics on. In the world of audio connectors, CUI, Inc. is the go-to operation — along with what I’m sure is a thriving, teeming “ecosystem” of knock-off competitors who may even produce a superior product. They make all sorts of audio connectors for the world of audio devices. There’s a collection of them that have more than the three connectors that are necessary for a Tip Ring Sleeve style stereo audio signal, including the SJ-43614 which is a 3.5mm plug with four signals. The extra one switches from floating (not connected to anything) to ground (or the “sleeve” of the connector, which is normally connected to ground) when you plug a plug into it.

Brilliant. Something changes when you plug the plug into the SJ-43614. One of those signals on that connector gets shorted to the GND rail of the circuit.

Now..what to do with that state change in order to turn the whole circuit on and make sound come out of it with no fuss, no muss.

I pondered and scritched and screwed my face and looked for the answer somewhere on the ceiling over there. I thought of lots of overly-complicated things (as it turns out..in hindsight..) like using a low-power comparator to activate the chip-enable pin of the little 200mA step-up switching regulator I’m using so I can run the circuit off a single 1.5V battery cell.

In that over-designed scenario the NCP1402 step-up regulator is effectively the power supply for the circuit, which wants at least 3.0 volts to operate properly (and draws about 40mA). I can get an NCP1402 hard-wired to output 3.3v, although I may get the 5v version to have a bit more headroom with volume. In any case, this chip is fab cause you can take a little 1.5v cell and it’ll tune up the voltage. Of course, it’s not 100% efficient. Nominally, it’s about 80-ish% efficient at 40mA. So..you lose a little, but you can’t get something (5v) for nothing (1.5v) without giving up something in the trade.

NCP1402SN50T1 efficiency versus output current

So, I have a 1.5v battery of some sort which sits behind the NCP1402. The NCP1402 has an active high chip-enable (CE) pin that turns the chip on — effectively powering the rest of the Ear Freshener circuit. In my overly-complicated scenario, I figured I could use a comparator to sense when the 3.5mm plug had been plugged-into because that one switched pin would go from floating to ground. If I had a simple little 10k resistor between the positive 1.5v side of the battery, the comparator inputs could go on either side of that resistor, with the IN- of the comparator on the side of the resistor that would get shorted to ground when the plug is plugged in. And then the IN+ of the comparator would go on the side of the resistor that is connected directly to the positive side of the 1.5v battery. When the plug goes in, the IN- of the comparator goes to GND, the 10k resistor has a little, negligible-y minuscule current draw and the voltage difference between IN- and IN+ causes the output of the comparator to saturate to pretty close to IN+, or +1.5v. The NCP1402 chip enable would trigger (specs say anthing about 0.8v means “enable” and anything below 0.3v means “disable”) and the whole thing would turn on.

Click the image to expand it and make it easier to read. This is the lousy, over-designed circuit.

How convolutedly and moronically clever is that, especially when you stop to think (as I did, after proudly building the schematic) that you could just use that pin from the plug shorting to ground as a way to close the GND rail of the whole circuit. I mean..if you disconnect the NCP1402 from GND, it should turn off. Basically, it’d have no complete, closed, power supply circuit. It’s as if you pulled the battery out — or half of the battery out. Or ripped out the ground wire.

Anyway. It was clever to get all busy with a comparator and stuff. Simple’s better, though.

This is the simple, no-brainer one that eliminates the need for several additional components.

That’s it. I like the principle and I like even better the fact that I can translate a lovely little design principle into action — materialize it in a circuit that exhibits a fun little unassuming behavior. I can imagine this’d be a bit like wondering if the light stays on in the fridge after closing the door, you know?

So sound stops coming out, the circuit powers down and you no longer need an on-off switch. Stop listening? Turn off. So much nicer than long-press, id’nt it?

Why do I blog this? Cause I need to capture a bit more about the production of this little Ear Freshener-y gem.


Here’s my update on the power circuit. I hope it works. I added two transistors in place of the comparator. The idea here is that the transistor on the right would switch the CE of the step-up switching regulator. When the base goes low — i.e. when the 3.5mm plug is plugged in — the switch opens and CE gets switched to roughly VBATT and enables the step-up regulator. For the transistor on the left, plugging in opens the transistor and VBATT gets connected to the step-up regulator and it, like..steps-up VBATT to VCC. When the plug gets pulled out and floats at VBATT, the two transistors saturate and are on. So on the right, CE is at Vce or effectively ground and shuts the step-up regulator off. The transistor on the left does similar and VBATT drops over R6 and VBATT_SWITCHED is at GND and there’s no longer any supply to step-up, even if the step-up regulator were enabled.

That’s the idea.

We’ll see. I haven’t computed the values for the discretes around the transistors as of yet.

Related — I’ve just sent off the PCB to get fabricated. It’ll be a 2-off prototype. I’m using AP Circuits for the first time because my usual go-to guys Gold Phoenix are off for the Chinese New Year and I need to get this done for some building & testing next week.

But I think I mucked up the CAM data files I sent them, which appear to be slightly different from Gold Phoenix. They want other stuff, like the NC Tool list which I’ve never sent to Gold Phoenix. I guess we’ll see what they say.
Continue reading Sound Should Just Come Out Of It