Category Archives: Digital Fabrication

[Thesis] We’re Still Here


My thesis is entitled We’re Still Here, and it is the beginning of a planned series of ordinarily mundane objects that have evolved personalities and behaviors that are based on their original functions. Here’s the longer blurb:

“Why should our sleek, sexy, status-symbol gadgets get all our attention?

We’re Still Here is an exploration of the ordinary objects in our lives that perform their duties day in and day out without much acknowledgement or conscious thought from their users. Each object in this collection is modified to display surprising behaviors or personality traits that are derived from how it normally operates; the series begins with a neurotic, overly needy alarm clock and a dutiful-yet-exhausted coatrack that just wants to catch a short break.

By giving personalities to these objects, I’ll playfully invoke a new way to look at and think about the myriad commonplace, “boring” tools that quietly contribute to our lives.”

I’ve been interested in the idea of personifying objects since my beginnings at ITP; my physical computing final, The Embarrassed Book, was based on the idea that a book may not always be necessarily interested in divulging the information it contains. It also fascinates me how, out of the large variety of objects we use everyday, a select few are extremely predisposed to become status symbols while the vast majority have no chance to ever really capture our attention or imaginations. I want to help our largely unconsidered tools become more interesting to us.


The Alarm Clock:
The alarm clock consists of the shell of a real alarm clock fitted with a seven-segment LED display, two piezobuzzers, and capacitive sensing controlled by an Arduino Pro Micro. It will be extremely needy, desiring constant touch, and will count down to a specific time at which it will cry out for attention and express its disappointment with you. If you happen to touch it independently of its time limit, it will chirp pleasantly and display its satisfaction.

The concept for its behavior is based on the idea that a normal alarm clock is essentially already a highly neurotic object that goads you into touching it regularly at a very specific time every day. Users depend on alarm clocks to wake them up, but they never consider what the clock’s needs might be in this relationship.

Pictures of construction:

Video of an early prototype in action – no sounds yet, but displaying positive messages:

The Coatrack:
The coatrack is interested in performing its duties as a coatrack well, but gets physically tired from holding up bulky coats all day. Thus, when it thinks you’re not around to watch it, it likes to slouch over to take a small break. The concept is based on the idea that a coatrack stands perfectly straight and bears a heavy burden for its entire existence, performing its duties admirably, and yet nobody ever really notices or appreciates that it’s doing so. It must be a thankless lifestyle.

The coatrack will consist of segments of PVC pipe with 3-D printed caps at the end that will allow 3 cords to run through them. At the base of the rack are three high-torque servos that will hold the cords taut for a straight appearance, or selectively allow slack in different areas to let the segments lean in a specific direction. Photocells under the three hooks will let the Arduino know when coats are hanging and decide which servo to let slack. The rack will detect if people are approaching using two IR rangefinders.  Some concept/testing pictures:

And a video of the most recent prototype with the full-size PVC segments:

Development & Documentation

The Alarm Clock:
Since the prototyping phase, I’ve refined the clock’s behavior to make it more believable and engaging as an object. Beforehand, it started out with a countdown to when it wanted to be touched; now, it acts as a normal clock for a random amount of time, and it switches to the countdown when it starts to get impatient with your lack of attention. These behaviors are both present in the documentation video, just shortened to keep the video at a reasonable length.

You can see the basic behavior from the video, but not the variety of messages it displays. Ignoring it will always trigger a regular alarm clock beep, but the clock will choose from a pool of guilt-tripping messages including “don’t leave”, “deserter”, and “you’re cruel”. Appeasing it will trigger one of a variety of happy chirps and messages such as “again, again” and “ahhh, so good”.

The Coatrack:
The coatrack is still a work-in-progress, as it is more physical/mechanical in nature and thus a harder problem to solve. The idea I had from the prototyping phase was that when it sees you, it stands up straight, but when it thinks you’re not around, it slowly starts to slouch so that it can relax a little bit. I have encountered some mechanical issues that have slowed progress – namely, putting even a light load on the hooks inhibits its ability to stand up straight.  You can see a short clip below with a sampling of its different movements both with and without a coat on its hooks. I hope to continue working on it over this summer to improve the design and advance it to its original planned state.

The Presentation

Here, you can witness a view of my slides and listen to my discussion regarding my thesis that I presented for ITP Thesis Week. It’s roughly 14 minutes long and includes both the video segments shown above.

Sculpted Ocean

Sculpted Ocean is a unique kind of globe. Instead of focusing on the features and topography of the world’s landmasses like most globes, it tries to shine a light upon the depth and composition of the world’s vast oceans.

To make the globe, Amanda Gelb and I used over 1.6 million points of worldwide oceanic depth data from the NOAA, and chlorophyll level imaging data from the NASA SeaWIFS satellite monitoring program.
Data was cleaned and parsed in Ocean Data View and Python, mapped and interpolated in ArcGIS (with help from the data specialist librarians at NYU Data Services), and prototyped and modeled in different phases in Processing, Rhino, and ZBrush. It was printed on the 3DSystems ZPrinter 650 powder printer at NYU’s Advanced Media Studio.



NYC Food Crawl – ITP Winter Show 2013

This post assumes knowledge of the concept behind this project. To view the project proposal, click here.
The Processing code that I wrote is posted on Github. Click here to view.


NYC Food Crawl is a physical data representation that uses diorama sets with live cockroaches, along with an accompanying screen-based visualization, to represent the frequency of vermin violations in New York City area restaurants. I took the restaurant food inspection results dataset from NYC OpenData and brought the main database and the violation codes database into Google Refine and Excel for cleaning. After cleaning this data and isolating the vermin-specific violation codes, I brought both of these datasets into Processing. By doing so, I was able to calculate how many restaurants were in each inspection grade level, how many of those restaurants had had a vermin-related violation recorded, and how many of those violations had occurred within the past year or sooner.

I then used these figures to build the physical part of the project: restaurant dioramas, one for each grade, with a representative amount of live cockroaches inserted into each one to reflect the data. I decided to keep the representation simple: the number of cockroaches in each grade’s diorama would represent the percentage of restaurants in that grade that had had a vermin violation. Since my order of cockroaches (linked if you’re curious – most people at the show were) came in mixed sizes, I decided to make cockroach size indicative of recency: the ratio of larger cockroaches to total cockroaches in each diorama is the ratio of recent violations to total violations. More simply, the more detectable the presence of the large cockroaches were in each box, the higher percentage of recent violations there were for that grade level.

A concern I had from the perspective of the viewer was that, while memorable and attention-getting, the cockroach dioramas provide a very shallow representation of the data. Also, viewers might receive a skewed representation of the data depending, as the cockroaches like to hide out of sight and may not be all visible at once. To address this, I built out an interactive graphical visualization in Processing that both emulates the physical display for each grade level and provides additional statistics. I also included statistics for the data sorted by borough instead of inspection grade level, in case viewers wanted to explore the data further. You can see a video of this below:


Here are some pictures of my setup for the show, with both the dioramas and screen visualization:




ITP @ Maker Faire – Ohm Wrestling

I was a part of ITP’s team to develop a large-scale project for Maker Faire 2013 in New York. A description from project manager Hannah Mishin: “Ohm Wrestling is a human powered, collaborative mechanical arm wrestling competition.

Two mechanical arms are setup in arm wrestling position for teams Blue and Orange. Each team has an array of energy harvesting devices behind them feeding into the corresponding arm (their motions being Shake, Push, Pedal, Pull, and Crank). The various devices show different methods of harvesting kinetic energy from human motion, energy that the participants use to power their team’s arm. The harder the teams work, the more power they produce – giving more force to their arm to win the competition. In addition, each device is equipped with a light to show each user their own contribution to their team’s winning the competition.

Variables that contribute to a team winning the competition include the amount of watts produced as well as the endurance of the team (how long they can last at peak energy production levels). A large meter reflects the teams’ status/energy produced for the competitors and the audience.”

A photo of the entire exhibit at Maker Faire. Photo by Natasha Dzurny.

A The entire exhibit assembled at Maker Faire. Photo by Natasha Dzurny.


This was an extremely intensive project that took a lot of time and energy from a large team of people. My role in the project was to create two machines with fairly high energy-generating capabilities. I decided to make a pair of large, 4′ x 4′ elevated platforms with two aluminum poles in a T-shaped configuration coming out of the middle. Users could grab the horizontal pipe as handles and push the handles in a circular motion around the platform. Underneath the floor was a very large wooden gear connected by scooter chain to a 40W motor with a small gearhead. The resulting large gear ratio allowed users to generate a fairly large amount of electricity compared to the other devices on display.

This was my first large-scale fabrication project, and most of it was non-digital to boot! It certainly was a challenge to work with gearing, mounting the pole mechanism securely, and creating a durable object that could stand up to the abuse of a great many children. Unfortunately, my computer and camera with most of my documentation of this build were stolen from me before I could back it up, but some pictures of the platforms being constructed/in use are below:

And, finally, here’s a shot of the awards that our exhibit won:


Exhibit photo taken by Natasha Dzurny.

Platform photos taken by Natasha Dzurny, Talya Stein, and Caroline Sinders.

Awards photo taken by Caroline Sinders.

Peanut Gallery

Peanut Gallery was my Live Image Processing and Performance project that also unintentionally became my Digital Fabrication final.

I knew that, for this final, I wanted to do something physical with video; I didn’t want to make a project that you simply observe and don’t actively participate in. At the time, I also was interested in trying to create my own inflatable figures, and figured that would serve well as an interesting video interface.

From these ideas, I came up with the concept for Peanut Gallery, which is an interactive TV movie watching experience in which the occasional obnoxious person pops up next to you on an inflatable tube to disrupt your concentration.  The different people that pop up can adjust your TV’s signal in different ways according to their own preferences. Some of these disruptions include adjusting the colors or the contrast, rewinding the movie, muting the movie, changing the channel, turning off the TV, or turning down the volume. To restore peace and order to your TV time, you must strike the inflatable with the interloper on it until it deflates.

An example of one of the disruptors – he turns off the television completely.

I started by fabricating the enclosure out of plywood on the CNC and sewing cylindrical shapes out of ripstop nylon. I hooked up IR rangefinder sensors inside each inflatable near the base so that I could sense when a figure was hit by a user, and I inflated each of the 2 cylinders with a reasonably powerful 12V boat fan. These were hooked up to an Arduino that interfaced with a Max/MSP patch that controlled both the projections mapped on the inflatable tubes and the video effects applied to the movie on a nearby television. I used a dual head video splitter to route video to both the television and the projector.

Unfortunately, not much media remains of this project because the computer I was storing it on was stolen (a painful lesson in backing up my content more frequently!), but some pictures and video remain. Here are two photos from the ITP spring show:

And here are some (very short) videos of people interacting with it:

My friend Alex really going at it.


These kids stayed to play for about 5 minutes – probably my favorite moment over the project’s lifespan.

CNC Introductory Project – Giant Quarter

Brett Peterson and I teamed up to design a project in order to get accustomed to using the floor’s CNC router. Since the aim was more to learn how to use the CNC than to create a polished, finished product, we decided to have fun with it and create a giant piece of money and a tiny vending machine. We designed the front and back faces of the quarter in Illustrator. Since the faces of a quarter have a lot of detail that would’ve been time-prohibitive to reproduce, we opted for a simplified but still recognizable design. For the front face, we found some simple cartoon art, traced over it, cleaned it up, and modified a few details. We couldn’t find a suitable pre-existing artwork for the back face, so Brett traced the essentials from an actual picture of a quarter. I also designed a basic 3D model of a vending machine using Sketchup.

Here are some pictures of the designs:


We brought these designs into MasterCam with the intention of having the designs, letters, and rim raised 1/4″ over the blank spaces of the quarter. Because we had to cut out a lot of blank space, the job was slated to take multiple hours – since we only had 2 hours reserved, we were only able to cut out the silhouettes of the front side. We used plywood, and some chipping occured; we hope to make a more complete version out of MDF sometime in the future. Also, we think that 3-D printing the vending machine may be a better call than CNCing it – the 1/4″ tolerance of the CNC bits would make the vending machine turn out larger than we’d want.

Here are some pictures:


And here is some video footage of the CNC cutting out the lettered areas and doing a second pass on the head silhouette.

(Warning: Make sure your volume’s not turned to maximum – CNCs are quite noisy)

Multi-Level 3D Maze

For my DigiFab class, I had to come up with a project that used the laser cutter as its main method of fabrication. I decided to make a multi-level maze out of clear acrylic that you navigate with a ball bearing. Each level of the maze would have one exit, and you could rotate the levels of the maze around to change the starting point for each level and provide variation for repeat players.

I started by designing each level in VectorWorks. Each square is 4″ in diameter, and each level would need 2 squares: one with the maze cut into it, and one with a tiny square hole to allow the ball to drop down to the next level. I designed these squares to have corner pegs to hold each pair of layers together, and also a center shaft that would hold all the levels together while still allowing them to rotate. Since I wanted the entire maze to be clear, I ordered some 1/4″ and 1/2″ plastic rods to serve as the pegs and shaft.


An example of some level designs in VectorWorks. Each maze square has a corresponding exit square below it.
An example of some level designs in VectorWorks. Each maze square has a corresponding exit square below it.


I ended up designing 5 different maze levels with corresponding exit holes. In order to test these layers, I lasercut them into some scrap foamcore. I tried rotating the test layers on top of each other in order to make sure that the exit of each maze would drop the ball bearing inside the maze portion of the next level. Unfortunately, due to a mistake in my design process, about half of the possible rotations didn’t work! After going back to adjust each maze in VectorWorks, I did a second test cut on some posterboard:


Some examples of prototype maze layers and exit layers, along with some lasercut jigs in the foreground.


Thankfully, my second attempt had a 100% success rate. After completing the prototypes, I lasercut some jigs out of 1/16″ plastic to make sure the plastic rods I bought for the corners and center would fit securely in their holes. After adjusting the holes’ values slightly, I did the final cut for the mazes on  clear 1/4″ acrylic.

The cut went well, but I found afterwards that the plastic rods wouldn’t fit as easily in the 1/4″ layers as they did in the 1/16″ jigs. Perhaps the increased thickness of the plastic made the cut less accurate? Anyway, after a lot of filing and dremeling, all the pegs and the central rod were able to fit properly. The unfortunate side effect of this was that some sanded acrylic dust got trapped between the layers and clouded the plastic.
Also, I cut the pegs by hand, but some ended up slightly longer than I intended, so they jut out of the square layers slightly. This makes the maze somewhat difficult to rotate in certain configurations. I learned a lot from the manual-construction phase, and I eventually intend to make another version that doesn’t share the problems of the first. All in all, though, it’s still very fun to play in the end!

Here are some pictures of the completed first version: