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Toy Hacking Workshop! Build This Sculpture! Tutorials and Tips! Parts and Supplies!

Toy Hacking Workshop: Introduction to Robotic Sculpture Prototyping

This course was last offered through The Crucible in Oakland, CA.  The course was ten evening sessions.  Here is the course description:

Why toy hacking?

Artists and experimenters want to test new ideas and play around with computer-controlled, interactive and robotic machines, yet the time, tools and effort needed to get started is often prohibitive.  At the same time, many contemporary children's toys are marvelously sophisticated machines and quite inexpensive. 

Toy Hacking Workshop repurposes select interactive toys as rapid-prototyping and experimental platforms.  The result can be useful brainstorming and prototyping tools, or with extra attention to formal issues, artworks in their own right.  

How to read a toy

At first glance toys seem like, well, toys, right?  Dumb; limited; plastic?  Look again:

Move & Crawl Ball is a toy for very young children.  It tries to stimulate them to follow it and so learn to move on their own.  It does various things when its different buttons are pressed, including blinking lights, rolling around, and playing a variety of annoying tunes.  Pretty boring, huh? 

Hold up!  The key is looking beyond the designer's intentions for what the device can do for you: this toy is actually a fairly sophisticated computer-controlled machine with eight button inputs, six LED outputs, sound output, a motor with an eccentric weight, and battery holder.  Now: what if we were to replace the electronics board with a powerful yet easy-to-use microcontroller, then take control of the buttons, LEDs, sound and motor for our own creative purposes?

We have just saved ourselves weeks of mechanical engineering, wiring, design, etc., just for the price of the toy, the new micro platform and a few of hours of work.  We now have a robotic mobile platform to have our own kind of fun with.

Like what?  Well, first of all, those buttons look an awful lot like bump switches to me: why not put some stick-on feet on them, and program the micro to respond to switch closures, so when something bumps against the machine, it does something like roll away or make a particular sound?  And with its new creative platform, instead of the silly tunes you can control the sound output.  What if we replaced half of the LEDs with infrared ones, and the other half with infrared detectors?  What if we programmed the machine to blast out a particular code when disturbed?  And to do something whenever it sees that code?  Then what if everyone in the class put their machine on the floor in a big pile, what kind of group behavior might we see?  And finally, we could of course paint them something butch, flat black perhaps.

OK, here's another one:

This is one of those silly singing animatronic dolls, brings the mic to his mouth, belts out "That's Amore" ad nauseum.  But think about it: the toy has a battery holder, sophisticated motor control, can open its mouth, turn its head and move its arms.  If you could control how it moved, when it moved, and what it said, could you do something interesting with it?  Why not toss some sensors in it so it can detect the presence and/or distance of viewers.  You could do some very interesting autonomous agent experiments.  Or, what if you programmed the thing as a slave, and sent commands to it from a PC or Mac?  Would such a machine be the greatest desktop computer peripheral or what?  I'd love for Dean to tell me when I've got new email, or perhaps even read it to me!

What to expect from the course

This course will briefly survey introductory electricity, electronics and computer programming, then focus on building one or more robotic platforms from one or more computer-controlled toys.  The pace and scope of the course will be determined primarily by the skill level of the students who sign up, but everyone will come away with at least one computer-controlled experimental platform for further research. 

Beginners will receive an overview of the skills, tools and techniques needed to develop interactive machines, and a starting place for either further course work or their own self-guided learning.  More advanced students will learn a number of new sensor and control techniques which they can apply to their own work.

Everyone will take home a microcontroller development board designed specifically for experimentation with interactive systems, and at least one completed hack.  Advanced students are welcome to move ahead at their own pace.  Everyone is welcome to purchase multiple boards and toys if they wish to work on several different hacks.

Course requirements

Toy Hacking Workshop is an advanced course, but is open to everyone interested in learning something about electronics, robotics and interactive artmaking.  As noted above, the experience each student brings to the course will determine both the pace of the course overall, and also the specific skills each student leaves the course with.  If you're comfortable using a PC, and handling common hand tools, you will get something out of it. 

If you plan to learn how to use a PC, what programming is, what a microcontroller is, how electricity and electronics work, how to use tools, how to assemble circuit boards, wiring, and  how to write robot control programs, please remember that it takes years to really master these skills.  You will get the most out of this course if you scale your expectations realistically. 

Children will be considered for this course as part of a team with one of their parents.  The parent must meet course requirements, will be the primary student, and will be responsible for interpreting all class materials for their child. 

The course will cover relatively complex concepts and will require significant study outside of class.

Sign up now!

Because of the complexity of the material and the in-class workstation needs, class size is strictly limited.  If you're at all intrigued by the sound of this course, SIGN UP NOW to insure you get a spot.  If you have any questions, don't hesitate to contact me directly.



Course Updates

I'll be posting some info and pics from the course as it progresses.  Check back periodically.

Feb 15

We've been having a lot of fun!  We're focusing on the animatronic dolls, and creating interesting interactive robotic platforms.  So far we've built power supplies, wired up our micros, programmed them to blink LEDs and exercise their basic functionality, added motor controllers and tested them, disassembled the dolls and wired them to our custom controller prototype boards and written some basic solenoid and motor exercising code to move arms, head and mouth. 


Our next step will be to wire up the speech synthesis subsystem and learn to program it.  Then we'll start lip sync programming and choreographed body movements. 

The final steps in the course will be to add stereo ranging sensors so the robots can turn their head to track viewers as they move around them, and code spoken and other physical responses to viewer presence and movement.


Another brucecannon.com special project!