Tactile Fantasy, Unlearning the Keyboard

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I started off this project with a vague objective to explore the relationship between the sense of touch on an HID controller and its corresponding visuals and sounds on a computer. The questions I had starting off the project were: must keyboards be so flat and modular? Must the interactions be so 1:1? Must each keystroke always be a command?

What if all these expectations were more loose?

Specifically, the questions I was trying to answer were:

  • How do I make the experience more of an exploration of the control as opposed to a control which I have to figure out how to use?
  • How do I take the sensations on the controller and create different modes of interactions on the screen / the speakers? e.g. unison, call and response, random etc.

UNLEARN THE IDEA OF A KEYBOARD!

PHASE I: Ideation – a keyboard with an internal life

https://hellonun.blog/2020/02/19/keyboard-controls/

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PHASE II: Prototyping – tactilefantasy.js

Fabrication https://hellonun.blog/2020/02/26/keyboard-controls-update/

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Inspiration (reading) https://hellonun.blog/2020/03/01/keyboard-control-inspiration/

Software testing

During this step I play-tested with 6-8 people. For me personally, the prototype was already working as an ‘explorative experience’. However, only 1 out of the 6-8 people agreed. The others were mostly confused. The key takeaways for me at this stage were:

  • Positions of the buttons matter more than their shapes/heights
  • There is a very strong need for any kind of immediate feedback after pressing a button

Version 1 ‘visual, sound, text’ (fixed keys)

https://editor.p5js.org/nt1475@nyu.edu/sketches/P4ahHegq

Use the following keys to control

[‘a’, ‘s’, ‘d’, ‘f’]; // words
[‘z’, ‘x’, ‘c’, ‘v’]; // sounds
[‘q’, ‘w’, ‘e’, ‘r’]; // animation
[‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘4’]; // brightness

Version 2 ‘visual, sound, text’ (random keys)

Use the following keys to control

[‘1’, ‘2’, ‘3’, ‘4’, ‘q’, ‘w’, ‘e’, ‘r’, ‘a’, ‘s’, ‘d’, ‘f’, ‘z’, ‘x’, ‘c’, ‘v’];

https://editor.p5js.org/nt1475@nyu.edu/sketches/TJWCnf8J

Version 3 ‘text, sound’

https://editor.p5js.org/nt1475@nyu.edu/sketches/k56YURlO

Use the following keys to control

[‘a’, ‘s’, ‘d’, ‘f’]; // words
[‘z’, ‘x’, ‘c’, ‘v’]; // sounds

PHASE III: Final fabrication + experiments

Fabrication

Applying the learning from prototyping

  • Increase size of buttons – the smaller ones were almost like pins poking into fingers.
  • Make positions less rigid and more freeform – make it say to users “be more playful! stop using the prefrontal cortex! stop trying to figure out how it works!”
  • Hide everything underneath – users were distracted by wires

Knowing how the wiring works already, I entered this phase by working on the enclosure. I wanted to learn how to powder coat so I got the steel conduit boxes to try. (more on https://itp.nyu.edu/fab/device-design/week-4-pre-assembled-boxes/, thank you Ben!)

The design, layer by layer

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Prepare all the tools: powder coating gun + machine, powder, clamps + pliers, wire for hanging

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Started off by heating the boxes in order to get rid of the oils. After heating, use scotch brite to scrub the surfaces.

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Hang the clean boxes on the rod

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Charge the rod (and the boxes) + spray! … did not get a photo of spraying.

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Put them in the oven again to let the powder sit. And viola!!! (Ben and I did this a few times because the new machine did not work and the powder did not stick to the surface, we ended up using the old gun).

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Now time to make the top part. I started measuring the box and tried cutting cardboard pieces on the laser cutter to determine the actual size.

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After finding out the size, I then designed the acrylic cover and the PCB underneath.

I ended up cutting both of these on the mill because the laser cutter was closed due to COVID-19. This was my first time milling acrylic! (Also, first time making an Eagle part)

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The shape makes the copper look more like rose gold 😀

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I was happy with how precise and fitted these buttons were on the surface. This saved me a lot of time – I didn’t have to wire much after this.

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Of course, given they’re the same file, the acrylic was also perfectly fit (for most parts! I didn’t put the acrylic sheet on the machine properly and the bottom was cut off! luckily no bits were broken).

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After that I wired it to my old perf board which I used for the prototype. Had to add the legos inside there to support the panel. I didn’t think through well enough about how to attach everything. Also, the holes on the pcb I made to attach to the box were too small and I didn’t know how to increase the size on Eagle, fix next time!)

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After wiring everything, I finally plugged it on to the computer and tested the buttons with the serial monitor. Of course this took a few rounds of debugging and finding the right button / pins.

Here are the pin layouts and mapped keys! I color-coded them according to their heights in order to program easily after this.

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Experiments with softwares!

I got sidetracked into texts, fancy visuals and rhythms during prototyping stage. Looking back at my original objective, I started exploring with the initial idea again.

First off, creating the same visual on the screen (using Bang object on maxmsp)

I then tried to map the visuals according to the height of the buttons. The lower, the darker.

Other combinations:

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I then took the same circle pattern and built a mosaic-like visual. This was very satisfying even without sound. To visualize the tactile effect on a grand scale.

Inspired by the grand-ness of the previous experiment. I tried to make a whole wall of push-buttons. At this point I believed this was much more of a playful / exploratory experience and I had already lost the need to figure out what’s going on. The sounds on here are sound I pre-recorded with other buttons and switches: rotary encoder, missile launch switch, arcade button, toggle switch and push buttons.

If I could show this in class, I would have mounted the controller on a tripod, similar to a microphone. People can go up to it and play however they like.

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Imagine this:

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I then tried to experiment more with direct sound mapping. With high quality sounds, the experience felt very surreal; expecting one sound but getting another. I think this could work very well if I had noise cancelling headphones (can’t hear the actual buttons at all but can only feel them).

Lastly, I wanted to take into account that people are very positional with their button placements. I modified Luke DuBois’s modular synth code to mimic the aesthetics of the buttons. Currently this is being controlled like arrows (left / right). I think if these were just holes on the synthesizers, it could be fun. (this is dismissing the heights of the buttons completely).

Code for modular synth: https://www.openprocessing.org/sketch/861829
Modified from: https://itp.nyu.edu/adjacent/issue-6/precisely-experimental-a-progression-of-analog-synthesizers/

Eagle board, Illustrator files, Arduino code, Max patches, all in here: https://github.com/hellonun/tactilefantasy

All in all I was happy to try a lot of new things on the fabrication side. I wish I had explored more on the modes of interaction through key combinations, delay in response – develop a more complex relationship between the pushbuttons and the results.

Keyboard control inspiration

Image result for the eyes of the skin

“The Eyes of the Skin”

the role of the body as the locus of perception

do not incorporate the dimension of time

mentally significant processes of ageing

a kind of chilling de-sensualisation and de-eroticisation of the human relation to reality

//losing their sensuality

intellect and to the conceptualising capacities

sensory experience is unstable and alien to natural perception

//vision needs the help of touch, which provides sensations of solidity, resistance and protrusion

//the sense of touch as the unconscious of vision

moist air of Turner’s landscape

//the eye is the organ of distance and separation, whereas touch is the sense of nearness, intimacy and affection

//invite unconscious peripheral vision and tactile fantasy

in order to think clearly, the sharpness of vision has to be suppressed

the human eye is most perfectly tuned for twilight rather than bright daylight

//light has turned into a mere quantitative matter

a mere absence of the wall

sight isolates, whereas sound incorporates; vision is directional whereas sound is omni-directional

//carve a volume into the void of darkness

our cities have lost their echo altogether

time and space are eternally locked into each other in the silent spaces between these immense columns; matter, space and time fuse into one singular elemental experience, the sense of being

//the resistance of its weight and the patina of its wood surface scarred by decades of use

//furniture that forms a part of a person’s daily habitat

//most intimate contact with man

//spacing instead of space and timing instead of time

//remember the shapeless flow of reality

//recognise and remember who we are

continuum of culture and time

Keyboard Controls Update

Topline:

This week I tried to experiment further with the same push buttons with various heights.

The results were visually and tactile-ly interesting. However, I’m still figuring out how this would serve as a keyboard control.

Next step: play with the buttons and observe my wanted actions, how do different surfaces prompt different actions / expectation of different reactions?

Thoughts on keyboards
*keyboards are essentially a panel with many buttons used for typing or for specific functions to navigate within the laptop.
*non-tactile keyboards expands and contracts based on expected actions

I plan to finish the wiring and fabrication this weekend in order to focus on the programming next week.

Technical learning:

Wiring 16 buttons while wanting them to act as a joystick (remote from the computer) was difficult (hard wires bend and break). I think I found a solution: keep all the multiplexers on the board next to the main board and use soft wires on each individual button pads.

Sounds:

 

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Keyboard Controls

The idea is to create a keyboard control for a MAX patch which looks like the control itself but behaves like it has its own internal life.

The fact that it’s a keyboard allows it to switch between modes interaction e.g. setting the playback-rate, metronome rate, samples etc.

The visuals:

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The sounds (to be included):

  • rotary encoder
  • missile launch switch
  • arcade button
  • toggle switch
  • various sizes of pushbuttons

Some prototyping to get a feel (this needed to be done for a tangible proof, a regular keyboard DOES NOT feel the same):

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(maybe need a multiplexer if I were to do that many buttons?)

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I started soldering on a perf board without a proper board layout and failed, not enough space for all wires… also remembering that I will learn how to mill a PCB board later this week 😉

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BONUS:

Standing buttons look very good … front-line soldiers / cannons appearance

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or mouse?

https://hellonun.blog/2019/10/09/meta-mouse/

60 Seconds (Variable Clock)

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60 Seconds (Variable Clock) is a project I have been experimenting with for some time. It is to illustrate the subjective nature of our perception of time; “Is time linear?”. This assignment allowed me to turn it into a physical piece.

Remark: I wanted to use real 7-segment displays but given the time and main objective of the project (control > display), I decided to mimic them instead. This was still a challenge as I could not get web sockets to work on Arduino on time. As a result, I used p5 Serial instead.

Materials and components:

  • Long push buttons (thank you Tom)
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  • Arduino MKR 1010 / USB cable
  • 1/8″ matte black acrylic sheet
  • 4 x standoffs and screws
  • Breadboard / perf board / wires / resistors
  • iPad

Controls: I decided to use 2 push buttons to keep a clean minimal aesthetic. The materials of the buttons are the same as the acrylic used. One button is used to ‘SET’, the other to ‘CHANGE’. The display blinks to indicate which value is being changed (see video below).

System: Push buttons –> Arduino –> p5 Serial –> p5 Sketch (Desktop) –> Socket –> p5 Sketch (iPad)

Schematics: https://itp.nyu.edu/physcomp/labs/labs-arduino-digital-and-analog/digital-input-and-output-with-an-arduino/

Code and laser cut files: https://github.com/hellonun/variable-clock-physical

Design and prototype:

I designed for the iPad to sit on a stand with its controls to feel like they’re one unit. The tricky part here is how to balance the weight so it is at the center of the stand.

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I made a cardboard prototype to get a sense of the size and fit.

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Size adjustments were made and the iPad stands quite well.

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Testing the controls on the piece

Final look:

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Original variable clock:

(note to self to fix  (1) no sound at ‘0’ (2) add special feature ‘set seconds’)

Side note: I definitely got distracted by the display and wish I’d spent more time thinking about the controls. However, as I was looking for buttons for this specific piece, I wanted something minimal – something with a tactile ‘click’ but with no sound, and because I couldn’t find ones that were perfect, I experimented with some silicone buttons + vacuum mold making (thank you Ben).

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(out of focus)