Last week, long-time Tinkering Studio friends and collaborators Natalie Rusk, Robbie Berg, and Tim Mickel visited our group for a two-day deep-dive into the light play activity. Natalie and Tim work at the MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten program, which develops creative technologies for learning, and Robbie is a physics professor from Wellesley College who has worked with the team on projects like PicoCrickets, LogoBlocks, Scratch and Scratch Jr.
Our goal for the two-day visit was to play together with the idea of adding programmable elements to light play. Robbie brought some homemade circuit blocks with Arduino boards and customized shields that could interact with an experimental version of Scratch. He also made some color changing lights that had red, blue, green, and white LEDs on board which were capable of being programmed to display a wide range of hues. Some of the components also have wireless capability which we thought would be a really helpful addition to the light play set.
Our smaller working group started with a simple set up of a screen with one shadow making object. Robbie and Natalie gave us a little bit of info about how the software worked. It was really nice to be able to change the direction of the motor and the color of the lights through moving around the blocks on scratch. Even in such a pared down set-up, the programming seemed to add an extra dimension to the activity.
Our guests brought two different versions of the software to try out with the light play set. The first was a modified version of regular scratch that ran on a laptop and the other one was an adaptation of Scratch Jr. that worked on an ipad and had simpler commands. We split into small groups to start exploring the possibilities of the technology.
Karen, Tim, and I created a light play scene using Scratch Jr. to make the colored lights to trigger in sync with sound effects that we pre-recorded on Scratch Jr. It was a little bit silly, but showed some of the potential of the combination of light play with programming. I also really liked the feeling of working with Scratch on the iPad. It felt more collaborative than using a computer as we could easily pass the tablet back and forth as we worked on our scene. Each group worked on some really interesting projects and we ended the first day energized about the mash-up.
The next morning, we started with a tour of a few of the Exploratorium's light exhibits with the inimitable Paul D who shared how shadows behave with colored lights, multiple light sources, 3D objects and mirrors. I think looking at some of these classic exhibits really inspired us to take these ideas and incorporate them into the afternoon activity.
After the tour, we spent about three hours as a larger group experimenting with programmable brick and classic light play materials to make our own light play scenes. I also liked that Natalie and Tim created some 'handouts' for the Scratch Jr set-up. We are currently experimenting with what information to give people as we prototype beetle blocks and scratch activities with visitors, so it was good to get some quick and dirty ideas for ways of introducing the ideas.
Each group made some really cool creations that took advantage of the increased programming capabilities. Flo and Melissa created a mesmerizing light and shadow scene that never repeated the exact same pattern since they used 'random blocks' in scratch to time the three lights fading in and out.
Ryoko and Sebastian used a row of lights, programmed to turn on and off in sequence, to create the illusion of animation with their surfer figure. It was a really cool and complex idea to create a sense of motion from a stationary object.
Luigi and Karen took things to a more narrative level with transparencies from a Bruno Munari storytelling kit that had many different colored images. They used Scratch Jr to change the color of the light which seemed to tell a story when combined with simple cartoons pictures of cars, rain, and clouds.
At the end of the day, we all got together for a final debrief to discuss our thoughts on the activity and the possibilities for next steps. All of us felt that the elements of programming didn't take away from the tinkerable aspects of the activity but instead gave an extra element of narrative and construction. We felt that it would be interesting to continue to explore both Scratch and Scratch Jr as platforms for the activity, but many of us agreed that the iPad felt more collaborative. And hopefully we'll continue to refine the hardware and the software as we continue to experiment with this new avenue for tinkering activities.