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Making iteration easy

Making iteration easy

Setting yourself up for joyful low-risk prototyping with shadow theaters


I am back to share a new version of a programmable shadow theater, and share about another important part of the Tinkering Studio activity prototyping process: Iteration.  Specifically, creating tools and materials for yourself and your team that make it easy to iterate (to advance your designs and activity ideas by making quick changes and testing them out on the spot).

The first big idea on Tinkering activity prototyping I shared was this one about engaging in an exploration space, rather than getting fixated on one specific product or learning goal when prototyping. 


Doing it over again - embrace repetition 

I'd like to begin by sharing the latest interactive light and shadow contraption I crafted (a fusion of technology and the classic shadow theater concept). Making this piece work was the driving force and motivation to learn more about the potential for  light and shadow explorations with the CPX circuit board.

Rather than arriving at the present design through extensive hours spent at the drafting table, it organically evolved from an initial quick prototype—a miniature shadow theater I crafted a few months ago.


The current iteration is a direct continuation of that work while allowing myself to start over again. My process involves crafting each new piece with the intention of enhancing and exploring the effects or phenomena that initially captured my interest while working on the previous contraption. I view it as a treasure hunt to uncover the essence of the tinkering exploration space I am working in.


Making tools for easy iterating

To get ready to make this piece, I created a new set of materials that made it easier for me to precisely arrange the three key elements of shadow casting. Light -  Object -  Screen.

A light shines through an object to cast a shadow on a surface

 I had that goal right after I had cobbled together my first piece, but the way to do it (and much more) only became clear after my co-tinkerer Michael shared a different shadow casting exploration that Celeste and he created with a new set of materials. (another important prototyping idea I will talk about another time is to collaborate, look around, acknowledge, and remix ideas from fellow creatives.)

I was really excited about how varying the distance and placement between objects, screen, and light source could create interesting effects. The light ring setup turned out to be such a wonderfully straightforward method for positioning objects at  specific spots between the light and screen.

One of the things that really piqued my curiosity about the first creation I crafted was how the shadows of characters, faces, and shapes seemed to come alive, telling a captivating story when I arranged them just right. With this inspiration, I started envisioning each ring as a tray where I could place elements without needing to stick them down. I immediately noticed my ability to tell complex stories was supported by using these trays. 

A small projected image of a boat with a person swimming next to it


These new materials allowed me to do lots of experiments on size and placement of shadows quickly and develop an understanding on how the size, relative placement, and magnification of shadows relate in this setup. Even better, they encouraged my prototyping group to directly play with layering, magnification and parallax and see these effects at work. 

A person places a layer of transparency with paper cutouts on top of another layer
Two learners arrange light layers to create interesting projections


Letting the tools lead you (and your learners) to new discoveries and to the core of the phenomenon

I finish this cycle of shadow theater prototyping with excitement and confidence that supporting learners in playing with three key parameters - light position, distance, and layer combinations -  can lead to rich expression with the shadow theater. The exploration area is now narrowed, and I am ready to create materials that allow learners to more easily investigate and reveal these ideas.

Prototyping guideline: I’ve learned over the years that it is worth it to put effort into creating somewhat modular (yet hackable) materials that make experimenting and iteration easy for you. I find myself more willing to try out tentative ideas that might fail, as the materials reduce the time and effort to probe a risky new direction. 

To create a set of these prototyping “helpers”, I often draw from projects that deal with similar phenomena and borrow materials and systems from them. For example, when our team started working with linkages, I created a small pegboard that works as a prototyping surface to quickly investigate linkage motion, this was inspired by a bigger pegboard wall we use for marble machines.

Your helpers for prototyping with light and shadow and CPX

To experiment with shadow projects with the CPX board I recommend these materials : 

Structural materials

  • Stackable cardboard frames/rings.
  • “trays” with transparency film to place shadow casting objects on, 
  • Parchment or vellum sheet makes for a great screen that can be placed wherever needed. 
Materials to support light layers


Materials for creating 

  • Any small objects from paper cut-outs to optical materials, glass beads, or snippets of colorful gels work great for collaging a shadow story
Paper and other materials for storytelling


National Science Foundation Official Logo


This project is generously supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 2005764.