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'We Burned a Couple of Things' - Learning to Build in INFO 4320

Twenty student-designed innovations – robotic drink-makers, spiderbots, music sequencers and much more – poured, drew, and played familiar tunes during Info Sci’s annual Rapid Prototyping demo day on Saturday, Dec. 2, at Ithaca’s kid-centric Sciencenter.

The semester-end showcase – held at the family-friendly educational locale for the last six years – welcomes curious tikes to try out interactive prototypes from undergraduate and graduate students in Info Sci’s popular Introduction to Rapid Prototyping and Physical Computing course, aka INFO 4320. To accommodate this year’s large class, demo day featured morning and afternoon sessions.

“I’m very impressed,” said Professor Francois Guimbretiere, who dashed from one exhibit to the other during the morning session. “Some of them worked overnight, and all managed to have working projects.”

RoboMixer was one such project.

Users clicked on their drinks of choice from the attached laptop, and the device came to life. A motorized track pulled a positioned cup along to each of the five taps – filled with juice and ice tea – and peristaltic pumps powered by a DC motor then dispensed an accurate amount of liquid. In about a minute, the robot had whipped up a mock “Sea Breeze.”

“The most challenging? Getting the motorized track to work,” said teammate Sam Hamburger. “To use six motors at one time on the same process, we ran into issues.”

“We burned a couple of things,” added teammate Gillian Boehringer.

For students in Rapid Prototyping, Saturday was the culmination of a semester spent learning to bring an idea to life, giving physical shape to quick sketches and cardboard models using motors, circuit boards, 3D printed materials, countless collective yards of wiring and whatever else. In a word, Rapid Prototyping students learn how to build.

“They learn how to design, and how to move from an idea to implementation, the tangible expression of this idea,” Guimbretiere said. “They also learn in an iterative manner, so they can discover difficulties and how to address them.”

Students Boris Chan, Ryan Kim, Cindy Wang and Annie Zhang built what looked like, at first glance, a wooden shoebox glittered with an LED light grid. Step closer, and you heard the unmistakable, nursery-rhyme melody of “Hot Cross Buns.”

The team’s Interactive Visual Music Sequencer allows any user – the musically inclined; the not-so-musically inclined – to make music. Each button on the 128-button grid corresponds to a note which, when active, sounds as the sequencer’s time marker passes over it. Punch individual notes in a single row or build chords.

Elsewhere, Driftboard pitched a new motorized alternative for pedestrians; the MadTatter robot penned a fresh tattoo (in washable marker) on your hand, and the MagMap – designed by Info Sci and architecture students – offered an interactive, 3D visualization of topographical maps.

INFO 4320 is typically offered once an academic year, in either the fall or spring semester. It provides an introduction to modern rapid prototyping techniques like laser cutting, 3D printing and microcontroller programming. Small, multidisciplinary groups pick their project of choice, exploring topics such as universal access, tangible interfaces, toys and musical instruments. 

Lou DiPietro is the communications coordinator for Information Science.