In Defeat, There Is Victory!

'In his 1914 painting A Hundred Years Peace, artist Amedee Forestier illustrates the signing of the Treaty of Ghent between Great Britain and the US, 24 December 1814 (courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-115678).'

In my mad rush to try and get this project to work, I completely lost sight of Bill Turkel’s initial comment when I and my fellow History 9832b Interactive Exhibit Design classmates first started; “it’s okay to fail”.  I think as students we’re subconsciously ingrained to think that success is only measured in the completion of an assigned task or the delivery of an end product rather than the path of discovery itself.  While preparing for another sleepless night, I arrived at the sobering realization that the project was definitely a lot grander than expected and I might have to scale back on my plans to have it work.

Taking stock of the original project concept, I had an epiphany. The project was all about exposure, buy-in and public engagement.  My first blog entry Twitter War of 1812! immediately generated challenges from both sides of the border by rival 1812 reenactor/history groups. @Navy1812Bicentennial immediately retweeted the blog post and I picked up Samuel Woodsworth@_thewar1812 and Maryland Milestones @ATHeritageArea as Twitter and Blog followers.  Another local 1812 supporter @BrianPMacLean joined as I’m writing this and it was great to get an inquiry from the folks over at Historica – Dominion about the proposed project and when we’re rolling it out.  From this varied sample of supporters, the objective was a success.

As I hunkered down in my foolish attempt to decipher the myriad of Arduino, Processing and Twitter hacks that litter the internet, I picked up support from Processing guru Marcus Nowotny who’s Tweet Balloon was really the key example to use.  I really thank Marcus, through a couple of wonderfully supportive emails about coming to the realization that what I was proposing was indeed a bigger kettle of fish than I had anticipated.  I’m regretful that I hadn’t found his example sooner in the semester.   Additional thanks has to go out to Nicholas Stedman for allowing me to participate in his Twitter to Processing class at Ryerson, which helped to get me over the hump in terms of having Arduino’s LED respond to a Tweet.  My car-pooling partner Namir (@Namir) who bounced various solutions back and forth to get this thing working, jumped in when things became too confusing.  Finally, many thanks to my 15 year creative business partner Romelle Espiritu for jumping in last minute with a stylized visual based on my original creative prototype.

Although I never really got the project to work, I did however get Arduino to blink on a per Tweet basis as demonstrated in the blog post Twitter to Ardunio Hack!.  Admittedly this has been one of the most frustrating, challenging and ultimately rewarding classes I’ve taken in my 20+ years of post-secondary education.  There were times in which nothing worked and I had to reevaluate the way I actually learn.  The project did force me to understand it from a “teachable moment”, something  as an educator I sometimes overlook when conducting my own classes.  Bill was supportive when needed and broad enough at other times to allow for student discovery.

Overall I’m satisfied with how the project engaged public, professional and peers alike.  As someone who has taught, developed curriculum and has been professionally engaged in Digital Media for over 20 years, the course has also redefined what “media” is and how the public can be engaged with it.  As a graduate student firmly entrenched in cultural resource management, these types of projects, whether failures or successes, enable us to connect at a different level with the public.  To engage them interactively, without constantly relying on expensive virtual simulators or displays.  Bringing the tactile and other senses to life when sometimes a static display cannot convey the depth of the subject matter or discovery.

In closing, the path to discovery has really been the success.  Now that this project has come to an end academically, I hope to engage a team to make it a reality professionally!  After all, what other way can we challenge our Southernly neighbours in a lively debate on the only War they lost : )

Vectors & 3D Animation!

Last week in Bill’s 9832b class, we spent some time understanding how to visualize within a Vector environment.  I can’t believe that I’ve been working with Adobe Illustrator, a 2D Vector graphic design application, for almost 18 years!  Even with all of those years, I learn something new every time.  As you can see in my post Flag Widget! – Part I I used Illustrator to trace out an object into a vector file format that could be read by a 3D Printer or other physical printing device.  By no means am I an expert and readily rely on Romelle Espiritu, friend and colleague to do any of the heavy Illustrator “lifting” on major projects.  However, Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator and Acrobat are the three mostly widely tools in my graphic arsenal.

This weeks post is really a little of a history lesson on 3D Animation in Canada.  Let me explain first by talking a little about the rich and deep history of 3D Animation in Canada.  I also want to say something about nomenclature.  Since the release of Avatar a few years ago, the use of the term “3D” in the general public means steroscopic movies, or in general terms, watching a movie with those funny glasses.  In the business we call this “S3D”.  When I talk about 3D Animation, I’m using the traditional industry term for Computer Graphic Images (CGI) or 3D Animation.

Most Canadians and generally most industry professionals outside of Canada don’t realize that it was two Canadian NRC physicists who invented the basis for computer animation, namely “Computerized Key Frame Animation”.  In the late 60’s Marceli Wein and Nestor Burtnyk while on loan to the NFB researched and created the first vector based computer animated film; La Faim.

In order for Wein and Burtnyk to create the technology to produce the film, they devised several very interesting tools for the time; real-time rendering to film, a wooden mouse to interface with the vector artwork and of course the ability to create computerized keyframes, as done in traditional animation at studios like Walt Disney and Warner Bros.

In 1997, the Academy of Motion Picture and Arts awarded Wein and Burtnyk with a Technical Oscar, recognizing  their contributions to the film industry.  Below is a NFB documentary on their technical process for computer animation.

After La Faim, an explosion of industry firsts propelled Canada front and centre on the world stage as the preeminent country to produce Animation of any kind.  Sheridan College became the first School in the world to offer Animation as a College Program.  Nelvana was founded and became the largest non-film animation studio outside of California but most importantly three Canadian technology companies; Softimage (first use of inverse kinematics for character animation), Alias (first use of nurbs modeling software) and Side Effects Software (inventor of procedural animation) exploded on the scene with computer animation tools which at the time allowed traditional artists to actually use the technology……although somewhat still dependent on an army of technical gurus, in a truly artistic way.

I graduated from Sheridan College in Computer Animation in 1996.  Immediately I went to work for Side Effects Software as a demo artist and was proudly employee number “34”.  In the following three years, Side Effects sent me around the world several times to meet studios, demonstrate the software to far superior professionals in the industry than I and to understand the nature of 3D animation production, pipelines and film making.  Along the way I’ve worked with Kim Davidson, Greg Hermanovic, Henry LaBounta, Sean Lewkiw, Katsuhiro Otomo, Ken Perlin, Nick Park, David Sproxton and a host of memorable mentors, friends and associates.  I’ve been interviewed on Japanese television debating the fine points of a CGI Godzilla versus a “guy in a rubber suit” and given live demonstrations to thousands of people at a time.  In May of 2000, I personally animated/modeled/rendered my last file.  Since that time, my role in the industry has been developing and implementing animation pipelines, building studios, Executive Producing series, films and various projects.  So, although I’m the “3D Guy”, I haven’t actually animated, modelled, light or rendered ever since.

It should be interesting what I can come up with for this weeks class assignment to work in Google Sketch, Blender or any other new 3D software : )

1812 Twitter War Pre-planning!

(This Post is a class requirement for History 9832b Interactive Exhibit Design)

This week I started to pre-plan for the scale model I intend to build for our final project in 9832b.  Although I spent a good part of my career drawing, I opted to do a mock-up with found images on the internet and a little Illustrator.  I find from a creative perspective, doing something like this art-board helps to rapidly prototype the types of images I would want to use and defines placement and even construction issues.

One of the immediate issues is what type of base is needed to keep this rather tall and somewhat heaving looking object upright.  Additionally, where do the flag poles go and how do we hide the mechanical aspects of the raising the flag?  Also, how do we remotely trigger the Arduino?  By a laptop or a WiFi module and where do I put it?  So many questions!

My next task is to start researching how Twitter can trigger Ardunio. Once and if I can master that task, I’ll take a swing at having Arduino drive a mechanical pulley.  Keep tune because I’m heading into the rabbit hole!


Twitter War of 1812!

(This Post is a class requirement for History 9832b Interactive Exhibit Design)

The class in 9832b IED has been fiendishly brainstorming to come up with unique ideas for this semester’s class projects.  Combining History and Technology for Public engagement, isn’t as easy as it seems.

As discussed in previous blogs, I’m particularly interested in this year’s War of 1812 celebrations.  In particular, the desire to get the general public interested in participating, even if they can’t make it down to Niagara-on-the-Lake or the various sites around Ontario or Quebec that were pivotal to the defeat of the US forces.  Virtual and physical interaction is the key and helps to engage all to participate.

In talking with Bill on Monday, he had mentioned about doing a Twitter fed Arduino display that would shoot confetti or ping pong balls every time someone would Twitter their support for one team or another.  That drove us into a quick brainstorming session, which really consisted of me saying “can I do this” or “is this possible” and Bill saying “sure”.  So here is my idea for the 9832b IED class project.

I proudly present the “War of 1812” Twitter War!

In a nutshell, I’m going to make a physical display, similar to the attraction signs you find in those old time circuses or side shows.  The display will have a “Canadian” side and an “American” side, with full graphic representations of historically accurate American and British soldiers, a historic looking map in the middle with LED red and/or blue lights of all of the major 1812 battles and a face plate done up in 1800’s style scrolls entitled the “War of 1812” Twitter War!.  I’ll leave an open space at the top of the face plate just in case we can find a sponsor for a really super-duper, massively large scale version, to sit in NOTL (Niagara-on-the-Lake) this summer.

As people “Tweet in” for their support of Canadian or American troops, a little  flag will rise above the silhouetted hats of the two solider icons on the front of the board.  The side with the most “Tweets” will drive the flag up the flag pole and win the battle!  Bill suggested I make a little confetti canon to indicate who has won the battle visually.  The winning side will light up an LED in their colour (red or blue) on the historic map of 1812 battles in North America and the whole system will reset itself for the next battle!

In addition to the physical nature of the “Tweet Battle”, I was also thinking about having an LCD screen to read off the Twitter messages that come in during the battle.  Now, the fun part of this is that we would commandeer the Twitter messages and rewrite them in old English and have their response be from historical figures from the War of 1812.  So if someone tweeted; “@noname: I’m for the Canadian’s”, our system would rewrite it to say “@Brock: Those American’s will not prevail!”.  Don’t ask me “how” yet, but that’s the angle I’m fishing for!

For those who don’t have Twitter, we’ll rig up a interactive website to accept message input, which will then send the Twitter message to our interactive display.  Once that elusive “sponsor” is found for our massively large version in NOTL, we can rig a web cam towards the board so participants can see their “votes” in action.

We’ll send a challenge to Stephen Colbert, so our American cousins will enjoy this tongue-in-cheek second chance to beat the Canadians!

For now though, I’ll make a small scale version to test if this hair-brain idea works!

Immediate challenges include:

a) Getting Twitter to activate an Arduino.

b) Having Arduino to run a flag up a flagpole.  The triggering shouldn’t be a problem, but how do we mechanically get the flag to rise up?

c) Commandeering the Twitter responses and redisplaying in “old English”.  There must be someone out there doing this?

d) Making a confetti cannon and then having it reload after every battle!

e) Doing a website to allow non-Twitter users to participate.

I’m completely open to suggestions and hope this would be an engaging project for all to participate in, no matter what they contribute to the process.

Arduino at the Mad Dog!

(This Post is a class requirement for History 9832b Interactive Exhibit Design)

As Namir and I live in Toronto and will be doing the majority of our class work remotely, we wanted to kick things off by getting in a routine.   We also figured since the class is working in pairs on Arduino, we’d do the same for the blog.  So my blog today will be on the experience of tinkering with Arduino in Public Spaces and Namir is going to tackle a carry-over enhancement on last week’s Arduino tutorials, which oddly enough blended right into this week’s assignments!

 Call it serendipity, but for whatever reason Namir and I who are both taking grad studies in archaeology at UWO live only a couple of blocks away from each other.  This made it extremely easy to find a public place to spread out our computers and Arduino kits.  I chose the Mad Dog Cafe on Gerrard and Logan.  It’s usually quiet in the morning and they have plenty of space.  One downside is the food is great and a little bit of a distraction (note to self: do next session at the pub!).

We settled in and started unpacking.  The Barista didn’t look too concerned however as patron’s flowed in and out, there where some curious glances.  First, a streak of panic went through me thinking that people might think we’re bomb makers and/or nerds with no jobs and nothing better to do with our lives!  However, once we started getting into it, the background “noise” disappeared and that magic discovery began.

Like I mentioned, Namir will blog about our experiment to have the LED off with full ambient light using a light sensor, then turning it on with varying degrees of shade and/or darkness.  To the right is a quick picture of the code Bill suggested last class, but as Namir will explain, we really wanted to know “why” and “how” the numeric values entered would effect the way the Arduino responded to the inputs provided.

After our extended experiment from last class, we hunkered down to work on the first tutorial called “Digital Read Serial“.  This one went by quickly as we realized halfway through that the Serial.begin (9600) is what Namir had discovered during the week to solve our other experiment!  In a nutshell, the tutorial is designed to demonstrate how the Arduino code can print back digital or analog input back to the computer through a Serial Monitor in Sketch.

Of course we went way off tangent, either because we are men or men acting like boys, to get more instant gratification than just watching “0’s” and “1’s” scroll by.  So an hour later, we had an LED light up when the button was pushed and stay on or off!  We did encounter some flakiness in combining the initial state variable with how the button would work, sometimes requiring 1-3 button pushes before the LED would stay on.  Namir chalked it up to a mechanical problem with the button, but after trying another button, same thing still occurred meaning…………our code sucked!  With about an hour and a half burned through that one experiment, we moved onto the Analog Read Serial tutorial.

After realizing that this one was better done with two breadboards (or our inability to get one board working properly) we burned through the tutorial quickly and then of course went off track again trying to get the potentiometer to adjust the LED light levels.


The third tutorial was getting Arduino to emit a Tone.  At first we didn’t understand that the speaker didn’t need to be connected to the 5v input on the Arduino, but was drawing it’s power through the Digital 8 connection (we of course are assuming this!).  This too was done quickly, but the sound was too low.  Immediately we wanted to connect the potentiometer up to this setup thinking that if we did, we could adjust the volume of the speaker!

Well, another 30 min’s later and now way past our agreed 3hrs of tutorial time and we hit the wall.  The picture on the left is our attempt to make the potentiometer adjust the sound of the speaker.  Call it delusional, but we actually thought we could make this one work without any assistance.  So I leave this blog with a question………..does anybody know how to make this work!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Apart from our fun, we had a really interesting conversation with a High School Physics teacher on maternity leave.  He was fascinated with what we were doing and came over to chat.  As per my blog last week on “What to do with Arduino”, I suggested that he introduce the concept of his Arduino to his students next year.  It’s an amazing multi-disciplinary tool set.  Our other conversation came from the table beside us during the lunch hour rush.  We were asked whether we were making a new motherboard for one of our Apple laptops…….this was when everything was all over the table, which Bill advised not to do.  He asked if we were programmers with a curious look on his face when we replied that we were Archaeologists, which drew an even odder facial expression!  Got to love how Arduino connects  and intrigues us all!

What to do with Arduino!

(This Post is a class requirement for History 9832b Interactive Exhibit Design)

Photograph courtesy of
Photograph courtesy of

The first class for Bill Turkel’s History 9832b Interactive Exhibit Design was yesterday.  Fellow archaeology  program interloper Namir and I found ourselves surrounded by history grad students, heads down, working hard to make our little Arduino micro-computers blink, sing or just do something!  Trial and error, a little loose cobwebs and some laughter proved to be a massively fun class……especially for those of us regularly engaged in theoretical debate.

So, for those who don’t know Arduino, it’s a little micro-computer that can be programmed to do a myriad of things.  I won’t go into a long description, so check out the official Ardunio website as well as a perfectly produced YouTube video called Super Simple Arduino by grade-schooler Sylvia, to get a basic idea of what this little device can do for your project, business or cat-chasing needs.

We’re all starting to think about what to do with this little appliance in our history, archaeology or digital humanities research. Until this course, I had never thought of a self manufactured object or appliance as an extension of the digital environment or even a bridge between the analog and the digital.  It opens up a whole new world, but it’s additionally scary as it can literally be applied anywhere, for anything, at any time!  Which leads me to today’s blog; What to do with Arduino!

One thing is for certain.  This little device needs to be incorporated into grade school level education!  It teaches computer and programming skills, traditional electronics, team integration and building, concept design and a slew of other inter-disciplinary skills.  Anyone, with any level of understanding can work with this and produce immediate feedback and results.

It’s a brief and gushing review, but my point is this.  We’re so wrapped up with Blackberry’s, IPod’s, IPad’s, streaming video, video games, animated films and the millions of other distractions that has all the sudden come upon us in the 21st century, that it’s nice to see a simple tool that can be used by anyone, become the spark of innovation, discovery and imagination in all of us.

Interactive War of 1812 Clothing!

(This Post is a class requirement for History 9832b Interactive Exhibit Design)

Photo from the Toronto Star - Thurs, Dec 8, 2011 - DAVID LITZ/THE CANADIAN PRESS

I’ve been thinking about the War of 1812 Bicentennial and the anticipated tourists that will descend on Niagara-on-the-Lake this coming summer.  Sure, for the kid in all of us, it’s going to be cool to watch 100’s of reenactors facing off with one another, smoke billowing, cannon’s firing, but really, we all just want to jump in and join the fray.  The next best thing is to “bump” into the wandering reenactor/characters after the battle event of the day, get an understanding of who they represent and/or the period dress they work really hard to reproduce in exact historical detail.  If you take the time to talk with the reenactors, they tend to represent someone very specific from the time frame and are quite enthusiastic about relaying any historical information about that person that they may have.

In talking about Interactive Exhibit Design, does it have to be in a fixed place?  What if visitors could buy a t-shirt with a barcode on it that had all of the information needed to interact with the exhibits, venues and later in their own city or country?  The barcode could be easily scanned by an interactive display, then based on the historical character that is encoded in the barcode, the display would then customize the museum experience from the perspective of that historical character.  Essentially the visitor could live the historical life of a character of their choice.

Taking it up a notch, visitors wearing the barcode t-shirt could also use an App which when scanned by a smart device, would superimpose the character’s dress with the visitors head, within a historical environment.  A little like those wooden displays where you stick your head through the hole.  That App could also exchange historical information with another barcode wearing visitor, collecting historical characters both inside and outside of the venue.

Once the venue experience is over, that t-shirt travels with the visitor back home and in essence is carrying history with them, allowing non-venue visitors to also experience a little bit of the interactive history.

It’s a simple concept that I’d like to see happen!

Flag Widget! – Part I

 In honour of the bicentennial of the War of 1812, I  bought an outside flag pole recently to hang my 1790’s era English King’s Flag on.   This is the same flag used by the British during the American Revolution and in the colonies here in Canada.  The pole and flag will hang on the front of a reproduction 1800’s style Loyalist cottage I’m building.  In my effort to try and be somewhat accurate, I’ve kept all of the exterior hardware iron black.  Which brings me to my flag pole.

I searched everywhere for a black flag pole and actually found one in London.  Now the problem I have is that it was missing one of the widgets needed to secure the flag to the pole at the bottom.  The shop provided a replacement in orange, which Bill later said could be re-fabricated in the lab.  Today’s blog is about how to do a fabrication template in Adobe Illustrator for a simple object.

First, you need your widget or gromit or object for fabrication (the piece we’re interested in is the orange widget).  As this is a rather simple object that’s somewhat thin, we can scan it using a regular desktop scanner.  More complex objects like archaeological artifacts would require a hand held or other scanner process, which in the coming months I’ll document.

Try to get the widget lined up perfectly on a horizontal and vertical axis.  Don’t worry if this has to be adjusted later as the final template image we’ll use in Adobe Illustrator can be rotated in slight degrees.  Next obviously you want to scan the object into something simple like a jpeg.  Just a quick note on naming conventions.  Make sure all images, files or documents maintain a proper naming convention and follow this through when naming layers and actions within Adobe Illustrator.  It’s a good habit to get into and allows for quick and simple searches and data mining when you eventually file this work in the digital archives.

Now that you’ve scanned and imported your “widget template image” into Illustrator, you’ll want to apply a proper naming convention and lock the template layer so we’re not working on it directly.  Unlike Adobe Photoshop and the just scanned template image which uses pixels, Adobe Illustrator is a vector based program.  Meaning, it defines the shapes, fonts or 2D objects created in it by absolute points, lines and shapes which are sharp and crisp.  The fabrication machines I hope to use in the lab also use vector based images to define what is going to be fabricated (I assume).

On a new layer, you can then start to model the object in 2D.  Use basic shapes by scaling them and manipulating the points to get the general outline of the template object.  In this case I’m going to use multiple negative and positive shapes (black and white) to get the inner and outer shape of the widget.  You’ll notice once we start adding guides and applying the shapes that the original object when scanned was slightly rotated.  The best we can do to rectify this is to unlock the template layer and rotate the image slightly to get it to line up with the guides and the vector objects being used to build the 2D widget.

As the top and bottom connections or eyelet parts are essentially the same shape, I created a single object and then copied and mirrored another version for the bottom.  To make sure I was proportionately within the same outlines of the original widget template, I brought the opacity down on the model build layer to see if the template was the same.  As you can see, we only get the slight pixelation of the orange template widget showing through, so generally we’re in good shape.

The final illustrator file has the widget in full opacity.  Some of the big questions for me is the type of file format needed for the fabrication machine to actually build the widget in a solid material?  How do we determine thickness and input those variables into the fabrication process?

Once we get into the lab, I hope then to document the fabrication process and final product.  Wait for Part II in the coming weeks!