Tag Archives: MIT media lab

Pneuduino is a modular platform for fast prototyping of inflatable structures

This hardware system lets you create soft robots, adaptive furniture, smart clothing, breathing art and inflatable food. 

Pneuduino is a modular hardware system developed by Felix Heibeck and Jifei Ou of MIT Media Lab’s Tangible Media Group. The platform enables the control of air flow and pressure, which opens endless possibilities for Makers, artists, designers and researchers who want to add unique shape-shifting features to their projects.


“Air is one the most abundant resources on Earth. By adding computation ability to air, we can create new types of materials that enable us to design robots that are soft, furniture that is adaptive, clothing that is intelligent and art pieces that are breathing,” Heibeck and Ou explain. In fact, you can even turn dough into an inflating, shape-shifting interface.

Pneuduino is open source and can be programmed with Arduino IDE. It currently consists of four different modules: a Master Board, a Pneumatic Control Board, an Input Board and a Grove Extension Board.


The Master is based on an ATmega32U4 and can command multiple connected modules using the Pneuduino library. Up to 11 pneumatic control boards can be linked to it, along with an additional Input Board and Grove Extension Board.

What’s more, the Pneumatic Control Board is the hero of Pneuduino responsible for air flow and reading air pressure. Two solenoid valves enable full control of one, or partial control of two air bladders. The pressure sensor can read values up to 58 PSI, while the four LEDs under the sensor reveal the pressure. With an ATmega328P at its core, it can be managed from the Master Board and the Pneuduino library or, for simple applications, can be used individually by programming and powering it through the FTDI header.


If you need a simple button to trigger an event or a dial to tweak a parameter, the  Pneuduino Input Board will come in handy. It features a pair of push-buttons, a potentiometer and can be hooked up directly to the master board.


Beyond that, those wishing to add an extra sensor, LED or other peripheral to their pneumatic system can employ the Pneuduino’s Grove extension board, which can connect any 5V-compatible I2C device.


Pneuduino is currently being used in workshops with high school or college students. While each workshop has a different focus, they all introduce concepts of air as an actuator and sensor, as well as various fabrication methods to create transforming artifacts. Interested? Head over to the toolkit’s page here.

Hands full? KickSoul lets you answer calls with your feet

KickSoul is an embedded insole that maps natural feet movements into inputs for digital devices.

Have you ever tried to answer a call, respond to a text or look something up on your phone when your hands are full? Thanks to a team of MIT Media Lab researchers, you can try using your feet instead. Introducing KickSoul — an insole that simply slips inside of your shoe and enables you to wirelessly control your mobile devices and appliances with a flick of your foot.


“Most of [today’s] devices have visual interfaces that rely on hand gestures and touch interaction, as they are easy and natural for us. However, there are occasions when our hands are busy or it is not acceptable to make use of them, preventing us from interacting with our devices,” the group led by Xavier Benavides writes.

To bring their idea to life, the Media Lab crew sewed several electronic components onto a spongy insole. These included an accelerometer and a gyroscope to track motion, an ATmega328 to help collect data and a Bluetooth module for wireless communication. The six-axis IMU registers the movements and transmits them to the MCU. From there, the information is analyzed by a special algorithm and relayed to an accompanying mobile app.


The system supports two types of interactions: pushing an imaginary object away with your foot and pulling one closer. The idea is that, with just these two simple foot movements, you can scroll, zoom in and out on a document, turn on a light, accept or reject a phone call, and save or delete a file. Whenever either gesture is detected, KickSoul will search for the nearest compatible device and determine which one the user wants to operate.

“Most of these interactions are short in time and not very complex. As a consequence, feet become a suitable substitute or complement to hands, as they tend to be free when our hands are not,” the researchers conclude.

Intrigued? Check out the project’s official paper here, and see it in action below.

Chalkaat is an augmented reality-based laser cutter

Created at MIT’s Media Lab, Chalkaat is a direct manipulation laser cutter that’s aware of the strokes being drawn on the workpiece. 

Laser cutters are one of the more interesting tools you can have around your home (or professional) shop. Normally, you load what you want to cut or engrave into the unit, place the material to be cut inside of it, start the process, and some time later you hopefully everything has been cut correctly. As amazing as this technology is, the MIT Media Lab decided to take it one step further with their augmented-reality Chalkaat laser cutter system.


This laser cutter setup, using a camera and a projector, allows you to put or even draw an object to be duplicated via laser in the cutting field. The object is then scanned and a representation of it is projected where it will be cut. The camera that originally scanned the image then tracks a red and blue marker, which, allow you to move and resize the now-projected object.

Once things are ready to cut, a homebrewed Arduino (ATmega328P) moves the laser into position via stepper motors, and turns it on at the needed intensity. Although code was available that could take care of some of the control details, for this project the MIT Media Lab decided to write their own firmware for the sake of learning.


Many tend to have a bit of an aversion to making their own “DIY laser” setup, and as noted on their instructions, “Working with lasers is extremely dangerous. A 2W laser can blind you instantly even if looked indirectly. Always wear proper laser safety glasses.” This is a really cool project, but don’t try something like this unless you know what you’re doing and take the proper precautions.

Intrigued? Head over to the team’s project page here, or simply see it in action below!

Turning air pollution into printer ink with Arduino

This Maker has discovered a way to repurpose soot into ink for printers.

Black printing ink, commonly found in printers and copy machines, is one of the most consumed products throughout the world. And although it may be quite the cash cow for some companies, one Maker believes that we can make it easily enough using soot found in the air of our polluted cities.


MIT Media Lab graduate Anirudh Sharma — who some may recall from his Arduino LilyPad-based hepatic shoe for the blind — says that his invention, if scaled, can offer a much cheaper alternative to the exorbitant costs of ordinary ink.

“This is not an attempt to win over the pollution. Just a minor itch that led me to build something cool from observations arising from nostalgia of the days back in India,” Sharma explains. “There’s so much soot/pollution around us, especially in crowded cities. What if the same could be repurposed to generate ink for printers?”

And so, the Maker created Kaala — a device that can suck up harmful pollutants from the surrounding air, separate the carbon black, and instantly repurpose it into printer ink with the help of alcohol and oil. This liquid can then be injected into any ordinary HP C6602 printer cartridge for regular use. It’s important to note that, in order for the system to work, it first needs to be exposed to exhaust.


In the video below, you will see that Sharma employed a lit candle and its flame to show off Kaala. The demonstrated device’s pump catches the soot from the burning candle, which is then used to fill a modified HP inkjet cartridge with a mixture of vodka and a little olive oil. For printing, the Maker coupled presumably an Arduino Mega (ATmega2560) with Nicholas C Lewis’ Arduino InkShield, which enabled him to print at a 96dpi resolution.

Looking ahead, Sharma intends on improving the soot collector. He plans to suck the soot through a chamber that uses capacitive plates to filter out the carbon from dust in the air. This principle is commonly exercised by chimneys to reduce the carbon particles injected into the atmosphere.

Amino lets you grow living cells to create interesting things

Biology class is about to get a lot more fun! Amino reduces the size and complex nature of large lab equipment into a countertop-sized system.

When it comes to the Maker Movement, things like 3D printers, milling machines, laser engravers and soldering stations are pretty common on workbenches and countertops. A desktop biolab? Not so much. However, this is something a group that began in MIT’s Media Lab is hoping to change.


The brainchild of Julie Legault, Amino is an Atmel powered bioengineering system that enables anyone to grow and take care of living cells — whether at home, at school or in a Makerspace. Inspired by Tamagotchis, the all-in-one mini-lab allows you to perform the genetic transformation of an organism’s DNA through guided interactions, resulting in a synthetic organism that can be cared for like a pet.

The ultimate goal is to bring the necessary tools for bioengineering to the masses, ones in which have been traditionally quite expensive and only available in research labs. Now, Amino is bundling those instruments into a small, desktop-friendly package that makes it accessible to transform living cells into things like fragrances, flavors, materials and medicine. Plus, it will automatically capture multiple sources of data in real-time, letting you learn more about how your cells are developing and what needs to be done to ensure proper growth.


Amino itself is a sophisticated piece of Arduino-driven hardware with circulation and temperature controls for its user, as well as sensors that can keep tabs on how fast your microbes are growing and how much food they’re eating. Housed in a square wooden box with a hinged plastic lid, Amino contains everything required for users to undertake their own synthetic biology experiments. It includes modular chambers, which can be swapped out for a new microbe food and nutrients, pH balancing solutions and even other chemicals that help control your DNA program. What’s more, the system boasts a touchscreen that displays the real-time instructions along with indicator lights that walk you through the creation process.

“Synthetic biology and wetware is poised to be the dominant technology of this century, the way electrical engineering was for this last century. It allows scientist to problem-solve food, energy, health and materials in sustainable new ways. By bringing the science out of the labs with the Amino, we are enabling everyone to take part in their own future by creating and problem-solving at home and in the DIY labs. Amino gives you a chance to experience this impactful technology, hands on,” Legault explains.


Right now, the Amino kit is optimized for use with a friendly, non-dangerous type of bacteria generally used in labs for research. This strain, which arrives in a test tube, is rated BSL1 (lowest biosafety level 1) by the Center for Disease Control. In other words, it’s non-pathogenic and doesn’t require special containment equipment. Ideally, Amino aims to lessen the fear and complexity from basic interactions with bioengineering. It empowers Makers and students alike to experience synthetic biology, all while discovering an important and complex topic in an intuitive way.

“At Amino, we think of DNA programs like an Android or iPhone ‘apps’ for living cells. But even more, keeping living cells alive outside of their normal environment requires other growth liquids, like food, and chemicals. Amino apps are a combination of the DNA programs and the growth liquids,” Legault adds.


For starters, you’ll be able to employ Amino to grow your own living nightlight by combining the harmless strain of E. coli with synthetic firefly DNA. Legault hopes to introduce new kits that would eventually enable Makers to develop their own yeast for baking, bacteria for yogurt, or more importantly, explore a variety of DNA programs such as optimizing the pathway for violacein production, an expensive anti-cancer research agent. Just think: What if many millions of people from around the world could help solve cancer, instead of a small number of scientists?

To make this all possible, the former MIT Media Lab team is partnering with Synbiota, a company that makes DNA programming as simple as LEGO. By using their technology, Makers will be one day able to devise their own genetic apps and insert them into cells with Amino. Aside from that, Amino will also come with an automated cleaning system. This way, when it’s time to start a new project, simply run a clean cycle, change out the modular chamber and you’re good to go!

Intrigued by this “Arduino-like kit for synthetic biology?” Head over to Amino’s Indiegogo campaign, where Legault and the Amino Labs crew are currently seeking $12,500. Delivery is slated for June 2016.

MIT is developing shape-shifting interfaces

Thanks to MIT’s Tangible Media Group, interfaces that bend, hinge and curl will soon be a reality. 

Imagine if your iPad case automatically lifted up each time you received a message, or your Post-It notes folded down as you checked an item off your to-do list. Well, that may soon be a reality thanks to a team from MIT’s Tangible Media Group who has unveiled a technology for the rapid digital fabrication of customized thin-film shape-changing interfaces.


By combining the thermoelectric characteristics of copper with thermally sensitive polyethylene, the researchers were able to actuate the shape of the flexible circuit composites directly. The development of UniMorph can be broken down into a few steps, which begins with designing a digital model of the pattern in CadSoft EAGLE or Adobe Illustrator and then fabricating the structure using a standard printer, copper etching, hydrogen peroxide and hyrdochloric acid — the entire process is explained in great detail here.

The base of the interface is made up of two thin layers of material: Kapton on top, plastic polyethylene on the bottom. When these are heated up either using a third layer of copper conduits or exposure to light, they expand at different rates. This will cause the bottom layer to pull up the edges of the top, thereby creating a curling effect.

Layer Composition

Passive actuation can leverage access heat, like that given off from a lightbulb or the sun, to create simple shape transformations. Meanwhile, more complex and active shape-actuation can be achieved by designing resistive heating patterns into a flexible circuit. The uniMorph composite also allows for the embedding of additional electronics such as sensors, LEDs and MCUs.

Not only can the film bend, curl, twist and open like a flower, but uniMorph’s unique capabilities unlock the potential for things like the aforementioned smart Post-It notes and iPad covers, as well as responsive bookmark/reading lights that bend into place as you navigate the page.


According to Creative Applications, the listed examples each run on custom Arduino-compatible boards, and in some cases, the flexible circuits are produced in such a way that the ATmega328P can be soldered right on top. Intrigued? You can read all about the project in its paper here, or simply check out its video below.

NailO turns your thumb into a mini wireless trackpad

This wearable input device from MIT’s Media Lab is in the form of a commercialized nail art sticker.

You’ve been there before: Your arms are full and the phone rings. You put everything down only to find out that it was a telemarketer. Or, while in the middle of preparing dinner, you need to scroll down the recipe page on your tablet. With your hands a mess, you first have to wipe them off before proceeding with the instructions. Fortunately, situations like these may be a thing of the past thanks to a new project from MIT Media Lab. Led by Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao, a team of researchers have developed a new wearable device, called NailO, that turns a users thumbnail into a miniature wireless trackpad.


Resembling one of those stick-on nail accessories, NailO works as a shrunken-down trackpad that connects to a mobile device. This enables a wearer to perform various functions on a paired phone or PC through different gestures. And for the fashion-conscious, its creators envision a future with detachable decorative top membranes that are completely customizable to better coordinate with a wearer’s individual style.

Along with its use in hands-full activities like cooking or doing repairs, another potential application for the quarter-sized trackpad includes discreetly sending a quick text message in settings where whipping out a smartphone would be rude. After all, running a finger over a thumbnail is a natural occurrence, so a majority of folks would hardly notice this as a deliberate action to control a gadget.

“Fingernails are an easily accessible location, so they have great potential to serve as an additional input surface for mobile and wearable devices.”


Crammed within the small package of the NailO lie a LiPo battery, a matrix of sensing electrodes, a Bluetooth Low Energy module, a capacitive-sensing controller, and an ATmega328 MCU. With an average power consumption of 4.86 mA, the device can wirelessly transmit data for at least two hours — an ample amount of time for those in a meeting, in class, in a movie theater, or while working around the house.

In order to get started, wearers must first power it up by maintaining finger contact with it for two or three seconds. From there, users can move their index finger up-and-down or left-and-right across its surface, guiding the mouse on its synced device. To select something onscreen, simply press down a finger as if it were a mouse or a touchscreen.

“As the site for a wearable input device, however, the thumbnail has other advantages: It’s a hard surface with no nerve endings, so a device affixed to it wouldn’t impair movement or cause discomfort. And it’s easily accessed by the other fingers — even when the user is holding something in his or her hand,” the team writes.


For their initial prototype, the researchers built their sensors by printing copper electrodes on sheets of flexible polyester, which allowed them to experiment with a range of different electrode layouts. But in future experiments, the team notes that they will be using off-the-shelf sheets of electrodes like those found in some trackpads.

The Media Lab crew has also been in discussion with many Shenzhen-based battery manufacturers and have identified a technology that they think could yield a battery that fits in the space of a thumbnail — yet is only 0.5mm thick. In order to further develop the size of a nail art sticker, the Media Lab worked with flexible PCB factories for a slimmer and bendable prototype, which could conform to the curvature of a fingernail.

We’ll have to go out on a limb and say it: looks like this project ’nailed’ it! Want to learn more? Head over to the project’s official page here, as well as read MIT Technology Review’s latest piece on finger-mounted input devices.

This open source platform turns your physical world into a digital interface

The brainchild of MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group, Open Hybrid is an augmented reality platform for physical computing and the Internet of Things.

The Xerox Star was the first commercially available computer showing a Graphical User Interface (GUI). Since its debut in 1981, many of its introduced concepts have remained the same, especially with regards to how we interact with our digital world: a pointing device for input, some sort of keyboard for commands and a GUI for interaction. However, with many of today’s physical objects becoming increasingly connected to the Internet, Valentin Heun of MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group believes that GUI has hit its limit when it comes to extending its reach beyond the borders of the screen.


This problem is nothing new, though. Dating back the days of text-only command lines, interface designers have always been challenged by the imbalance between the countless commands that a computer can interpret, and the number of which one could store in their brain at one time.

As Heun points out, physical things have been crafted and shaped by designers over centuries to fit the human body. Because of their shape and appearance, we can access and control them intuitively. So wouldn’t an ideal solution be one in which both the digital and physical worlds come together in seamless fashion? That’s the idea behind what he and his MIT Media Lab collaborators call Open Hybrid. This project would enable users to directly map a digital interface right onto a physical item. By doing so, you would ever need to memorize a drop-down menu or app again.


Think about it, the use of these so-called smart objects isn’t all that easy. Take a smart light bulb, for instance, which might have millions of color options, thousands of brightness settings and various hue-changing patterns to select from. But in order to adjust the light, you need to first take your phone out of your pocket, enter a passcode to unlock it, open an app and search for the bulb within its main menu, all before finally accessing its functionality — a process that previously only required tapping a wall switch now requires multiple steps. Aside from that, the more objects that one has throughout their home or office, the more complex it becomes to find them in the app’s drop-down menu.

In an effort to solve this conundrum, Heun has developed the Reality Editor, which offers designers a simple solution for creating connected objects by using web standards and Arduino, in addition to a streamlined way to customize the objects’ behavior with an augmented-reality interface that eliminates complicated, and often unnecessary, steps.


“The amount of apps and drop-down menus in your phone will become so numerous that it will become impossible for you to memorize what app and what menu name is connected with each device. In this case, you might find yourself standing in the kitchen and all you want to do is switch on a light in front of you,” he writes.

These new tangible things are known as Hybrid Objects, as they share the best characteristics of virtual and physical UIs: a virtual interface for occasional modifying, connecting and learning about them, as well as physical interface for everyday operations. Meaning, this system transforms the actual physical world into a transparent window, while the smartphone in your pocket acts as a magnifying glass that can be used to edit reality when necessary.

How it works is pretty straightforward: Hold your phone up so the camera is pointed towards the object, while the app displays a virtual control panel hovering over the item — whether it’s a drone, a lamp, a kitchen appliance, a radio or even an entertainment system. This will prompt its settings and whatever other menu options to magically appear.


You’ll also see nodes corresponding to the physical controls the gadget offers, and can then create interactions between devices by drawing a line from the origin I/O to the designation I/O. And voilà!

“Traditionally, you would create some kind of standard that knows every possible representation of the relevant objects so that every interface can be defined. For example, say you have two objects, a toaster and a food processor, and now you would need to create a standard that knows how to connect these two objects.”

With Open Hybrid you have a visual representation of your object’s functionalities augmented onto the physical object. Where before an abstract standard needed to be devised, you can now just visually break down an object to all its components. Using the same example from above, the toaster now consists of a heating element, a setup button, a push slider and a timing rotation dial. All of these elements are represented with a number between 0.0 and 1.0. This same simple representation applies to the food processor. If you want to connect two things, you are really only pairing the numbers associated with each given item, never the objects themselves.

“This is the power of Open Hybrid. Now that the interface allows you break down every object to its components, you only need to deal with the smallest entity of a message: a number. As such, Open Hybrid is compatible with every Hybrid Object that has been created, and any object that will be built,” Heun adds.


What’s nice is that all of the data about the interfaces and connections are stored on the object itself, and each one communicates directly with handheld devices or with one another, so there’s never a need for any centralized hubs or cloud servers.

The Reality Editor is built on the same open standards that are fundamental to the Internet nowadays, such as HTML, Javascript and Open Frameworks. It runs on low-cost, low-power hardware — which in this case is the Arduino Yún (ATmega32U4) — and is easily compatible with other platforms. The system does require at least 400MhZ, 32MB of RAM, 100MB of memory, as well as TCP/IP and UDP networking capabilities.

“Wherever you can run node.js you can run the Hybrid Object platform. We have successfully experimented with MIPS, ARM, x86 and x64 systems on Windows, Linux and OSX,” Heun notes. “If you have the latest head-mounted, projected or holographic interfaces, feel free to compile the code for your platform and share your findings with the community.”

Safe to say, it’s always exciting to see new projects come out of MIT’s Fluid Interfaces Group. While we’ve seen several attempts in bridging the gap between the physical and digital worlds before, this one is certainly among the most unique. Intrigued? Head over to Open Hybrid’s detailed page here to learn more, or watch Heun’s recent Solid 2015 presentation below.

This turntable lets you create animated GIFs of your DIY projects

Build a motorized turntable that captures videos of your DIY projects over time, then shares them to your online friends. 

If you’ve ever watched a pre-awards show on the E! Network, chances are you’ve seen the 360-degree rotating stages that have become a fixture throughout red carpet events as a way to capture every angle of a celebrity’s attire. Wouldn’t it be pretty cool if you could do the same, but for your DIY project instead? That’s the idea behind Maker Tiffany Tseng’s latest research project as part of the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT’s Media Lab.


A recent recipient of the Editor’s Choice award at Maker Faire Bay Area, Spin is a photography turntable system that enables you to capture the progress of your DIY projects over time. The device is designed as an innovative way to help Makers share their projects in a more community-centric, engaging manner by creating GIFs and videos then posting on social channels like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.


Spin is comprised of a Lazy Susan turntable driven by a stepper motor via an Arduino Uno (ATmega328) and Easy Driver motor driver shield, along with 3/16″-thick clear laser-cut acrylic parts, a 1/8″-thick platform and several 3D-printed components, including the motor gear, iPhone 5 dock and the adapter for those using an iPhone 6.


The system uses the Soft Modem library to send signals from an iPhone to the Arduino, which connects the board to the mobile device through its audio jack. To run the Lazy Susan, the Arduino is plugged into a wall outlet using the AC adapter and linked to the iPhone with an 3.5mm audio cable.


At the moment, the Spin iOS app is in its beta stage and available by invitation only. Upon completing your own turntable, snap a picture and request access to the app here. According to Tseng, several turntables will be in circulation at Makerspaces and hackerspaces around the world this summer.

This wearable device is bringing everyday objects to life

TagMe is an easy-to-use toolkit for turning personal info into an extended communications interface.

Created by MIT Media Lab’s Fluid Interfaces Group, TagMe is an end-user toolkit for easy creation of responsive objects and environments. It consists of a wearable device that is capable of recognizing the object or surface a user is touching through the use of RFID stickers. These tags are read by an RFID bracelet whenever the user comes in close proximity of the item.


“We present a novel approach to create simple and customizable rules based on emotional attachment to objects and social interactions of people. Using this simple technology, the user can extend their application interfaces to include physical objects and surfaces into their personal environment, allowing people to communicate through everyday objects in very low effort ways,” its team writes.

The wearable was 3D-printed using ABS materials, and its electronic components were embedded on one half of the bracelet, while a battery was placed on the other half. Both halves were then connected via a magnetic closing system. The bracelet also includes an Android application that interfaces with Facebook, Twitter, email and SMS.

“To endow the bracelet with the communication capability between the application and RFID tags, we used different types of electronic components. One of our goals was to make the bracelet as small and lightweight as possible so as to be comfortable being worn on the wrist all day.”


In order to accomplish this, the team used a mini RFID reader along with an ATmega168 MCU to control the entire system, a Bluetooth module to facilitate wireless communication and a polymer Lithium-ion battery to power the device.

According to its creators, TagMe can be implemented in a variety of applications, ranging from healthcare and personal relationships to home automation. The system can be used to create convenient “emergency” buttons, like in the event of a car accident, where by simply touching a tag, a notification is sent directly to 911 dispatchers. Beyond that, a social aspect of the project can enable reminders of things, people and places, or be deployed to stay in touch with friends and loved ones. For instance, every time a user touches a present that someone gave to them, an alert is sent to that person.

Want to learn more? You can read the project’s entire paper here, and watch it in action below.