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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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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.