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Our coverage of element14’s Great Global Hackerspace Challenge continues with a profile of BuildBrighton and their fabulous Phonicubes project.

Phonicubes is a super nerdy way of teaching kids to read using the Phonics system. It uses an Arduino Duemilanove, a protoshield, a custom wave shield, and an ID-2 RFID module for a total cost of £81, well under the team’s US$900 budget.

It consists of a laser-cut wooden enclosure able to accommodate four cubes, each of which is equipped with magnets (to keep it in the enclosure) as well as a PIC microcontroller so that the reader knows which of each cube’s six faces is pointing outward. I loved this aspect of the project because it seems so simple, yet they were incredibly challenging to create. Another impressive aspects was building their own custom Wave Shield with an on-board ATMega 328 running Arduino, replacing a full-sized Arduino and shield.

The goal of the project is to get kids to spell words, coached by Arduino, which can tell whether the cubes are present and in the right order. The child listens to the Phonicube and places the right blocks in the reader, earning either encouragement or praise from the reader, depending on how well he or she does.

I interviewed BuildBrighton’s Toby Cole about their project:

What was it like working on the GGHC Challenge?

The GGHC was a great experience for us all, it really brought a lot of us together and gave us a common goal. It did however get a bit stressful near the end as four weeks isn’t a lot of time, and a couple of our members had to drop out of the challenge team to start work on Brighton Mini Maker Faire, which is coming up at the end of August.

How did you split up roles with your teammates?

We had a kickoff meeting (in a pub, obviously) to decide what direction our project was going in, and settled on the Phonics idea. However, we couldn’t decide on the specifics of the input and output devices so we split up and prototyped these separately. There’s a big chunk of our first post on element14 describing how we divvied up the work.

The great thing about taking a modular approach to our project was that we managed to include so many people. The final device ended up being pretty simple, but that was mainly because so many people put in hours of effort trying to figure out the simplest solutions to our problems.

In coming up with a project, did the educational requirement of the contest pose a special challenge for you?

BuildBrighton as a group have worked on quite a few educational projects, and we regularly run electronics, soldering and circuit design workshops so the educational aspect of the challenge wasn’t too daunting.

How did you come up with your idea?

In our lunchtime-pub-kickoff-drinking-discussion session, we tossed around quite a few ideas ranging from musical instruments to mathematics teaching aids, but we kept coming back to the idea of cubes as a nice, tactile way of inputting data. Jason then mentioned Phonics, and how his kid’s school uses it as a way of teaching English. After a bit of googling, we decided that there was definitely space for a Phonics-based toy.

Tell me about the sort of student who you think would learn a lot from the Phonicubes project.

Phonicubes is primarily aimed at teaching English to children of around 2 – 4 years of age, however, you can change the words that the child has to spell, increasing their difficulty, to expand the age range upwards.

What was it like working with RFID tags and readers?

Quite stupidly I volunteered to do the RFID research for the project. Turns out RFID is very complicated if you want to implement anything from scratch. Luckily there are quite a few good RFID modules available, so in the last week, we altered our design to use the ID-2 RFID module from ID Innovations. This allowed us to concentrate on our control code rather than the analog electronics of the RFID circuitry. I wrote up a lot of my trials and tribulations with RFID on our challenge blog. We are planning on using our newly found RFID expertise to create a door-entry system for our ‘space, and possibly use RFID to track members’ use of our newly purchased laser cutter.

Looking over the other entries, tell me about any favorites among the ones that won or didn’t win.

I think the entry that impressed us most was the Hack Factory’s giant breadboard and components. It’s got a really nice balance between electronics and craftiness. It’s hard to pick a favorite out of the other two finalists, they’re both really cool ideas, and both really different!

One requirement of the contest is that the project be easily reproducible, what sort of skill level is needed to build Phonicubes?

It should be possible to make a Phonicubes set with very little technical knowledge. You can use a couple of off the shelf Arduinos, a Wave Shield, one RFID module, and a handful of resistors. The physical enclosure can be assembled in a variety of ways, we used our laser cutter to speed things up, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t print the designs on paper and cut the shapes out by hand. All the parts of the enclosure are hot-glued together. If I can assemble it, then almost anyone could!


Congrats to BuildBrighton and their team!

For more information on the project, check out the team’s element14 blog, their project blog and their Github repository.

Also see our coverage of Pumping Station:One’s entry in the challenge. On Thursday we’ll be profiling the third finalist project, Hackerspace Charlotte’s Feltronics, and we’ll be announcing the winner at Maker Faire Bay Area on Sunday, May 22.


This post was sponsored by element14. Besides the requirement that we cover the three finalists in the Great Global Hackerspace Challenge, they had no control over editorial content.

John Baichtal

My interests include writing, electronics, RPGs, scifi, hackers & hackerspaces, 3D printing, building sets & toys. @johnbaichtal nerdage.net


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