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Tuesday and last week we profiled two of the three finalists of element14’s Great Global Hackerspace Challenge — Pumping Station: One’s Biosdensor Array and BuildBrighton’s Phonicubes. Today we cover Hackerspace Charlotte‘s excellent tool for teaching electronics, Feltronics.

The project consists of felt shapes resembling electronics symbols found in schematics. However, each symbol also features the functionality of the component it depicts — for instance, the resistor symbol really does work as a resistor, thanks to an actual resistor embedded in the felt, as well as wire connecting it to other Feltronics shapes. They also have magnets in them to let you stick your schematic to a vertical surface.

The resulting system is easy to build, inexpensive, and teaches kids not only how to assemble an electronic circuit but also how to read and draw schematics.

I recently interviewed project member Quincy Acklen:

What was it like working on the GGHC challenge?

Working on the GGHC was a lot of fun. The team had great ideas at every turn. Not everyone at our space has the same interests as far as “hacking” and “making” goes, but we all like learning, teaching and doing. This project was a great opportunity for all our varied backgrounds to come together around the idea of teaching other with fairly simple project that anyone can make. And that’s really part of the appeal of Feltronics – anyone can make the pieces and start learning electronics.

How did you split up roles with your teammates?

We didn’t really to place anyone into specific roles on the project. A few natural choices bubbled up – August configured the Arduino and servo as a multi-meter, Ryan printed some templates on the CNC machine, everyone with opposable digits used scissors to cut out the felt pieces, wrap wire, or inflict small burns upon themselves with hot glue.

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

The educational requirement for the project provided more focus for the project than perhaps it should have. The Feltronics project/product is something to help “teach electronics” – we took the very literal approach.

We already had a need to teach basic electronics to members and even visitors in the hackerspace. With the focus of the challenge being teach electronics, we jump on the idea of an electronics project kit. But we wanted it to be a little less daunting than a box of industrial components. Something to soften the first foray into the digital world. And something was fun to play with and that you felt you were allowed to play with – supposed to play with. We wanted it to be easy to go from schematic to working electronics. Bread boards prototypes are easy, and very useful, but they rarely resemble they schematic upon which they’re based. Making that translation from schematic to breadboard can lose some people before they even find their interest. Actual working components that look like and are laid out like their schematic representation solves this problem. Soft pieces that are so inviting and make you want to want to touch them – magnets that click, make you want to try new things just so you care hear that click and see the results – pieces that are big enough to see and identify from the back of the classroom or in pack hackerspace on Hacker Friday – we once we thought of it that this was some we had to have. And if we had to have it, others might like it as well.

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

Feltronics is well suited to kids that are just learning how electricity works and are trying to turn on a light bulb. Big, soft, fuzzy (or squishy) pieces just make it more fun to build and try. It’s really a drop-in replacement for any existing electronics study with real components with the added bonus that you can do it on a whiteboard and write notes around the circuit. And because it’s real electronics components its suitable for adults learning electronics too. The size aspect and that it “looks fun” is great to teach passersby, they see it (from far away) and if they have the tiniest bit of curiosity they can start “playing”.


How durable are the felt pieces?

Your regular garden variety felt is fairly durable in itself and with the added layers glued together it gets more so. We have iterated quite a bit on construction techniques for the pieces. We found that directly attaching some like transistors wasn’t the best idea, because the legs were too easy to break. Also the component was more or less permanently attached to the felt, and to use a component with different properties you would need to make a whole new piece of felt. So we ended up with a design that is very reusable and much more durable. The felt on felt solution can be rolled up and stuffed in a suitcase or backpack for transportation, and then unrolled, neatened up and it’s ready to go. Kind of like a built in “save” function. I have no doubt kids will be able to destroy them though, which is part of why ease of construction is so important. Kids should be able to build the pieces themselves. It’s also worth noting that felt isn’t the only option. Foam is also a very promising option. It offers many of the advantages of felt (bright colors, very dimensional), with the added bonus that schools are very often equipped with and teachers are familiar with using a die machine to stamp out pieces. And it’s a very easy to cut – check a refrigerator of a parent near you – kindergarten children do it all the time.

Did you do a felt Arduino? How did that work?

We started with several plans and schematics we wanted to build into Feltronics. The “Feltduino” was on that list, but we ran out of time. We did however make felt multi-meter using an arduino (actually a diavolino). What we discovered with the arduino is that it has a lot of available pins… most of which you probably won’t need a one time. Trying to put that on felt with the proper spacing would leave very little room on the [large] whiteboard for any other circuitry. The approach we employed for the multi-meter is something that is more doable. You simple mount the arduino itself onto felt and then with magnets to the whiteboard, and then use a standard Feltronics magnetic interconnect wire into the rest of your Feltronics circuit, and the other end of the wire is stripped and inserted into the arduino socket. It’s considerable more practical.

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

I loved XinCheJian sizing up and them summary of the competitors. It was nice to see what everyone was working on and they made it easy. Hack Factory’s 10x circuit board certainly piqued our curiosity out of the gate. Phonicubes was the thing we felt would easily make the finals. You can just pick that up and stick in a store and people will start buying it (which isn’t to say we don’t think we have some advantages in the competition with Feltronics, but theirs is an obviously awesome educational project using electronics). And PsyVision was pretty cool, we’ll need to make that at the HSC. But I was limited in what I could see due to a corporate firewall, and still haven’t looked at all the projects.

One requirement of the contest is that the project be easily reproducible, what sort of skill level is needed to create a Feltronics set for one’s self?

Making a “Feltronics set” is pretty darn easy. There are a couple of options in construction, but at the simplest level you just cut pieces out of felt and glue them together. There are wires and magnets, but you don’t even have to solder them, we just wrapped them kind of snug around the magnets on one end and component leads on the other. Beyond that it’s all about finding the circuits and schematics you want to build / teach / learn. We hope to have a set of lesson plans available for a variety of introductory circuits shortly. Feltronics is also really cheap. You can have a really decent kit (hundreds of resistors, capacitors, etc) and build simple circuits for well under $40 and a kit with an arduino and multi-meter for less than $70. If soldering is an option sockets can be utilized to make swapping components cheaper ($0.03 socket vs. $0.20 x 2 magnets), and easier.


Congrats to the Hackerspace Charlote team for making the cut, and good luck on the final round.

The winner of the Great Global Hackerspace Challenge will be announced at Maker Faire Bay Area on Sunday, May 22 (5pm, Innovation Stage). Contest judges include Mitch Altman, Jeri Ellsworth, Ben Heck, and our very own Gareth Branwyn.


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.