Sometimes you come across an object, device, or tool so compelling that you make up excuses to use it. This is how I feel about the Arduino, an open source, low-cost, easy-to-use electronics proto-typing system designed to be used by people of all skill levels, from rank beginner to high wizard (see MAKE, Volume 07, page 52, “Arduino Fever”).

That’s why I hosted a contest at an internal Technology Summit held biennially by Adobe Systems, where I work as a senior computer scientist, in San Jose, Calif. The goal of the event was to put designers and developers on equally unfamiliar ground, while at the same time providing a problem to solve that would require the best from both mindsets. The loftier goal was to help them learn to appreciate each other, but we weren’t holding our breath on that one. Robyn Orr and Julie Spiegler, frequent collaborators on my hairbrained schemes, agreed to help me make it happen.

Knowing that developers are less comfortable with a subjective measurement of success, we crafted a goal that could be empirically determined: “Create an object that will keep a judge engaged for the longest amount of time,” with engagement* defined as “from the time the judge opens the box containing your object, to when they close the box.”

In order to keep the judges from self-consciously adjusting their engagement, they would not be told about the time factor and instead would be asked to give each object a completely subjective rating based on a scale of one to five stars.

Now we had the idea and a good working definition; all that remained was to work out a budget and parts list. The Arduino runs about $35, so we decided on a budget of $75, leaving $40 for parts. Some of that would be eaten up by nonnegotiable items like the USB cable necessary to program the Arduino, a 9-volt battery, a battery clip, the box the parts would all fit in, and tools each team would need to work with. Whatever was left had to sustain the creative needs of the designers within the technological capabilities of the system. The folks at MAKE enthusiastically agreed to loan us workbenches and to supply some covetable MAKE items to supplement the grand prize.

With the challenge established, we refined the parts list. Since the idea started with the Arduino, that’s where we started as well. We knew we needed some forms of packaging that would accommodate the circuit board, a breadboard, and at least a battery. None of the traditional electronics project boxes had the tactile aesthetics we wanted, so we looked elsewhere for suitable alternatives. We found them in the aisles of Ikea: plastic dishware and food storage containers in lots of colors, shapes, and sizes — all easy to hack with a drill and a box cutter.

Then there was a series of thought experiments about what kinds of experiences could be built into these containers. Holding the plastic cups and boxes in our hands, we said things like, “You could put switches here and here and a couple of lights to make a puzzle. What about a little R2-D2 thing that makes beeps and chirps? Wouldn’t it be cool if …?”

That got us to a list that we separated into input and output capabilities. With only four hours to learn to program the Arduino, build the object, and wire it up, we decided to eliminate the more exotic items that required sophisticated development and focused on collecting reliable and fault-tolerant components — switches, lights, speakers, and a little motor normally used to make cellphones buzz. For fun we added three-color LEDs that could, with a little extra effort, be made to shine in almost any color, and a couple of photosensors that would be easy to connect to the analog inputs of the Arduino.

The switches and some of the LEDs were bought in bulk 100-piece grab bags, so rather than risk giving one team better parts by accident, we put poker chips in each box that could be traded for parts from a common table. One chip bought exactly one switch, light, cup, straw, plate, or box. We were feeling generous, so teams could take a whole handful of the little plastic beads and assorted doohickeys.

We also allowed teams to barter with each other, or trade a part they didn’t want for one they did (as long as it was available on the parts table). No intrinsic valuation of parts was made and a strict one-for-one basis made for some interesting trades: one toggle switch for one red straw, one possibly burned-out LED for one lime-green bowl. Many suggestions were ignored about establishing a currency that valued the multicolored LEDs higher than the invisible infrared LEDs. The uncomplimentary lighting in the room resulted in wholesale dumping of the photosensors, while the pressure switches were surprisingly popular.

To prepare for the event, we filled each box with identical supplies, including a CD with some sample code and simple documentation. We arrayed the remaining items on the parts table, set up shared tools on the tools table, and powered up the projector to display the simple rules. We displayed the prizes and MAKE schwag prominently at the front of the room, and of course we had T-shirts printed up to commemorate the event.

I stood behind the podium and looked out over the empty MAKE tables. In just a few moments we would open the doors and let the teams in, and chaos would almost certainly ensue. There had been last-minute panics and near cancellation of the event when it was learned that the fire alarms might go off if we used soldering irons inside the auditorium, but with some deft negotiation and the addition of an industrial fume extraction system that looked like it was going to inhale some of the contestants, we got the green light.

Robyn opened the doors and as the teams spilled into the room, Julie used an LED and a resistor as a litmus test to determine technical savvy and ensure that each team had someone who remembered something about electronics (“Do you know what these are?”).

The time passed all too quickly. At the one-hour mark, few of the teams had the Arduino’s “Hello World” blinking light working. Many were still making drawings on notepads and holding cups and plates to illustrate how their device might work. At two hours, only a few teams hadn’t yet got the light to blink, and furious trading and general construction and development had begun. The level of excitement in the room rose as strange objects took shape, blinking and buzzing to announce their arrival. At three hours, general activity rose to a frenzied pitch.

Original plans were abandoned as the deadline loomed, and hasty fallback solutions were crafted. The last team not to get a blinking light suddenly realized that their Arduino was actually broken and it was swapped for a spare.

At the announcement of “Fifteen minutes to go!” moans and groans erupted among the contestants, and emissaries were dispatched to the podium to negotiate for more time. With five minutes left, some teams were trying to dress up their creations and pass off a simple blinking light as a game or toy, but two of the teams were completely done, leisurely spending the last few moments to review their code and weed out any last bugs. At “Time’s up!” most of the teams began reluctantly scooping partially completed devices into the judging boxes. Under the strain of being lifted, wires pulled free and some of the devices did not survive the boxification process.

Judging took place in a conference room ten floors up, where we’d gathered some of the digerati of Adobe to evaluate the projects. If getting the objects into the box was a risky endeavor, getting them out proved to be downright dangerous, and many more finished objects perished at the judges’ tables. However, the nonworking objects proved to be as fascinating as the working ones, and by our strict rules, many of the broken ones scored as high or higher than the working objects. Of the working ones, a polyphonic flute/trumpet easily proved to be the judges’ highest subjectively ranked object.

The day’s clear winner, based on total time of engagement, was a nonworking puzzle game that involved dropping colored beads down channels that led past photosensors. Tantalizingly, a blinking light deep inside the object suggested that if beads were dropped at the right time, something would happen. But nothing did happen, and the judges gave up playing with it, but only after many minutes of trying.

Two days later prizes were awarded at a simple ceremony, and the excitement over the grand prize paled in comparison to the absolute glee expressed by the teams when they were given back their creations. Later, we found some of the teams gathered around tables resurrecting their devices.

The overwhelming response from participants has been, “Let’s do it again, only we get all day to do it — I know exactly what we’re going to make next time!” Well, we’re changing the rules next time, and there’s going to be a new list of parts to contend with ….

Gever Tulley

Gever Tulley

Gever founded Tinkering School in 2005 in order to learn how children become competent and to explore the notion that kids can build anything, and through building, learn anything. A self-taught computer scientist with no formal education, Gever’s expertise is really in… thinking. Gever has taught workshops and made presentations to both kids and adults around the world. He has spoken at TED, twice, written articles for Make:, and authored the book Fifty Dangerous Things (you should let your children do).

Related Supplies at Maker Shed