Maker and educator, Debra Ansell is my guest on this episode of Make:cast. She is obsessed with orbs– colorful, LED orbs and she shows us how to build a brightly lit orb in the new issue of Make Magazine. Debra and I talk about the process of developing her orb project. She also talks about her LED pillows based on the Pixel Blaze controller, as well as an LED neck pendant, both of which have been featured in Make Magazine. She volunteers in schools, teaching kids to code using MicroBit. Her studio is full of her brilliant LED creations and she blogs at geekmomprojects.com.
Dale: First of all, welcome Debra. It’s really great to have you on the podcast. And I’ll say for listeners who can’t see where you are, you are in a kind of your lab or studio or lair, and you’re surrounded by all kinds of LED creations. Welcome to the podcast.
Debra: Thank you very much. It’s great to be here. When I’m on a Zoom chat with somebody, that’s my chance to show everything off in the background. I don’t usually turn everything on when I’m working except for maybe the latest project for inspiration. Otherwise it’s a bit like working in a disco. A bit distracting. What’s the point of making great creations if you can’t enjoy them?
Dale: No, it’s wonderful and it’s very stimulating. In the most recent issue of Make, you have this project on building an LED orb, and you go to town on the word orb, don’t you?
Debra: Yeah. I am big into wordplay. I love puns. Anybody who’s followed band social media has seen that if there’s anything I can’t resist, it’s jumping into a pun war, and I hate to let somebody else get the last pun in. I really appreciated the chance to express that in the article. That was a lot of fun for me.
Dale: Essentially that project is building a cube and then building a sphere that’s a shell around that cube. So that all the little squares in that sphere light up in unique ways. Is that a reasonable description?
Debra: Very reasonable. Again, for people who can’t see, a lot of what I’m surrounded by are interesting, illuminated geometric shapes. That’s a big fascination of mine. I like math, a lot. Geometry is fun, especially when you’re working with CAD programs.
You’re thinking a lot about shapes and how things fit together. And the mathematics behind it is all very interesting. So I’ve done a lot of things with shapes and the sphere was a challenge because I just have this feeling that spheres are somehow cooler than polyhedra. Spheres is the extreme limit of when you have infinite sides what happens. But they’re hard to make, right? Because electronics and boards come on flat surfaces and LEDs, have flat top, at least if they’re on a circuit board, they’re laid out flat. And I’ve seen some beautiful orb builds and I talk about this in the article and I always wanted to make one, but structurally it always felt like a challenge.
The kind of the aha moment was it was a series of aha moments, but because I’ve done so many projects with light and light piping, I’m always looking for ways to use a little bit of light to illuminate a larger area. And I wondered if I could somehow pipe the light, not build a spherical electronic build, but somehow pipe the light out to a spherical shell, could I use a simpler internal structure.
Again, so that was the first kind of step in the solving what I call ” circling the square” moment. Then the second one was literal, again, it’s in the article, but I was literally I’m not sure what I was looking for, but I stumbled across an article about how when you projection map in computer graphics, a lot of times you’ll have a surface of a cube and images on six sides of a cube that you want to project out to a sphere. And there’s a very specific mapping that people tend to use, again, for computer graphics. But I saw it and said, aha, that’s the mapping. That’s how you get the light from the cube to the sphere.
Because I had been thinking about it in terms of like, When you divide a globe into latitude and longitude and the shapes, the pieces don’t fit easily. It’s not clear how you map that to a cube. So once I saw that, that began the true meaning of the word “orbsession”, and it took a lot of prototyping to get there.
Dale: One of the things I like about your article is, you tell us, about some other projects that were inspiring to you that got started in this and that you had to iterate over it many times. I think for some people, particularly some young people, they think these things are born instantly into the world, and it takes a struggle to get them just right.
Debra: Yeah. That’s actually a big focus of mine because I do work in education and with young people, and none of this is easy. And for every great success I have that gets a wonderful article in Make Magazine, there are a lot of failures– there are a lot of abject failures that just never see the light of day.
My method of working is just prototype, check it out, eh, tweak, prototype again, check it out, tweak so you don’t see just how long it took this particular idea. I was never discouraged because I knew it was going to work, but getting it to look just like I wanted took so many prototypes.
You can, I know you’re view, if you’re just listening, you can’t, but you can see some of them behind me.
It’s fun. No, it’s fun. Once I got the prototype working, I made it in different sizes. It’s like the three bears. There’s a little one, a big one. . And the one that’s just right is in the article the one, it turned out to be easiest to build because the other, the first one was really hard.
The challenge in writing the article was it’s a fabulous build. I love this. It makes me so happy. But to make it straightforward for somebody else to build was a separate challenge. And I realized of the three sizes I created, of the three models, the middle size one was actually far more straightforward to build than the others.
That was also a revelation. In fact, I started the article intending to write up the larger one. Then as I was trying to write down the steps and the article got longer and longer , I said, this is gonna be really hard to explain to people and people are gonna get frustrated.
And I emailed Keith, the editor, and said is it possible to shift it to the smaller orb because I think people will be able to make that and enjoy that and we just show the bigger ones so the build files are up, available for the bigger ones, but I think if you’re gonna jump into something like this, the middle size one. And the write-up was just more satisfying explaining to people, this is how you can do it. Not necessarily how I did it and good luck to you, but this is how you can do it.
Dale: That’s a really great point. One of the things that I think has always been our purpose at Make Magazine is to not only share projects that are really cool, but share the instructions so that you can attempt to do them. And you know that replication of the project is even the maker, as you said, the maker themselves probably didn’t follow exactly those instructions because they had to figure this out through various iterations and now they’re reflecting back over the course of a number of things and say I can eliminate that step where I need to do something different here, or this caused a problem and I could solve that. I didn’t know that I was getting into that. All these different things, when you create something, all of that is part of that process, right?
Debra: Absolutely. Oh, 1000%. I mean, you make a make a very good point of that when you go back and try to describe the build for somebody else. There’s so much that you leave out and you say, oh yeah, I do this differently. And the difficulty is, of course, a couple of things– I’ll stack them up.
The first thing is whenever I finish a brand new build and I post online and someone said, can I have the instructions? And I think about the circuitous route I actually took to get this very first prototype working and think, you don’t want these instructions, you really don’t. And I’m not sure I could even remember them.
So then, of course, when you simplify them to try to make it easier for someone, you still have to rebuild it. And the process of simplifying them is, again, iterative. Because what’s the best way and what works best? My methodology, which is a lot of, throwing things against a wall to see if they stick, is not maybe the best for everybody else.
The process of actually writing this article is responsible for a large number of the prototypes behind me. I’m just trying to get it into a form that would be useful and enjoyable by somebody else. And I like that process. I take a lot of pride in making a project that others can make themselves.
That is a huge accomplishment for me because, and don’t get me wrong, I love these amazing builds I see from somebody that you look at and say this is incredible. I love the like Jeri Prauss’s circuit sculpture. It’s wonderful. I completely lack the soldering skills and artistic ability to do what they do. I appreciate it and love to see it. But I get an enormous thrill out of hearing from somebody that they built a project I designed that’s wonderful to me and then makes me very happy to hear.
Dale: I always think in terms of a cookbook, it’s like a recipe that others can follow rather than some gourmet chef’s four-hour preparation of food for dinner, or small dish. Anyway you’ve done a number of projects. I looked online, I saw about six or so projects for Make over the years.
Before this one, you did this Pixel Blaze pillow set. Tell us a bit about that one.
Debra: Oh, I’m glad you asked. I love that project. Everything I do, almost everything I do incorporates LEDs because I just don’t know. I enjoy them.
I say I’m like a mag pie with bright shiny objects. But one of the most fun ways to approach making with electronics for me is to try to incorporate them in places you wouldn’t expect them. So wearables are obviously a big, a big field I like to create in.
And this is a little bit of an extension of wearables because they’re cuddly. There are pillows you can lie on and squish and these wonderful LED strings that don’t really have sharp edges or sharp circuit boards poking out worked beautifully.
I don’t know how that inspiration occurred to me. I think it was actually an evolution of me trying to use these very soft, flexible LED strings in a wearable and then realizing, and there are challenges in that still. And one of these days I’m going to make a dress with an LED matrix that plays Tetris. That’s my end goal.
Realizing there are challenges there, I thought, a pillow; nobody has to wear it, but it’s easier. It’s a simple shape and it’s perfect for a matrix and could we make this work? That was a project that required almost no iteration that came together very quickly once I figured it out.
I just enjoyed it entirely. And got great response. And Ben Henke who created the Pixel Blaze Controller, I actually, the best thing about doing that writeup for Make Magazine is I’ve created the first prototype but didn’t photograph all the steps. So to write it up, I needed to create another set of pillows and Ben is a good friend and I love his Pixel Blaze controller. It’s in a lot of projects I use. And he loved the pillows and I said hey, I am running low on pixel blaze controllers, but I don’t need two sets of pillows. Maybe we can do a swap. So after I finished creating the pillows that I photographed for the article, I sent them up to Ben and he sent me down a load of really fun and great electronics. So it was a great barter; it was win-win all around.
Dale: That’s great. I ran into you at SiliCon and you were in a booth there with, talking to other people. But, it’s really. I don’t know. It always makes me feel happy to see how makers collaborate and connect to each other and just as with the Pixel Blaze, you get a piece from someone, but you also get that person right. And yes, you’re doing your own work. There’s no question about that. But you’re, there’s, I think the other thing was it a wristband that you were working on?
Debra: I’ve done, oh yeah. Those were, that were audio. It’s another project. But anyway, yes I’ve done a lot of wearable wristband bracelet,
Dale: But kind like where the idea pings back and forth among a group to say how it could be better. That’s gotta be a lot of fun.
Debra: It’s a blast. I love — it’s such fun to talk to members of the Maker community because they get excited about your ideas and want to help. You never have the fear of, oh, if I talk to somebody, are they gonna steal this idea. They really just want to see where you can take your ideas and everybody, and you exactly as you said, learn so much from talking to others.
The best collaboration I’ve been involved with, involved Jason Coon, who has been in your magazine and Ben Hencke and myself collaborated and were written up in Make for creating a wearable LED neck pendant, which you can see.
I joke, but it’s true. It was a fantastic opportunity to work with them. We happened to have three complimentary pieces that had almost no overlap but worked perfectly together. It’s like Reese’s peanut butter cup with a third component somehow.
Dale: What were the pieces?
Debra: Jason has. I’m gonna put in a little plug.
You should go see Evil Genius Labs Tindie store because he does wonderful things with circuit boards and these beautiful organic Fibonacci spiral shapes, and then some also creative decorative things. So he has this Fibonacci circuit board and has done them in a variety of sizes and it’s a beautiful display.
There’s something very organic and appealing about the layout of a fibonacci spiral. Ben has this wonderful Pixel Blaze Controller that makes it easy to create your own patterns and map them and to use the same pattern on different arrangements of pixels and dynamically change them in real time.
Again, huge fan. And of both of their work, and then I had coincidentally created a behind the neck battery holder for wearables. So I can’t think of a trio. David Groom who wrote the article made an hysterical comparison to like musical trio, and I’m not, I had to admit to him I’m not big into music and I didn’t know all the reference. He was a little aghast, but but I said to him, we’re like a trio. I think my collaboration was a bit more like the Garfunkel of Simon and Garfunkel, but as Jason and Ben very nicely put it, it was the piece that ties it all together. So I provided the power and they have the kinda the brains and the beauty, I guess that would be like, yeah.
Jason would be the beauty, Ben would be the brains, and I’m not sure. Somehow, I’m not sure what I’m doing there, but but it was so much fun to work with them. It really was.
Dale: The body holding them together, wow.
Can you talk about one of the things you say in your, you’re, you’ve been into open source projects and, I think sometimes that gets lost in the discussion of what people are doing and why is that important to you? And just explain that.
Debra: It’s particularly important to me because I’m hoping that people will benefit from the same kind of experience I benefited from when I first got into making in tech in the first place. I’ve told this story a number of times, but I’ll repeat it briefly here.
I had a science background but not really hands-on making. I have a math and physics education and I’d taken electronics lab but never really quite understood it. I didn’t grow up tinkering or putting things together and got into it when I was a stay-at-home mom and my middle son was on a robotics team. I thought this is a lot of fun putting things together in electronics and I can do this and, I had a coding background, but not so much physical computing or hands-on electronics.
And was able to really learn a lot from all of the information that was online. I was referred pretty quickly to Arduino and there were so many blog posts in particular and write-ups for projects that people had done that I was able to recreate myself. And that’s really how I gained almost all the electronics skills I have.
I’m lucky that I had the background of at least. I understand electricity; I understand resistors and capacitors. Even there’s a big difference between the theoretical knowledge and doing it. And frankly, if you have none of that, you can still learn it all. There’s so many people who never had a formal education
Debra: In this topic and just started in their garage. And, oh, the best way to learn is by doing. And, I’ve learned more from my mistakes. Letting out that little magic puff of smoke that makes you go, oh no. Then honestly, by having things go right because when it goes wrong, you really understand what’s happening inside it.
Dale: I was gonna say earlier when you were talking about some of your failures, you remember those that are special, don’t you?
Debra: Oh, yeah. Especially the expensive ones. I can rank them in descending order. But so it’s the reason I started my blog is because I learned so much from my other peoples, and I figured, that’s what you do. You just give back. You write down your process and maybe somebody can get something from what I’m doing.
Dale: I think goes back to that idea of collaboration and sometimes you collaborate directly with someone and sometimes it’s indirect. You just pass that on. And as you said in your article, you’ve found some projects online that got you started thinking about how to do this, and then you took it a little further in a or in a different direction.
Debra: All the time. I’m constantly inspired by what I see and I love There’s no higher compliment for somebody to say, oh, hey, I took your project and by the way, I did this with it. And I’m like, yes, that’s fantastic. I understand but I’m not also out here trying to make a living with these projects.
This is, yeah, I’m learning a lot and I’m having fun and I do hope that. I’m able to kinda give back educationally to people. So yeah, I’m like, open source is the — look what you can build when you all put in a little piece and there’s so much to be gained forever. It really is win-win for everybody.
Dale: I think just the way you talk even about the necklace, a lot of this is just what phrase I’ve heard “combinatorial innovation.” It’s just like putting different things together in different ways and open source makes, these are like lots of components. And I was gonna say just for just to come back to the Pixel Blaze a minute, like you could do some of this stuff starting with the base electronics in Arduino or some things.
But what we’ve begun to see is people are providing other layers on top that simplify, so you can get a display board and a Pixel Blaze. And you’ve got LEDs going, and being able to manipulate that and the code is all there for you. It’s there.
Debra: Absolutely. I’m a big believer in not reinventing the wheel. In fact, somebody I was talking, I was lucky enough to be on a live stream with Becky Stern, who’s one of — she was a big inspiration for me when I was getting started. Her name was everywhere. I’m like, wow, look at what you can do. You don’t have to make a car or a robot.
You can take these electronics and do these incredibly creative things. And she made a really good point, which is you can take, it is making, and it is really good making to take electronics that work fundamentally and put them in a different context. Take an LED strip that has a controller, like a Pixel Blaze attached and is doing wonderful patterns.
And then figure a way to put it in your clothing so they look really cool. That’s making, and that’s great. And you have added something to that. You don’t need to start from scratch. To take credit for creating something and to enjoy. Why? Why? Because you will learn what you need to learn and why reinvent the wheel every time?
I wouldn’t get nearly as much done if I had to build things from first principles each time.
Dale: I want to take a little time to talk about some of your work in education.
You said something about your own education, which I think is pretty interesting. You were in science — applied math and physics, but you didn’t really get a hands-on education or in the same way that we might think about that today.
And it’s fine. There’s folks that, that do that. But I am very interested myself in getting more kids who sometimes, they’re not open to doing science or they’re not open to doing math, but when you can introduce it experientially they dive in and really make something of it.
Debra: Yeah, no, I’m in huge agreement. I don’t have a pedagogical background at all other than working with my kids. And I’ve been very fortunate to be able to volunteer my time with an organization in Los Angeles called PS Science, who have amazing science teachers. And I got to bring in a little bit of extra knowledge on making and electronics and programming that combined with their teaching skills, got a chance to really use it in creative, fun ways to create programs for kids to learn to code and projects for summer camps that they could do. They’re not even really aware that they’re actually doing science at the time.
It’s a kind of a broad question, so I’m gonna, I’ll jump into it at one end. I think that you don’t know what you can do till you try it. And things are very abstract when you are talking about them, but I get a really big kick out of– I love teaching young kids to code. I love introducing elementary school students to drag and drop coding.
I am an enormous fan of Microbit and their foundation and what they have done with their product because it is geared towards teaching children to code through physical computing.
And that’s what they’re aimed at and they do it so well. And it was a really, I had start, I started teaching kids to code with PS Science Group before Microbit came out. I tried very hard with the drag and drop Arduino, and it was okay, but it was really challenging to explain what was going on. And then Microbit came out and it was such a thrill to give this to these kids. Within half an hour, I’d show them, here you drag and drop.
Let’s make an animation. That’s always the first thing we did is you drag and drop code blocks to form a series of pictures on the screen. Download it to this little tiny, pretty indestructible by the way– cause I’ve seen kids try– indestructible control board and watch it do what they want it to do and they can hold it in their hand.
It’s not just happening on a computer screen. It’s not this abstract flat two-dimensional process that they’re just watching. It’s something they can hold in their hands and push buttons and make respond to real- world input. And they get so excited. And then I get to tell them after after only half an hour, guess what?
You coded something. You’re a coder. You can do this. And my goal is less at that stage to teach them they’re learning to code, they’re learning about loops and they’re learning about the code goes at the beginning. I’m like, you’re a coder. You created this; you made something work. Congratulations. That’s what everybody does. They just do it in a slightly more complicated way. And, hopefully it’s an aha moment to them. My goal is later on when they hear about coding, they’re not gonna say, oh, that sounds weird and hard. They’re like, oh yeah, I did that. I can do that again.
Dale: You also bring to this is that creative that, as you talk about these things all around you, it’s just, how do I do that? Like, how do I get an orb like that? Look at that pattern that’s going across that sphere, that’s so interesting.
And that’s, coding or programming or various other things too. It opens the door to, I think sometimes this sort of both science and coding get put in this context that’s somewhat serious and not very playful. That I hope educationally we can open those doors a little bit because the getting the connection between the arts and technology I think is really powerful.
Debra: Yeah it’s hard. I will say this. Even as someone who’s pretty comfortable with the tech, it’s really hard. It’s more work to set up a learning process with so many moving parts.
Debra: Where the kids are gonna learn by making mistakes. And you have to be comfortable. A lot of times you will have to step in and say to the kid, oh, if that happens, you reboot the computer. Or don’t hook that red wire to that black wire. That’s bad. Things like that. You go, that’s why your microbit got really warm. So it’s a little intimidating and it’s definitely a lot of work. There’s just a lot of pieces to keep track of when they’re building. But I think that it brings so much and the creativity they, kids can express when they say, I made this, not just, I learned this but I made this is really worth it.
Just coincidence. Slightly off topic, but through my publication of The Rainbow Project and I think one of my first projects in Make Magazine, I was contacted by a woman who is teaching in an Orthodox Jewish girl school in New York,
which is not the kind of place you think of as a hotbed of making innovation, and she has a math background.
She doesn’t have a making background, but she has read and she has learned, and she has strolled the internet and she has created this fabulous makerspace in an Orthodox Jewish girls, a modern Orthodox Jewish girls yeshiva. Yes. 3D printers. These kids use their skills to– they go out into other schools and they interview kids, from kids with with differences and difficulties and find out what these kids like and they’ll use their interview with the kids and the tech skills they learned with her to build like toys for these kids, incorporating electronics and things like that.
And it’s wonderful and it’s a lot of work for her. But the ability to synthesize coding and electronics and frankly design work and and even interaction, like human user interaction and all these things. I think they’re getting a very unique education in that school.
Dale: It does take another level of work to make this happen in education .It’s perhaps why we need people like you and others that volunteer and do other work in educational programming that can help with this.
It really does make a difference in young people’s lives to be able to see themselves as creative and doing these things. The sense of agency that we talk about, the sense that — I’m looking at things in your room that behind them is a process to make those things and to get familiar with that process, really can change your world rather than just say oh, that’s an amazing, wall mounted display with all kinds of things going on at no it’s, behind it as a controller that’s doing these things and is programmed and I can change that and it, there are all these patterns. All these things, if you’re curious, it opens doors for you.
Debra: Yeah, no, I
think you’re very right. I think curiosity is a very key motivator because all kids are curious.
Debra: And that curiosity doesn’t often get to express itself in an educational setting because they’re not necessarily learning about the things that interest them most.
So when you’re making, you can take, sure, there’s stuff you’re gonna learn that maybe you didn’t really want to know– how capacitors work or why you need them in an LED. But once you figure that out, look what you get to put these LED in this wristband, the creativity is part of the process and and the flexibility.
That kind of making in education gives you, allows that creativity to drive the process versus your standard school education where you gotta learn this stuff and you don’t necessarily get to choose how you use it. It’s not nearly as much fun. And all kids are curious. Everyone’s curious. You start to, I think lose that a little bit as you’re older, so to be able to retain some of that.
Dale: But Debra, you’re curious and that’s why you’re a good maker.
Debra: Thank you. It’s frankly one of the reasons I like working with kids.
They’re the only ones. They’re the ones, not the only ones, but they’re the ones who will get– I always like to say appropriately excited about the really cool things in life. I know when the Mars Rover landed and it had this parachute within a code in it, and I found this out and I thought this was the coolest thing ever.
And, I’m talking to other people like, did you know there’s a code in this para? And don’t, and people I talk to be like, yeah. And then I talk to the kids, they’re like, yeah, a code. Wow. That, that was it’s, it goes both ways. I get a lot from working with them.
Dale: You mentioned this about makers and it’s just this, the enthusiast, the person that really does get excited about this stuff and you really bond with people over that if they, if you are enthusiastic about the same things. Yes. Or even have that kind of enthusiasm. It may not be for the thing that someone else is interested in, but you can get how it drives them, how it lights them up, really. And it’s a wonderful connection to have with another person.
Debra: That’s exactly right.
Yeah. I don’t have a great filter, so when I’m excited, you know it. The maker community really responds positive to the — maker community and kids. They have a lot in common that respect. They respond positively to that.
Dale: Debra, thank you for your time today and it’s great talking to you and your wonderful workshop here. Different LED patterns go light or dark and your face goes light or dark. So it’s interesting.
Debra: Yeah, I know. It’s a great place to be.