Making a music box

04 December 2015

Twinklr itself

I don’t tend to blog work much over here – that’s kept on my professional site – but this is a good one:

I’m pleased to announce Richard Birkin and I have been selected as part of the 2015-2016 cohort. We’ve received funding to work until April 2016 on a new iteration of Twinklr – our physical/digital music box.

More at my site. Suffice to say: this is tickling lots of my interests (which you might have seen hinted at in the past year of links) – hardware; building tools for creation, building instruments for performance, improvisation, and composition; the interface of technology, music and sound. Quite excited.

Not written here for a while. That’s not deliberate; just been busy, keeping up with work, keeping up with life. Lots ticking away in my head, for sure. So, as a way back into keeping the ball in the air, I thought I’d take another pass at five things that are currently in my head (five years ago, that list looked like this).

Non-traditional (and irregular) ways of composing music

I’m working with Richard on building a music box. You know: holes in paper, a handle you crank, tines being struck. Although ours is electronic: there’s no paper, and no tines; you punch holes in virtual paper with your finger, and can easily remove them if you don’t like them. The handle’s very much real, though, and that leads to all manner of analogue compromises – lumpy rhythms, the ability to play melodies backwards, and so forth. I write about this in my Weeknotes from time to time.

It’s an interesting way of coming up with music, though: sometimes, it’s cranking the handle at the right speed – or right selection of speeds – that makes the music happen. Sometimes, it’s the notes you choose. Sometimes, you don’t even choose them: it’s just a picture you paint with your fingers. It’s an interesting UI for composition, and it leads to all manner of interesting irregularities.

It also can talk to other MIDI devices. As of the latest stable release, Chrome supports WebMIDI, which means it can talk to MIDI ports from inside the browser, just using Javascript. And that means our music box can control anything with a MIDI input, from a software synthesizer, to external hardware. And that’s exciting: the idea that the browser is a platform for experimenting with note-generation.

That leads to interesting sound experiments, but also things that aren’t musical: I’ve long been fascinated with the idea of using grids like the Launchpad as a UI, and now that’s all doable inside my browser. I keep wondering what a render() method within Backbone for a Launchpad would look like.

(I’ve also been thinking about this having seen my friend James’ work on a sequencer for modular synthesizers, and the way unusual UIs force you into different compositional habits. There’s so much beyond timelines and steps to explore!)

The music box – Twinklr – has inspired the next item on the list, too.

Making PCBs

I’m spending a while at the moment thinking about making PCBs.

I’m really bored of the slightly amateur stripboard I tend to make circuits from, so am hoping to manufacture the PCBs inside Twinklr myself. That means learning how to route PCBs from schematics or ideas in my head, for starters. I’m using Fritzing of all things – EAGLE makes me feel stupid – but am making progress on some PCBs that are getting passable elegant. I even have a ground fill:


Of course, the next thing is manufacturing them, and I have all manner of tabs open with different recommendations on chemicals, techniques, and so forth. But it’s moving forward slowly, and I’m hoping that there won’t be any more unpleasant stripboards in future. Initial prototypes are suggesting that my homebrew PCBs might not be a go-er, and I might want to move to letting professionals manufacture them. But for now, I’m going to feel the materials with my own hands, and try not to get Ferric Chloride on anything.

Writing music

I’m slowly, carefully, returning to writing music again. I’ve produced music – largely electronic – since my late teens. Back then, it was on a variety of esoteric hardware. Now, it’s mainly inside computers, but with a growing tangle of instruments outside it.

I find this really hard.

What I find is: I will disappear into textures and sound design and harmonies and rhythms for hours on end, possibly just exploring the possibilities of a single sound… and by the time I ‘come up for air’, I hate everything I’ve done. Finding a way to compose with constant forward momentum, not looking back, not comparing myself to anything else I’ve heard… is so challenging.

It’s also rewarding: when I come back to something a day later and even if it’s not the best thing in the world, it’s a thing I’m happy to spend time with, a thing I have new ideas with. I hate the creative rollercoaster, and what I’m finally finding a way to do is to cling on and not let go. I still don’t like it, but I’d stopped riding it because I was afraid. And now I’m not. I’m working on finding ways to not repeat myself, not to fall into the same shaped holes, the same patterns and riffs. Which is also hard. But I’m turning up, at least.

I don’t mention the output, much. The Internet made our past-times and interests performative: sharing and showing-off are easy to confuse, and sometimes, I’m making sounds and music for myself. I’m so used to sharing things to all manner of services but, for the time being, it’s mainly just staying on my hard disk. It’s giving me pleasure; it’s time well spent. One day, I might share it.

Streaming, and its relationship to craft

I watch a surprising amount of Twitch: a service through which people stream themselves playing games. They’re not just sharing a screen; high-end streamers have chromakey rigs to insert themselves into the image, and manage large communities of people… who watch them playing videogames. It’s usually not nearly as interesting as it has the potential to be – although it’s great to tune into Evo live.

I know I said hobbies weren’t performative, but I’m fascinated by streaming things that aren’t games; streaming crafting, perhaps. (I greatly enjoyed BBC Four’s Handmande strand, three half-hour films of craftspeople at work as part of Four Goes Slow)


This chap does glassblowing on Twitch. I’ve watched a few people produce or compose music on camera. I watched a Counterstrike streamer get a hugely enthusiastic channel chatting whilst they watched him chilling out, putting together plastic model kits, one camera on his hands, the other as usual on his face:

2015 05 14 at 22 53

It works surprisingly well. Obviously, it’s very time-consuming for large projects, but consider how sharing works in analogue craft: the tradition of ‘stitch and bitch‘ is as much about injecting a social element into a potentially solitary craft as it is about sharing with others. Recently, I have often wondered what Stitch On Twitch would look like. Not watching someone make a whole quilt: an hour of tuning in to chat to them whilst you craft too.

Slightly unformed, but it’s floating around my head. Streaming isn’t particularly great, but I think it’s suited to things people aren’t broadcasting on it yet.

Windows of time: schedules rather than moments

I really like the Spotify Weekly Discover Playlist. I like it because, so far, it’s been really good at recommending things to me. But I also like it because it’s weekly. It’s not updated every time I go to it; I have time for those selections to bed in, to listen to it like a mixtape. And because it comes around once a week, it then generates anticipation – looking forward to my new mixtape from the Spotify machinery. It’s not manufactured scarcity; it’s not the fiddly, artificial limitations of so many dual-currency free to play games; it’s just schedule. It’s a fixed window of time, rather than a right-now moment.

I still regularly play Destiny (Bungie’s MMO-FPS hybrid) and one of its strong points is its weekly calendar. (Apologies for the brace of jargon incoming – I’ll do my best to explain). Every week, the universe resets: a new Strike (like a Dungeon in World of Warcraft) gets picked to be the ultra-challenging “Nightfall”; a new Strike is slotted into the weekly ‘heroic’ strike slot, for players not up to a Nightfall; new playmodes are rotated into PVP; sometimes, a new temporary event runs for the week. On a Friday, the Trials of Osiris – hardcore endgame PVP for the very few – start, and run over the weekend. On Friday morning, the mysterious vendor Xûr turns up for 48 hours, and everybody sighs as he doesn’t have the three things they want. And if you don’t finish it all by Monday night – well, it’ll reset at 10am GMT Tuesday anyway.

Sometimes, the schedule enforces scarcity – trying to finish the Iron Banner event before the week is out; sometimes, it enables planning – getting friends together to run a Nightfall at the beginning of the week, so as to benefit from the XP boost. Sometimes, it’s just a reason to check back in to the universe. And if there’s nothing that week to do for you – well, you don’t need to turn up. Maybe swing by in the future. It gives the game a long tail to players who enjoy it, without forcing them to check in to “top up”, like so many Free To Play games.

I like schedules because they’re actually surprisingly easy to fit into life: if they don’t fit into your schedule this week, it doesn’t matter, because it’ll all start again next week anyhow – you’ll get a new playlist; you’ll get a chance to run a different Nightfall. But at the same time: it’s not constant newness, all the time; the weekly schedule gives you a chance to stick your finger in the page for a period of time.

I am not sure what this will get applied to in my own practice, but it’s a thing at the back of my mind.

And that’s five. A bit malformed, but what’s floating around in my head for now. When I’m quiet, it’s usually because I’m busy.

I went to Australia

17 November 2014

Little Oberon Bay
People will ask me what’s the most exciting wildlife you saw, and I suppose I could say the ibises, or the pelicans, or the field full of kangaroos, and those were all pretty special, but you know, it was the sea.

Soft in the bays and inlets; warlike on the rocky coasts; broad and grand at Bondi. Every wave is new; every iteration unique. I could watch it roll, listen to it roar, taste the salt sprayed into the air for hours.

And gosh, the colour; they really don’t call it the Sapphire Coast for nothing.

Wild, untamed; not like the Pacific on the West Coast, not like the Atlantic. Something else. My favourite wild thing.

Quiet around here

05 January 2014

I write here a bit less these days. Mainly, I’m writing weeknotes and doing work over at my professional site.

Work has gone well, this past year. I covered that in yearnotes at the other place. Lots of things to be proud of: art, engineering, design, and even some time off.

We launched Contributoria, the community-backed journalism site I’ve been working on.

I continue to tinker and work away: some hardware for work, making connected objects; some hardware at home, building noisy effects pedals; various bits of software I still haven’t written up, including endless episodes of Friends and a version of me that lives in New York.

No, things are no less strange than normal.

But otherwise, I keep beavering away, writing when there’s a chance, tinkering for a living, and getting on. As such, it’s more links-than-prose here, but that’s OK, I think: trust me when I say it’s for the good reason. I’m hoping to exercise my games-brain again in 2014, and to make some more music, and all manner of things shall be very well.

I thought it was worth checking in, though, because lots of stuff is happening, and it’s all good. Just not always stuff I write about here. Onwards!

I’m going to be speaking at LDNIA in August. The talk’s called The Material World, and is a prototype – or “radio edit”, if you like – of my forthcoming talk at Webdagene:

The modern designer works with more materials than ever before. Not just tangible materials, such as the web, or desktop software, or the smartphone; also, intangible ‘immaterials’ such as data, time, radio, and the network.

To design well with materials, be they tangible or not, we need to be conversant in them, acutely aware of their capabilities. How do we develop that familiarit?

Through a process of material exploration. Not just reading the documentation or making a few drawings – but feeling their grain under your fingernails. To understand the nature of materials, you can’t just look at them. You have to play with them. Tom will, through some of his own work, look at what materials are (and can be); the value of material exploration, and how to approach it; and the value of playing with materials – the value of toymaking.

Tickets are usually quite limited, but are available now. If you’re coming, it’ll be great to see you.

Cross-posted from my professional site.

Looking back on 2012

06 January 2013

2012, then. I thought, having seen James’ round-up of his (excellent) year, I should note down a few things about last year on a personal and professional level.

There was a good series of talks at a variety of events: the Southbank Centre’s Festival of Death, the Design of Understanding, LIFT, Brighton Mini Maker Faire, and dConstruct. And, importantly for me, they were all different, all new material (with one exception). I don’t like repeating myself if I can help it, if I only because I’ve usually changed my position on a topic!

Of these, I was especially proud of dConstruct: it’s always a great conference, and I’ve been going for years – so to be asked to talk, and ultimately becoming James Burke’s warmup man, was a real privilege. I’m also very proud of that talk: it condenses a lot of things I’ve been thinking about for most of my life into a thread, and shows Actual Work rather than just handwaving.

There was one more talk to end the year: a recorded talk for Radio 4’s Four Thought (mp3 here). I include this separately if only because its a different beast to a conference talk. A new subject area for me, but a heartfelt one – the changing shape of technology education. If dConstruct was a response to being the son of an amateur toymaker, then this was surely informed by being the child of teachers. Very proud to have been given is opportunity – and I’m also really proud of how the talk turned out. The response to it had been very flattering.

I did more than shoot my mouth off this year, though; there was work, too. For me, probably the biggest achievement at Hide&Seek was The Building Is… – our huge installation piece as part of the Gaîté Lyrique’s show Joue Le Jeu. Game design, software, electronics, hardware; all came together over at least six months of work. The team assembled – both internal and external contractors – was exceptional, and a joy to work with. I learned a lot about the nature of gallery installs, hardware builds, and game design for public space; furthered many technical skills; and, ultimately, got to watch people have fun with a thing we’d made. This project also led to living in Paris for a month in the summer. All told: really quite an experience.

In October, I left Hide&Seek to explore my own path – and became freelance. Since then, the most obvious “headline” project was my work for the Royal Shakespeare Company, making software and designing output formats to visualise motion on stage in print and wood. But there’s also been other work, too: rapid prototyping for a charity; interaction design for startup a and small firms; assisting Alex in workshops. And, towards the end of the year, entering (and being short-listed for) the Playable City award alongside PAN. Which, for less than three months of self-employment, feels like a reasonable start.

And then, of course, there were the personal projects, which varied in their daftness. Markov-chain deived descriptions of imaginary chocolates; books to collect my copious links in annual volumes; animated raindrops for Bus Tops; a ghost version of me, trapped a year in the past, on Foursquare; a hardware intervalometer for my SLR; various Kinect toys, including the Radio Roundabout visualiser. Glad I managed to both keep tinkering throughout the year, and also finish that tinkering.

Some travel: a trip to New York at the end of the year to visit friends, see the sights, and empty my head; a holiday in the Languedoc; the aforementioned Paris work; and Geneva for LIFT (including a trip to CERN). Good. There might be some more travel in 2013, I hope.

So what’s next for 2013? There’ll be some work with Caper in the spring, which I’ll be able to talk about by the summer. Some talks are slowly lining up. And, of course, I’m starting the meetings about client work and projects. There are a few on the horizon, encompassing design, web, and hardware work – but, as ever, I’m interested in new opportunities, so do get in touch.

In many ways, a roller coaster of a year, but one that ended more up than down, I think. Here’s to 2013.

(I nearly illustrated this post with the same picture James did. I’d forgotten that moment for a while, and seeing it again is a really, really happy moment. Myself, James, Ben, and Kars, looking out over Lake Geneva, one afternoon during a break at LIFT. Great to be surrounded by such great peers; a great view; great people to stare into the future with, shoulder to shoulder, and the right, Janus-like image for such a post. Pipped to it, though, eh.)

Quick note: I’ll be talking at a recording of Four Thought at the RSA in December. The talk will eventually be broadcast on Radio 4.

A provisional title for what I’m doing is The Coded World. I’ll be talking a bit about a lot of the recent buzz about “learning to code”, what the values of it are (and aren’t), and a bit about the modern condition: of living in a world where our actions are shaped, and enhanced, by working and living alongside software. What it’s like to share out lives with machines to think with, as it were.

And I’ll get it down to fifteen minutes at some point. It’s taking shape nicely, though, so fingers crossed.

At the beginning of October, I’ll be leaving Hide&Seek.

I’ve had a great time working here – on everything from phone-powered poetry games to web-based catechisms on death; consultancy and prototyping for major corporations and media companies, to a huge gallery installation of interlinked games built out of hardware, software, the network, and good-old physical manufacture. And throughout, working alongside some hugely talented and lovely colleagues (all of whom I will miss dreadfully). The company’s in great shape – with an NY studio recently established, and Mark coming on board – and I’m really excited to see what will emerge from them in the coming years. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve had here.

What’s next, then?

What’s next is: working for myself. I’ll still probably continue to work on games – I can’t really ever stop writing about them or playing them, for starters and I’ve got one of my own I’d like to spend some time exploring – but I’m returning a bit closer to my technology-and-design roots, whilst bringing my experience of the playful interactive space to bear on that.

What will that work look like? Well: thinking through making; continuing my efforts to work with technology as a material; sitting at the intersection of design and technology. Some space to work with a whole host of interesting people, across a host of sectors – which includes you, if you’re reading – and also to develop my own practice and understanding. A bit more writing. For now, it’s best explained as “I am available for freelance work, doing the thing I do“, and I hope over time I’ll refine the proposition and explanation. (I will find somewhere to blog weeknotes, too.)

On the immediate horizon, I have an upcoming piece of work in October, through Caper, with the Royal Shakespeare Company: a small technological intervention with a theatre company to make interesting and beautiful things. It’s a lovely project, writing software to make art, and letting me tap into my liberal arts roots. There’s some early code and documentation on Github (from some spare evenings) and I’ll write more about the project in due course here when I’m working ont it in earnest.

Otherwise, though: I’m available for hire from mid-October. I am not interested in a fulltime position; I’m probably not your CTO or technical cofounder. I like short projects with defined goals; exploration, iteration and prototyping; straddling design and technology. I work on the full stack of the web as well as increasingly doing more things you might call “physical computing”. Of course, if you read this site, you have a good idea of what I do or am interested in. And I’ll hopefully have more work to show to explain what it is I do in the near future.

If you have interesting problems, or are curious as to what I could do for you, do drop me a line. It is time to live in Interesting Times.

I’m talking at three events in the next few weeks, and now they’re all announced, it’s worth sharing them here.

First, on Thursday 23rd August (tomorrow), I’ll be talking at the Turing Festival in Edinburgh, during their Games slot. I’ll be talking about Systemic Media for a Systemic Age.

In an age of systems, systemic media is not just increasingly common but increasingly vital and games happen to be the most immediate, most populist manifestation of that. My belief is that “systems literacy” is the great literacy of the 21st century – and that games are the most powerful place to explore that literacy.

Then, on Friday 7th September, I’ll be talking at dConstruct in Brighton. The talk is called Making Friends: Toys, Toying and Toymaking. It’s about the value of making toys and what you can learn from that practice.

Toymaking is not an idle habit. Toys are a fertile ground for creators to work in. They offer a playful space to experiment and explore. They are a safe ground to experiment with new techniques, skills, or ideas. Though they emerge from no particular purpose, they expose purpose and meaning through their making. Toymaking ranges from making realistic simulations of life to producing highly abstract playthings. And everyone who makes things – out of paper, wood, metal, plastic, or code – has something to gain from making them.

And finally, on Saturday 8th September, I’ll be one of the speakers at the Brighton Mini Maker Faire talks. I’ll be talking about what I seem to spend a lot of my time doing: making things you don’t know how to make.

It turns out, of most of the things I’ve made, I didn’t know how to make when I started them, and I never thought I should be able to make them. When I finished them, neither of those statements were true.

It’s been interesting to think on these topics, and I’m looking forward to all three events. Say hello if you see me there!

Big news: I’m talking at this year’s dConstruct. I gone to dConstruct for many times over the years, so it’s a real privilege to speak.

More to the point, it’s a privilege to speak as part of that line-up. Especially, you know, James Burke. It should be a great day out.

I thought I’d finally try to draw a line through a section of my interests and practice over the past few years, and pull them together – all the bots, jokes, games, strange pieces of code that don’t do very much, stranger pieces of code that do – into a single thread. Which is how I came to the topic, something I care a great deal about:

Making Friends: on toys and toy making

Toys are not idle knick-knacks: they allow us to explore otherwise impossible terrain; fire the imagination; provide sparks for structured play. They do not just entertain and delight; they stimulate and inspire. And always, they remind us of the value – and values – to be found in abstract play.

Toymaking is not an idle habit. Toys are a fertile ground for creators to work in. They offer a playful space to experiment and explore. They are a safe ground to experiment with new techniques, skills, or ideas. Though they emerge from no particular purpose, they expose purpose and meaning through their making. Toymaking ranges from making realistic simulations of life to producing highly abstract playthings. And everyone who makes things – out of paper, wood, metal, plastic, or code – has something to gain from making them.

Trying to draw a thread through what, it turns out, has been a lifetime first shaped by toymaking, and then spent making toys in idle moments, Tom will take in (amongst other things) woodwork, Markov chains, state-machines and fiddle-sticks, to examine the values of toys and toymaking to 21st-century creators.

It should be good. I’m already a bit nervous. See you in Brighton in September.