The LAB Time Machine was built as a final project for a class called Haptic Action taught by Zack Jacobson-Weaver and Nina Barbuto at Carnegie Mellon University. The class format consisted of a series of lessons on traditional and digital fabrication, design/build challenges, and a 4-week long final project with a client.
What is Literary Arts Boom (LAB)?
Literary Arts Boom is creative writing laboratory that helps improve youth literacy through writing workshops and activities with a science fiction twist. They offer free and low-cost out-of-school programming to the Pittsburgh community that incorporate art, technology, and communication.
About the project
I was tasked to work with Literary Arts Boom to create a tangible interaction experience that would help them facilitate their creative writing workshops. Throughout the summer, LAB runs writing workshops for children that need to be kept engaged while waiting for everyone to show up.
- It should be portable and light, because LAB often holds sessions at community events.
- Finally, it should allow for short rounds of interaction so that children would be encouraged to share and not hog the machine.
- Science-fiction feel, to fit with the rest of the imaginary items at the LAB
- Updatable with new workshop material
Together with Paula Levin, the lead experimentalist at Literary Arts Boom, we brainstormed several ideas around time capsules, fortune cookie printers, ID badge makers, and Rube Goldberg machines.
While we had many great ideas, we had to find the right balance of interaction, cost, and feasibility within the time constraints. We ran with our time capsule idea and made it interactive by adding dialogue with someone from a different time period. The concept was a device that would allow kids to talk to someone in the future about present day hobbies, food, and life. We called it the LAB Time Machine Communicator.
Designing the LAB Time Machine
Based on the LAB’s previous projects, I knew I wanted the device to have a 80′s-era suitcase computer feel to it. It would need to combine salvaged materials with modern technology to create something that would feel like it travelled through time.
The suitcase was a perfect size and weight for children to put on their laps would give them a sense of ownership. To drive the display and interactions, I chose to use a Raspberry Pi Model-B and mini keyboard I had lying around from a previous OpenFrameworks workshop. The Pi would allow me to create a Python question and answer script and vary the number of questions to limit interaction time. Speakers driven by the Raspberry Pi would provide voice feedback for added excitement and believability.
The first step to fabricating the suitcase enclosure was to measure every part and model everything in 3D to get a sense of how everything would fit together.
After everything was cut, I worked on getting everything put together and functional. Breadboarding allowed me to make sure the wiring was working properly before creating a dedicated harness for the whole setup.
The final design was presented to a panel of judges with a wide range of backgrounds such as traditional fabrication, museum exhibit curation, and education. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and sparked conversations about how to expand the functionality to automatically track a child’s writing progress over time, use this information to help fund development efforts, and personalize other writing activities based on interactions with the LAB Time Machine.