As I walked into Bare Conductive’s London studio at the beginning of December I was greeted by one of its employees getting dressed in a huge inflatable Santa suit.
Normal day in the office? Not quite. The company were filming a Christmas themed thank you video for all those who supported its recent Kickstarter campaign.
In fact all six of the employees in the office that day had turns being filmed in the suit as they jigged around a small decorated tree to the tune of ‘Rocking around the Christmas tree’.
This young company, founded in 2009, certainly had cause for a jig as its Kickstarter campaign not only met the funding goal of £15,000 but completely smashed it. In 30 days 1,895 backers pledged £122,907, that makes it more than 800% funded.
So, what’s all the fuss about? Well, the campaign was initiated to fund the production run of the company’s first hardware product – the Touch Board, an easy-to-use Arduino-compatible device.
Essentially it’s a circuit board that enables users to turn almost any material or surface into a sensor that triggers sound.
Back to the start
The company’s roots are in electrically conductive materials. In a group project during their final year on the Innovation Design Engineering Course at the Royal College of Art, four students worked on an electric paint concept.
Having founded Bare Conductive in 2009, by 2011 Electric Paint had been launched. This non toxic, air drying paint can be used as a liquid wire to draw or paint graphical circuits on many materials and surfaces including paper, plastic, textiles or even conventional electronics.
“Being an adhesive it can also be used instead of a soldering iron. So you can cold solder components or even replace or draw in a worn off conductive pad, which means old devices like TV remotes are easily repairable,” says Becky Pilditch, co-founder and mechanical engineer.
Bare Conductive was eager to see what users were doing with its paint product and so set up a community hub on its website where projects could be uploaded and shared. Simultaneously, it was also uploading tutorials providing guidelines as to how to go about creating such projects and the various LEDs and components that were needed.
Then, to make the paint even more accessible, the company started selling electronic paper craft kits through its online store.
“It’s great supporting people with tutorials but we realised there were children and educators who would benefit from a starter kit. All of our kits contain everything you need to create a self contained electronics project with clear instructions to either carry out the project yourself or lead somebody through it,” explains Pilditch.
I took home the seasonal ‘Merry Resistives’ kit, which contains three Christmas cards, three LEDs, three coin cell batteries, a tube of Electric Paint and step-by-step instructions on the back of the pack.
For instance, with the Santa in a hot air balloon design, the battery is attached to his belly and the LED to the flame in the balloon. I then painted over the two squiggly lines that go out from either side of the battery up to the LED making a solid connection. Once dried, the LED started flashing.
It was actually really exciting to see how you can so simply make electricity fun by engaging with electronics on a creative level. It’s a far cry from my school days of constructing unexciting circuits.
Apart from the kits, one of the things Bare Conductive started noticing through its community hub, which Pilditch says is a bit like open R&D, is that the Electric Paint was being used to create capacitive surfaces. Basically, capacitive sensing is the technology found in trackpads and touch screens that allows users to engage with a surface without physically touching it.
In response, Bare Conductive uploaded tutorials to guide users through the process. One such tutorial is creating a capacitive proximity sensor that can detect the presence of a conductive material, in this case a person, from up to 300mm using a pad of Electric Paint, an Arduino (a single-board micro controller) and a resistor.
An idea for the Touch Board started to develop as a piece of hardware like the Arduino but simpler. “Arduino is a very accessible open source platform but there is still a learning curve in that you need to create your own code,” says Pilditch.
The concept for the Touch Board was to create a plug and play device that could turn touch into sound. So, the 12 sensor electrodes will detect touch and proximity, so if electrode #1 is touched then track #1 will play, and so on.
Based off an Arduino Leonardo with capacitive touch chip, MP3 player and battery, the Touch Board comes with a microSD card already loaded with sample sounds, or sounds can be added by the user. But basically all that is needed for it to work is to power it up with a battery or USB and connect to a speaker.
“If you have no experience in electronics but you’d love to be able to play with smart surfaces, you now can. All you have to do is load an SD card with 12 MP3 tracks, connect to the 12 terminals and use either Electric Paint or some other conductive wire to make a connection to the touch point.”
As an example, Bare Conductive turned one of its studio walls into a talking alphabet. The large letters were painted using Electric Paint and then lines were drawn from each of the letters to the corresponding electrodes on the Touch Board.
In fact, they even painted over these lines with white house paint to disguise the connection. All they then had to do was change the sounds on the microSD so when letter A was touched, sound A came from the speaker.
Touch Board development process
So, having decided on the functionality of the Touch Board they had to go about designing it.
Two electrical engineers with experience of creating PCBs were added to the team for this purpose.
“It’s quite interesting because normally in electronic design you don’t focus on the aesthetics of the PCB because it’s always enclosed in a plastic casing. But with the Touch Board being the end product, suddenly how you design the circuit becomes quite important,” explains Peter Krige, one of the electrical engineers.
The circuit boards are created in CadSoft Eagle, a specialist PCB design software, which is outputted to the manufacturer as Gerber files. “It’s quite funny because we design the boards on a big Mac screen where we can really zoom in.
It almost feels like you are inside a city drawing the lines of the circuit and laying out components. But then when the tiny boards come back to us we end up looking at them through a monocle,” laughs Krige.
Over the course of the development process, six prototypes have been created with another on its way. Each prototype has been an improvement on the last – really stretching themselves as well as what the UK PCB manufacturer is capable of doing.
In one of the first iterations they were experimenting with magnets as a means to secure the Touch Board to a surface. “We found that magnets are very difficult to glue onto a PCB. Having dropped the board a couple times and the magnets flying out, we decided that wasn’t the best solution,” says Krige.
Next they looked at the position of the electrodes or connectors and decided to have them all next to each other along the top face. The reason being that the Electric Paint could be applied from the electrodes upwards instead of having to run under the board.
With all those along the top they then decided to have the components (battery connector, MicroSD card, USB cable) all altogether along the left face. “So everything that connects to the board is on one face and everything that connects to paint is on another. That was really a design aspect as opposed to a technical one,” says Krige.
Going against the grain
In the latter iterations they were experimenting with removing some of the labelling and incorporating graphics in a bid to make the board seem more like a consumer product than a piece of electronics.
In PCB manufacturing colour choice is limited to two layers – the Solder Resist Layer and the Silk Screen Layer, but by simply inverting the graphics on the grey bottom side, the white beneath the graphics can peer through.
“This was a test to see how the PCB manufacturer could work around something untraditional like this. They did initially flip out but eventually calmed down and gave it a go using screen printing,” says Krige.
One of the last iterations was to incorporate edge plating all the way around the board. This means that instead of painting to the centre of the electrode, the user only needs to paint to the edge in order to make a solid connection. This was also a non-standard request for the manufacturer.
“Every time we’ve done an iteration we’ve pushed the manufacturer a little further. So when we get our last prototype from them, we would have really come a long way from where we started,” says Krige.
Full steam ahead
In order to fund the Touch Board’s first production run, Bare Conductive decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign. “You can think of Kickstarter as a pre-ordering method – exchanging a product for upfront payment – but the real benefit we saw is the publicity it was able to generate,” comments Pilditch.
People certainly did find out about the campaign, which was launched at the end of October, because it overshot its £15,000 target eight times over in just 30 days with backers pledging in excess of £120,000.
It’s now full steam ahead making any final design tweaks and sending the final production files to the manufacturer. The plan is to do a production run of 5,000, which means that the backers will get their Touch Board in early 2014 and anyone else can pre-order from the website.
“When we launch the Touch Board we’ll also be releasing the files so those that want to can increase its functionality by changing the code or connecting Arduino-compatibile shields to it,” says Pilditch.
“All these different boards and shields are tools to create new and interesting in-teractions. That’s why you make it open source so that people can share ideas and iterate.”
With that in mind, in 2014 Bare Conductive are organising a Global Hack Day programme as a thank you to its Kickstarter backers.
“We want to stay tuned to the users and Hack Day is a great way to see the innovative applications they are creating,” adds Pilditch.
Bare Conductive likes to stay in touch with its community of users and also discover new users. As such it goes to a number of hacker and maker events including the world renowned Maker Faires.
Initially started in the US by Maker Media in 2006, Maker Faires have now gone global. In 2013, over 60 community-driven Mini Maker Faires took place in cities all around the world, including Tokyo and Rome. In the UK there is a big one that takes place in Newcastle during April and mini ones in cities such as Brighton and Manchester.
Maker Faire is described as an all-ages gathering of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students, and commercial exhibitors. All of these “makers” come to Maker Faire to show what they have made and to share what they have learned.
Often the Do-it-yourself (DIY) projects that both adults and children work on never leave the front door or garden shed however, the Maker Faires provides a platform for them to showcase their work and discover the tinkerings of others too.
But these projects aren’t just made using traditional tools, but brand new technologies like domestic 3D printers and open-source microcontrollers like the Arduino.
In fact, Maker Faire is primarily designed to be forward-looking, showcasing makers who are exploring new forms and new technologies. But it’s not just for the novel in technical fields; Maker Faire features innovation and experimentation across the spectrum of science, engineering, art, performance and craft.
Those of us who aren’t makers, can still go along to a Maker Faire and participate in this new maker movement and discover projects and ideas that we don’t encounter every day.
The next Maker Faire UK 2014 is taking place at the Centre for Life in Newcastle upon Tyne on 26-27 April 2014. Develop3D was at last year’s event and we’ll be visiting again this year.
Making electronics accessible and fun for everyone