Category Archives: design

design Projects

Making the virtual robot army

There comes a time in everyone's life when you just have to face up to the fact that having a robot army is nothing less than awesome.  I've decided to start creating mine using Blender, because the only thing better than my own robot army is a robot army I can animate and put into virtual worlds.

Its been a while since I've done a purely digital project and over a year since I did anything in Blender and I wanted to get back into it and refresh and improve my skills.

The first stage is create a drawing in Illustrator, actually make two. One front on and one from the side. Set these as background images in Blender and begin the modelling.  The basic modelling was really easy, fortunately my robot is a simple shape. The trickiest part was the cut outs in the body. There is a boolean modifier too that allows you to overlap two mesh objects and calculate the difference between the two. This has the effect of removing the overlapping part of one mesh from the other. It took a while to get this to work reliably, but was quite quick to do after some practise.

Basic Robot model
Basic Robot model

The arms were initially made from cones with the ends cut off but were later remodeled by creating cylinder and reducing the size of one end face.

After the modelling was finished next came the U.V mapping and texturing. U.V mapping  is the process of unwrapping the model along the edges to create a flat net. This net can be saved as a image file, exported to Photoshop and coloured in. This mostly went quite smoothly but I had trouble with the arms distorting the image which is why I changed from a cone to a cylinder.

Robot model with Head textured
Robot model with Head textured
Fully textured Robot
Fully textured Robot

I was reasonably pleased with the outcome of the U.V mapping and texturing as it was the first time I had done it.  The next time should be better as I now know a few hints and tips that will improve it.

I now have a Robot that looks like a Robot, but its still very static and can't move.  I would like to try some animation and also use the Robot in 3D computer games written in Unity so the next stage is to rig the Robot.  This creates a skeleton inside the model that can be moved around and the outer body of the robot will move when this skeleton is moved.

Robot showing the Skeleton rig
Robot showing the Skeleton rig

Like the U.V mapping the rigging isn't something I'd done before and by the end I knew how i would improve it for next time. Also the Robot model isn't really suited to being rigged as the hip and shoulder joints aren't really correct. This causes the body to distort when it walks as their is interference between the top of the leg and the bottom of the body.

Walking Robot showing body distortion
Walking Robot showing body distortion

I had to put the project on hold at this stage as I was picked for a course learning to write computer games in Unity which would finish in showing our completed work at the V &  museum Friday Lates Event. I'll write about that next time and will bring you more Robot updates soon


Art design developer making Projects technical

What I did with Lightning data,a Raspberry Pi and Anti-static bags

Do you ever wake up in the middle of the night when there is a thunderstorm happening and think "I wonder if its possible to make a digital sculpture that visualises lightning data using LEDs"?
must just be me then.

That was back in March and after lots of faffing around with wire, plastic metal and code I have made it happen, here's how.

The first thing was to see if it was actually possible and for that I had to see if the data was available. There are commercial services that provide the information but they tend to be quite expensive as it is valuable for I think Insurance and similar services. I found an amateur network of people who run detectors and upload the data but they don't publish the data unless you have one of the detectors. I tried the Met office but they only publish data for lightning data for around the U.K, they publish an image file not actual data I could do anything with and there isn't enough lightning happening around the U.K for it to be interesting.

After finding lots of Flash based sites that would be either difficult or impossible to extract the Data I found the University Of Washington global map of Lightning data    A bit of poking around and it was possible to find the underlying data to work with 

Next was the technology choice.  It would be powered by a Raspberry pi and use Neopixel strips for the LEDs.  I considered  both Python and NodeJS for writing the code. Python would probably have been the better choice and I think it would have been faster and easier but I hadn't done any NodeJS for a while and I wanted to dip my toes in again so that's want I plumped for.

First part of the develpoment was to control the Neopixels from the Raspberry Pi.  I used this Library and set to work playing with the Neopixels.

It was around this time I had the idea of using metallic anti-static bags.

The eagle eyed among you might notice that I'm  actually using an Arduino for that test

I also started to think about what the sculpture would look like.  Not straight and angular like a single fork lightning strike, not a  sphere with dots plotted on it, I wasn't going for an artistic interpretation more than a simple  data visualisation. I began to think about  the swirliness and chaos of clouds and storms and started sketching some ideas.

I eventually settled on four long strips of  Neopixels, intertwined, each strip representing one quadrant of the earth taking the point that the equator and the Greenwich meridian intersect as the centre as that seemed a sensible thing to do.  I fell into a bit of an hole learning about map projections and plotting the data onto images of the Earth using P5JS .  It wasn't really necessary for the final outcome but I wanted to check I was doing everything correctly and it felt the right thing to do.

lightning data plotted onto map of Earth

I did some prototyping in P5JS to get an idea what it would look like and to  start working with the data.

Now I knew I could control the LEDs, had an idea of what I wanted the end result to look like and I was comfortable with the data I began to pull it all together.

To stop the Neopixels just from dangling down limply I came up with the idea of using the waterproof strips that have a clear plastic covering over them, into this I pushed down a thin solid wire that I had inserted into a clear heatshrink sleeving to prevent it electrically  shorting the LEDs strips.  This was a lot harder than I had anticipated and there was a lot more swearing than i thought there would be.

These strips were then covered in sleeves  I had made by cutting and gluing anti static bags. That was also more difficult than i thought it would be,involved burning my fingers with hot glue  and I didn't really work the best way to do it until it was finished. But it kept me amused on twitter for a few evenings.

A few hours were spent wiring it all up, crimping the connectors together, then taking it all apart and doing it again properly so it would actually  work and its now finished.  It can run either with the Raspberry Pi connected to the internet and pull down updates to the data or offline if there is some data loaded.

There are still some bugs in the software that need fixing.  I want to update the code so that it automatically detects if there is a live internet connection and if not will run in offline mode. It has run successfully for several hours per day for five days at an art show for Science Museum staff.


I've already started on getting rid of the breadboard wiring for the chip that converts the output from the Pi to a voltage level suitable for the Neopixels but thats a story for another day.

PCB next to bread board with chip and wires



I'd like to exhibit it further  but don't really know how to go about that. I would love to hear from anyone who could help me with further exhibiting or  knows how I would do that.  Leave a comment or get in touch on Twitter.

So here it is running


design thoughts

Milk bottle tops,lamps and rubbish.

I like Twitter a lot. Its where I find out what is happening in the world around me. Its the first thing I check when I wake up  in the morning and the last thing I look at before I go to sleep  at night. While I'm writing this i'll probably swap tabs to Tweetdeck a couple of times and browse for a few seconds while my train of thought gets itself into order.

I like to post things on Twitter, some of my tweets are pretty sensible,some are pretty silly and random. My tweets tend to be thoughts off the top of my head. Things that aren't long enough for a blog post, often quite disjointed,maybe i'll comment on a new exhibition with interesting use of Audio Visual technology, wonder about the pointlessness of some naff new gadget, ponder on the different types of cheese available in Tesco's or just think 'courgettes why?'.  It gives my brain a safety valve. Having an outlet for all the odd,strange and surreal thoughts mostly keeps my head on the straight and narrow.

Seeing the ebb and flow of tweets in my timeline is always interesting, what gets re-tweeted,what doesn't. Who has favourited what, who has followed who.  Its a great way of seeing what is happening and finding out about news and  events and starting interesting conversations.

On Twitter as well as personal friends  I follow a lot of Museum,Science and technology, arts and creative people and organisations which roughly reflects my interests and work.  Anyway last Sunday I saw a few tweets about this article by Mark Miodownik on why the coloured milk bottle tops are bad for the environment. Several people tweeted links to the article with comments on it and a lot of those tweets were also re-tweeted.

Just about every person who tweeted the link to the article mentioned that it was a well written article explaining the science in a way that was clear and understandable without 'dumbing down' the subject. What was more interesting to me was that every person who re-tweeted the link was a scientist or someone closely associated with Science or Science communication.  It wasn't tweeted by artists,designers or people I know from non-science backgrounds.

Meanwhile at the same time over on all the design sites the item that kept popping up in my timeline during the same period was this lamp that projects light onto the wall in the shape of a lamp shade.  And I couldn't help thinking to myself, its lovely, its  very nice but wouldn't it be much more useful if rather than thinking of clever and witty ways to light up a small corner of a room wouldn't it be better to turn that creativity to working out how to recycle milk bottle tops.

Maybe its the artists and designers who need to spend time looking at serious problems  and less time trying to design new stuff that just ends up creating more rubbish as perfectly good lamps are thrown away. Maybe Scientists and engineers need to get a bit creative when it comes to problem solving.

Maybe the real problem is how people think about design.  Solving problems like recycling milk bottle tops is never going to be featured in the Milan design festival.

Is it people's attitude to design? A Bottle top recycling machine can't be put on living room table as a conversation piece or to show off to your neighbours how much taste or money you have.

Or it might be that we need to think differently about the rubbish we throw away. While writing this I have realised that there is a connection with this subject and an upcoming exhibition at the Science museum. It is called The Rubbish Collection and will display the waste that passes through the Science Museum and what happens to it after it is thrown away. It will be interesting to see what people think of a museum gallery full of rubbish both in its raw and processed form. Will they think differently about how they consume goods, will they ask supermarkets to supply milk bottle with clear bottle tops or will people just carry on buying silly lamps?