Category: Teaching

It’s easy to do environmental sensing at ground level. But how about up in the air over our heads? If we could somehow reach it inexpensively and safely, can we directly explore what lies above, perhaps making our own discoveries?

One of my projects for Dinacon 2019 will create a party-balloon platform for inexpensive aerial environmental sensing. Everyday balloons offer a number of advantages. They are readily available and very safe to fly. They don’t cost much or require any licensing, training or piloting skills. Balloons don’t use any fuel or batteries, yet they can stay aloft for days at a time, silently. When tethered, it’s easy to control their height and position in space and they’re quite environmentally friendly. Balloon lofting is perfect for children’s science programs, hacker workshops, citizen science research, digital naturalism, technology art, and low-cost indoor or industrial monitoring.

My initial ballooning prototype will explore a variety of sensors to see what kind of aerial data is interesting. For motion we will use an accelerometer, gyroscope and GPS unit to tell us where our sensing station is and measure how it is moving in space. We will also get airborne data on temperature, pressure and humidity since we know these vary interestingly with altitude. Many more sensors are available to be tried. UV sensing, air quality, dust levels, light, carbon dioxide, and wind are all on our list. I’ll be using Pycom’s Pysense and Pytrack shields, augmented by Grove sensors.

There are many platforms for obtaining and transmitting sensor data. For this project I’m experimenting with the remarkable FiPy module from Pycom. It has a ton to offer! There’s plenty of I/O to support our sensors, an ESP32 processor running my favorite MicroPython development environment, and no less than FIVE radio options, all onboard. The FiPy can communicate locally using WiFi and Bluetooth, or long-range with LoRa, SigFox and mobile LTE (Cat-M/NB-IoT). This means a single hardware platform can easily travel between different countries and environments, using the best communications method for the job at hand. So far the FiPy has been very easy to set up and use. I’ve needed to do a bit of updating the sample code for non-European frequencies and radio frameworks. With those set, I’ve been successful in transmitting on all five protocols. There’s even a cloud platform Pybytes to manage incoming data and remotely update devices in the field. And Pybytes is just one option. The FiPy module will communicate with Things Network for LoRa, Cayenne for data display, AWS, Azure, Watson, and many other IoT platforms.

Pycom’s FiPy module with Wi-Fi, Sigfox, LoraWAN, Bluetooth and Cellular radios.

Looking forward to building this at the second annual Dinacon Digital Naturalism Conference, a month-long hackathon where biologists, technologists and artists gather in the jungle to use our skills together far from the comfort of our labs. As a node-leader for the conference I’m also planning to run a 4-in-4 fast prototyping workshop, and perhaps plant a rust garden. Those projects to be covered in upcoming posts.

logrono-lie-detect-robFor the latest Digi Hackathon, I headed overseas to hold our first ever creative construction event at Digi’s office in Logroño, Spain. Using XBee WiFi Cloud Kits, the four teams hacked away for what was the most competitive session yet. In a matter of hours, each team had to quickly brainstorm, build, and present their cloud-connected projects. Their results were terrific.

Projects included:

  • The Garbage M.A.N.: Smart garbage containers monitoring for smart cities
  • Germinator Plus: An automated system for remote greenhouse seed germination monitoring.
  • Lie-Detect-o-Meter: A mobile battery-operated wristband lie detector for public questioning.
  • The Smart Plug-Y-Play: A power consumption monitor and remote control for computers and other electrical appliances.

Read more and see pictures on the Digi blog.


Last week, we held a Digi Employee Hackathon to put the new XBee Wi-Fi Cloud Kit to the test. This is one of several ways we are working on designing outstanding user experiences for new Digi products. With the kits, the teams were able to build projects that connected with the cloud right away. One team member reported, “I got from the box to the cloud in under 20 minutes.” Using the kit’s dashboard, new widgets were  developed to whimsically represent data being collected by Device Cloud. Rain, food safety and even child development were addressed by our project teams.

I’m looking forward to doing more of these internal hackathons in the coming year. They’re fun!

Read more about this hackathon on the Digi Blog.

Our brand new XBee Examples project site just went live! Check out  the first tutorials that Matt Richardson and I’ve published on Digi’s instructional library site:

Right now I’ve got a big pile of different sensors, lights, motors, scent emitters and more on my desk. We’re going to demonstrate XBee hookups for ’em all, then show how they can be linked to one another, hooked up to computers and connected to the Internet. From breathalyzers to joysticks and from wind sensors to air fresheners we’re creating a modular toolbox that should jumpstart all kinds of creative and practical XBee projects. Come and see the beginnings:


Keep informed about new tutorials by following the RSS feed.

Here’s a rundown of the final projects from my Fundamentals of Physical Computing class at the MFA in Interaction Design at SVA this spring. Keep an eye on these students for more masterful interactive works!

Curious Rotary, by Joonseo Bae & Myn Kang:

A Pig, a Bird and a Mailbox by Min Seung Song, ShanShan Gao, Nikki Sylianteng & Minnie Choi:

Soundscapes by Sana Rao, Prachi Pundeer, Guri Venstad:

Weather Light by Tom Harman and Tash Wong:

WindSense by Barbara deWilde & Tony Chu:

Clay Shirky talks learning creativity using some terrific examples, including our Botanicalls project (@9:45), in this video from PSFK:

Other favorites include Mud Tub, RapidFTR and Strings. Great to see my fellow ITP alumni and current colleague’s projects getting new lives as teaching tools!

There’s a terrific new article (login required) in New Scientist featuring my friend and colleague Ted Hays. Back in 2009, Ted created an Internet-enabled bubble gun in the Networked Objects class I taught at ITP. His Bubble Gun announces incoming email with a stream of soapy spheres. It’s a whimsical demonstration of how simple devices can join the Internet, transforming data from chilly abstractions into satisfying interactions. Here’s an excerpt:

Hayes represents a growing movement of tinkerers who are merging the online and physical worlds in surprising ways. Instead of waiting for technology companies like Cisco or Apple to make their gadgets, these “makers” are buying off-the-shelf computer chips, sensors and wireless radios, and doing it themselves. They are transforming their possessions – from plant pots and clothing to thermostats or cuddly toys – to become smarter, connected and social.

…where established companies are still struggling to figure out how to connect with consumers, a growing community of amateurs is busy creating thousands of smart devices. And some technology observers believe that all this activity is revealing how to build an Internet of Things that people actually want to use.

The article, by MacGregor Campbell, also covers independent connected projects like Twine and Arduino. These, combined with radios like the XBee, promise to bring the power of device networking to a broader audience.

Here’s Ted’s Bubble Gun video:

My Sensitive Buildings class was covered in the latest issue of MAKE Magazine in a short piece by Michael Colombo. He writes:

At NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, students in Rob Faludi’s “Sensitive Buildings” course were given access to a 28-story apartment building in Manhattan. Using XBee radio modules, students created a variety of projects utilizing both the building’s existing systems and a set of XBee wireless gateways. Projects included a mail chute tracker, a projection that visualizes elevator use, an exercise monitoring system, and a sensor network that measures climate conditions and noise throughout the building.

Colombo’s not only a MAKE writer, he was also one of many fine students in the inaugural Sensitive Buildings class, currently scheduled to run again this September at NYU. For the fall, I’m planning to focus even more on observation and prototyping for trying out new ideas. Thanks to various advances in Digi International’s technology suite, including the enhanced XIG, it has become much faster to teach the tech. Students can also learn directly from my book which leaves us free to dig into the practice of interaction design and make new technologies that are really useful to tenants.

Click below to see what Colombo’s piece looks like in print: