Microcontrollers as Material

This week in studio we were given a tutorial on Arduino, an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It’s intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.1 The purpose of the tutorial was to give us students a starting point and a platform to begin prototyping our designs – many of which involve adaptable, responsive systems. While many of our studio projects might utilize microcontroller systems to achieve adaptability in the design system, it got me thinking about how sensing and responsiveness might be incorporated into our building materials. It turns out people have been exploring smart, programmable control in materials.

At the MIT Media Lab a group led by David Mellis is working on a project they call “Microcontrollers as Material”.  Their project has developed a set of tools and techniques that make it easy to use microcontrollers as an art or craft material, embedding them directly into drawings or other artifacts.2 They construct circuits using conductive silver ink, dispensed from squeeze bottles with needle tips. This makes it possible to draw a circuit, adding lights, speakers, and other electronic components.3 The results shown on their webpage may be a ways off from building materials that also perform other necessary functions but they are materials that act as the sensing and reacting component without third party electronics.

At our very own University of Minnesota, Dr. Lucy Dunne directs the Wearable Technology Lab within the College of Design.  The research of the WTL focuses on the intersection between apparel and new technology: for instance, in expanding garment functionality through dynamic aesthetics and new sensing functions…Many projects deal with translating technological potential into the real, everyday world: understanding human physical and emotional comfort and balancing these variables with tradeoffs of performance variables in a smart system design.4 Many of Dunne’s projects achieve their sensory functions by sewing microcontrollers into materials or by using materials that themselves can sense and direct signals. While none of these projects use traditional building materials, the flexibility of the fabric used suggests possibilities for highly interactive, adjustable skins in architecture.


We tend to imagine electronics and microcontrollers as autonomous objects that can be added to a space as a third party control system. Clearly, the work explored in this post suggests that there might be a new way in which to think about microcontrollers. As designers begin to embed layers of intelligence into the very materials that are performing the desired function, those materials begin to take on characteristics that are biological in nature. As they seek to advance the technology of control within materials, perhaps those creating the basic components of microcontrollers will look to the natural world for how to create flexible materials that act as systems for sensing, transporting, and responding to various external stimuli while drawing power form sources local to the particular material and placement.


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