Category Archives: Devices

Bug Buddies – Angela


My original idea  the hiking hack was a very practical, very serious soil testing shoe attachment, but my brain took a direction 180° from my initial thoughts – finger puppets! What could be more practical and serious than finger puppets, right?

2015-06-17 13.52.14

Although finger puppets may not seem utilitarian, potentially they can serve an educational purpose, enhance cognitive development, stimulate creativity, and increase finger dexterity. Kid wearables are an area that hasn’t been explored much beyond child-tracking safety devices. They offer an interesting opportunity to capitalize on younger generations’ affinity for technology in order to address what Richard Louv has deemed “nature deficit disorder.”


With the help of my more technically inclined teammates, I created finger puppets that light up, make noise, and vibrate. They can be stimuli for interacting with wildlife or characters for fanciful play. For my presentation to the hiking hack team, the puppets became a flashing flirtatious firefly, a chirping cicada with “Wilderness Idol” aspirations, a buzzing modern feminist honeybee, and a butterfly searching for greater meaning in life.


Matt and I have even brainstormed about creating interactive books with more kid-friendly themes to accompany interchangeable puppets. Is this the next step for Bug Buddies?


All the bug buddies together!

~ Angela

Cheap Portable Laptop Power – Matt, Andy

Matt Swarts and Andy Quitmeyer came up with a way to cheaply power laptops and other high-voltage devices off cheap powerpacks! Difficulty: Medium-easy. We cha

The Problem

Laptops demand lots of power. They also usually need to charge from voltage source that is much higher than the 5 volts you can get out of cheap cell-phone charging powerpacks.  This means that usually you have to get a really expensive power-pack (like this one for $100) that can output the 12-20 volts that your computer needs. These power-packs also need a higher-voltage themselves to start charging, so they are much harder to get charging from my solar panels than other cheap 5V packs.

19V power source (costs $100)

The Solution

Instead you can now use something cheap like this 5V power supply that only costs $16.

and all you need is one extra simple part that can boost the voltage for only $4!

How to Build

Materials Needed:


  • Wire Strippers
  • Alligator clips (or soldering iron)
  • Multimeter

Schematics for Hooking up device

Just connect the positive and Ground from the power-pack to the “IN” ports of the booster. Then connect the + and –  ports on the “out” side to the laptop charging cable (you can get cheap “repair” cables that have nice leads already pre-taken out.

Set the Voltage!

Now before you rush off to plug this thing into your laptop you need to set the voltage booster to the correct voltage. Some voltage boosters have a built-in display that lets you know what they are set to, but others you will need to connect a multi-meter.

Find the original charger for the laptop and make a note of the voltage that your device requires. Rotate the small flat-head screw on the top of the booster until you get the correct voltage. Boom, any of the even moderately hard parts of this how-to are done!

Now for jut $24, I have a slim power pack that can recharge my laptop TWICE!

BOB SOS: Back off bear alert – Jeannette, Hugh

Context: First, a report that a young boy was lacerated by a bear in a forest near us and a suggestion that we build a bear detector. A week before, JY learned how to solder and program an arduino to make an LED blink like one of the firefly species. A day before, she got 2 servo motors to shake a noisy shiny piece of mylar. We took these starting points from the lab into the forest: NFCCDL: North Fork Citico Creek Digital Lab.

bear bagbear bag is placed away from camp


Marketability: In the forest, product took a practical side, shifting from an alert of mere presence of a bear to a lightweight, compact attachment to a camp tent to alert the camper.

Capability: Need to see all around so need to figure out how to station the system on the peak of tent to expand the perceptive field. There is no need to know direction, only presence.

Interaction with nature: design an output that would scare a bear.


close up


Detect the presence of a bear near the tent.

Wake up camper inside tent.

Simultaneously, start up a set of blinking lights in shape of eyes separated by a distance to signify a large size that could scare a bear.

BOB input input: sensing system 4 motion detectors

BOB outputoutput: LED to scare bear and buzzer to wake camper in tent


Input: 4 Motion detectors, range of 20 ‘ and 90 degree cone of detection.

Control system: Arduino, breadboard, battery pack

Output: LEDs, buzzer



Make a 3D attachment site for sensing system: a magnolia bud that smells like oregano.

Make platform for control system: a flat piece of oak bark

Get output to appropriate locations: long lead for buzzer to inside tent, 2 leads to scary LED eyes sewn onto a fabric with face-like decorations to hide wiring.

Programming a scary message to a bear: flash out SOS in morse code on LEDs and wake up camper with a buzzer using same program.

Attachment to tent: used set of strong magnets

close up BOB SOS in place on hammock tent tarp



Incident: unaware of a bear attractant still remaining within the tent

Bear approaches and is detected.

Camper is alerted and bear is scared off by illumination system.


2nd prototype:

Simplify attachment to tent.

Test whether bears are scared by flashing lights that look like eyes of something bigger than themselves.


Backpack design: Projection system as part of the function of backpack. -Jeannette

Jeannette Yen-

Scientists often rationalize that our advancement of knowledge is equal to the costs of the lives of living organisms. It isn’t. I took disdain at this idea.

Instead, with the advances in modern high image resolution in time and space of the digital age, we now can produce large magnified images that are comfortable for humans to view. This gives us the ability to observe living creatures in the wild without disturbing the community. One of the items I’d like to carry in the backpack would be a compact projection/image recording system: a vellum-like sheet onto which a lit Fresnel lens could produce a crisp magnified image so we could see the part of nature that is smaller than trees and birds. The camera looks into the lamp by focusing on the back of the image screen. Therefore the lighting doesn’t have to be super bright.


To my surprise, we actually did try to set up a projection system. It totally worked! It was too dim to easily take a picture of with a camera, but in the dark forest, it was awesome to share a picture, or video at a large scale for many people to check out at the same time!

The Night Crawler, he was called!! – Shiva


After a long day at the SCCDL (South Citico Creek Digital Laboratory :P) and a great Turkey Tetrazinni and Raspberry Crumble, we decided to take a stroll to observe some fireflies!!


We merely walked around a hundred yards from base camp. We used flashlights to reach the observation site. However, we had to stand or sit in the dark so that we can observe the amazing flashes of the hundreds of fireflies around us. To be honest, that was a scary moment for me. Standing in the dark, with god knows how many different crawlies all around me inching towards me…whooooaaa!!

While fighting the urge to scream in terror, I focused on the fireflies. Everyone was shuffling around to get a better look at flying mini-bulbs. You would imagine bunch of people with no sense of environment around them trying to shuffle slowly using hands and feet to sense around, bumping into each other and trees around us. Not the most efficient way to go about it, you might say.

There was this thought though, what if one has to hike at night without a light source due to some reason. Using hands and legs to sense the environment, obstacles and even approaching bears at night!!


first iteration

As we were already using our hands, I conceptualized a wearable product with a ultra-sonic distance sensor which can keep you informed about your surrounding by bouncing off ultra-sonic waves just like echolocation done by bats.


After understanding the dimensions of the sensors and board as well as the idea of keeping your hands free while hiking, I brainstormed for different mounting options along the body.

For the initial prototype, I decide to go with the ‘Head Band Design’ as it could be a complimentary device to human eyes.


second iteration

The first prototype was really simple. It used fabric as the base to support a small platform and attach the reflective straps. The Arduino Theo along with input and output sensors were supported on the platform using threads to tie-down.

The sensor has a range between 2cm – 400cm. The buzzer’s frequency increases as the hiker approaches an object or vice-versa. The emergency light which is a small LED (tested in the field for amount of light) turns on if the hiker is in a hitting distance of an object. For the first prototype we used a safe distance of 10″.






+ Use of multiple sensors and outputs to give a sense of direction to the hiker.

+ Exploring form factor, to be placed on different body parts

+ Exploring a combination of sensors to enhance efficiency.



Etho-Smock In the Field – Laura, Katelyn, Paul

One of the most useful, yet also most potentially frustrating, tools for ethologists is the handheld ethogram device. This pocket computer has re-programmable buttons that allow a researcher to capture details of organismal behavior including action type, order, frequency and duration.

The challenge in using a handheld ethogram is its un-intuitive interface. The design of the device parallels that of a calculator, with columns and rows of buttons are arranged in a grid.
This input organization makes sense in regards to space use on a rectangular device, but carries little to no meaning for a human attempting to quickly catalog a variety of different behaviors and events. The result is a tool that is potentially useful, but is also often confusing and frustrating to operate. The nature of the handheld device also occupies a researcher’s hands, preventing them from doing other activities like taking pictures or looking through binoculars. Finally, the types of data to input often limited to only tapping discrete, already programmed actions.
Our team’s solution to these ethogram challenges is the EthoSmock!
This wearable device has the same basic function of the traditional handheld ethogram, but keeps a researcher’s hands free while also allowing for capture of richer information like voice memos and GPS. Additionally, the placement of buttons along the body leverage advantages of embodied cognition, so that the user might learn the locations faster and the interaction has the capability of being more fun to use.

Here’s a short commercial “skit” describing its use!

Design Considerations

When designing the wearable aspect of the Etho-smock, we considered several factors critical for successful and convenient field use.

  • Comfort
    • Device needs to be lightweight
    • Comfortable in the heat
    • No interference with natural body motion (i.e. not tangled in arms or legs)
  • Compatible with field work
    • able to be worn standing, sitting, or squatting
    • able to wear simultaneously with backpack
    • easy to transfer device between users in the field
    • packability, can be compressed

We ultimately decided to pursue a smock inspired design.


This allows the device to be transferred easily from one researcher to another by simply lifting it over the head of the user. It can be worn simultaneously with a backpack.



We made the smock with a mesh. This made the device lightweight and breathable for the user to wear and we were able to weave the wires connecting the buttons to the microcontroller into the material of the smock.



Laura working on the smock in the field.

The buttons were two pieces of conductive fabric separated by a mesh with a hole in it. When the button is ‘pushed’ the conductive fabric on either side of the mesh touches and the circuit closes. An LED flashes to let the user know the days point was collected and the data point is written to an SD card, recording the timestamp and the button that is pushed.
New Doc 2_1
Future Work
To further develop the etho-smock, we would like to incorporate a playback feature, alternative data collection options, such as pressing a button related to the location of the animal behavior.
— Paul, Laura, Katelyn

Paul, Laura, and Katelyn with the Etho-Smock in the field. Echo-Smock was largely constructed in the field on a dress form/biologist sized tree.

The Most Useless Machine (Without an Arduino) – Paul, Hugh, Laura


The party boat activity prompt was just to take a bunch of outputs and link them together in a way that might stimulate some sort of organism.

Basically, it’s just use a combination of natural and digital materials to make a thing that makes noises and flashes lights and things like that. While digging through the boxes of components, we found one of these thumpers (solenoid from SparkFun) that moves a shaft when a current is applied:

Photo by SparkFun

Hugh suggested that we might be able to use the thumper as a switch, to turn on and off an LED. I immediately latched on to that idea for several reasons: it sounds really fun and weird, it would act as both a switch and an output (noise, vibration), and most of all, it didn’t require a microcontroller to get create some sort of behavior. Using microcontrollers in the NFCCDL (North Fork Citico Creek Digital Laboratory) comes with enough minor problems (writing the software, using up batteries to upload the software, driver issues on the laptop, etc.) that I, personally, wanted to avoid it as much as possible. I also just like the opportunity to design circuits that don’t require them, because it’s a bit more of a challenge for me, given my limited knowledge of electrical engineering.

So we started figuring out how to make the thumper turn itself on and off. I started out thinking that we circuit could constantly supply current to it, but when it thumped, it could short the circuit and turn itself off. That’s the wrong way to do it. It shorts the LiPo, which is bad, and it’s a more complicated circuit, which is also bad. So Andy suggested that we set it up so that whenever it is unthumped, the circuit is completed and it thumps, which breaks the circuit and unthumps itself. Here’s the circuit we came up with:


This circuit is pretty much a single component version of “The Most Useless Machine EVER”. This is actually an interesting short history of the most useless machine, which apparently was first described by Marvin Minsky.


Solenoid trigger causing the behavior

Once we had a good idea of how to make this thing work, Laura gathered a rhododendron branch and wove some LEDs into the leaves and Hugh whittled a connection point for a little gear motor that would make the whole thing spin while I wired it up and built a mount for the motor so that it could make and break the connection consistently.

The mount for the thumper is a piece of cardboard that I cut off the back of my journal and taped to a mini breadboard. The breadboard has two pieces of copper tape on it (once connected to +3.3V and the other connected to the positive lead of the thumper). The thumper has a piece of tape of copper tape on the end of the shaft that sticks out when it is not triggered that spans the two piece of tape on the bread board, so whenever the thumper is not triggered, its positive lead connects to the positive terminal of the battery. The other lead of the thumper connects to ground, so whenever the thumper is untriggered, it completes the circuit and triggers itself.

Getting that working was really exciting. It made quite a bit of noise and vibration, which was perfect for this project, and I could tune the on/off frequency by pressing the thumper closer and tighter towards the breadboard.

Next we wired up the LEDs to the circuit in a way that they would turn on and off with the thumper (positive leads to the same copper tape as the thumper’s positive lead and negative leads to the ground). We used a bunch of clip wires to do this, which completely avoided soldering or stripping wire. We connected the gear motor to positive and ground so it would spin the whole time, but the branch wasn’t strong enough to handle that and the wires would have gotten all twisted up, so we kicked that bit out of the party.


Late night party boat

We tuned the thumper a bit to make the blinking of the LEDs visible and stuck on the obligatory googley eyes and showed off our creation. It was really satisfying to make something so wild with such a small BOM and labor. Here’s the finished partyboat, the simplest, most useless machine that is actually pretty useful:

Hydroelectric Power from Citico Creek

We tried to generate power from Citico Creek using a fire hose and some sort of generator. This was originally Scott Gilliland’s idea, and we volunteered to put this craziness to the test by carrying an extra compatible hose all the way down the mountain with us!

We were trying to make it entirely gravity driven, but the place we were at on the creek didn’t drop far enough to create enough pressure to work with the equipment we brought.


Attempts to create a portable system for harnessing energy from rushing water. A 50-foot firehose was placed upstream connected to a PVC opener. At the low end, an electric generator was attached to hopefully created electricity. This generator was not useable with low-pressure systems, and thus a different generator will need to be attached in future trials. The basic proof of concept seems valid however!


Shiva with the top end of the hose in the creek

The fire hose was so heavy that the water wouldn’t even push the sides out enough to get unobstructed flow. Basically the hose was restricting flow through it. Also, the generator we brought was designed for higher pressure that we could create, so the water flowing through it wouldn’t even turn the turbine.

We could solve these problems from two different directions. We could have hike up in to the mountains to find a suitable waterfall, so that we really could have gotten a 50ft drop from the 50ft fire hose. That theoretically could have generated enough pressure to turn the turbine, but getting a hose to the top of a waterfall isn’t exactly easy, and if there’s not a waterfall near the campsite, getting the batteries to the base of the waterfall and on dry land isn’t really convenient.

Better would be to bring gear more suited to the environment and task that we were dealing with. We now know that in the location we were at the creek drops about 5 feet over 50 feet of length. We could calculate the pressure that could generate and find a hose that works with that low of a pressure and a generator that works with the pressure also. We’d generate less voltage, but there are ways to deal with that, like a voltage booster, that would do the job for recharging batteries.

We tried building our own, low-power generator from a small vibration motor and a plastic cap. It delivered about 50 millivolts of electricity. This amount is quite insignificant, but it does prove the entire concept of harvesting electricity in a quick portable way from nearby water sources is valid. if anyone has suggestions of good, pre-existing turbines we should use, let us know!


Late Night Hacking of our own turbine

We came prepared to jump start a car when all we really needed was to trickle charge a LiPo. Next time, we’ll be even better prepared to harness the power of the water!

Portable Studio Design

Many of our initial thoughts for the design of a fully portable digital crafting studio have been loosely compiled in this, yet-unpublished, paper:

Portable Studio Practice – Wear and Tear – Quitmeyer Perner-Wilson

Field Power

The first question we always get when talking about making electronics and computers in the wilderness is how to power all of our tools. During this trip we tested out numerous different ways of getting the electrical power our devices needed.


Coding around the Campfire



From extremely rough estimates of previous hiking hacks, we came up with a basic idea of what our electrical needs would be.

Where does the power go:

  • 60% Documentation Gear (camera batteries)
  • 20% Computer for programming
  • 15% Lights (Headlamps, etc)
  • 5% Powering microcontrollers

Total power needed (Based on the batteries we went through):

3x 20a-H batteries  2x26a-H battery 4x5a-h batteries

In Madagascar we recharged the biggest batteries about twice, and the smaller ones 1-2 times. In total I would estimate needing about 60+60+52+52+52+20+20 =~ 300 amp-hours of power total. This amount of power would help keep documentation cameras rolling, lights shining, computers programming, and microcontrollers booping-and-beeping for a full 7 days in the field.


Different strategies are available for supplying this power.

Just carry a bunch of batteries

This is the most fool-proof plan, and most important for shorter trips. Just charge up a bunch of power packs, and carry them with you. Obviously the major downside of this plan is all the additional weight.



Solar is terrific, but it tends to need much more direct bright sun than most people anticipate. The difference between a cloudy day and a clear day is greatly magnified when trying to charge off solar. You also might find yourself chasing patches of sun throughout the day if you are in a thick forest (like we were).


Pyro-electric devices are starting to come out on the market. They use peltier devices which are little ceramic tiles that create an electric current when there is a large heat-gradient from one side to the other. Thus the key to making electricity is getting one side really hot, and the other side really cold. This type of electricity is generally quite inefficient, but the advantage is that you can forage for fuel. This form of power only really makes sense if you are going to be making fires every night anyway. The amount of power we got out of one fire, though seemed quite small. We could maybe charge 2-3 amp-hours of a battery over the course of a couple hours. You also need to be constantly paying attention to the position of your device in the fire.


This was one of the craziest forms we tried out in this recent trip. If you know beforehand that you will have easy access to a source of running water, you can try to tap into this resource. You will need a way to control or direct the water, and a way to generate power from it (turbine). Our technique was to carry a large (50 foot) firehose that could be attached to an electrical generator.

Our early tests with DIY hydropower still need much development. We were able to place the hose at two different spots in the flowing creek and get a decent flow of water. We were also able to find a generator that could get 3-5 volts and power and LED by spinning it. Unfortunately this generator needed a much higher pressure than was available from our hose. The hose also tended to collapse unless the flow was much better. Our homemade turbine (that we created from a vibration motor and a plastic cap), showed that we could generate power, but only in the 40-50 mV range.

Future designs will be made to more efficiently harvest energy from low-pressure systems.



Shakey or Crankey – Electric

We didn’t try this on the trips, but you could also generate power with your own body. They have those flashlights that you can shake or crank to make electricity. Such devices could come extremely in handy during projects that also featured addition transportation gear (like a bicycle when mountain biking).

A crank could also be attached to some pulleys and makeshift gears to create a gravity-powered electricity generator.