Category Archives: gamboa2014

Balboa to Camino De Cruces (Hiking Hack Day 1 Part 1)


Stuff did not come together until the absolute last minute. Up until 4am packing, waking others up at 5am to load equipment into Mani’s van.

We sorted the food at 9pm last night, but forgot to load any of the stuff that was in the fridge. Before the van rolled off I had to run in and grab whatever I could carry in my hands: some extra fruit, bread, salami.


Harmon dropped out. He rode with us to the statue of Balboa on the Pacific, and hopped into a cab to the airport. He was tossed into this crazy world of the tropics and the insane researchers living here. The people are on Jungle time, getting things done according to the schedules of animals. They are amazing, and we pulled off an incredible of amount in preparing for this trip. However, these biologist (especially during their busy summer field season), can only ever get stuff together at the absolute last moment.  Three of them separately referred to my work getting everyone prepared as “herding cats,” and it has taken me three years to get good at it. So when Harmon is here, and it’s already 10pm and not a single person is ready for the 6am departure, and we spent the day getting the safety talk about the horrible jungle diseases you can contract, he seemed to have gotten uncomfortable with the trip. I had to give myself fully away to this project and know that I will never have all the answers or be entirely prepared.  These methods may be stupid and foolhardy,  but this is the deepest way I have found to learn.


To develop some arbitrary ritual or performance, one that excites you, and scares you with a fear of danger, exhaustion, and general incompletion. Then to accept the challenge of your past self and carry out this concept as far as you can go. Jumping into the river of the challenge letting it carry you to strange places and ideas, while you try to let yourself become part of the water, bending easily around curves, weaving through branches, but maintaining your own momentous force. Realizing that no matter how different the route and challenge becomes, the true success comes from not upholding some earlier mental construct, but by learning how the real world transforms man’s ideas.


The main question of this Hiking Hack is about how much the context in which you build a tool really matters. Will it solve all sorts of unknown problems, or give rise to new ideas, or it is just a really bad idea? Wild animal interaction is a high-level game we play full of interpretation. Can the context appropriately maintain the integrity of scientific tools in this shifting space? I will let this journey pull me and this idea apart and will hopefully know much more about this question at the end.


Our route is a Reverse-Balboa. We will cut across the this country a inverted conquistadors, seeking to understand the environment and people of this place while allowing it to conquer us. We will start with the imperialism of new digital technology, and let the wilderness tear it apart to uncover what is actually useful. In the city we clambor down strange artificial rocks to baptize ourselves in the first of the two oceans we aim to touch.



No one’s gotten any sleep, but we are powered by the rich energy of a fresh expedition. We stride through the city, around the mall, and into the suburbs while noticing how incredibly helpful all the locals are to our endeavor. Directing us to safe routes and construction workers cheering us on when we say “vamos al Pacífico.”




These suburbs, a former US army base, are where the entrance to the historic Camino de Cruces trail has been hidden. Our previous week’s scouting found it behind house 636 in a little subdivision. This is where we encounter the first main obstacle. Within the week, the entrance to the jungle has been locked. The people of house 636 let us setup a lunch camp in their backyard while Ummat and May hunt around for ways around or people to help us. More than an hour goes by and things are looking stupidly grim, how have we marched across a city to just be locked off from the forest? Luckily this fantastic duo finally found a person in this sleepy burb with more info. They told us there is a guy trying to make an illegal land-grab on the Camino De Cruce’s trail and he does mean things like put his on locks on public property. This nice resident then gave us a hacksaw and told us we should open it back up. This is when the Hiking Hack took on a more literal meaning than we would have thought.






Baggage Issues

Since this is my first time out of the country (Canada doesn’t count), and my first time doing any sort of backpacking sort of adventure thing like this, Andy asked me to write a “very short” piece on the process of getting my shit together for the trip.


Leaving aside my 6 vaccinations, and my horrible, horrible passport photos, most of this process came down to packing.

On my very best of days, I am a miserable over-packer. It’s not that I’m high-maintenance necessarily (although I totally am – who the hell uses two different mouthwashes?) – I actually gave most of that stuff up pretty easily for this trip, in the name of Adventure! and Roughin’ It! and Self-Sacrifice – it’s more that I tend to over-consider potential scenarios, and pack accordingly. “Oh, but you never know, I might get a cold on the flight over, so I better bring along all these cough drops just in case.”

Turns out this tendency ramps-up like a thousand-fold when you’re going to be out in the freaking JUNGLE, and the stuff you pick out in the pharmacy aisle could be the difference between life and death. (I mean, realistically, between me and the 7 other people coming along on this thing, we’re going to have so much stuff that we’re gonna be prepared to face pretty much every scenario, but try telling that to My Cool Brain.)

If me in the pharmacy aisle was bad – scooping up bandages and sprays and unguents by the armful (“Jungle rot could be a real concern out there!”) – then me at the camping store was even worse. The wonderful people who work at the REI are very knowledgable, it must be said, but they have a definite tendency to do product comparisons in such a way that you envision yourself as a corpse if you pick the wrong (“cheaper”) selection.

“I dunno, man,” says a dude whose clothing was at least 75% hemp. “That backpack cover is pretty good, but it can still lead to the occasional leakage.” And so I picture every object I own waterlogged in a monsoon, and me down on my knees, crying to the heavens, “WHY DIDN’T I LISTEN TO YOU, TREE (OR WHATEVER YOU INTENSELY SILLY NAME WAS)??”

That, by the way, is how one talks one’s self into buying Survival Underwear:

survival underwear

A steal at $19/pair!

In addition to basic survival terror, there is also the fact that, in my brain at least, not only must every situation be carefully considered and covered by proper equipment, this equipment must also be The Cutest Version Possible Of That Thing. So, like, in getting a headlamp, I could have just gotten a basic, kind of gross clear plastic one. But no. Better spend an extra $20 on this adorable teal one!

cute headlamp

Its inherent cuteness will be sure to protect me when I am pounced on by a panther or whatever.

Andy asked me to bring down a few things with me, which I was happy to do, despite the fact that they ranged from mildly embarrassing…

hugest condoms

Why yes, Mr. Customs Agent, I *do* need 24 of the hugest condoms available to humanity… for Science, though, I swear!

…to comically illegal-looking…

no not drugs at all

No, they’re “electronics,” swear to God!

…to the potentially explosive:

explode label

I am writing this from the plane, and it has yet to explode, so I guess we’re doing OK so far!

Once survival basics and Andy’s stuff were covered, then it was time to move onto the realm of the ridiculous. I am not sure how much of this stuff is actually going to make it out into the jungle with me, but I wanted to at least have the option, you know?

Andy explained that my role on the trip is as sort of a chronicler / outsider commenter / potential art creator. The sad truth is that my art skills really never progressed beyond the level of marginally talented second grader, however, so I stuck with what I knew:

art supplies

This sweet set of goods includes such necessities as:

– Teeny tiny little colored pencils!

tiny colored pencils

– 200 peel-and-stick goggly eyes!

googly eyes

– Mac and cheese duct tape!

mac and cheese duct tape

– Badass butane-powered hot glue gun! (Sadly I didn’t have room for the cool 80’s-cop-movie-style holster…)


I also got this dumb little camera, which – like all Polaroid products – has an appealing gimmick kind of shoddily executed. It’s a digital camera, see, but it can also instantly print out photos! Awesome, right? I fully expect it to melt into a puddle of goo about 45 seconds after landing. 


But look how cute it is, pre-puddle!

Moving down the sliding scale of Packed Item Viability (PIV), we also have…

camp flask

BADASS CAMP FLASK – There is no universe where I am not getting drunk in a jungle at least one time. Also, this damn thing looks like it’s practically bulletproof, so I might just wear it over my heart at all times for protection.


ASSORTED GLOW STICKS – I don’t know what a Jungle Rave is, exactly, but I want to have one.

usa tats

PATRIOTIC TEMPORARY TATTOOS – This is the first time I won’t be home for American Independence Day, so it seemed important to bring along some way of honoring the occasion all the same (i.e., plastering these all over my face).

team rings

TEAM RINGS – (You’ll notice I have a thing for googly eyes.) I am weirdly focused on encouraging team spirit, so I am going to guilt everyone on our expedition into wearing these the whole time and doing complicated secret handshakes. 

hk playing cards

HELLO KITTY PLAYING CARDS – Conceivably to help us while away the long jungle nights together, I mostly got these because they look borderline unusable. I’m looking forward to watching anyone try and shuffle these things.


INFLATABLE PARROT – I have no earthly idea why I brought this. As a mascot perhaps?

cocktail umbrellas

COCKTAIL UMBRELLAS – I only drink fancy drinks. Period.

bubble pipes

BUBBLE PIPES – What better way to unwind after a long day of backpacking? Besides, too late to kick the habit now!

poop juju

POOP JUJU – Most importantly of all, however, is this handmade bracelet from Elli. My digestive stability is pretty touch-and-go, even on American soil, and people keep telling me about “travelers’ diarrhea,” so I figured I needed all the good juju I could get.

And that’s it! What an easily manageable, not hugely stupid pile of goods to bring with me!


But then, Andy always did appreciate a good pile

Anyway, I am sure I still managed to forgot to bring something hugely critical, so expect to hear about it in my next post, which will probably be just as long as long and pointless.

Until then, I remain your intrepid chronicler, Nate Walsh.


Savage Dogs versus the Jungle

This weekend Gamboa hosts some sort of national ultimate Frisbee tournament. I’ve been told that teams come from all over the country for some reason to play out here in the middle of nowhere.



Peter had told me stories of this tournment from the past two years, but I had been out of town both times. Anyway, when Janni invited me to play on the local Gamboa team, I eagerly accepted.



Our team, the Perros Salvajes (Wild Dogs), was a sort of band of misfits made of local gambodians and some scientists who played pick-up games on fridays. Peter said that our name fit us nicely because the Gamboa teamusually “had a lot of raw talent, but was sure to lose because we don’t work as a team, and just sort of run around.” This seemed to clearly be the case.

I looked around and as the other teams were warming up and running drills, our team was smoking and passing around beers. We lost both games the first day, but showed signs of our skills and took the lead briefly in the latter game.


After the first day’s tournment, our team hosted a huge party in the main part of the little town. It was grand enough to hear from all over gamboa and the jungle. I had to miss the party due to work, but it took quite a toll on our team. When I showed up the next morning to play, half the team was nowhere to be seen. We played almost the whole first game without any subs. The only other person to arrive, was our team captain at the end of the first game, but he was holding his head pretty hard in a deadly hangover sort of way. Despite the missing/hungover team, somehow we were doing amazing. We were leading the first game, which had to be decided by a tie-breaker. The final game, we fought against one of the best teams (who ended in the finals), La Jungla. At this point our team was so tired, they were busting out every dirty trick in the book. We called fouls constantly. Moved incredibly slowly whenever we were in the lead to run out the clock. And tried to ignore when the other team had called fouls on us.

Despite this hard, strange battle, we still lost, but I think everyone we faced ended up pretty well chewed by the Wild Dogs.

Comfort and Labelblitz




Like most aspects of this year’s field mission, one of the strangest continual feelings I have is that of comfort. The previous two years kept me in a mad daze struggling to bounce around scientists and sneak space for myself to setup places for electronics and coding. Now I feel like all these rich crazy experiences of the past years have molded me into a lean machine for this research. Just like I no longer flinch at carrying 90 pound backpacks loaded with batteries and harddrives straight through airport security, getting back into the lab and organizing hundreds of tiny electrical parts just feels familiar. Part of me worries about doing anything that feels easy. I bet people training for marathons experience similar anxieties where despite being able to run for many kilometers more than before, the fact that it feels easier than when they were just starting is a bit unnverving.

There was a cosmic reversal of fortune that has been following me since I got to go to Ben and Kristy’s Lake house a few days before flying down. We spent memorial day there with terrific friends secluded in luxury, lakes, and amazing food in the middle of Alabama. Before, the diminishing time was an angry elephant sitting on my chest and fattening itself on problems compounding before the trip. Despite my Fellow status this year (which I figured would make things easier), STRI forgot to help find me housing. Our new prototype with Comingle was facing new hardships everyday. I barely had anything packed, and what I had was already hundreds of pounds more than what was allowed for a person on Spirit airlines. Also I began to REALLY not be looking forward to not seeing Kitty for 2 solid months. But something magical seemed to have happened by forcing myself to divorce work-Andy from just fun-Andy for 3 solid days, and then things started coming together, and they just kept it up!


These electronics compartments drawers are super integral to any decent workshop. While moving in my gear, I realized that just setting up all this stuff, and getting a hand and a little bit of directed attention to each of these bits was integral to being able to think with them later. This gave me the idea to get the people that I was going to be working with involved in this process. I set up a simple “game” where Peter, May, and Ummat (Zoe jumped in too!) would take markers, pull out the blank drawers, ask me what the hell the parts were in those drawers, and then label them.

I set up a timer for 30 minutes, and we tried to see how many drawers we could do in this short time. The time component of this Labelblitz kept us from lingering too long on a simple article (which was easy to do) and helped these scientist buddy get immersed in the language of physical computing.


Beforehand Peter and I had a talk about other people’s research we encountered that brought about existential strangeness in ourselves, but didn’t seem to affect the researchers telling us about this. Most of this talk seemed to revolve around all the different projects we encountered where people kept brains alive in jars. I remember Liz telling me about frog brains in jars which still sent out mating call signals, and peter mentioned how they could keep fruit fly brains alive for days, and program the larvae to respond to incredibly particular stimuli, like when it is 27 degrees Celsius, or when the color blue is present. Looking back at the pictures, it seems my papaya half sitting in a vat of soy milk may have had some influence on this talk.



Discovery Center Run

Peter and I found the fabled Discovery Center late last year when we went to pick up tools for his experiments and supplies for giant ant puppets in our performance last year.  The store is, more or less, a combination Target / Lowes with a couple of aisles of just strangeness.

It was amazing to see, and an early trip there would be important for me to know what potential materials could be at my disposal. I figured out how to rent a truck from STRI, and grabbed Barrett, Michelle, and Inga who also had supplies to pick up (but also just wanted to see the place).



One of the first things you are greeted with is a giraffe who was lost to some sort of act of auto-erotic asphyxiation. (right next to the pet cages and baseball gloves).



Lots of things are locked up behind those sliding glass drawers, and usually it’s just still very cheap things like $2 soldering irons.  The loaded harpoon gun cabinet was TOTALLY unlocked though!



We might have to get Nate Walsh a pair of these stylish all white jungle boots!




More Solder suckers in stock than any store I have ever been to.



Behind the aisle selling blenders there is a huge zone of medical equipment. You can buy a full gurney or a dozen wheelchairs!




And of course next to the plants aisle there are some sweet jesus-themed biker vests!

image image


We actually had to go to another store to find wood however. And since the truck bed was full of equipment, we needed a volunteer to sit in the parking lot and guard it. A curious parking lot guard came over, and since Inga had purchased some lawn chairs, i pulled them out and offered the guard a chance to take a load off.

Me and him got along great! We taught each other lessons in English, Spanish, and Kuna (the language of a local indigenous people). His name was Dacho, and he was of Kuna ancestry, and he had actually worked with scientists and military people before in Panama. We discussed the finer points of life by translating words into all three languages such as “beer”, “Pistols”, and “Beautiful women”


Transcontinental Hiking/Hack

From June 26th to July 5th, I have organized an expedition across Panama. The main goal is to design digital-biological field technology entirely in situ. The context in which a technology is made drives its design. Conventional development of digital technologies, however, typically occurs in climate controlled laboratory surroundings, and not the harsh environments of many biological field sites (like the Panamanian Rainforest).

This trip will help us find new ways to create novel devices for scientific exploration, hack existing devices, and share our biological-technological discoveries while cut off from the luxuries of standard electronics workshops.

Along the way we will also be critically analyzing the effect that these technologies have upon the different scientific surveys and investigations we will carry out during this transcontinental transect.

We will be fully immersed in the strange world of the other creatures, which will hopefully empower our designs for understanding them.

Images from a prototype Hiking / Hack with Signalfire artist residency

 The Crew

Peter Marting

Has been participating in Andy’s Digital Naturalism research since the beginning. He’s a true naturalist dedicated to understanding life in the wild. He’s developed mad hacking skills over the years in order to explore his Azteca ants even further collaborating with Andy to make devices like the Flick-o-matic and artificial Cecropia trees.  He’s also a musician in the band Ptarmigan.


  • Ant Enthusiasm
  • Bird Calls
  • Hymenopteran Stings


May Dixon

May Dixon is an all star bat scientist. She manages Rachel Page’s research lab in Panama, and has been leading projects about novel learning behaviors in Bats. She is about to start her PhD at UT Austin.


  • Science
  • Mammals and the Tropics
  • First Aid

Ummat Somjee

 Ummat studies heliconia beetles and holds encyclopedic knowledge of the many behavioral systems in the tropics and arctic. He is an experienced backpacker and a professional-grade mountain climber.


  • Fast Hands
  • Extreme Climbing
  • Insect Sex

Erin Welsh


 Erin is a graduate student at the University of Illinois studying the potential impact of climate change on off-host tick ecology in the neotropics. She has been working in the jungles of panama for the past two years.


  • Tropical Infectious Diseases
  • Trivia
  • Tick Wrangling

Nate Walsh


Nate Walsh is a professional writer and excellent communicator of the oddities of many cultural and social interactions.


  • Writing
  • Scary Memory
  • Mild Masochism

Harmon Pollock


Harmon is a roboticist currently working at Northwestern. Along with his excellent skills in all aspects of physical computing, he has also been on many challenging (sometimes solo) expeditions into backcountry areas.


  • Harware Hacking
  • Duct Tape Hacking
  • Carry Stuff that’s not quite as heavy as Andy.

Mary Tsang

Mary Tsang Studied Biology and Art at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, where she picked up a knack for growing hydroponic kale and building installations inspired by 50s space age aesthetic. With an undying love for neotropical rainforests, she has traveled to Central America and back several times, mostly for researching frogs.


  • Videography
  • Catching Frogs
  • Bio-hacking-tweaking-punking

Andrew Quitmeyer

Will be leading this expedition. He loves inventing and building new things but hates being indoors. This is why this project came to be!


  • Carry Heavy Things
  • Hacking
  • Sewing




More details soon!


Here is the announcement / application

Dissertation Music Video

One of the main Side projects for my 2014 tenure in the rainforest will be to shoot a music video which somehow shares the thesis of my PhD research. I was enthralled when I first started my PhD three years ago and Dr. Becky Arundale pointed me to the “Dance Your PhD project.” I knew I would have to do it, but when I started check out the works submitted currently, many seemed to be just some sort of interpretive dancing against audio backdrops of pop songs with captions that explained the thesis. This is still SUPER COOL and super great when people find more fun and accessible ways to share their work. I knew however, that what I really wanted to do was a fully realized music video performance to explain it all. I had to make a custom song that actually explained some sort of the philosophy of the research itself, and then shoot a music video to back-up these ideas.


I’m not unfamiliar with creating music videos about a central thesis. Whether it was about the high incidents of beverage spillage amongst pimp cups, or the fact that I have lots of amazing things in my basement which I have to get rid of, I have always loved the tight structure of musical videos for expressing any sort of odd concept.


In the most cynical point of view, I realized that people just want to see captivating images synced up with fun sounds. If you can make something fun with decent visual and audio rhythms, you can get people’s attentions long enough to try to share some sort of idea.


I’m also not unfamiliar with filming music in the jungle. Last year, Peter’s band all came down to visit, and we held a concert for all the animals in the jungle. Adapting such an anthropocentric event to the forest made for a fun time and a compelling concert video.

The Song


I started the lyrics to the song during the Gamboa 2013 field trip. I had been reading an article about Superorganisms and the auto-poesis of control systems. This was the first time I had encountered the term poesis in its original term referring to creation and production. Meanwhile I had been thinking about how my research stood against typical scientific technological endeavors. One thought I had was that the overall goal of many technological works is to separate, and distinguish ourselves against the other facets of the world. We then dissect these “others” in order to dominate them. The target of my research, on the other hand, is to find technological means of granting greater agency to our surrounding environment. I want to dissolve the specialness of humans by finding ways for them to connect with the other pulsing creatures and environments forming the big pulsing body of the earth.

I had a vision of humans as little more than a simple appendage like an arm on the earth’s body. Currently this body part developed cancerous ideas of individuality and is currently attempting to cure itself by making saws to cut itself off from its own body.  I thought that a large philosophical target for Digital Naturalism then should be technologies which extend the reach of ourselves as these body parts and generate connections back to the other body parts. Our role in the body of the earth can develop into responsive nervous systems connecting the disparate appendages. Eventually helping the body function in tighter unison rather than staging a hopeless coup against it. Thus I had the basic principles behind a song with the awkward title: “Poetic Appendage.”



I would jot down a couple of lyrics that I felt should belong somewhere in the song. I would then pick some of these phrases and go on jogs and shout them around to develop different verses guided by the rhythmic structure of my running. I then started teaching myself how to better switch around chords on a guitar, and started to take these verses from the jogging sessions and add melodies. I eventually refined and developed a basic rhythmic structure with a standard frame of Verse-Chorus Verse-Chorus Verse-Chorus Bridge Verse – End, and simple chords to go along. Luckily then I managed to bump into an old friend Chris Gonzales. Chris is a recording mastermind. He has sound cards larger than my computer, and special boxes in the recording studio he built to give the room perfect warm audio qualities. We had worked together before on a raunchy song about sex with E.T. (this will be released with the full album after my PhD), and he seemed happy at the idea of working with me again on another musical project.

Chris’s interest was really super awesome for me, and I am really grateful he wanted to work with me. We met up and I shared the song and rudimentary philosophy and ideas behind my PhD, and he took to it right away and started thinking of ways to have the music and the recorded quality of the music represent the rhetoric and narrative of the ideas behind the song.


He used his fantastic guitar and drum skills to then get the core skeleton of the song together. Then I recorded the lyrics. Despite my usual demeanor, there’s something about singing that makes me INCREDIBLY SELF CONSCIOUS to the point where it is hard to actually sing. But battling this affliction, I think, is one of the main reasons that I keep forcing myself to do it ( I still feel weird about hearing my voice on the song.


Finally we took lots of Peter’s recorded sounds of panama (, and I edited these clips of howler monkeys, cicadas, tropical birds, and frogs into the song. I also added some funky appegiatted synths to the mix so that all three main actors in the concept of the song (humans: guitar, drums, vox – Animals: Jungle Sounds – and Digital: Synths) would all be jumping around together.


The Song

{Is still currently being refined, check back later to hear it!}

Here’re the lyrics and chords to play it yourself!


The Video

{Is also still currently being refined, here’s some descriptions of the planning for it so far though.}


The verses will be shot in split screens. This will enable me to do fun dancing and stuff on the human side, and share cool nature videography on the creature side while supporting the thesis about technology and separation from the creatures. The aesthetic of the choruses are based off the “Tiny Planet” spherical video panoramas taken by GERMAN GUY INSERT NAME. I had to build a modified version of his 6 gopro camera holder to use with Gopro Hero2’s (not rich enough for 6 hero 3’s). Unfortunately one of the Gopros I bought off ebay had a faulty button, and I tried to fix it, but it just broke again – lame!


Gamboa 2014 Thesis Field Season

Having successfully defended my Proposal in February 2014, I am conducting my final field season for my PhD. This is the longest field season where I will be down in Panama for a full 3 months to test out and evaluate the Digital Media theories I have developed over the years of my research.

This year I will have three main projects, designing an ant sensor, hosting a hiking hackathon, and filming a music video for my dissertation:
[display-posts category=”projects2014″ include_excerpt=”true” image_size=”thumbnail” wrapper=”div”]
Here are my journal entries for the season:

[display-posts category=”gamboa2014″ include_excerpt=”true” image_size=”thumbnail” wrapper=”div”]

Arboreal Ant Sensor: Main Project Summer 2014

Background: Funding

After a couple years of trying to pitch lofty, abstract concepts for funding from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, I changed up my strategy with great success! I went from rejected proposals such as “Give me money so we can do large scale exploratory performances with crazy technology in the jungle so that people can feel what it’s like to be an ant” to “Let me build an ant sensor” and surprisingly enough it got funded 🙂

As with all things in life, I realized that the reason I was having trouble getting funded last year was due to communication problems. No one should really be expected to just flat out accept big vague ideas that they have no real connection to what’s being proposed. So after doing lots of exploratory “Digital Naturalism” stuff last year, i decided it would be a good idea to take one of the projects that developed from this process, and present a very concrete idea that could gain traction among the scientists on the review board.

The basic concept

In the lab, we can track lots of ants with cameras pointed at the colony in a nice 2-dimensional plane. In the field however, the ants live on arbitrary geometric shapes- up the bark of a round tree  and onto frilly leaves, for example.

While working with Peter, we had been adopting the computer vision techniques from the lab in field sites with little success. However, after our work designing, utilizing and performing with the technology together in the jungle, we were able to start analyzing our problem from the ground up.


For Peter’s experiments, we realized that we didn’t need all the data that the lab tools were working to collect like, ant position, unique ID, orientation. Instead what we could really use would just be something that told us there mere fact that an ant was there or not. In the little time that I had last year, I made a really simple ant-detector prototype. An LED gives steady illumination to a point on the tree bark, and a photo-resistor gives a reading of how much light gets reflected back. When an ant walks in front of the area where this simple sensor is pointing, it reflects the light differently and gives a different reading.

This early prototype showed lots of promise. Once implemented, we can potentially build cheap, sub $10 sensors that could be attached in arrays to arbitrary surfaces in the jungle. This would be a different means of tracking the insect movements with its own bonuses and limitations.

Camera Tracking Modular Sensor Tracking
 Single Unit – Expensive  Multiple Cheap Units
 Rich Potential Information: Speed, Unique ID, Orientation, Multi-ant Interactions  Minimal Information from single source: Ant Present, Yes or No.
 Single Location, 2-dimensional  Multiple Locations

All Potential Technologies

Since I have learned the lesson over and over that everything will go wrong, and most things you assume to work will not, I came with several contingencies plans of different technologies which could also potentially work.

Reflected Light

Building more sophisticated versions in keeping with the original LED + Photoresistor sensor.

Modulated Light / Proximity Detection

This is the next step up from the original idea. The output light is pulsed, so the sensor knows exactly when to expect readings (cutting down on noise). Depending on how these readings come back, fancy sensors like the VNCL4000 ( can actually give distance

Optical Mouse Sensor

Right before I left for panama, Sparkfun started selling optical mouse sensors ( These chips are SUPER CHEAP ($1), and are actually high-frame rate cameras design to detect changes of movement in their visual fields. I ordered a bunch, and will try to see if I can rig them up to monitor patches of bark or leaves for the movements of any passing ants.

Electric Field Proximity Sensing

This option could be cool, because if successful, we could potentially detect ants within the trees themselves. This type of technology uses emitted electrical fields and senses any changes in the field strength it monitors coming back. Joshua Smith tested out a lot of this technology back in the 90’s with lots of sucess with Humans (we are big conductive blobs of water). In order to detect ants, this might not work at all (they are small dry and barely conductive). But if all other methods fail, this could be a cool thing to resort to.


Transcontinental Hiking / Hack Announcement

We are recruiting field biologists for the upcoming Transcontinental Hiking / Hack. This will be a 9 day hiking workshop through the Panamanian forest going from the Atlantic to the Pacific taking place from June 26-July 5 2014.

The primary goals of the project are to:

  • Design technology for studying animal behavior in situ.
  • Conduct a Basic Biodiversity Survey of the Area.
  • Raise ecological awareness

Chosen Applicants will be compensated with:

  • Free Food
  • Transportation for individuals already located in Gamboa Panama to the start of the Trail, and from the end of the trail back to Gamboa. (You need to arrange your own means of getting to Panama).
  • Electronics
  • Training in basic programming, physical computing, sensor creation, and interaction design

Applicants will be responsible for:

  • Helping design and carry out the scientific survey
  • Documenting the Trip
  • Carrying Gear
  • Participating in the proper training before the trip (Meetings, emails / 1 workshop in Gamboa, Panama)
  • Participating in the mobile workshops during the trip
  • Participating in a documentation workshop after the trip


We have 2-3 slots available. Anyone is welcome to apply by emailing: . Put “Hiking/Hack” in the subject line, and describe why you wish to join our crew.

This is part of my own research in what I call “Digital Naturalism.” I seek to understand how we can develop technology with scientists for the study of animal behavior in natural environments. I seek to design technology for the full ethological process, from early open-ended exploration, to rigorous experimentation, to embodied and interactive dissemination.

Any further questions, please let me know!