Physical Computing Models

The starting point of physical computing is to get a light to switch on/off.  Then to read a switch and get it to control the light. We then move onto motors and controlling vehicles.

But I think we need to come up with a lot more machine models that we can use for physical computing.

And the devices should appeal to girl programmers as much as boys!

I’m looking for volunteers to come up with working designs of physical computing devices.

The designs need to be easy to physically make – cardboard/LEGO/K’nex are the front runners here.

But also, 3D printable (No tight tolerances involved) would be great as if schools don’t have printers – they probably know a parent or a nearby school that could help out with that.

If you’ve got ideas let us know

If you got the means to develop and implement and idea – then let us know

If you can do both – then what are you waiting for 🙂


Comments on here or to @cymplecy on twitter


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15 Responses

  1. Darren Townsend says:

    Hi Simon. I’d like to start with an apology. In getting involved with all your Twitter rants, I’d actually forgotten that you occasionally post useful stuff (although, judging by the lack of responses, I’m not alone there). So, lets see if I can come up with something (assuming I’ve understood the question correctly).

    My first thought on reading the post is regarding your statement, ‘the devices should appeal to girl programmers as much as boys!’. Maybe I don’t spend enough time amongst kids (that sounds wrong, but I’m sure you know what I mean!), but I can’t think of anything that is currently used for this purpose that is gender-specific, and I’m not a fan of the current trend of targeting girls specifically. I believe that, at that age, if girls are interested in something, they’ll participate. They don’t need it to be painted pink and decorated with pretty ribbons.

    I’ve only recently got involved with my son’s primary school Computing department. My son, Harry, is one of the school’s Digital Leaders (10 children recruited from years 3-6 to cover more advanced topics and help the teachers and younger kids to understand the subject). The IT teacher is very keen to introduce Pi’s to the school (although she has no hends-on experience with them) and, as I am a fan, I’ve been helping where I can. After securing a donation of 6 DVI monitors, keyboards & mice from a local company, I went in a couple of weeks ago to present some Pi-based projects to the Digital Leaders group.

    I took 4 set-ups in, keeping it fairly simple – LED dice (7 leds, 1 button), reaction game (2 leds, 2 buttons), level crossing (5 leds, 1 servo), and musical distance sensor (ultrasonic sensor). All were coded in Scratch, 2 using ScratchGPIO7, 2 using GPIOserver. But I take it that you want to go further than this, and even further than your line-following ‘bots that started all this off for me, oh-so-long ago!

    I have been thinking that the way to go is to concentrate on sensors. It’s great fun to have lots of leds, but it’s a bit of a cul-de-sac. Sensors allow the kids to take coding even further outside of the computer than leds and buttons, and into the big, wide world. Just look at the interest in the AstroPi, for instance. They also create data, that can then be used in other areas of the curriculum. So, here’s a few quick thoughts on possible ‘Physical Computing models’.

    IR sensor – what rooms are occupied, and when? How many people enter and exit a room, and when?

    Temperature – network of sensors could be used to produce ‘heat map’.

    Weather station – so much data from this, could feed into all areas of the curriculum.

    Camera – observe and record people/natural environment.

    Ipads – use IPad sensors to feed data to Pi/Arduino/Microbit.

    Capacitive Touch – who doesn’t what to make sounds with vegetables!?

    RFID – how libraries have automated book-tracking. Also, how about making your own Skylanders/Disney Infinity figures and writing the software to interact with them (now I’ve written it, I really like this idea!).

    Communication – comparing different methods – light, sound, radio, etc.

    Also, not forgetting about how each of these abstracts can be related to real-world applications. Which everyday items use code to operate (washing machine, Sky box, telephone, computer mouse)?

    Well, I realise that there’s not actually any concrete ‘models’ in amongst my ramblings, but hopefully there’s enough to at least start a discussion.

    Darren (aka @ForrisHilier)

    • cymplecy says:

      Bloody marvellous stuff 🙂

      Re gender stuff
      “Maybe I don’t spend enough time amongst kids (that sounds wrong, but I’m sure you know what I mean!), but I can’t think of anything that is currently used for this purpose that is gender-specific, and I’m not a fan of the current trend of targeting girls specifically. I believe that, at that age, if girls are interested in something, they’ll participate. They don’t need it to be painted pink and decorated with pretty ribbons.”

      Your a man with a son (you may have daughters as well) but you can see where I’m coming from 🙂

      We/Us are mainly blokes – robot vehicles appeal mainly to boys as cars are aimed at boys (thats a battle lost at an early age -we just have to deal with it)

      I’m against positive discrim but we need to make sure that we are not foisterin our upbringings on next gen if possible 🙂

      That’s why the appeal to gender neutrality if possible. BTW – on robot vehicles the boys add axes and the girls do add pink fluffy bunny ears – doesn’t make any diff to line following coding but the like to do it 🙂

      I’d like to find something as great a robotic vehicles that appeals a bit more to girls

      I’ve few ideas myself but I wanted to see if I could get some OOB ideas from others 🙂

      PS Nice to find someone who disagrees with me on my Pi stnace but is able to speak to me about the important stuff 🙂 This is the way Raspberry P need to be 🙂

  2. Darren Townsend says:

    Fair point re. gender bias. You probably see it more than I do, I only have the one child (that’s 1 child, not ‘The One-Child’!), a son, so I take your point. What I thought was good about the Digital Leaders group was that, out of 10 kids, 7 are girls. The IT teacher is also female, but assures me that there was no gender bias in choosing applicants (they have to interview for a place).

    You said you have a few ideas already. If you’d care to elaborate, it would give me an idea whether I was thinking in the right direction or not.

    While I’m here, when you were doing the line-following ‘bots all those years ago, I remember having discussions with you about wheels. Did you ever find ones that suited, and if so, what?

    I’m always happy to discuss anything, as I know very little and am happy to be taught myself. Also, I don’t necessarily disagree with your opinions, just the ferocity, and frequency, with which you voice them. Anyway, it’s always good to have someone physical to rant at, instead of shouting into the wind!


    • cymplecy says:

      One of my ideas is Tumble Drier – e.g box with motor mounted on back to control the drum and a small fan on the side to blow air across to other side vents.

      I’m currently building a 3D printable Robot arm which I’m hoping could be quite economic and fun to program 🙂

      All my bots comes with wheels – I gave up on cheap home brew solutions 🙁

  3. Darren Townsend says:

    Just had a thought (that’s it for the day!) – what about something physical based on maths? I’m thinking some sort of mechanical counting device (I didn’t say it was a fully-formed thought!).

  4. Darren Townsend says:

    New day, new thought ! Something musical – solenoid-controlled glockenspiel ?

    • cymplecy says:

      Now – that sounds good except that number of solenoids would make it be too expensive for most but could be a good extension idea for G&T programmers and DTers

      • Darren Townsend says:

        I’m sure I’ve seen it done with 2 servos, actually. I’m pretty sure I remember one at a coding meet at Science Oxford a while ago. I’ll see if I can find it, and have a crack at making one.

  5. Darren Townsend says:

    Today’s thought (man, I’m on a roll now – I’m full of it!!) – Pulse Oximeter. I’m sure I’ve seen this done with a UV phototransistor and an Arduino. No reason why it couldn’t be done on the Pi, at least in a fairly basic way.

  6. Darren Townsend says:

    Ok. Still working on the Oximeter – there is a ready-made sensor for a couple of quid, but I’ve got loads of TCRT5000’s, so I’m persevering with those for the moment. However, I had an idea today – servo-powered catapult! Attach a plastic spoon to a sideways servo set at horizontal, place small (marble-sized), light projectile in said spoon, rotate servo to an angle between 30-90 deg, watch projectile fly! Maybe add another servo that could aim the rig left & right, and set up some targets or holes.

  7. cymplecy says:

    I don’t think catapult comes under gender neutral :). Not many girls take up artillery gunner as a vocation :). But of course I love it 🙂

    • Darren Townsend says:

      Don’t think catapult, think fairground game, like ball-toss. You could probably get away with ping-pong balls. It all hinges on how quickly the servo can move, and stop. The skill comes from deciding direction and point of release. You could control it with buttons, or have the player enter numerical values on screen.

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