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Dan Hett's Work on The Scribbler: An Interview

Gareth Halfacree

The Arduino project has inspired uncountable makers throughout the world, powering everything from robots to games machines. To highlight some of the projects that have been born of Arduino technology we've asked roving reporter Gareth Halfacree to seek out some of these creations and talk to the people behind the build to get their stories. If you have a story to tell, contact Gareth and he'd be thrilled to chat to you too.

Dan Hett's job with the Research & Development division of the BBC suggests a lifetime of learning, but like many makers there's little by way of a formal technical educational background behind his work. "I'm fairly self-taught," he explains during an evening interview regarding his Scribbler project. "I didn't study computer science or anything. I actually have a degree in design and visual arts, which I kind of shoehorned programming into when I found out I've got a slight aptitude for it, as opposed to my terrible skills in design, which I didn't clock until quite far into a degree!"

Post-graduate, Dan turned his attention to gaming - combining his job and his hobby when he started in the Children's BBC arm as a software engineer, building games for children even as he created things for other audiences in his spare time. "I slightly wankily describe myself as a 'creative technologist," he laughs self-deprecatingly. "So, I build things primarily with code, increasingly with hardware. I run the Manchester Game Jam, which is one of the Northwest's biggest games development contest. As part of that we started looking into experimental interfaces for games, and with the hackspace in Manchester - HackMan - they helped me build these big step-on buttons that were all wired up and seen as a keyboard by the machine. That was kind of my transition from 'oh, well, mouse and keyboard' through to 'actually, let's make some devices and use that stuff for games.' From there I started branching out away from games and into, I would say, digital art and installations and that kind of thing."

It's Dan's experience with digital art that made him the perfect choice when the Cornerhouse, an independent cinema and theatre venue in Manchester which had opened in 1985 - "a couple of months after I was born," Dan muses - announced that it would be closing and was looking for an installation to mark the occasion. "The core brief element was that it had to be something physical, so we initially started mooting things like projection-mapped surfaces, because the inside of the building is quite interesting. But, the feel didn't quite match what the Cornerhouse is, which is kind of this creaky old building with loads of soul that's seen loads of people go through it over the years, which led us to building something a little ropey but with a lot of heart - which kind of matches the vibe of the place if you've ever been there!

"The Cornerhouse has been at the centre of my creative life since I started, as a student and before that, so it's kind of an honour to be asked directly to do stuff, really," Dan explains. Having worked with Dan before on hack-day and similar events in and for the tech community around Manchester, the Cornerhouse was eager to hear his ideas. "We settled on this kind of end-of-the-pier style machine, so if you've ever seen Big, that kind of fairground-style machine that's all lights and wood and paint and it's all peeling and that kind of thing. Something like that, it matched the way the Cornerhouse is, it's all held together with masking-tape and it's interesting to look at."

The resulting device was the Scribbler. "The core idea for this was that the machine would sit in the middle of the space, but it would kind of be deactivated. It wouldn't be off, but it would be clearly just kind of still, and when it received a message it would just creak into life, whir into action, and it would write the message. We had this giant suspended pencil in the centre of this giant cabinet," Dan describes of the design. "There's actually a hidden printer inside it, the pencil didn't do any of the actual writing, which is a common misconception with it! It's just for show, it's all theatrics, and it was designed very purposely to be quite theatrical. The message comes in via Twitter or via a dedicated website with a live [video] feed on it, the machine whirs into life, and then your message pops out of the bottom. From there, at the end of each day, the staff at the Cornerhouse took all the messages out of it and then hung them all over the gallery, so over kind of a few weeks of installation we ended up with the messages taking over the space, so they started to plaster all over the windows and down the walls.

"We had a load of mains-powered LED strips hidden inside the top of the machine that aren't immediately obvious, but as soon as the message comes in the whole thing lights up and looks like fireworks, it's great. What we've also got coming from the Arduino is a 180-degree servo, which is hidden in the bottom and pulls the bottom of the pencil so it looks like the pencil is kind of theatrically bobbing around and writing. What's actually happening, obviously, is that the printer is just running off a print and we've kind of masked it theatrically so it looks like this pencil is scribbling, and then the message pops out."

The Scribbler fit the brief perfectly: it was physical, attractive, and allowed people to enjoy it from anywhere in the world. "They wanted something in the space that allowed users to submit messages and feelings and thoughts, and they wanted people in the space to be able to use it and they wanted people away from the space to be able to use it, because obviously people who are familiar with the Cornerhouse may have moved away or be scattered around the land and that kind of thing. But that was it, that was the entire brief. And then I think we built the whole thing in about three, four weeks, altogether? So, very, very short turnaround but quite a lot of fun."

There was 'fun' to be had during the prototyping process, too. "The plan was to have individually-addressable lit-up letters. We prototyped it using Arduino and a load of superbright LEDs, and we had a load of patterns prototyped. We sat with a designer looking at the way fruit machines work and end-of-the-pier machines work and we prototyped it all out," Dan sheepishly explains, "then I accidentally plugged in a 24V charger instead of a 9V charger into my Arduino. Didn't realise it the first time; blew two up, and then it got too late in the day and we had to just abandon the entire thing. It was a little frustrating!

"We blew the first one up and I thought I'd wired it up wrong. To my untrained eye I didn't realise that the powerpack was from an old MP3 player. The second time around I went 'right, I've labelled all my wires, I know exactly what I'm doing,' plugged it in again and it popped and broke the circuit that everything was plugged into. My computer turned off, and everything turned off, and only at that point did I realise that it was kind of crackling. Not only did I blow these two boards up, but one of them was borrowed off my sister," Dan admits. "She's really, really keen on tech, and I'd bought her an Arduino starter kit, and realised I didn't have an Uno to hand, so I'd borrowed it off her and then blew it up. So, yeah, extra guilt!"

The experience didn't put Dan off the Arduino, however - in fact, he credits the platform as the reason he is able to make the move from pure-software creations to more hardware-based projects. "What I was trying to do was quite simple, but I can't imagine trying to take on something like this without having an accessible platform like Arduino," he muses. "It's not just the materials but it's the community around it. The fact that I can Google problems and immediately find not just that people have solved it but schematics and videos and support and PDFs and everything else I could possibly need to get this done is really nice. We can joke about the fact that the stuff blew up and then I had to phone a grown-up to come and help me out, but actually I think if we'd not had that chance to kind of prototype things back and forth then the project definitely wouldn't have worked anyway. I think it's still completely valuable and totally valid that I got all this stuff done anyway, even thought I did set it on fire!"

Those 'grown-ups' who aided Dan in creating the Scribbler come from varied backgrounds. "Typically I work on my own, but for something of this size I sort of joke but I really did need some grown-ups. It was a creatively led project, so we solved it with an Arduino and a bit of open-source code but actually it was a creative problem, how to answer this really open brief. I worked with a couple of designer-slash-creative friends of mine, Danny Blackman and Dan Hall. That's two fantastic creative minds who really tore this kind of problem apart. I initially thought I could handle everything else on my own, then it got a point where, for example, the database stuff was going to be a bit more challenging time-wise than we thought, so I drafted in a guy called Rick Ogden, who works at Salford University and also happens to be an infinitely patient database guru. He set us up with a MongoDB instance and a PHP-driven API over the top of that, and again all totally open-source, all shared, which was quite nice. Then, on top of that, at the very last minute I enlisted Bob Clough of the Manchester Hackspace, and he was instrumental in getting the electronics working, like I can't describe!

"I sent him a frantic email at something like eleven o'clock at night saying 'Bob, everything's on fire, help,'" Dan laughs, "and not even twelve hours later he met us at the Cornerhouse. By the time I arrived he had his sleeves rolled up and half a circuit built. He'd taken all of my kind of frenzied, panicking descriptions and started to build something really, really quickly."

The project may be powered by a high-tech Arduino, laptop, and a salvaged inkjet printer, but making the Scribbler called for some traditional skills - and a contributor who came from outside the tech and design community as a result. "The guy who built the cabinet, he's a guy called Tommy Georgeland. He's a carpenter, but he has been working for the Cornerhouse for years and years. He's the guy whenever a kind of mincing, poncy artist in a beret says 'ooh, I want you to build this really stupid thing,' he dives on it," Dan laughs, "and makes everything perfect. We sent him our sketches and designs, almost literally on the back of a fag packet, and then two weeks later he had this perfectly built, perfectly measured cabinet, and I think it turned out amazingly well."

Dan is passionate about open-source, but his decision to release everything relating to the project under permissive licences confused some of his collaborators. "Sometimes non-technical creatives like designers don't immediately understand the concept of 'why would you share everything, surely it's your thing and you wrote it and it's a secret,'" Dan explains. "It was initially quite difficult for me to get across as a developer 'actually, open-source is what has made me tick over the last few years and it's increasingly more important to me.' But it feels nice to be able to say 'here is everything, warts and all,' because we wrapped up the project, the project no longer exists, it was a thing, it's now no longer a thing, but if you wanted to make one yourself go nuts.

"What we're also going to do is share the results," adds Dan. "We got something like 600 messages that were what we're calling 'legit' messages, which were non-duplicated, non-sweary, actual messages that weren't ASCII penises or whatever. Then on top of that we've got literally thousands upon thousands of failed message attempts. That might be duplicates, sweary ones, whatever. What we're going to do is IP-strip that stuff so it's anonymous and share that as well, because I think it's quite interesting to see the attempts to people have made to kind of circumvent the machine a little bit."

The code for the Scribbler can be found on Dan's GitHub repository, while more of his projects can be seen on his blog.

Scribbler images and video courtesy the Cornerhouse.

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