Breaking down barriers with micro:bit

By Giles Booth. Posted

Sam Topley’s crochet balls contain micro:bits that interact using radio and respond to movement, changing the music they play Credit: samantha-topley.co.uk

Originally published in Hello World Issue 9: Computing and the arts, July 2019.

Giles Booth shares the stories of artists and teachers who use the micro:bit to mix technology with traditional skills in ways that mutually benefit the worlds of art and computer science

Fine art and computer science may seem to be poles apart, but increasingly affordable and easy-to-use technology is helping blur the two worlds in ways that can inspire creativity in your classroom. The micro:bit is especially helpful here, as it can be coded in a familiar block environment, allowing pupils to get quick results using its built-in sensors and LED displays, yet it contains a microcontroller that can be used in more sophisticated ways with external sensors, displays, and even building networks of interactive art.

Yarnbombing with technology

Sam Topley is researcher and lecturer at De Montfort University, specialising in experimental music technology and community arts practice. Her ‘Playground’ project uses giant textile balls to make sound and music as they are played together. Each hand-crocheted ball contains a micro:bit; the balls connect wirelessly and transmit data to each other and Sam composed digital music which responds to movement. 

Sam has used the balls to run workshops with learners aged between 2 and 25, some with sensory impairment, learning difficulties, communication difficulties, or complex medical conditions. The soft, tactile casings for the technology make playing with them feel safe and calm and, when coding the music algorithms, she was careful to avoid any loud, sudden, or surprising sounds. Interactive technology like this, where there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way of using it, is perfect for this kind of environment.

As well as benefiting the learners who appreciate a sensory experience, Sam has found the project beneficial for developing her own art and further broaden its appeal and reach.

Finding algorithms in art

Digital artist Sean Clark, an international professor at Guangdong University of Technology, is passionate about the mutual benefits of art and technology and says programming should be taught by art teachers as much as maths teachers. Sean uses micro:bit in his workshops in China, alongside Scratch and simple materials like cheap NeoPixel lights and laser-cut scrap cardboard. Students use Scratch to recreate patterns found in Cantonese ceramics. In following the ancient rules that govern which shapes can – and cannot – be combined, they learn about the history of art, but also the computational skills of decomposition, pattern recognition and algorithms in practical programming. 

The micro:bit allows the creation of artefacts that reflect this, augmenting 3D structures and headdresses inspired by traditional art, with patterned-lighting responding to environmental triggers such as the sound of clapping. Sean says that the simplicity of micro:bit allows pupils to get quicker results than they could with some other microcontrollers, as you can create digital artefacts without adding any external hardware. Quick results are also helped by the micro:bit MakeCode editor being available in local languages so learners can be more independent.

Connected artworks

The open architecture of micro:bit MakeCode, allowing anyone to add their own blocks, is enabling another of Sean’s projects, artThings. This is an infrastructure for ‘Connected Digital Artworks’ that can exchange information over the internet using the simple MQTT protocol.

Sean is currently working on a micro:bit MQTT gateway that will allow artworks to communicate with each other over the internet. You could create an installation in a school which would respond to pupils’ movement and sound, and trigger light or sound in another installation in a school nearby – or thousands of miles away. Sean is developing artThings as an open standard through GitHub and is looking for people to get involved. 

Augmented fine art

Vahakn Matossian is a musician and product designer who is part of the Human Instruments project; they create technology such as the ‘haptic baton’ which allows visually impaired percussionists to feel the conductor’s baton moves, and hence take part in an orchestral performance. Fellow Armenian artist Taline Temizian feels the digital realm is now almost inseparable from the analogue world, and she turned to Vahakn to help augment her work; Vahakn decided to use micro:bit for this because its simplicity enables speedy results.

In one work, drops of fragrance are blown by a fan and lit from above and below behind a white mesh that forms part of the canvas. Adafruit’s Crickit and Kitronik’s motor driver accessories were used with micro:bit to control the fans and lights. Another work used sensors connected to micro:bits to log the time people spent in front of the painting, and the distance, to modify the behaviour of lights on two NeoPixel rings. 

They plan future shows where artworks communicate with each other using the micro:bit’s simple radio function.

Getting arty in the classroom

Stu Lowe is educational technology and innovation specialist at Beacon Hill School in Hong Kong. His maker-centred lessons have children tinkering and building with a wide range of technology, from recycled cardboard and plastic junk to computers. The micro:bit is at the heart of many of creations; the simple block-coding interface married with the ease of extending it into the physical world with sensors, sound, lights and motors enables children to go beyond just coding on screen, instead using technology to solve practical problems in the real world.

As well as engineering solutions, Stu’s pupils have created art for art’s sake: sound-activated animatronic heads that blend traditional papercraft with 3D printing and coding, and animated spirit animals using scrap cardboard, LEDs, and servo motors driven by micro:bit.

The mask uses a micro:bit to add movement sensors and lighting control. This can be used by a dancer to add extra expression to a performance Image courtesy of interactdigitalarts.uk/fe-artlab

If you’re inspired to make art in your classroom, the Micro:bit Educational Foundation would love to hear from you on Twitter, or you can find us on Instagram, Facebook, and LinkedIn. 

Get creative with micro:bit in class

  • Get pupils to represent the world around them in 5×5 pixel art

  • Create patterns and animate them

  • Use the micro:bit’s built-in accelerometer and light sensor to respond to the environment

  • Attach tin foil pads with crocodile clips to objects and the micro:bit to create large touch-activated triggers appealing to young children

  • Add sound by attaching headphones or amplified speakers and design sound patterns triggered by movement, touch, or light

  • Use the radio function to link multiple micro:bits together in a networked display

  • Get crafty and make your micro:bit art wearable, or just fluffier, using felt or wool

  • Find more inspiration here.


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