Mitch teaching people to solder at BuildBrighton, photo by Barney

A Letter From Mitch

Sunday evening we received word from  Mitch Altman that we, along with 30 other hackerspaces, had been  accepted into the Great Global Hackerspace Challenge. If you don't know  what it's all about, check out the hackerspace challenge group. On hearing about our acceptance into the challenge we decided to meet  up as soon as possible to discuss ideas for the our project. A few of us  met Monday lunchtime in a pub called The Hampton and started throwing  ideas around.

We started out trying to understand the requirements:

  • Your hackerspace will create a project to help with education, using  US$900 (or equivalent) provided by Element14
  • Must use a  microcontroller
  • Must use a portable power source
  • You have 6 weeks to complete your project


Firstly  we discussed what constitutes education, it could be anything from  drooling pre-school toddlers to spotty, disinterested teenagers or even  post-graduates. Education doesn't even stop when you pass your twenties,  there's plenty of higher-education institutions and courses being run  all the time.

I personally shied away from suggesting we aim our  project at children anywhere below 16, as there are lots of safety  concerns to take into account and environmental factors to consider when  designing your hardware. For example, if you're using hi-strength  neodymium magnets you want to be damn sure they're not going to fall out  of your invention and get swallowed by kids. They can snap together  inside a person and cause all sorts of unspeakable mischief. Less  dangerous, but still important, is the fact that any contacts, switches  or wires you have will get covered in grubby, sticky... whatever it is  kids are covered in. And does anyone know what the resistance of that  substance is? Nope, me neither.

However on the plus side, there's a  lot to teach kids. They've not been around for long, and their brains  are like information sponges waiting to absorb knowledge. Also, between  our members we have contacts in schools and education, and we've already  run a succesful project helping kids visualise data they collected by  attaching arduinos to their shoes (it was called Data Steps).

Jason,  one of our newest members, suggested some sort of device to help kids  learn Phonics. For those who have no idea what Phonics is, which  included me a few days ago, it's a way of teaching English to kids by  letting them learn the sounds that particular letters and groups of  letters make. There's a much better explanation on Wikipedia,  as usual. After much googling and discussion, we decided that this  sounded pretty cool and started thinking of ways to teach it to kids in  the 5-8 year-old range. The ideas ranged from a speak-and-spell like  device to something more akin to traditional Alphabet Blocks. These ideas started to converge, and our current plan is to make a device whereby the kid has a 'target' word shown to them as a picture, e.g.  'Cat'. They have to find the right phonics and put them in the right  order to make the device say 'Cat'.

Why Phonics?

Phonics is used in many schools across the UK and America to teach children how to speak and spell English. It's also used the world over to teach English as a second language. Phonics has been widely debated in the US congress and is generally accepted as an effective way to teach early reading skills. As recently as November 2010, the UK government has announced plans to train all primary school teachers in the use of phonics.

Anecdotally, lots of people we've spoken to have said that tools for teaching phonics are a bit basic, usually consisting of flash-cards or DVDs. There are some electronics based toys on the market, but most of them just use fixed buttons as an input. We think that using a more tactile input method would engage younger children better and aid their learning.


Our plan of allowing kids to choose phonics and have them spoken by our device allows us to split the design up into several layers:

  • Input - the phonics chosen by the kids and the target word they are going to spell out.
  • Control - the logic that controls the input and output, detecting what phonics have been placed down and giving the kids feedback.
  • Output - speech synthesis, a sampled audio player or some other indication of whether your phonics are correct.

This means that we can prototype the input and output methods separately, and split up in order to try out different ideas in parallel.


Ben very helpfully put together a brainstorm of various input methods we've been discussing along with their pros and cons (click the images for larger versions):

Input method.png

... and a block diagram explaining the layered architecture and possible implementations at each level of the device:


Thursday Meetup

At BuildBrighton, Thursday evenings are our social meetup night and we decided to use it for our first proper planning session. To kick off, we went over the requirements of the project again just in case anyone at the space wasn't up to speed yet. We went on to discuss how to split up tasks and agree to report back the same time the next week. Here's how the tasks were distributed:

  • Toby  
    • Manage the project, making sure we meet our deadlines and targets.
    • Input: Investigate RFID, and multiplexing RFID antennae
  • Ben  
    • Input: Physical input devices, e.g. punch cards, switches etc
  • Chris and Ben  
    • Input: Look at re-purposing their cube-input project for the challenge
  • Mike  
    • Output: Android text to speech API
    • Output: Android device screen as an output
  • Barney  
    • Input: Colour sensing
    • Input: barcodes
    • Input: UV binary dots
  • Jason  
    • Output: Speakjet voice synthesis chip
    • Output: Waveshield or similar for sample-based speech output
  • Matt  
    • Input: Reverse engineering existing similar toys (he likes taking things apart)

    • Output: Implementing voice synthesis on commodity (cheap) microcontrollers


Other members have offered hardware, advice and time to help out everyone who's been given specific tasks, many thanks to everyone who's getting involved, it's looking like this is going to be a great project!

The prototyping starts

Later that night...


Toby starts making RFID antennae and trying to wire them up through a multiplexer. The antenna works, but for some reason it's not getting through the multiplexer:


Jason sets up his Speakjet chip and gets it talking to his laptop over serial:


Next time...

By the next blog post, we should be able to report back on all our prototyped input and output devices. We'll post pros and cons for each and narrow the field down to two input devices and two output devices. The chosen input and output methods will be refined further and we'll decide on which ones to actually use.


In the mean time, we'll also be researching how phonics is used in schools currently and how the control system needs to work in order to most effectively teach kids how to talk.