Benefits of the Arduino in artistic process

An example of a community-driven design is the LilyPad Arduino.[1] The LilyPad Arduino is a wearable version of the Arduino designed to be sewn into fabric with conductive thread. The LilyPad was derived from the Arduino by Leah Buechley[2] to be a fully integrated soft circuit microcontroller that was visually appealing. Buechley originally designed the LilyPad Arduino for a children's soft circuit class, but it was immediately embraced by artists. Previously, Buechley used AVR microcontrollers to teach classes to design electronic textile. Programming a soft circuit meant removing the chip from the circuit design, placing it in the programmer, coding with various AVR software, and finally place it back in the circuit. Physically taking the chip out to program added a layer of complexity that was a tough hurdle for novices. Shown in Fig 9, Buechley described the shape of the AVR boards as being lumpy and awkward for sewing, with oversized components. For the design of the LilyPad Arduino, Fig 10, Buechley chose a surface mount chip which was smaller and lighter.

leah-buechley-lilypad.pngPhotograph provided by Jean- Baptiste LabruneFigure 3-8 Leah Buechley, a soft circuit sans chip previous to the Arduino LilyPad

leah-buechley-lilypad2.pngPhotograph provided by Leah BuechleyFigure 3-9 Leah Buechley, The LilyPad Arduino, 2" in diameter

Designing the LilyPad, based on the Arduino's open source schematics allowed for a microcontroller that was all one piece, and could glean support from the existing Arduino community. With the help of Jean-Baptiste Labrune,[3] another Arduino community member, they realized a circular shape would enhance the functionality, providing more pads around the perimeter of the board. The copper pads are also widened around the circumference for secure sewing. These pads were formed due to the circular design of the LilyPad and created a radiating area which provides the function of being able to get a strong contact between the thread and the surface area of the copper pad. The thread in Figure 3-9 is conductive thread made with metal filament and illustrates that the LilyPad can be sewn to fabric through its conductive pads which act as pin outs. This is an example of modifications benefiting from both form and function.

The LilyPad Arduino, which is purple with decorative cursive text, was designed to be aesthetically pleasing. It is circular in shape, resembling a flower, with radiating petals as the I/O pins. The LilyPad has a low profile form making it flush with fabric. Artist, Stern considers the LilyPad the most aesthetic board and she feels "it helps artists to be less intimidated by microcontrollers because it looks different than other electronics".

Contrast Buechley's experience making her own microcontroller to James Seawright's[4] experience using antecedent microcontrollers. Seawright has been creating interactive art since the 1960's, previous to the advent of the Arduino. Seawright is a pioneer in the field of microcontroller-based art. Seawright had fewer choices when choosing microcontrollers or computers, none of which were designed for artists or designers. In 1971[5] he created Network IV which was installed at the Seattle Airport, SeaTac.[6] He described the computer as awkward and enormous. The program took Seawright 30 minutes to run on punch tape through a Nova computer. Within two years, it was obsolete and the airport could not manage the upkeep costs. By 1987 he was working with the Motorola 68hc11[7] microprocessor which was about the size of a paperback book. He would spend entire days revising one piece of the program because single line revisions were not permitted on the chip, thereby requiring him to rewrite the entire program. Before the PIC, with which he could edit single instances of code, programming would take months because there was no way to speed up the computational process. With the PIC, programming was completed faster than the creation of the physical piece. The microcontrollers used were not flexible and Seawright did not attempt modifying their complexity. None of the microcontrollers that Seawright used were designed for artists. Seawright also discussed the topic of preservation with his art. All of his artwork was intended to be interactive, but in museum settings today his pieces are either not in interactive settings or no longer function. The meaning behind his art is the social patterns created from interaction and is, ironically, lost to history. Seawright's experience lets us glimpse into the past to see how far we have come. Especially in making microcontrollers accessible and useable, as demonstrated by Buechley who created her own. 

  1. LilyPad Arduino. Arduino, (visited on 05/15/2009)
  2. Leah Buechley (Creator of the LilyPad Arduino) in discussion with the author, June 2009.
  3. Jean-Baptiste Labrune (Early adapter of the Arduino microcontroller) in discussion with the author, August 2009.
  4. James Seawright (Artist creating interactive artwork since 1960) in discussion with the author, March 2009.
  5. The piece was in operation since the end of August 1973. This slightly predates Pong, and therefore has a claim to being the first ever computer game. The installation was not preserved, all that remains is a description of pressure sensor buttons that would deploy NE-40 lamps and sounds.
  6. Dorkbot mailing list. (visited on 07/21/2005)
  7. Motorolla 68HC11 Microcontroller. Rijswijk Institute of Technology, (visited on 08/19/2009)