Perfect Harmony

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Technology, Engineering and Art Converge in Vector Space/Hill City Keys Collaboration

Are you on team STEM or team STEAM? As STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education and initiatives become more and more prevalent, many people have begun advocating for the inclusion of Art. As a librarian who conducts STEAM programs for children ages nine to 12, I fully support this inclusion and think that art often pairs seamlessly and effectively with STEM activities. Adam Spontarelli, who is an engineer at AREVA and the Director of Education at Vector Space, introduced a particularly exciting example of art meets STEM over the summer: a robotic arm that creates paintings according to notes played on the Hill City Keys piano at the Community Market.

The project, which went live in May and will continue through October, occurred to Spontarelli after a series of successful projects at Vector Space that linked technology, engineering and art.

“It has been an evolution of ideas, starting with an interactive Mario Kart game that we made at Vector Space that required the player to ride a bike and hit a target with a laser pointer,” he says. “Then we built a chalk drawing robot to compete in Amazement Square’s chalk contest. After this and a number of inspiring visits to Maker Faires throughout the country, it seemed like the next logical step was to combine these ideas of interactive technology and public art.”

Before debuting the project, Spontarelli worked for about a month writing the code and building the arm, which resides in the gallery at the Academy Center of the Arts. “Figuring out how to accurately detect a note being played was easier than expected, but getting access to a persistent and reliable network connection near the piano was significantly harder,” he says. “There were some network connectivity issues in the beginning that were fixed by deploying a mesh network of routers, an idea proposed by another Vector Space member, Kurt Feigel.” For step-by-step information about how the arm actually works, check out our diagram on the next page.

1. A computer installed inside the Community Market piano has a microphone that detects and records any sound it considers loud enough to be produced by the piano.

2.The audio recording is decoded into a series of frequencies so that the note being played can be determined. “For all the math fans, this is done by applying a Fourier transform on the data,” Spontarelli adds.

3. The note is passed through a mesh network of routers with an oversized antenna until it makes its way onto what Spontarelli refers to as “the White Hart’s generously shared network,” where it is then posted on the internet.

4. From its home in the Academy Center of the Arts, the robotic arm watches for notes to be played. “If it receives a B, the shoulder will move clockwise a few degrees, and a B# will send it counter-clockwise,” Spontarelli says. “A C will move the elbow, a D will pump a drop of the pink paint, an F for the green paint, and so on. So the result is predictable and repeatable, but randomized by the community’s interaction.”

5. When someone plays a note, a pump attached to the arm draws the corresponding paint color through the tubing and onto the canvas. Spontarelli checks on the canvases periodically and changes them out arbitrarily. “I’m open to suggestions about what to do with the paintings,” he says.

After brainstorming with the Academy for over a year about how to combine art and STEM topics, Vector Space was awarded a $1,200 grant from Lynchburg’s Arts and Culture grant fund to complete the project. Hill City Keys founder Libby Fitzgerald was excited about the project from the get-go and is happy to see even more participation since it launched. “Not only does the Academy welcome community collaborations of all kinds, but anything that increases opportunities for public participation in this public piano project is so welcome and something we’ve encouraged for the four years of its existence,” she says. “We often think of art and science as being two totally different fields that rarely intersect, but to see one possibility of how they can is quite thrilling!”

Spontarelli is also pleased with the participation rate and feedback thus far. “It has been great!” he exclaims. “I’ve received a lot of positive feedback and amused looks. As of right now (mid-July), the robot has received 66,059 notes from the piano.”

Before this particular project made its debut, Spontarelli had already seen the benefit of including art in STEM initiatives firsthand. “There’s something about art that captivates minds,” he says. “I can teach a student how to write their first computer program that displays a message on the screen. I’ve done it many times and the students are always unimpressed. I then teach them how to write code that turns on an LED. For some reason, even though the concepts are exactly the same—instructions are given to the computer to send a digital signal to a display—students are absolutely fascinated by the LED. And once they start making it change colors, they can’t contain their excitement.”

As is the case with most STEAM activities, the data collected from the robotic arm has produced not only answers, but also more questions. “As someone who loves data analysis, I can tell you that all of the data is interesting,” Spontarelli says. “But for those who enjoy a good mystery, it seems that every now and then, at any time throughout the day, a lone G will be played. Is there a bug in the code? Is there someone out there in Lynchburg who plays G every time they pass a piano? Or does construction equipment tend to make sounds that resonate at 3136 Hz?”

These and other questions lend themselves to further inquiries, interest and involvement in this and similar projects, much to Spontarelli’s delight. “Even as the creator, whenever I’m at the Academy checking on the robot and it suddenly starts painting, I still get excited,” he says. “I want to engage the community in a way that makes them think about what’s possible and to hopefully inspire someone else to create something different.”

After this particular project completes its run, Vector Space will continue to spearhead unconventional and exciting STEAM activities and events and to encourage community participation. “We’ve continued to make outlandish, interactive technological contraptions, and we have an ever growing list of ideas from mile long marble runs to light shows controlled by the public,” Spontarelli says. “All we need are more interested minds to come and help bring ideas to life.”

For more information about Vector Space, visit their website: vector-space.org.

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