DISSERTATION UPDATE: The F***king BOX!

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation, playtest, research

It sure has been a while since I wrote a dissertation blog post. The last time I wrote was right before October 25th, when my students’ project proposals were due, and I had to give detailed feedback to almost 70 students so that they could complete final projects (which I also had to correct). I’m feeling a lot less overworked and a lot better now, although I am still very busy.

I’ve been doing a lot of documentation through photos and through posts on Instagram and Twitter (which I’ve also been screenshotting). I couldn’t do as many design interviews because of the activities I was doing with the person I was collaborating with involved a lot of loud power tools and silent working, punctuated by problem-solving. And there were a lot of finicky things.

I did however keep talking about the project at the lab’s weekly design meeting whenever I could.

In a nutshell, October through November was mostly all about physical crafting. With the puzzles designed and mostly programmed (although there have been tweaks here and there since then), I had to buckle down and do things like designing and embroidering conductive patches (with lots hand-sewing), and finishing up the box, besides the hardware. This also involved sanding and staining.

From there, toward the end of November, most of my energy went to my students and preparing for my deviated septum surgery (which finally happened December 9th). With almost 70 students, getting all the grading done between November 29th and December 9th was certainly an adventure.

The good news is that the project is finished except for a name and a carrying strap, and any fixes I do to things that arise in playtesting (and some already have, like some errant shapes that I didn’t realize were there). We finished the box just before New Years, and toasted the completion on New Years Day with a shot. I realized that I might be a designer because I enjoy problem-solving and working with all of the issues that we encountered, whereas the person that I was collaborating with was more frustrated with the process.

Since then, I finessed a few things (used steel wool to smooth the box a bit, and wrapped wires with gaffer’s tape, for example), and sewed a cover to protect the case.

I am really pleased with the results of the limited playtesting I’ve done so far (4 playthroughs with a total of 8 people in various configurations, 2 groups of 2, 1 group of 3, and one solo player). Based on the experience of the solo player, I’ve decided that, as I thought might be the case, 2-3 is the sweet spot for the number of players.

I am next bringing the suitcase to QGCarnival, where I hope to play a few rounds. It’s QGCon’s official fundraiser!

After that, everything is likely to stall for a few weeks as I am scheduled for top surgery on the 16th. I hope to get a little bit of work done (getting the audio transcription stuff going) but I will need a lot of rest.

So, I’ve got playtesting to do this semester, and then need to write my dissertation, I’m leading the QGCon team, I’m getting top surgery, and I’m helping to plan an exhibition over the summer. That’s a lot less than last semester, even though it’s a lot! Oh, and I may apply for a conference or two. I really want to apply to CGSA if I can find the time this year.

DISSERTATION: When recharging is the biggest problem

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation

Well, it’s been a while since I wrote, and working title “escape suitcase” is moving — a bit slowly, maybe, but still, it’s moving.

One thing that I am noticing is how much the fact that I have to slow down to physically make things gives me opportunities to think about the design of the project and let things percolate.

I am also noticing, importantly, the limits of my ability to document. Documentation is great until it’s getting in the way of the work, so I have had to make some compromises about recording design conversations, for example, because I’m in a room full of flying sawdust and it would be silly to ruin a recording device that way, or to make someone listen to a saw blade and then discuss whether we have to cut it more before turning the sawblade again. So, where documentation was getting in the way of my ability to do the work, I either didn’t document or delayed documentation. Some parts are lost, but it’s still way more than we usually get from the design process, and there’s already so much lost as my brain continually works out small problems or thinks about the project without my volition.

A problem area that I wasn’t expecting is power sources for my theatrical light-up and vibration patches. So far, the tech works fine when plugged into my computer. I bought batteries that should be able to do the trick, but the tiny USB LiPo charger that I bought on Adafruit just isn’t cutting the mustard. So, instead, I bought a larger charger (after doing some research, and at great expense), but while it has ports on the balance boards for 2S (2 cell, essentially) through to 6S LiPo batteries, it does not have 1S ports.

So. I bought batteries. Too small. I bought new batteries. Couldn’t charge them (or so I thought at first, because they just weren’t being supplied enough power). I bought a charger. Still can’t charge my batteries.

I am currently testing a non-ideal solution with the tiny Adafruit USB charger. It turns out there’s a spot at the back that you can solder closed to make it give 500mAh instead of 100…That’ll be 5 times faster but still mean 5 hours (I’m guessing?) for charging 1 battery. For now, I’m returning the charger I bought and will keep looking at solutions, including buying more batteries and maybe a different charger.

We’re into the fiddly bits of the project, like whether to cut wood 2 millimeters in one direction or another to hide certain secrets better, or into designing cases for the various boards that need to be screwed into the suitcase. That stuff, though occasionally time-consuming, given the 3D modeling and printing involved, is going fairly well.

So, finishing the actual suitcase (sanding and hardware, maybe drilling a few holes for power supplies) is still on my task list, along with soldering and making these conductive patches, finding a solution for the batteries, finishing programming for one of the puzzles, and writing the rules/frame for the game.

Oh, I also wanted to mention something really nice that happened! TAG now has a design conversation group that meets every Wednesday — which is also really nice but not what I wanted to mention. At a previous week, I had mentioned my intent to use a kind of web-based Konami code for one of the inputs I was building, and Pippin had offered to help if I ran into trouble. So, the next week, because I am very busy with teaching and a SSHRC Connection grant, I hadn’t had the chance to make much progress. Later on that day, Pippin talked to me and had made a small, stripped down version of the program that I needed! It kind of felt like someone bringing you a coffee when you’re tired or sending you a card when you’re feeling down. I really appreciated it, and it reminds me of how important community and friendship is, even when working on ostensibly solo projects.

That’s one thing about these projects: I worked on them in three very different ways, from being isolated and alone in Fort McMurray on Flip the Script!, to wanting to forge ahead alone and be as independent as possible for TRACES, and needing to learn to ask for help, to recognizing for this untitled game just how much having people to turn to while making TRACES mattered, and making collaboration a clearer part of this project, knowing from the start that I wouldn’t be able to do an adequate job of all the woodworking alone.

Back to the title of this post: recharging my physical, Lithium Polymer batteries is one problem that I’ve been having, but it also definitely refers to the feeling of being overwhelmed by work right now, and not wanting to burn out again, like what happened while I was working on TRACES. It’s not the dissertation that I’m pushing too hard on, though! It’s stress from other areas — teaching, writing grants, planning a conference, my spouse being in the market for a new job but also being close to burnout himself, continued nonsense with his old employer… Anyway.

I am trying to be really careful, but there is definitely pressure to overwork: my students need feedback and need my time to be able to continue their work, QGCon attendees and team members are relying on me to try and get as much funding as possible, and there’s time pressure to finish my PhD because my funding will end in the spring. I’m saving what I can, but since my spouse is currently on Unemployment Insurance, there’s some worry there too.

DISSERTATION: Fiddly Electronic Bits and Planning

autoethnography, critical making, dissertation

This is just a small update because it’s the kind of thing I’m likely to forget in hindsight. I just spent about two and a half hours on the internet and on the Adafruit website figuring out a way to make my patches more visually appealing and provide more feedback. There’s still going to have to be some work to do to get all these wires to behave, but hopefully I can manage something compact and safe (I’ll be using lithium ion battery packs for part of this). I’m especially concerned about shielding the lithium ion batteries.

Generally speaking, my plan is to sandwich a few things together. I’m hoping to make a flora power neopixels and a small vibrational motor. I have to handle where to place the LEDs and the motor and where to run their respective wires, then where and how to shield the battery while maintaining access to the flora (maybe some kind of slit in the material). I also have neopixels that I want to shine through part of the material. Then, there’s the wire to actually turn the patches into buttons, which has to attach into the conductive thread at the back. It should work out fine but there may be some trial and error.

Meanwhile, the box is nearly done, though I may need to add holes to accommodate some of this hardware… We have to make lids for the inner boxes and assemble everything with the hardware. We also have to make a handle for one of the outside puzzles. From there, most of the puzzles are already done and ready to go except for this last one, which is more involved. I have some re-writing and adjustments to make to the prototype of the puzzle, which I plan to try and do today, and I have physical crafting and embroidering and arduino programming to do in addition to the program that will display all this text and cycle through it. I thought I would want to do this with a visual/WYSIWYG program like Construct 2, but it might be easier to just have the RPI boot up and start the program if it is javascript-based.

I’m off to try and rewrite the last puzzle to make it a bit more of a riddle! We’ll see how it goes!