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Physical Computing + Fabrication

2016 Digital Humanities Summer Institute (June 13-17, University of Victoria,

Instructors: Tiffany Chan, Katherine Goertz, Danielle Morgan, and Jentery Sayers

DHSI Director: Ray Siemens | DHSI Associate Director: Constance Crompton | DHSI Assistant Directors: Jason Boyd, Diane Jakacki, and Jentery Sayers


Theme: "From This to That"

Throughout the week, we will survey physical computing and digital fabrication techniques by modelling, fabricating, programming, and repurposing objects as both bits and atoms. This process of converting objects from this material into that material involves negotiations between screen media and tactile media. It also prompts attention to the relations between form and use, metaphor and matter, code and composition, surface and depth. Instead of reducing these relations to digital-analog, electronic-print, or new-old binaries, we will approach them as entanglements of history, technology, and culture, where composing or thinking with media is actually quite messy. In fact, highlighting the mess or mangle of things will nudge us to experiment with the contingencies of otherwise routine conversions (e.g., from page to screen, from bits to atoms, from atoms to bits, from idea to prototype back to idea).

By the end of the week, you should:

  • Learn some basics of physical computing, 3D modelling, and fabrication.
  • Identify common components of physical computing and fabrication projects.
  • Prototype a simple project and communicate the aims of your prototype to others in the course.
  • Know how to share components of your prototype online (publicly or privately).
  • Become familiar with how physical computing and fabrication operate at the intersection of the arts, humanities, and culture.


Physical computing "means building interactive physical systems by the use of software and hardware that can sense and respond to the analog world. While this definition is broad enough to encompass things such as smart automotive traffic control systems or factory automation processes, it is not commonly used to describe them. In the broad sense, physical computing is a creative framework for understanding human beings' relationship to the digital world. In practical use, the term most often describes handmade art, design, or DIY hobby projects that use sensors and microcontrollers to translate analog input to a software system, and/or control electro-mechanical devices such as motors, servos, lighting, or other hardware." More care of Wikipedia.

Digital modelling and fabrication involve "a process that joins design with the construction / production through the use of 3-D modelling software and additive and subtractive manufacturing processes. These tools allow designers to produce material digitally, which is something greater than an image on screen, and actually tests the accuracy of the software and computer lines." More care of Wikipedia.


Before or during the course, it would be great if you could install and experiment with the following software on your own machine:

In some cases (e.g., CorelDRAW and PhotoScan), you may want to consider trial licenses. Also, feel free to start an account with GitHub, if you don't already have one.


To the course, you should bring your own laptop, if possible. We will bring the following for you to use:

  • Arduinos
  • Raspberry Pis
  • Fabricated components
  • Sensors, actuators, wires, motors, batteries, and breadboards
  • Glue, scissors, calipers, and various crafting and design supplies
  • SLR cameras

We (the instructors) also have access to computer numerical control (CNC) equipment for digital fabrication on the UVic campus. The four of us will be using this equipment to cut, mill, engrave, and design components before and during DHSI. You do not need to provide your own components.

Favourite Projects

Throughout the week, we (the instructors) will share our favourite physical computing and fabrication projects, including projects that inspired many of our experiments. As you'll likely notice, they represent an array of disciplines, including design, literary studies, sculpture, sound art, history, media studies, cultural studies, and engineering. In many ways, physical computing and fabrication are by necessity either interdisciplinary or transdisciplinary practices.

Schedule for the Week

Monday, June 13th (10:15-4:00) - From Bits to Atoms

  • 10:15-10:30, Introductions: We'll take a few minutes to say hello to each other.
  • 10:15-10:30, Physical Computing, Fabrication, and the Humanities (Jentery): What is the relevance of physical computing and fabrication to humanities research? How might the humanities shape physical computing and fabrication practices? (notes for this module)
  • 10:30-10:45, Theme for the Week (Jentery): We will briefly walk through the theme for the week. (notes for this module)
  • 10:45-12:00, Introduction to Arduino (Tiffany and Jentery): We will begin with an introduction to Arduino, which is an open-source microcontroller platform and integrated design environment (IDE). We will walk through the components of the platform, learn the basics of writing sketches in the IDE. In groups, we will also run through a series of exercises for building simple digital and analog circuits using different sensors and actuators such as switches, potentiometers, and light-emitting diodes (LED). (notes for this module)
  • 1:30-1:45, Tiffany's Favourite Projects 1. Rob Faludi, Kate Hartman, and Kati London's Botanicalls 2. Thijs Biersteker's The Cover that Judges You 3. Varvara Guljajeva and Mar Canet Sola's Spam Poetry Sweater 4. Netflix socks 5. Jie Qi's Electronic Popables
  • 1:45-4:00, Circuit Design and Arduino Programming (Tiffany): This afternoon, we will continue running through the exercises with attention to how to modify code or scale up to more complicated projects. At the end, you will also (in groups) have time to experiment with components not covered in the exercises and to brainstorm ideas for how you might incorporate the Arduino into your own prototype. (notes for this module)

Tuesday, June 14th (9:00-4:00) - From Page to Screen (to Prototype?)

Wednesday, June 15th (9:00-4:00) - From Atoms to Bits

Thursday, June 16th (9:00-4:00) - From Idea to Prototype to Idea

  • 9:00-4:00, Project Development: You will prototype your own projects in small groups, with feedback from the instructors and others in the course.

Friday, June 17th (9:30-12:00) - From Prototype to Exhibit

  • 9:30-11:00, Finalize Prototypes: During this session, you will finalize working versions of your prototypes, with assistance from the instructors and others in the course.
  • 11:00-12:00, Informal Presentations: You will informally share your prototypes with others in the course, and we'll collectively reflect on the week. We'll also determine what to show during the course exhibit scheduled for 12:15.

Suggestions for Prototyping

Below are some practical suggestions for prototyping with physical computing and fabrication techniques. These are clearly biased. Feel free to take them or leave them.

Before You Start Prototyping

  • Conduct an environmental scan. Is code already out there? Does a similar project already exist? Could you repurpose or edit existing models and builds? Or can you find schematics for the parts you are planning to use?
  • Create a bill of materials that accounts for what the materials mean or connote. For instance, is plastic the best choice?
  • In terms of vendors, and are popular options.
  • Read reviews of any technologies before you purchase them. Ask others if they've used the technologies, too. Approach publications such as Make with some skepticism, or read against the grain of enthusiasm and hype. Often, what may seem easy is actually quite messy and dependent on variables such as the platforms and software (including versions) used.

As You Prototype

  • Consider working first with paper or modeling clay. This approach can save you time and materials. Also, the computing or programming elements of a project may be overrated.
  • Circulate your prototype for feedback from friends. Have them interact with what you are making and document the interactions. Consider your designs in the context of use.
  • Whenever possible, write about the prototyping process as you go. Reflect on it, too. Think about prototyping as inquiry (not a means to an end), where a prototype is a situation for interpretation or negotiation (not a product).
  • Reading existing online forums for similar projects to see if someone else has experienced the same issues as you. What was their approach?

After You Prototype

  • Privately or publicly, consider distributing your core files and documentation via a venue such as GitHub. This may be an easy way to save your work for later reference.
  • Take photos or video of prototypes for future reference, too.
  • Wherever possible, reuse parts for other projects, recycle them, or donate them to a group such as
  • Consider licensing your prototype.


For your reference, below we've compiled some "core" and "related" publications (with URLs, where applicable) corresponding with the course activities, workshops, and discussions. We obviously don't expect you to read them in advance, but they may be informative during or after the course. Where possible, excerpts are available via your DHSI CoursePak.

Core Reading

Related Reading