Some tangible programming language research (#2)

Following on from yesterday’s post – here’s a random selection of some (publicly accessible) tangible programming research.

A braille tangible programming instruction

The Algobrick language in use
The Algobrick language in use

Thinking outside of the screen (#1)

I’m starting a new exploratory project to build a screen-less programming language based on two needs:

  • A difficulty with teaching kids programming in my CodeClub where they become lost ‘in the screen’. It’s a challenge (for any of us really but for children particularly) to disengage and think differently – e.g. to draw a diagram to work something out or work as part of a team.
  • A problem with performing livecoding where a screen represents a spectacle, or even worse – a ‘school blackboard’ that as an audience we expect ourselves to have to understand.

I’ve mentioned this recently to a few people and it seems to resonate, particularly in regard to a certain mismatch of children’s ability to manipulate physical objects against their fluid touchscreen usage. So, with my mind on the ‘pictures under glass’ rant and taking betablocker as a starting point (and weaving code as one additional project this might link with), I’m building some prototype hardware to provide the Raspberry Pi with a kind of external physical memory that could comprise symbols made from carved wood or 3D printed shapes – while still describing the behaviour of real software. I also want to avoid computer vision for a more understandable ‘pluggable’ approach with less slightly faulty ‘magic’ going on.

Before getting too theoretical I wanted to build some stuff – a flexible prototype for figuring out what this sort of programming could be. The Raspberry Pi has 17 configurable I/O pins on it’s GPIO interface, so I can use 5 of them as an address lookup (for 32 memory locations to start with, expandable later) and 8 bits as input for code or data values at these locations.

The smart thing would be to use objects that identify themselves with a signal, using serial communication down a single wire with a standard protocol. The problem with this is that it would make potential ‘symbol objects’ themselves fairly complicated and costly – and I’d like to make it easy and cheap to make loads of them. For this reason I’m starting with a parallel approach where I can just solder across pins on a plug to form a simple 8 bit ID, and restrict the complexity to the reading hardware.

Testing the 74HC4067 16-channel analog mult iplexer/demultiplexer
Testing the 74HC4067 16-channel multiplexer/demultiplexer

I’ve got hold of a bunch of 74HC4067 multiplexers which allow you to select one signal from 16 inputs (or the other way around), using 4 bits – and stacking them up, one for each 8 bits X 16 memory locations. This was the furthest I could go without surface mount ICs (well out of my wonky soldering abilities).

Building the board, (with narrow 24 pin IC holders sliced down the middle). The input comes in via a common bus down the centre of the board.
Building the board, (with narrow IC holders hacked by slicing them down the middle). The input comes in via a common bus down the centre of the board.
Solder practice
Solder practice
Testing the first 4 bits on the breadboard
Testing the first 4 bits on the breadboard

Now 4 bits are working it’s harder to test with an LED – so next up is getting the Raspberry Pi attached.

Bumper Crop released

A release of Bumper Crop is now up on the play store with the source code here. As I reported earlier this has been about converting a board game designed by farmers in rural India into a software version – partly to make it more easily accessible and partly to explore the possibilities and restrictions of the two mediums. It’s pretty much beta really still, as some of the cards behave differently to the board game version, and a few are not yet implemented – we need to work on that, but it is playable now, with 4 players at the same time.


The 3D and animation is done using the fluxus engine on android, and the game is written in tinyscheme. Here’s a snippet of the code for one of the board locations, I’ve been experimenting with a very declarative style lately:

;; description of location that allows you to fertilise your crops
;; the player has a choice of wheat/onion or potatoes
(place 26 'fertilise '(wheat onion potato) 
  ;; this function takes a player and a 
  ;; selected choice and returns a new player
  (lambda (player choice)
    (if (player-has-item? player 'ox) ;; do we have an ox?
      ;; if so, a complete a free fertilise task if needed
      (if (player-check-crop-task player choice 'fertilise 0)
        (player-update-crop-task player choice 'fertilise)
      ;; otherwise it costs 100 Rs
      (if (player-check-crop-task player choice 'fertilise 100)
          (player-add-money player -100) ;; remove money
            player choice 'fertilise)
  (place-interface-crop)) ;; helper to make the interface

Testing the board game, which you can download on this page:


The game on tablet:



This is the game running on a phone:


Neural Network livecoding and retrofitting ZX Spectrum hardware

An experimental, and quite angry neural network livecoding synth (with an audio ‘weave’ visualisation) for the ZX Spectrum: source code and TZX file (for emulators). It’s a bit hard to make out in the video, but you can move around the 48 neurons and modify their synapses and trigger levels. There are two clock inputs and the audio output is the purple neuron at the bottom right. It allows recurrent loops as a form of memory, and some quite strange things are possible. The keys are:

  • w,d: move diagonally north west <-> south east
  • s,e: move diagonally south west <-> north east
  • t,y,g,h: toggle incoming synapse connections for the current neuron
  • space: change the ‘threshold’ of the current neuron (bit shifts left)

This audio should load up on a real ZX Spectrum:

One of the nice things about tech like this is that it’s easily hackable – this is a modification to the video output better explained here, but you can get a standard analogue video signal by connecting the internal feed directly to the plug and detaching the TV signal de-modulator with a tiny bit of soldering. Look at all those discrete components!


dBsCode summer school

At the end of July I helped out with the dbscode summer school. The idea of this two week course was to encourage algorithmic literacy, with focus on employment – agile methods and test driven development (TDD), and aiming at people about to enter, or re-enter employment rather than the teenagers we focused on in Easter. We were interested in teaching the culture the participants will encounter in modern software development, and this was driven by Cornish embedded technology company Bluefruit and John Jagger – consultant and creator of Cyber-Dojo. We had 9 participants from a mix of backgrounds, some recently graduated students and some experienced programmers wanting to catch up with software engineering practice.


We set up teams and provided a tricky example project using Raspberry Pi and an accelerometer sensor with the aim to develop a prototype to capture the movement of fishing casts, in the context of those already used for sports such as tennis or golf. The great thing about this problem is that it spans the entire range of software, from bit shifting and binary operations to extract sensor data from a device using the i2c protocol, all the way up to graphing in php/javascript, and all the storage, processing and networking in between. We tried hard to set the scene and atmosphere like a software company, and the feedback from the recently graduated students was (rather worryingly) that this was a totally different approach to that currently taught in colleges and universities.


We mixed this group challenge with Cyber-Dojo, which meant we could do little 45 minute programming exercises each day. My observations, based on sporadic visits throughout the two weeks – were that one of the biggest surprises, particularly at the start, was that the level of improvisation and experimentation (rather than already ‘having all the answers’) was a key part of professional practice, rather than something they should avoid or feel embarrassed about. The focus on TDD helped very much with this as well as doing a project that we as teachers hadn’t tried before – this I feel is key to providing learning about how to learn rather than an overly didactic (and not terribly realistic) experience.