Final product:

By interacting with Artomaton, learners are able to use physical cues - specifically the movement of the marker - to intuit the size and shape of the cam inside of the box. Then, they could put together different boxes with different cams, to create drawings on a rotating piece of paper. 


Initial goals:

At the outset, my project partner and I hoped to create an easily manipulated automaton. We could find plenty of examples online of elementary school children creating boxes out of very basic materials that allow many varieties of basic movements and, at the other end of the extreme, there is no limit to how complex an automaton can become. The aesthetic of it was also appealing - the idea that a seemingly straightforward output is built on top of a complex series of operations.




Very quickly, we realized that we did not have the mechanical engineering background that we might need to realize our initial goal. Nonetheless, we were dug in; we liked the idea of the automaton, the idea of giving the children an opportunity to do something hands on, the idea of motion producing some kind of creative output. At this juncture, though, we were working on two parallel tracks: on the first, we were learning about mechanics and motion ourselves, as those were not areas in which we actually had expertise; on the second, we were attempting to refine our idea into something that still captured the ethos of the original idea. A mutually reinforcing cycle developed in which we would refine the idea, test it out, develop a greater understanding of the mechanics at work to make our idea actually work, and then realize that it wasn’t going to be feasible within the design parameters we had set for ourselves.


So, we pivoted. We decided to create several boxes that could each create different movement. At the top of each box, was a marker that could draw in different ways. Upon consultation with our instructors, we also decided to make moveable paper for the markers to draw on, allowing for the productions of different magnitudes of waves and creating a sense of duration and periodicity. We mocked up a wooden frame with a hand crank on it. Combined with the dynamic of the different cams, this began to feel like an element of embodied cognition.


At our expo, we also realized that by incorporating two cranks into our design there was potential for a social dynamic in which two people could work together. This is something we would explore further and make more explicit in future iterations. We also created a deck of challenge cards for the expo to provide prompts that would scaffold interaction with the different elements of our design, such as “Can you make all the parts move clockwise?”



One of the great creative accidents we encountered was in the visual aesthetic of the final project: it looks like its meant to be taken apart and put back together. We found that many people who came by spent more time playing around with the boxes and the cams than they did with the drawing. They moved cams around, they arranged the boxes in different orders. We were surprised by how much time the kids who visited our table spent just trying to understand the motion, which had been our original intent. Seeing two different motions, where changing one motion impacted another motion in a surprising way, proved to be a pretty good learning experience.



Next Steps:

We recognize that our Artomaton is still a bit of an educational Rorschach test: people see in it what they want to see. Some want it to produce sine waves, some wanted it to be for arts education, some wanted it to be about taking apart and putting back together, some wanted it to be about motion, some wanted it to be about social coordination. If we were to move forward with this project, the most important thing we would need to do is decide what we really want it to be about and how to design toward those objectives. Fortunately, we wouldn’t have to spend nearly as much time just figuring out how to make the thing work. While we probably didn’t earn our engineering degree in three weeks, we did gain a lot of know-how and creative confidence for being able to build things and make them functional.

©2015-20 Laura Pickel

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