Lowtech Sensors and Actuators

This report describes the results of a collaborative research project to develop a suite of low-tech sensors and actuators that might be useful for artists and architects working with interactive environments. With this project we hoped to consolidate a number of different approaches we had found ourselves taking in our own work and develop both a “kit-of-parts” and a more conceptual framework for producing such works.

We had often found during design development in the past that ideas had to be prototyped both quickly and cheaply; it was more important that such prototypes were functionally efficient rather than aesthetically perfect. Like many other artists and architects working in the field of interactive environments, in cutting costs and development time we often had to resort to a “low-tech” approach, rewiring keyboards to get pressure-pad input into computers, or using the monitor with light sensors and relays to get physical output from computers. We also found ourselves taking apart and reassembling (i.e. “hacking”) bits of technology that were not connected to computers (for example the flashing stickers attached to mobile phones could be used to trigger light sensors when a phone call arrived).

We were certainly not alone in hacking technology to suit our purposes and we realised that it would be very useful for others in our fields to have a good outline of this approach and indication of the types of devices they might use. It also seemed important to describe ways that such things might be reassembled in a coherent interactive system. At the same time we wanted to align our approach with a general interest in “open source” design in art and architecture and to draw particularly on the application of “low-tech” hacking strategies to high-tech, but inexpensive, objects, toys and devices.

The original intention with the research project was to develop four prototypes. Although we weren’t sure at the time precisely what we meant by these four categories, for the purposes of
having a starting point we were hoping to develop a “sensor”, an “actuator”, a “power source” and a “wireless communicator”. As we proceeded with the design development, however, it soon
became clear that, depending on circumstance, “sensors” might also be considered “actuators”; “actuators” could in some cases be considered “power sources”; a “power source” with a switch
was actually a type of “sensor”; and that many devices are considered “wireless” even though their wireless aspect might be the least interesting.

We had to develop, for ourselves as well as for the project, a conceptual framework within which we could define “inputs” and “outputs” to a system as well as the “comparator” that sits between
them (drawing heavily on second-order cybernetic principles). Using such an approach, we were no longer limited to defining things solely in terms of single use (as the sensor/actuator approach tended to force us to do) but were able instead to define things based on whether we were looking at what was going in, or what was coming out of any particular device. Our aim in each case was to develop a precise set of instructions so that lay people could replicate the experiments with devices easily available at low cost.

By the end of the research we discovered that we had developed not four, but perhaps closer to forty different devices or arrangements (what we came to call “compound systems”) and had a difficult time finally selecting which were the most important for the purposes of noting in detail in this report. In the process we had also clarified for ourselves the “types” of interaction and system that we tended to prefer which gave us good indication of ways to assemble and choreograph our subsystems as a whole system.

We hope now to release the contents of this report to a wider audience so that the ideas can be used, amended and redistributed.

Artists and architects who want to experiment with interactive spaces and responsive systems, particularly on large, urban-scale projects, are often prevented from doing so because of the complexity, logistics or costs involved with such systems. Prototype research seems prohibitively expensive and the most interesting concepts and approaches remain on the drafting board until a suitable client/investor/sponsor is found. Alternative channels for financing and development need to be found; a solution is found in the combination of reusability and “low-tech”.
New media artists and architects don’t necessarily need the precision and accuracy that scientists usually do in order to explore the poetries of interaction. They therefore often do not require such sophisticated equipment in order to develop truly interesting interactive projects. They work well with the “making-the-best-of-what-we-have” approach, using artefacts at hand, and are comfortable with the idea of “hacking” existing technology (in the sense of taking it apart to understand how it works and putting it back together again, usually with improvements). In this
way, it is possible to design interfaces, sensors, bio-feedback devices and actuators all using relatively simple technology that might even already exist in people’s homes. In particular,
inexpensive remote control toys are these days ripe for dismantling and reworking; kids walkietalkies can be used to set up a simple wireless network; energy source for a simple interactive device could be generated from the movements and footsteps of people within a space.

One way to pursue this line of work is to develop a suite of low-tech sensors and interactive actuators that can be produced inexpensively from off-the-shelf toys and devices. These “hacked” devices can form part of “kit-of-parts” that new media artists and interactive architects could use for their interactive design projects.
As a first step towards a comprehensive set of such tools, we are presenting here an outline of devices we have hacked and techniques we have explored using off-the-shelf devices, gadgets and toys in simple responsive systems. Recently, such devices have become much cheaper. They often contain a range of sensors and actuators that are directly relevant and certainly useful for the development of interactive systems that artists and architects may be interested in. We explain what these devices are, how they are deconstructed and reconstructed and why this might be useful. In most cases the gadgets can be bought for less than £5; in some cases they are under £10; we have also included a couple of particularly useful devices that can usually be found for
under £25. We also outline a conceptual system for understanding how to put together these instruments into an interactive environment.


Usman Haque and Adam Somlai-Fischer, 2005

a research project sponsored and commissioned by FACT,
Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Liverpool, U.K

Download the full PDF
(32 Pages 1Mb)


October 2007

Low tech workshop at Rome Design week & University of Rome

July 2007

Low tech workshop at Kitchen Budapest for the Pimp My Gadget summer course.

June 2007

Low tech workshop at IUAV University, School of Architecture, Venice.

March 2007

Low tech workshop at Domus Academy, Milan

January 2007

Low tech workshop at the Bartlett School of Architecture, London

October 2006

Low tech demo at Ars Electronica’s electrolobby by Invitation of the Arduino team, Linz

May 2006

Lowtech Workshop at Domus Academy + Ivera Interaciton Design, Milan
Feb 3, 2006
Low Tech Sensors and Actuators Contributions Page
Please contribute your inventions and toy/gadget reconfigurations to the wiki, so that others may share and learn from them.

Feb 2, 2006
Workshop at Goldsmiths College Design Department, London.

November 14, 2005
Over 20,000 downloads of the PDF so far….

October 19, 2005
Low Tech @ Maker Faire at the Oreilly European Open Source Convention, Amsterdam.

October 18, 2005
Workshop at Crystal Punk, Utrecht.

October 16, 2005
New postcard, designed by David Cuesta, London.

September 25, 2005
Low Tech Sensors and Actuators PDF released.

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