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circuit stickers

WHAT IT DOES

In a nutshell, Circuit Stickers are peel-and-stick electronics for crafting circuits. For me, Circuit Stickers are a way to share the concept of paper electronics with more people. Paper electronics involve using arts and crafts to learn electronics and also using electronics and circuits to make arts and crafts. You have all the interactive and fun possibilities of technology, but then you get to make it beautiful and expressive and personal. You give your working circuits a story to make them more meaningful, but at the same time you can make really beautiful, meaningful crafts come to life with the interactive capabilities of circuits and programming.  You can purchase circuit stickers and try them out yourself here!

A NEW WAY TO BUILD ELECTRONICS

WHY I MADE IT


Super early on, I started working with paper electronics. I come from an engineering background and studied mechanical engineering, but I would always make arts and crafts on my own time. Then, through working with Ayah Bdeir at littleBits and doing research with Leah Buechley at the MIT Media Lab, I learned that you can actually do both at the same time. You can make arts and crafts but also engineer circuits with materials like conductive paints. That blew my mind because here were two things that I loved and always kept separate, but they just came together. 


With crafting electronics, the electronics aren't abstract circuits that just do stuff anymore; they come out with a story and a context. And when you make your own sensors and components out of paper, you can make them look like whatever you want. They don't have to be circles and squares anymore. They can look like flowers and bumblebees.


That's basically what I did and it was really fun, so I wanted to share that feeling and ability with everyone through making paper electronics accessible. I wanted the tools to be easy to use. Paper is soft, so you don't need special tools, and it's not expensive for the most part. The circuits had to be easy to do and undo. I even started using regular, standard components but then shaping and unshaping them so you could easily do and undo them. 


The reason why I use standard components is for the project to be accessible not just in terms of difficulty but also in terms of cost and whether any person in the world can get the parts. When we started out, I wrote a lot of tutorials with inexpensive materials that you could source from the web. I wanted to show that you don't have to be in a research lab to do this stuff.


Circuit Stickers started as a creative learning class project at the MIT Media Lab. My collaborators, Natalie Freed and Adam Setapen, were trying to figure out how to create tool kits that enable kids to create their own technologies and interactive interfaces. Advised by Ed Baafi, we came up with the idea of stickers for making electronics because they're easy to apply and undo, so it’s OK if you make a mistake. Even more importantly, stickers are friendly because everybody, for the most part, has played with stickers before. There are typically all these wonderful associations with stickers and most people know how to use them. Using that friendliness to introduce new concepts, like voltage and polarity, in electronics is what I'm hoping to do. 

HOW I MADE IT

In that same creative learning class, my collaborators and I came up with the idea of making wirelessly connected scrapbooks. You'd make something of an interface in your book and your friend would make the same in another book. When you press a button in one book, something would happen in the other book. That was the context. It's called Telescrapbook.


We had these scrapbooks and wanted electronics you could build really easily but that were also flat so that they could fit in a book. That's when we created, by hand, vinyl stickers that we then soldered with copper tape and conductive fabric tape to make the conductive pads of the stickers. That was actually the first prototype of a Circuit Sticker. It worked, and we even did a workshop with a group of kids on making interactive greeting cards. It was really fun, but it wasn't very scalable because we had to make the stickers by hand. It took us all afternoon to make 10. We can't tell the world to go make stickers this way because you would need a farm of grad students to make your stickers. That's no good.


I made other prototypes since then, but they were all handmade and it wasn't very feasible. Again, we started using traditional components like LEDs with the legs bent out or surface-mount LEDs, which are tiny and flat. They look like grains of rice and we would literally tape them down with pieces of scotch tape. That worked, except that the surface-mount LEDs, while they were little and easily integrated into projects, they were so little that if you dropped one on the ground you could basically just say goodbye to it forever. That wasn't the best because they're made for robots and machines. They're not made for human hands and aren’t easy to use.


Then a wonderful thing happened and Andrew "bunnie" Huang came to the Media Lab as a visiting researcher. Instead of lecturing us, he actually took a group of students to Shenzhen, China, and basically lectured there. We looked at scale and used scale as part of our research. Suddenly we, as students, had access to manufacturing; instead of making prototypes by hand, we could make a ton of anything.


During that trip we were all encouraged to explore how we might use what we learned in our own research. That's when I started revisiting the stickers. We brainstormed together and came up with ideas of how we could make the stickers using traditional manufacturing processes.


We found this amazing conductive adhesive that we could put on the bottom of the stickers. We made the printed boards through a regular process for making flexible circuit boards. Then we took them to another factory that worked with books, paper, and stamps. They cut the pieces out and put paper backing on the stickers. Somewhere between the two places, we put the conductive adhesive on.


It was a Frankenstein process between the circuit board people and the paper people. It was completely enabled by the manufacturing but through a very different process. It took a long time, but we had actually made a functioning electronic sticker. It was really exciting. 

WHO I WORKED WITH

Circuit Stickers would not have been possible without bunnie’s help, without a doubt. Also, the awesome folks over at AQS, who help us coordinate with the factories and the suppliers. They're a great organization for companies that have products and need help finding and coordinating with manufacturers. One friend describes them as Sherpas for navigating the manufacturing world, which is really complicated and constantly changing. Getting something made at scale involves so many more decisions than I could possibly have imagined.


We also had a lot of advice from Ed Baafi, a wonderful fellow grad student who was in my group at the time. I could go on forever about these folks. He’s also in this whole space of creating tools to get more people excited about hardware and electronics. His project was Modkit and it helps make programming accessible. He’s just wonderful and very creative. Everybody was brainstorming and hanging out together.


So basically the story is that Ed and I shared an office, and my initial conversations about the project were with Ed. That was really fun. Then Adam, Natalie, and I created the book project. They graduated, and a year later bunnie came along. We basically created Circuit Stickers with a different design but still containing the same concept of the original project. That's the full evolution.

WHAT I LEARNED

It's been really, really rewarding but, of course, also really, really hard. One thing that has definitely been really important for me through this whole process is having great collaborators who have been through this process before and can say, "Oh, everything's on fire? That's totally normal. You're fine. You're doing great." It’s important to have people around you who remind you that this is challenging, that’s normal, and you will survive. It's still you, and what you're doing is meaningful. That is so important.


What was particularly hard for me is that I like to design things and share them, but I'm not used to being a "personality" about what I do, as in giving talks and things like that. That was one of the harder bits for me.


Having a team of people to support you — even if they're not doing what you're doing exactly — is so important. In the process, I became closer with my mentor and a lot of my friends and collaborators, too. Make sure you have a good team. It feels like a marathon. It's really fun to design and get this thing from your collective brains into the real world, but to do that, it takes a lot of work, commitment, and energy to keep supporting it beyond the initial fun of inventing and designing.


There's also a lot of invention and problem solving of things like customer service that might be less shiny than what you originally thought. And if your project is successful, that can also lead to more challenges. Some people are really good at scaling and bringing on other people. Some people, like myself, are still learning to do that.


But the happy thing is that once you release something out into the world, you get random messages and pictures of people doing stuff with your project and saying, "This is so cool! Thank you. Can I translate your book for you?" Just awesome, re-energizing moments. That’s the benefit of bringing your thing out into the world. The world gives back. 

WHAT'S NEXT

I've had the last year to look at some of the things people are doing with the Circuit Stickers. What do they like about them? What are some things they wish they could do? With that information in my head, I already want to design new stickers. Add new colors. How cool would it be to have a pink LED? Really cool. Things like that. I also want to come out with different kinds of interactions with stickers, for example different kinds of sensors. That's definitely something I'm excited to do.


Right now there’s a microcontroller that's preprogrammed to do certain things. There's one pin that basically repeats what you do, so if you tap a pattern, it'll tap it back. In workshops, people have really enjoyed using that pin to have the light tap out their name in Morse code. People didn't really care so much about the pin that blinks one to six times randomly like dice. Why don't you just use real dice? One thing I think would be really useful is a toggle switch — a sticker that turns on when you tap it once and turns off when you tap it again.


Another side project is the activity book that I created for basic LED circuits. There are all these other circuit elements, like sensors, so it could be a really similar resource for more advanced circuitry. We’re hoping to come out with the book soon. We just need to bring on more people to help us with that. As usual, not enough hands, not enough time but lots of ideas!