In the latest issue of HackSpace magazine, out now, Andrew Gregory meets the maker behind Geek Mom Projects. Let’s get to know Debra Ansell.
You may have seen Debra Ansell’s sound-reactive LED embroidered party dress. Or her internet-connected, intelligent edge-lit acrylic light paintings. Or you may have recreated one of her builds yourself – following the instructions she generously puts up on her site geekmomprojects.com. Alternatively, you may recognise the name because almost everyone we speak to nowadays cites her as an influence on their work. We spent an hour with her talking about everything from manufacturing, creativity, and how you get from a physics PhD program to teaching kids electronics.
Morning Debra! Let’s kick off with what is simultaneously the easiest and yet also the hardest question of all: who are you?
That’s existential! I’m a maker. I was a stay-at-home mom,
with a tech background, who’s always loved science and learning and creating. I’ve always been very creative, but not at all artistic. I can’t draw freehand; I really have no eye for colour or anything. But when I first saw that you could do something digitally, it was a revelation to me – I can get exactly what’s in my head, into the real world, without the limitations of my lack of artistic ability and dexterity. And if it’s digital, you can edit it and revise it infinitely, until you get what you want. Digital making really opened doors for me.
I love science. I love pure science. I don’t necessarily love the nature of how to practice science – you pick a very small piece of a very big puzzle and drill down on it. And it’s absolutely essential that you do that. But I find the big picture interesting, and the smaller practice less so. I still like to keep up with where things are going – string theory, Higgs boson – but I realised that if I was going to stay in academia, I was going to, you know, pick an integral and add a decimal place every few years or something of that nature, which did not appeal to me. So I ended up leaving the physics PhD programme I was working on. I had learned to code (mostly in Fortran) to analyse my data. And I started working as a software engineer. I liked the interactive, iterative nature of software. But, you know, I was working for an internet startup, and it was not at all family-friendly. Software isn’t to begin with, but the internet startup was 25-year-old guys, and I came to the office pregnant and they had no idea what to do with me. So I retired, you know, to stay home with my kids, but I still love science. And, of course, kids are natural scientists.
That was my outlet for a long time – I was always the mom who volunteered during the science experiments at the after-school activities, things like that. And then my middle son discovered LEGO MINDSTORMS… from there, I discovered Arduino.
I’d never heard of it at the time, but I’ve looked into it. And coincidentally, I was booked in to do a workshop that was using a LilyPad and conductive thread: a wearables workshop, which is my sweet spot. I got lucky – it’s fun, it’s affordable, it doesn’t take up too much space, and it progressed from there. I just kept seeing really cool projects online that people created and detailed for you to reproduce.
I had a strong physics background. I had taken electronics classes, but I’d never had hands-on experience of electronics before that. I mostly took observations of astronomical radio data and analysed it; I wasn’t really in there with a wrench and a screwdriver.
So I learned hands-on electronics through Arduino, and eventually, I [became] comfortable enough making projects that I’d seen other people make, and I started to be able to improvise. It was a great creative outlet. There’s a lot you can do with this that nobody’s done before. So let’s see what happens.
I love working with kids. I volunteer teaching kids to code. My job is to keep them from doing anything unsafe, but otherwise, let them go. And they’re appropriately enthusiastic about really cool things that might not resonate with other people. I was so happy when I had my Code Club meet right after the Mars rover landed and we were talking about the code in the parachute. And the kids thought this was so cool [that NASA had encoded a message into the parachute]; then I walked around all afternoon talking to grown-ups – the reaction was not the same at all. It’s really fun to deal with people who share your enthusiasm for whatever it is you’re excited about.
Do you think there’s something inherently childlike about makers?
Oh, absolutely. There is an absolute sheer unfiltered joy in reaching vision and making it work. And there’s definitely an appreciation for silliness. I think you don’t have to take it too seriously. And in fact, because tech is such an innately serious subject matter, to kind of subvert it and do interesting things with it is appreciated. Like I love Jiří Praus and Mohit Bhoite’s work with circuit sculptures. Take an inherently practical medium, and make it beautiful, but still functional.
There’s no doubt that it’s art, because why else would you do it?
You’ve touched on it already, but you go to a lot of effort to document your builds – why?
That’s the ongoing challenge for me. I don’t love documentation. But in the beginning, I benefited so much from what everybody else would put out there. I want to make anything that I do that I think somebody else could make or learn from available. So I do try, because it’s fun to create something. But it’s even more fun to share that creation and watch other people experience that joy. I really try to not only make a project but, most of the time, I don’t consider it done until I can make it buildable by somebody else.
And that’s a challenge: it’s often harder to make a project accessible than it is to make the project in the first place. I find it particularly satisfying when I can post a tutorial, and other people can experience the joy of making something really, really cool. A good example is the LED sphere that I’m currently working on.
I am so happy with this project. The joy of this orb is that it’s far more reproducible than [any comparable project] that I’ve seen, because people have made LED spheres and they are a ton of work. Electronics go much more easily into a plane, and to make a sphere, you want to put them on a curve – there’s the challenge right there. The breakthrough realisation for this orb was that you can have all your LEDs in a plane using standard LED matrices – you can just curve the light. I mean, I spend my whole time trying to pipe light into different places… my whole aesthetic has been to take the light and don’t just make it a pinpoint; fill space with it instead, do something more interesting. It’s nice to make things that are just fun to look at for no other purpose than just to look at them.
When you say that the project isn’t finished until it’s in reproducible form, that really sounds like a scientist talking. I wonder if that’s why your name keeps cropping up when I talk to other makers.
Well, there’s a bit of coincidence in whom you’ve reached out to in a way – Jason Coon, Carrie Sundra, and I are all in a maker group – Jason and I developed a project together. Carrie has a business, and I admire her tremendously for it. So many makers are creative, and everybody wants to start a business, including me, and I did. But it’s a very different animal, and the overlaps between making and running a business are not at all obvious: the skills that make you good at one are not the skills that make you good at the other. I do not love the business aspects of selling your creations, and I admire Carrie tremendously. I think she’s very good at it.
I’ve decided from my experience with trying to run a business that I’m much happier leaving the business aspects to others. I’d be Steve Wozniak than Steve Jobs.
Another maker we’ve had in HackSpace mag, Odd Jayy, also mentioned you as an inspiration.
The funny thing about Jayy is that he and I share a kind of obsessive tendency to lock ourselves in a room with our creations. We met years ago, and he just wanted to build robots, cool robots that shared his aesthetic. And it wasn’t for any other purpose than he liked and needed it obsessively. And it turns out, it’s a really cool thing that others want to do.
I feel a certain familiarity with that story. I’ve been obsessively doing the things I like for a very long time. And after twelve years or so, I’ve gotten good enough that I can make them good. And people like them; it’s not that I’ve tried to make projects that people are interested in, but I have obsessively focused on this one niche thing that, fortunately, turns out to be interesting to people – LED wearables in particular. I also think that the projects I build lend themselves very well to social media, because they’re blinking and bright and colourful. So my work gets shared a bit on Twitter.
I do like to think that I’m putting novel ideas out there that inspire others, like LED string art. I hadn’t seen that before. The internet craves novelty, and bright, blinky pictures, and I’m in the sweet spot, and it gets me widely shared.
Are you still using Arduinos? Or have you moved on to Raspberry Pis or Adafruit devices?
I hop around from project to project. I do have a lot of Raspberry Pis – I think I have one of everything. And I love my Raspberry Pi 400 because it’s super-cheap and easy to take for tech demos; you can just plug it in and take it, and I take it places where I’m gonna be working with kids. When Raspberry Pi first started, I hadn’t seen the idea that you make an accessible platform that was designed to bring education to places where it wasn’t easily accessible. And it was brilliant. Really, really brilliant.
And so I’ve used Raspberry Pis a lot in my projects. As I’ve gotten more prolific, I’ve gone cheaper and simpler. I don’t need an operating system, so even a Raspberry Pi Zero is overkill for a lot of what I do.
My favourite Raspberry Pi creation is a jacket with programmable LEDs – I put in a Raspberry Pi-based web server, so you can actually code your own patterns on the fly, as long as you have access to a device with a web browser. It has a drag-and-drop coding interface to create LED patterns. You can actually code your own LED patterns; you can be totally separate over there that run on my jacket while I’m wearing it.
It’s fantastic. Everything I do is because this tech is so accessible. Any organisation that strives to make it more accessible is wonderful, especially to communities that don’t get to see and play with tech in the way that more privileged communities do.
I volunteer for a Los Angeles-based non-profit that brings science into underserved elementary schools, because in Los Angeles, the public elementary schools don’t have a science curriculum until middle school [when kids are twelve years old].
Now, most schools try to fill that gap by raising funds; the poor communities can’t. So this programme brings a science curriculum to underserved schools. I managed to catch up with them and said, “Hey, I know you know a bit about coding; I like working with kids; maybe I can help with that aspect of your work”. And right at that time, I think micro:bit had just come out. It wasn’t big in the States, but it was this wonderful platform, and inexpensive – that was the best thing. The interface was good, but the price point made it a no-brainer. So I go into these classes; my own kids are very lucky, they’ve had iPads and whatever they want – they’re digital natives. But you’d go into these classrooms and see these kids get so excited about the tech and coding. And I’d say, you know, well, even if you don’t have a micro:bit, you can go home and use the interface in your browser. And they’d say I don’t have a computer at home.
I’m a big believer in the saying that talent is equally distributed, but opportunity is not. Some of them are amazing, and if they don’t get the opportunity to access these tools, you lose so much. [Messing about with electronics] is engaging and fun, but it’s good for so much more.
I’m hoping that years from now that this will translate into something. I just want them to know that if they do manage to make it to a place where they could take a programming class, they’ll say, “Oh, yeah, I can program; I’ve done that.” Not, “Oh, programming is hard and weird.” Programming is mysterious if you haven’t tried it, but once you do it, it’s really nothing special. It’s laying out a series of instructions, which anybody can do.
You asked what platform I was using. I’m a big fan of anything that makes tech accessible. There’s a reason I built my LED purses around micro:bit. But it started as a kids’ project.
I wanted to make codable wearables that would maybe appeal to girls who are not so interested in robotics and traditional tech projects. There’s no reason coding should be restricted to robots and video games and circuit boards – you can code your clothing. And so, I was trying to provide a platform and accessible again. I want to get back to accessible and inspired platforms for people to experience tech, that might not be what they expect and might reach people that weren’t drawn to other uses of tech.
I’m drawn to controllers that make things accessible and easy. It’s why I’ve got very into CircuitPython, because it has libraries that make it easy to do complex things with relatively little code, which lowers the barrier to people getting into it. And yeah, I’m drawn to inexpensive, of course. That’s because at this point, I’ve accumulated so much. It gets expensive. [I like] inexpensive, accessible controllers, especially ones I think that people can get their hands on and use and enjoy and learn from.
What are you working on at the moment?
I have a lot of ideas. My brain’s like a bubbling cauldron of soup with all these random things in it, and things keep popping up. I’ll take an idea, look at it, and then push it back down into the soup. If it keeps resurfacing, I know it’s generally a good idea. And I’ll eventually tackle it.
I’ve been wanting to do a spherical LED project for a while, and when the idea of the flat PCB with a spherical shell clicked in, that took it into the realm of the practical.
And I’m working on a collaboration with Jason Coon and Ben Hencke [creator of the Pixelblaze LED controller] on an LED wearable. That’s interesting, because we’re now in the realm of producing ten of something – we’ve moved on from ideas, and we’re stepping into production. My contribution to the design was the battery holder, which fastens with a magnet; it’s also a switch that turns it on.
They’re selling, which is wonderful. And, as I’m making the latest batch of battery holders, I’m thinking, what do we do if this scales? It’s a really interesting problem. I’m thrilled with this design. I love it. And I’m happy to make them. I’m happy to make one. I’m happy to make ten. I’m happy to make the 78 I just made – so it’s doable, but it’s relatively labour-intensive.
I don’t want to be so arrogant to think that it’s going to be wildly successful, but it’s stupid not to prepare for potential success. So how do I scale this? So that’s a kind of novel project for me.
I’m incredibly lucky. I get to come up with these projects and write them up. I get to design for the summer camp that we run for the elementary school kids, and that’s fun, too. I’m doing workshops for other people, too. I have a workshop proposal in for Supercon. I’ve got a lot of ideas for fabric-based wearables that I’d like to try to execute. I’m super-excited about the potential for these LED cuff bracelets… I have a problem with prioritising, but there’s certainly no shortage of things that I’d like to do.
HackSpace magazine issue 60 out NOW!
Each month, HackSpace magazine brings you the best projects, tips, tricks and tutorials from the makersphere. You can get HackSpace from the Raspberry Pi Press online store or your local newsagents.
As always, every issue is free to download in PDF format from the HackSpace magazine website.