Circuit Stickers’ creators want us to build stories using electronics

Chibitronics, the team behind Circuit Stickers, wants us to tell stories using electronics. “I hope that after making something with circuit stickers, people will feel like circuits can be just another art and craft material, like paint and canvas. Except now, in addition…

Chibitronics, the team behind Circuit Stickers, wants us to tell stories using electronics.

“I hope that after making something with circuit stickers, people will feel like circuits can be just another art and craft material, like paint and canvas. Except now, in addition to colours, we can tell our stories with light, sensing and interactions,” one half of Chibitronics Jie Qi, a doctoral student in electronics and programming at MIT Media Lab, tells Wired.co.uk.

Qi has been building artworks using hardware for years through her research group High-Low Tech. Circuit Stickers is an extension of this. Made with electrical engineer Andrew

“bunnie” Huang, Circuit Stickers — essentially anisotropic
conductive adhesive (Z-tape) added to flexible circuit boards —
can connect “virtually any conductive material” by being soldered,
sewn with conductive thread or even connected with conductive inks
and paints, like those Bare Conductive sells. They believe the ease with which anyone
can build a circuit using their $25 (£15) starter pack means
people do not have to be tied to the technology, but liberated by
it in their designs.

“The magic comes in when we can take advantage of all the
creative qualities of craft, when we start building hardware and
electronics with craft materials,” says Qi. “We’re able to give
what we build a story — it’s the difference between having a
glowing red LED light, and using that light to make a blushing
robot. I think there’s something very valuable and engaging in
creating those connections.”So far, the public seems to agree. Qi began using the stickers
as part of her teaching method in workshops and seminars with
totally disparate groups, including secondary school students in
the Girl Scouts, Tinkering Studio staff at the Exploratorium, English
students and engineers and entrepreneurs at FOO Camp, an annual
hacker event. “Everyone has successfully made circuits, and
approached their creations in their own style — from creating a
glowing paper airplane during a trans-Atlantic flight, to
illuminating a poem, to creating a light-up 3D-printed coaster,”
says Qi. “It was really exciting to see these people approach
circuits not as just ‘lighting something up’ but telling a story
and giving a point to why their project is glowing.” Circuit Stickers is so popular in fact, it’s smashed its Crowd
Supply crowdfunding target by 4,811,700 percent.
Ok — admittedly, it began with a rather paltry $1 target, the
reason being, according to Huang, “everyone already loved the
product”. The money raised is made up of sales. The Crowd Supply
platform enables preorders and once a campaign is funded it turns
into an online store and handles the product shipping. Already,
hundreds of orders have been placed, hence the target smashing
prestige, and Huang says the money from the campaign means they are
on track to cover all development expenses incurred thus far.“Since our primary goal is to facilitate the scale distribution
of an existing design (as opposed to raising money to start a
company or to develop new designs), we picked a goal of $1 as our
funding target,” explains Huang. “We feel this is an honest
reflection of our intentions.”The reason any of this is possible at all, is down to Shanzhai
guerilla-style manufacturing techniques explored and developed by
Huang. He had been researching flexible circuits “for a more
conventional purpose”, visiting factories that manufactured Flex
PCBs along the way. Then came a “moment of serendipity” — he was
giving a group of MIT Media Lab students a tour of Shenzhen and Qi
was one of those students. She told him about her
electronics/papercraft projects, and they realised how sticky,
flexible circuits could take this even further. Qi had already
worked on littlebits, popular
snap-together circuits.

Jie Qi
“We practice ‘lean design’ out of necessity, as one of our
explicit goals is to stay focused on design and innovation, without
getting distracted by fundraising or the day-to-day issues of
operating a large company. I’ve spent the past couple of years
studying the lean design techniques of the Shanzhai — China’s
experts at ‘guerrilla manufacturing’ — so part of this project is
applying what I’ve learned there, and seeing how it pans out.“The idea of using Z-tape to stick electronics together has been
around for a long time; 3M has been marketing the adhesive for use
in consumer products for years. It all boils down to a matter of
the toolkits and primitives provided. The initial set of sticker
designs [in our kits] are simple, but that’s a reflection of our
conservative approach to design and manufacturing, and not a
fundamental limitation of the platform — we picked targets we can
for sure deliver to customers on-time. In the future, there will
probably be stickers of increasing complexity; it’s not
unreasonable to expect stickable wireless radios or even stickable
Linux computers down the road. One important angle is to think of
the stickers as intuitive, ‘designed’ primitives as opposed to a
collection of raw components looking to replace breadboards and
PCBs.”

Circuit StickersJie Qi
To start, the pair had wanted to include transistors, resistors
and capacitors in the starter kit, but decided this would detract
from the overall goal: “to liberate electronics hardware from being
mired in annoying details.” Instead, they offer pre-prepared
electronics with their own “behaviours” — heartbeats, twinkle,
fade and blink effects for the LEDs, for instance. Depending on the
kit you buy, you’ll get a variety of coloured and white LED
stickers, copper tape, batteries, conductive plastic, Z-tape and
series of sensor stickers (light, microphone, touch) as well as a
timer circuit sticker and microcontroller sticker. A Circuit
Sticker Sketechbook has all the instructions, and is described as
being like a colouring book — except you fill it in with
circuits.

Circuit StickersJie Qi
“I’m looking forward to seeing how people use these behaviours,
and finding ways to refine the concept of designed, curated
primitives even further,” said Huang.The pair has been very public about the fact that the product is
very much in its research stages — it works great, but as an
academic exploit they do plan on making tweaks as they go along,
after seeing how the public use the Circuit Stickers.Qi thinks the growing popularity for products like theirs is a
result of the democratisation of new digital fabrication techniques
like lasercutting and 3D printing “getting people’s imaginations
excited about the possibilities of making and manipulating atoms as
well as bits”.

Circuit StickersJie Qi
“Perhaps, at a higher level, people are trying balance out the
massive and anonymous information intake of our digital selves by
engaging in more personal and creative activity through our
physical selves,” she muses. “That is, to go from digital consumers
to physical creators.”The medium, she says, is “friendly and familiar”, hopefully
making the idea of circuit-building unintimidating to the
uninitiated. It’s also most definitely for all age groups, easy
enough for kids to use, but with an added programmable
microcontroller people can also build in their own functionality.
For anyone learning, each sticker is designed specifically to
represent its function — LEDs are shaped like triangles, akin to
the diode symbol, for instance.Because of the diversity the stickers offer for people of all
skill levels, Qi is hoping people will pick them up and begin to
play with them in totally diverse ways, using their own background
to toy with different outcomes.“Expert painters may paint their circuits with conductive paint,
expert model builders stick circuits into their models, expert
drawers can draw their circuits with a conductive pen, and they’re
even solderable so you can use them like traditional electronics
and with traditional components too.”

Circuit StickersJie Qi
Qi has already joined with experimental art group NEXMAP to
demonstrate the stickers’ uses, first off by hacking the humble notebook and bringing it to life in
workshops. She’s also working on more interactive paintings using
the stickers, building on the dandelion artwork she revealed in 2012 where the seeds in the
painting can be blown away by a viewer to make new flowers. “I’m
also working on a rechargeable
sketchbook that allows people to power their circuits through
the book,” Qi tells us, “and an interactive storybook”.Qi wants the public to be able to do the same — to use circuits
for things they had never thought possible and expand their view of
what electronics can be.

“I hope more people are inspired to learn the theory behind
circuits, electronics and programming — so that they can control
the electricity like they can a paintbrush. Ultimately, I hope it
opens up everyone’s minds about what they are capable of creating
with circuits and to look at electronics beyond just tools (or just
something useful to learn in school) but as ways to express their
imaginations in magical ways.”
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