Project- Light Up Poetry with Chibitronics “Love to Code” Arduino Board


Programming Goodies!

About two months ago, I was honored to get to receive a prototype of a “Love to Code” Arduino board that Jie Qi and Chibitronics are currently working on. (If you don’t know how much I love paper circuits and Chibitronics, then read this post before going any further.)

The first thing I had to try was to hack my own disco paper circuit from our Big Book of Makerspace Projects and get my disco dancing on it’s own!

Computational Tinkering

I LOVE how easy it is to map out a circuit and then clip this “Love to Code” board to the circuitry. I decided to try out an RGB LED and do a little computational tinkering to see how different sets of code would effect the blink.

It was so simple to dream up an idea and map it out with copper tape, that I began to get way too complicated in my design ideas. I had a few failures, so I started chatting with other makers about design ideas and brainstorming more ways to use this new technology. Suddenly I had it, I’d seen lots of black out poetry, but what about using lights to “light up” poetry?  I spoke with Josh Burker about tweaking this fun poetry idea and he made a super cool project with lights and poetry.

See Josh’s light up poem here.

Light Up Poetry

I’ve been dreaming up multiple ideas for what I wanted my own light up poetry to look like, and I kept coming back to one of my favorite poems by e.e. cummings: “l(a” I absolutely adore this poem and how the words themselves look like a leaf falling, so I knew I had to make this poem as if the words were animated and portrayed the loneliness of a leaf as it falls to the ground. I wanted each stanza to light up separately and give the viewer some time to think and experience the words as the falling leaf. Initially, I wanted to have the circuit on the clipboard, then have a sheet with the poem and put a semi-transparent gold paper with leaf drawings on top. I made my circuit, practiced drawing leaves, and tested out the light.  Plus, I decided to incorporate my battery holder from sewing circuit club.


When I started testing out my ideas, I found that the words would barely show through when I layered multiple papers. But I still really still only wanted leaves on the top layer and the words to not be visible until the light shined on them. I kept trying different types of paper and printing the poem darker…. it wasn’t working, but I didn’t want to give up on my idea.

I ended up making the poem into an image, flipping it and printing it so that the words were printed in reverse (or mirror image) on the back side of the paper. I mapped out a new circuit and hot-glued together a cardboard frame so the light would be able to diffuse a bit before lighting up each word on the top paper.


My reversal trick worked, but I still wanted to harness the light from those little LEDs. So I made some foil leaves to aid in reflection, poked holes for the LEDs to shine through, and covered the bottom of the foil with scotch tape to insulate my copper tape traces and prevent short circuits. (And I ended up adding more LEDs to the template above)



The pieces fit together and now the light gives off a magical glow of a hidden leaf under the drawing.
I hacked a simple fade code on my phone to light up each stanza and then light the first and last stanza together so readers would see the word “loneliness.” I’m pretty happy with the result! See below:

I have more ideas about lighting up poetry that I want to try soon, and I hope this tinkering will convince students (or teachers!) to play around with literacy in this way.

Coding and Paper Circuits

One of the things I really love about Arduino (versus something like Raspberry Pi) is the hands on aspect. But all the wires and breadboarding can be confusing when you are totally new to this type of making. I remember when I was hooking up my first Arduino project and I thought I had to match all the wires to the correct numbers on the breadboard so that it would look exactly like the diagram. I had no concept of what I was doing electronic-wise. I knew I had to hook wires from the Arduino to the bread board to the components, but I don’t think I really understood how any of it worked.
And I think that’s why I now prefer sewing circuits. Once I started sewing my circuits and programming and controlling components with e-textile boards like Lilypad, Flora, and Gemma, I actually started to understand how the wiring and coding was controlling the project. 
All of the coding and wiring made so much more sense when I had hands on experience with the components. That’s why I often suggest teaching students paper circuits before sewing circuits, and before programming with Arduino. I think these skills build on one another and students will need a solid foundation to understand how circuits work so they can pull those components off of breadboards and put them into projects.
I’m stoked about Jie’s new board because I think it will make it even easier for you or your students to understand how the microcontroller is working and I think laying out copper tape traces will make your learning visible. 

Chibitronics Strawberry Stuffie

After many iterations……

If you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a Chibitronics fan. So when I saw an adorable strawberry stuffie project on their site, I knew I wanted to make my own version. These adorable chibi stickers are great for paper circuits, but I wasn’t sure how they would hold up in a sewing project. I ended up failing a lot and making about four different versions before I was able to get the really cute strawberry pictured above.

Effect Sticker

I decided I wanted to use the new tropical stickers and attempt to use an effect sticker to have some control over my pulsing LED stickers. So I busted out my Effects pack  , mapped out my circuitry and used a Lilypad battery holder to power my project. Sewing the effect stickers worked brilliantly! It worked great and withheld being punctured by my sewing needle.

However, in my first stuffie iteration I used too many chibi LEDS. Initially, I really wanted to try switching the polarity to see how the different colored LEDS would pulse in opposite rotation. (See Jie’s tutorial here.)  You can see this effect in the Instagram below. I thought it looked super cute, but when it was time to sew my stuffie together, my circuits started shorting.  I thought I’d maybe overloaded the battery attempting to use so many LEDs.

Plus, the material I used for the body of the strawberry was too stretchy and the topside of the fabric was too fluffy. Either my threads were shorting in the stretchy fabric, or the LEDs were losing connectivity because of the surface of the fabric, or I had too many LEDs for my battery. I wasn’t sure. Chibitronics are made for paper, so I suspected the fabric was the real problem. Rather than ditching the fabric my daughter chose for her strawberry, I started thinking about ways I could ensure connectivity. How could I debug and get all the elements I wanted?

Short Circuits

First off, I had to realize that blushing cheeks would be more adorable without all the other blinkiness going on above, so I cut back on my amount of LEDs. My second debugging idea was to sew conductive fabric tape on my stuffie for the copper pads of my Chibi stickers to stick to. This worked at first, but then when I attempted flipping my stuffie inside out to sew together, one of my LEDs went out again. At this point, I had one LED working well, but the other just kept shorting. For my third debugging trick, I fused interfacing to the inside of the strawberry fabric so I could see my lines of circuitry more clearly. This helped ensure that my sewn circuits didn’t cross, but it also helped sturdy up my fabric.

I sewed my circuits a third time, but still had one Chibi sticker that wouldn’t stay lit. So I added a Lily LED to the inside of my fabric to check my sewn circuits, it lit up!  I’d sewn everything correctly. The culprit in my short circuit was not my circuitry, but actually the way I was attempting to sew the stickers to the strawberry. I was busting the chibi LED the way I’d sewn it making it work only intermittently. I looked at my functioning chibi LED to determine what I’d done right. I’d sewn up from the edge of the sticker AND down into the pre-existing holes on the Chibitronics stickers. I’d looped multiple times and used a very skinny sewing needle.

Success! chibi strawberry.jpg

Fourth time is a charm! I re-sewed my last chibi sticker with my debugged ideas and finally…. got this little plushie just right!

Next Chibi Project?

I’m so stoked to play around with Jie’s new board for Chibitronics that can clip right to a paper circuit! Right out of the box, I modified one of our projects from the book Aaron and I wrote together. I quickly uploaded a blink sketch FROM MY PHONE! The video below is my first sketch that I’ve already changed a few times. Now, I’m excited to play around and mash some Lilypad components with paper circuits.  More tinkering to come!