Our challenge was to repurpose thrift-store items using our maker technologies. I chose to use the Raspberry Pi. I have a tiny bit of linux experience, and the Pi is just a tiny linux computer.
But the remix project baffled me. How do I hook a computer up to something at a thrift store? Before I got started, I realized that learning to use the Pi itself was more complicated than I anticipated. First, you need a monitor, keyboard and mouse, just like any computer. Since this is a thrifting project, I bought these items at my local GoodWill. The monitor was a problem. The Pi uses HDMI for video, and the cruddy old monitors at Goodwill were all used old VGA connections. Luckily, I also found a VGA/HDMI adaptor at GoodWill. That adaptor, however, proved to be faulty. Most people just connect the Pi to their TV.
In my case, however, the family uses the TV for movie night precisely so I can do homework. So the TV was out. In the end, I learned to use SSH to log into the Pi from my MacBook to control the Pi with text commands and set up a VNC server on the Pi, so that I could remote into it from any computer or tablet. The toughest part about setting up the VNC server was modifying the Pi’s startup protocols to automatically launch VNC whenever the Pi booted up. For some reason, the Pi kept crashing on reboot every time I tried it, until I wiped it clean and tried again. Once it worked though, it was beautiful. I can donate that mouse, keyboard, and monitor right back to GoodWill!
I combed the web for project ideas. Many involved attaching the Pi to other high components, like this pico projector. The Pi has 20 or so I/O pins that you can wire up to servos or motors and control with programming languages like Python. After staying up to the wee hours trying to learn to program in Python, I admitted that programming and the necessary electronics knowledge was beyond what I could learn in the five days before the deadline.
I was also concerned with how to connect the project to my educational context. I’m in higher education IT management. I don’t have a classroom and my work revolves technology, planning, and communication. I decided to restrict myself to thrift store items that could plug into computers in the first place. This both made it easier to prototype different things and aligned the project better with my work. I found a bunch of old components we haven’t used since moving away from wired desktop computing: an old printer, webcam, and speakers. In the end, I did two projects.
Old printer, new life
First, I decided to use the Pi to set up a wireless print server that supporting Apple’s AirPrint, so we could print from our iPhones. I followed tutorials to first set up a print server and then to add software to enable AirPrint. There were four basic steps to making this work:
- Use a program called samba to connect your printer.
- Use a program called CUPS to install and manage your print server.
- Modify the Raspberry Pi so that it never goes to sleep and keeps it’s wireless network turned on all the time (at this point, you have a basic wireless printer).
- Install software to simulate AirPrint.
To my everlasting shock, it worked on the first try. This project connects directly my work in IT. We work on ways to promote active learning in both formal and informal teaching spaces (say, offices) by untethering instructors from technology. We also work in a budget-constrained public institution. We need to get as much life as possible from things like old printers. Learning how to configure a lo-fi solution that turns an old printer into an up-to-date untethered AirPrint device meets both objectives. As I sorted through the software and configuration tasks to make this work, I also came to appreciate the complexity of the task: it required a lot of software and configuration changes and I don’t think it’ll work reliably without ongoing tinkering. As an IT leader, this sort of hands-on learning is incredibly critical to helping me understand the work involved behind seemingly easy IT requests.
I wasn’t satisfied with this project, though. It did use a thrift store item (the printer) to do something new, but it wasn’t “NEW”. It was effective and whole, but not novel enough (Koehler and Mishra, 2008). It’s an old printer…and I just made it print in new ways.
Inspired by another great thrifting project, I played around the software for voice recognition on the Pi. I really learned the value of playing. At first, I wasn’t going for a specific project, I just thought it was amazing that I might be able to build a computer I could talk to. That would have been science fiction only a short time ago. Now, somebody with no computer science skills (me) could do this in an evening for around $9 (old speakers and a webcam). Around the same time, our IT team started planning new customer service curricula for our help desk team. We often joke that, in our industry, those most able to help our faculty and students technologically aren’t necessarily those with people skills. Wouldn’t it be great to prototype a robot help desk technician? I could program the Pi to answer basic IT questions. I could use it as a bad example, even, without embarrassing any human staff!
First though, I had to get voice recognition working, and this was more difficult than I imagined. I settled some custom-created software that repurposes Google Voice to make your Pi listen and talk. I followed this guide to install the software.
But when I tried to change the voice commands, I found I didn’t have permission to edit the file. I fought this problem for two days. I searched web forums, gave myself elevated privileges to the file, called my geeky brother for help. By midweek, I’d panicked and ordered an Arduino from Amazon. I was just going to switch maker kits. At least the Arduino is set up to motorize stuff. It would be MUCH better for repurposing objects than a little computer. At around 1am, while giving the Pi one last try, I figured out my problem:
There were TWO voice command configuration files with the same name, in different directories. I was killing myself trying to modify the wrong one. I called my geeky brother back, even though it was late. I think he laughed at me for a full minute.
After that, it was back to the thrift store to give my help desk technician a body!
A note on using multi-model elements
Multi-model elements helped explain my projects to readers who may not be familiar with the technology. The process for documenting the projects with pictures, sounds and video was also valuable in itself. I was forced to reflect along the way and provide evidence for my work.
Koehler, M. and Mishra, P. (2008). Teaching Creatively: Teachers as Designers of Technology, Content and Pedagogy [Video file]. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/39539571