My family knows one thing about vacationing with me: if we’re anywhere near a mini-golf course we’ll have to stop and play it. Waterfalls, windmills, pirates, animals — I love it all. This semester I was teaching Physical Computing course again, and I wondered… could I combine my love of the quirky American leisure activity with Arduinos, sensors, motors, and more? So I decided to have students design interactive tabletop mini-mini golf holes for a public showcase.
Me trying out the Phineas and Ferb hole. (Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University)
What is Physical Computing?
Physical Computing is a phrase we use to talk about the craft of building systems that sense and react to the world and us. It is a wonderful way to introduce learners to working with sensors, motors, LEDs, and more because it exists in the real-world and not just on-screen. There is a certain whimsy, delight, and magic to working with products like the micro:bit, Arduino, and Raspberry PI. This year is the second time I’ve taught Physical Computing course here in Art + Design at Northeastern University, so I decided to try some new things.
We used the SparkFun RedBoard from their Inventor’s Kit. (Photo by Charles Gauthier)
Typical introductions follow the mold of Tom Igoe’s decades of work at NYU’s ITP program, they offer invaluable resources, pedagogy, and examples to learn from. With a lack of access to a group soldering space due to construction, I decided to go all-digital in my course. This meant I was focused on microcontrollers and modules that could connect to them easily over things like I2C and other busses to extend core capabilities.
Sadly, another space-driven constraint was that we couldn’t design full-sized mini-golf holes. So taking a cue from my wife’s work with the Beautiful Stuff Project, I decided to work on square 2-foot wooden boards. Students created table-top holes playable with marbles and 3d printed palm-sized putters.
Conceptualizing Interactive Mini-Mini Golf (with AI)
Mini-golf holds a nostalgic charm in the US, associated with family trips and simple fun. The history is connected to this, from the emergence of putt-putt as a pastime associated with the expansion driving and the highway network. Some of my students had fond memories of mini-golf, while others hadn’t ever played. To help get into the mindset I took the whole class on a field trip to a recently opened novel new Puttshack indoor mini-golf place. It included a bit more gamification around the playing experience, and lots more LEDs, but the experience was fun and also helped set the mood and tone for the project.
Mini golf takes a variety of forms across the US.
Brainstorming afterwards, we narrowing in on a course theme of “cartoons” — they all had some animated TV show that they liked and thought would translate well into recognizable physical form. As a test of teaching how to brainstorm with new “AI” tools, I introduced using GPT and other large-language models. My first prompt? “What obstacles would you build in an interactive mini golf hole based on the TV show Tom and Jerry?” The suggestions were good, but not that creative; they were the kind of things we immediately thought of.
OpenAI’s Chat GPT-3 has on-target, but rather obvious suggestions.
Continuing, I introduced using Dall-E and Stable Diffusion for generating image-based suggestions on how holes might look with those themes in mind. These were a bit more off-the-mark.
OpenAI’s DALL·E 2 had some rather hallucinogenic suggestions for mini-golf holes with a SpongeBob theme.
Overall the novelty of brainstorming with AI tools was compelling, and engaged students, but the actual utility of the suggestions wasn’t that great. However, like the field trip it did seem to help get them into the right playful and nostalgic mindset, especially for folks that hadn’t ever played before.
Soon we were off and running with five holes, each with a cartoon theme:
- Tom and Jerry
- Phineas and Ferb
- Cowboy Bebop
- SpongeBob SquarePants
- Kim Possible
A Pop-Up Putt-Putt Event
Geared down motors, shake sensors, mp3 players, servos, neopixel strips — students pull together all sorts of wacky themed obstacles to create their holes. A laser-cut Tom the cat smashed a hammer down to block your path to the hole. Spinning record turntables decorated with Cowboy Bebop iconography redirected your ball away from your target. Eugene Crabs used a claw to try and deflect your ball from heading up a hill. The Kim Possible jingle played to alert you when an obstacle would move. A cage-o-matic created by Dr. Doofenshmitrz raised and lowered over the hole.
After two quick weeks of building and playing, students were ready (enough) to show these interactive obstacles at a 2-hour pop up playing event. Working with the Center for Design , I set up each hole on a table to create a five-hole course. We made score cards, 3D printed hand-sized golf putters, and invited in the Northeastern community to play.
Prof. Pedro Cruz joined us and played the students’ SpongeBob themed hole. (Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University)
The Tom and Jerry hole, amongst others, included some laser-cut character obstacles. (Photo by Charles Gauthier)
Students chatting around the Kim Possible mini-mini golf hole. (Photo by Charles Gauthier)
The event was a delight. Students’ friends came in to play, and faculty chatted with me. The holes worked and failed as you might expect; building reliable and repeatable physical computing devices is hard, especially with humans involved. That was one of the main goals of the project, to experience using motors and sensors in a short setting where things had to interact with real people. Overall we had a blast, and I’m excited to teach this again and expand it into a longer unit. Maybe with enough studio space we can create full sized holes.