Use microchipped wooden tiles to launch
your favorite websites and applications.
BY JOHN EDGAR PARK
■ I LOVE ANACHRONISTIC INTERFACES. the software for this project, we switched to the Tcl
From steampunk, to clockpunk, to the industrial scripting language (see sidebar on page 134).
design of the movie Brazil, I’m drawn to rough, I wanted to represent the applications and
tactile designs from another era married to high websites in the real world using small, wooden tiles
tech. With the increasingly virtual nature of our lives, with 25mm RFID tags stuck on them. After finding
I think we ought to enjoy physical interactions while out that Scrabble tiles were a bit too small and not
we can, before we evolve into limbless, Bluetooth- perfectly square (who knew?), I got some 1" wooden
embedded craniums. That’s why I built the iConveyor, cubes from an art supply store and cut them into
an RFID tag-reading, conveyor belt-driven, USB tiles with a miter saw.
application launcher (Figure 1). I had planned to buy some clear sticker paper,
I have a long, disorganized list of bookmarks in print out icons, and stick them onto the tiles, but was
my browser. Recently, while fishing around in an put off by the high cost of laser printer sticker paper.
equally disorganized glass jar of screws, springs, My frugality was fortunate, because it led to my
and bolts, I thought: Wouldn’t it be great to dig discovery of a really neat toner transfer trick. I flipped
around in a tray of application and website tiles an icon horizontally in Photoshop, printed it on regu-looking for just the right program to launch or URL lar white paper in my laser printer, and set it on top
to open? I envisioned using little wooden tiles with of a wooden tile, like a temporary tattoo. Using a 25 W
icons printed on them, but how would I let my PC soldering iron with the tip removed, I rubbed the
know about it? I immediately thought of RFID (radio back of the paper quickly, with moderate pressure,
frequency identification) tags. for about a minute (Figure 2). Lifting the paper
I’d never worked with RFID readers and tags before, revealed a perfect transfer of the toner onto the
so I figured this would be a good opportunity to learn wood (Figure 3). Awesome! I wouldn’t want to do
about them. Based on the recommendation of a any large-scale work this way, but it worked wonder-friend who had built an RFID-controlled beer keg, I fully for a small piece.
purchased a Phidget RFID kit (see MAKE, Volume 06, I stuck my RFID tag to the back of the tile and
page 160, for a primer on using a similar kit). was ready to go (Figure 4).
The kit consists of a Windows/OSX/Linux- By this point, Usman had developed the software
compatible USB RFID reader board, some passive to the point where it could read tags and launch
125kHz RFID tags that each have a unique embed- applications and URLs. As a test, I edited the Tcl
ded 40-bit read-only identification number, and an script to map a tile’s tag ID to the MAKE website
SDK (software development kit) that allows you to URL. With the RFID reader plugged in, I picked up
access and control the board through programming the tile, waved it over the reader, watched as the
languages such as C, Visual Basic, Java, ActionScript, website popped up, and set the tile back in its bowl.
and others. Getting this much of it working was great, but
I installed the board and checked out the sample something was missing. I wanted more moving
software, which displays the unique ID number parts. More motors. More lights. More switches.
associated with each RFID tag when you pass it I wanted to build a miniature conveyor belt to move
within a few inches of the board. I was able to proto- my tiles for me.
type a Visual Basic program to launch URLs fairly I took a trip down to my favorite surplus parts
easily, but when my good friend and programmer store, Luky’s Hardware in Burbank. Poking around
extraordinaire Usman Muzaffar offered to take over in the bins, I found four beautiful Bakelite bearing
130 Make: Volume 15