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TEDxYouth@Austin + Hackidemia: The Musical Room

By Brent Dixon in Austin, TX

For their first ever event, TEDxYouth@Austin, a TEDx event organized entirely by high school students and mentors, asked Hackidemia to collaborate with a group of students to design an interactive play space for their 800 attendees. Over the course of a week, the students planned, prototyped, and built a room you can play like an instrument.

The Challenge:

Engage a group of students to create an interactive play space for TEDxYouth@Austin.

The Plan:

Work with students to design a "living" room, where each item inside is activated by touch to play a sound or music.

The Materials:

  • MaKey MaKey (we used 2)
  • Soundplant audio software
  • Lots of telephone wire (we used around 60 meters)
  • Foil
  • Conductive tape
  • Anything conductive for the room! Our room included the following, but planning the room materials and design was an important and fun part of the process for the students, so it can and should be different with a different group:
    • 2 paintings
    • A pencil sketch with a heavy graphite line running thoughout
    • An old TV with conductive tape across the screen
    • Strips of foil stretched across a column
    • 5 colorful giant splats of conductive dough
    • 3 bowls, 3 spoons, 2 forks, 2 knives
    • One heavy book
    • A succulent plant
    • A bowl of bananas

The Process:

Meeting 1: Intro & Planning

I met with the students at the school. I introduced them to the MaKey MaKey and had them spend some time playing with it.

They created one instrument and invented one game (both very simple, each exercise was only about 15 min). The Banana Piano and Frogger with Scratch and Play-Doh are two good places to start.

After that, we spent the rest of the time planning the room. I drew on a whiteboard as they brainstormed. Questions included:

  • Should the room have a theme?
  • How should people feel when they're in the room? 
  • What types of items should be in there? What types of items do we have access to? 
  • What types of sounds should happen? Do we want music? Ambient? Sound effects? Something else? 

By the end of the session, we had final decisions on what the room was going to have and what materials would be required. Each student was assigned materials to gather.

Meeting 2: Prototyping

Prototyping with the worksheet, Play Doh, and a cardboard model of the room.

Prototyping with the worksheet, Play Doh, and a cardboard model of the room.

In this meeting, we prototyped the room. I brought a square sheet of cardboard, with extra cardboard pieces and scissors. I also brought lots of Play-Doh. We used the cardboard to create a floorplan of the room. The students cut furniture out of cardboard of approximately accurate size so they could plan the spatial layout. We used play-doh to mock up the materials.

Where there was to be a fish tank, they made a tiny playdoh fish and set it on the cardboard table. This allowed them to attach the MaKey MaKey wires to their prototypes and, using Soundplant, begin experimenting with sounds.  I arrived with a huge bank of sounds - drum and instrument samples from Music Radar, Apple Garageband, and a couple of Apple Jampacks.

Using Soundplant to keymap sounds.

Using Soundplant to keymap sounds.

Soundplant is wonderful free software that "turns the computer keyboard into a versatile, low latency sound trigger and playable instrument. "

Students used the attached worksheet to take notes on sounds they wanted to use in the room. I made the worksheet in Adobe Illustrator, and it is obviously very dependent on the materials they decided to use. You could make your own with pen, ink, and a photocopier.

By the end of this meeting, they had almost completely defined the sounds, created the Soundplant keycap file, and planned the layout of the room.

Meeting 3, Building


The day before the event the students and I met at the event space. We brought all furniture and materials. Using the layout (but also being flexible and ready to change....the room ended up changing a lot as we built), we laid out the room.

Wires were hidden along tape edges or under gaff tape. Because of the amount of inputs (a little more than 30), we used 2 Makeys, 2 laptops, and 2 sets of speakers. 

We made sure everyone in the room would have two free hands to play by asking people to take off their shoes and socks and creating a ground connection on the floor using foil mats and conductive tape.

We made tiny signs ("pinch me!" "poke me!") a la Alice in Wonderland to help clarify to people how to engage in the space.

Meeting 4, Play!

The final masterpiece. Please take off your shoes and socks before coming inside.

The final masterpiece. Please take off your shoes and socks before coming inside.

In the end it was great! We probably had several hundred people flow through the room. The student team was engaged, all ready to explain the mechanics of the room to curious teachers and students.

Thanks to the brilliant student team and TEDxYouth@Austin for an amazing event and experience. 

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More pictures are available here: