Sunday, October 13, 2013

Playing with the Makey-Makey

I have mentioned about the Makey-Makey kit couple of times in my past blog posts. I will describe it little further as I have used it to build a new controller. In Makey-Makey, a circuit is used to map number of computer keyboard keys where a person need to ground the kit through his/her body where he/she can tap on any conductive material which is connected to the Makey-Makey kit to emulate a given key [1]. This conductive material can be any day-to-day object (like an apple, metal lid, water, soil, etc.) which has even a little amount of conductivity. When a person who is grounded taps on a conductive material a circuit is completed and a signal is sent to computer to emulate the associated key. Makey-Makey circuit is connected to the computer through a USB connection and no special software or programming is required. There is no requirement to solder these materials to the circuit as they can be plugged in using crocodile clips. Therefore, it allows designers more higher degree of freedom to design assistive technologies.
Basic configuration of Makey-Makey [1]

I have realized that there are few main factors we need to look at when developing technologies for the disabled who specially lives in remote areas:
  • They need to be easily designed as it will be easier to engage the target population in the designing process which will provide a sense of control for them.
  • They need to be of low cost as it will be difficult for people in remote villages to acquire high end devices which are highly costly in the market.
  • They should enjoyable to use. Most of the state-of-the-art technologies have bulky set-ups which require number of circuits, wires, sensors, etc. and not so pleasent to use!
  • They should be flexible to use. A person with motor disabilities could not operate traditional computer controllers with freedom as their positions are mostly static. It is important that they can place their controllers as they wish in the physical space.
I have tried to adhere to these guidelines as much as possible in developing this controller. I thought of building a game controller with few buttons to play a racing game. Generally to build such a controller we need to purchase buttons specially designed for the disabled. They usually costs about 60 USD on average. So, to build a controller with 6 buttons the cost will be around 240 USD alone for the buttons. Therefore, alternatives are required to be used as buttons. I thought that attaching the buttons to a 'lapboard' would be a good idea. Instead of purchasing a standard lapboard, I decided to use something that we use every day.

Buttons - I realized they need to be large in size and shold be operated by applying minimum pressure. A conductive metal piece will be ideal as I can use it with the Maky-Makey which can be opertaed by a mere touch. I visted few hardware stores around Brisbane to find these 'buttons'. The closest I got was a metal door lid which I thought little too heavy to be used. Then while having a soft drink at a restaurent I wondered 'I miss those soft drinks bottles with lids from my home country'. "lids" - metal lids! Yeah, they will be perfect. Then I visited some bars around the city to collect some metal lids only to find that they don't keep them after removal. So, I decided to order them online from a shop in Melbourne. Just the lids - no bottles! Instead of smaller lids I decided to purchase larger lids (37mm diameter) which are used for large growler bottles. I only had to pay 8 AUD for a dozen of them plus the shipping cost. Then, I had to remove the white paint on top the lid to make it conductive. We have our buttons!

Growler lids used as buttons

Lapboard - I initially thought I can use a plastic lid of a lunch box. So, I went to a supermarket to buy couple of boxes when I came across these photo frames. 'I can use the supporting hardboard of these frames' was the thought. And bought couple of them for 3 AUD each.

I atatched these lids to the hardboard from the photo frame using screws. 6 lids were used to map Arrow keys (4), Escape key and Enter key. Then, I atatched the wires from Makey-Makey to the screws from the bottom. There we go - a game controller! Let's calculate the cost. 4 AUD for lids, 3 AUD for the hardboard, 52 AUD for Makey-Makey kit and around 1 AUD for screws, which gives us a total of 60 AUD. This is the average price of a single button developed for the disabled in the market. Although these lids might be aesthetically unpleasing, they do the same task and it is always possible to make improvements. I am listing down some of the pictures I took during the designing.

Lids, hradboard and other tools used

Fixing a lid to the board
Finished button layout

Makey-Makey kit
Board and Makey-Makey connected

However, I found that Makey-Makey does not have default mappings for Escape and Enter keys. So, I will have to re-program the circuit to achive this. Nevertheless, it was possible to use this controller to play Need for Speed Most Wanted (as shown in the video below). All I had to do was plug the kit to my laptop and enjoy the game! Ground wire from the kit was attached to a metalic wrist watch.

Now, one might ask why not use the keyboard itself. I feel this new controller is interesting to use rather than a standard keyboard. It is made of day-to-day objects which can enhance the aspect of 'fun' and it can be easily developed by any person wthout any programming knowledge. However, I admit that the flexibility is somewhat low in this controller as the buttons are fixed using screws. I feel this can be a starting point where I can add more modification to enhance usability aspects.

[1] Silver, J., Rosenbaum, E., & Shaw, D. (2012). Makey Makey: improvising tangible and nature-based user interfaces. In Proceedings of the Sixth International Conference on Tangible, Embedded and Embodied Interaction (pp. 367–370).


  1. Hi Ravihansa
    Do you mind if I post a link to your Commtechd blog to the 'Designing for Health in Australia' LinkedIn group? You can find it here
    Or feel free to join and post it yourself, you are welcome to.
    It's very interesting, well done.

    1. Hi Irith,
      Thank you for your comments. Yeah please do so Irith. Sorry I noticed your comment after a while!