MaKey MaKey turns anything into a touchpad
By Paul Ridden
May 15, 2012
As I discovered when reviewing the Minty Geek Electronics Lab a while back, experimenting with circuit building can be a great deal of fun. There was one particular project in this kit that made use of the human body to complete a circuit, with a simple lie detector test being the end result. With their Makey Makey open source hardware project, Jay Silver and Eric Rosenbaum have taken such touch interaction to a much more entertaining and inventive degree. Everyday objects like bananas, coins, and even Play-Doh can be transformed into a computer keyboard key or mouse click to control onscreen gaming action, play software-based instruments or type out short messages.
Based on research at MIT Media Lab's Lifelong Kindergarten and two years in the making, the Makey Makey printed board features six inputs on the front for attaching alligator clips. These are assigned to the arrow keys and space bar on a computer keyboard and the left button of a mouse. The other end of the clip can be secured to anything that conducts even the tiniest amount of electricity.
With a website, game or learning program loaded into the USB-connected computer, a user would then grab a cable running from the earth strip with one hand and make contact with the chosen object with the other. The upshot of all this wizardry is that things like bananas can be used as piano keys in a software learning suite, some Play-Doh or pencil drawn shapes/icons on a piece of paper can act as controls for onscreen gameplay, and a short message made from alphabet soup can type an email or status update when touched.
As the input commands are sent to the computer in the Human Interface Device (HID) protocol, the newly-created touch interface should work on any computer, and is certain to be as popular with aging geeks like myself as it is with inquisitive young minds.
Makey Makey has gone from first breadboard prototype through two more working units and is now entering its final production stage. Silver and Rosenbaum hope that the simple-to-use kit will encourage everyone to tinker with electronics. In fact, the custom board runs on top of Arduino and can be switched into Arduino mode at any time for more advanced electronics experimentation.
The custom board features an ATMega32u4 microcontroller running Arduino Leonardo bootloader, and makes use of high resistance switching to enable detection of a closed circuit. There are a further 12 inputs on the back split between keyboard and mouse controls for more involved projects.
Silver and Rosenbaum recently listed the project on crowd-funding portal Kickstarter to help bring the Makey Makey kit into its first production run, and it's already attracted a good deal more than its original funding target.
The developers have priced the kit – which includes the board, clips and cables – at US$35 per unit. Makey Makey will also be available from manufacturing partners Sparkfun later in the year.