Gift Guides

Gift Lab: Thumb Piano “Ka Limba Limba”

March 11, 2013

Research
The Kalimba is older than Jesus. Also referred to as a thumb piano, it has changed form and tuning numerous times over the last 3,000 years. It was initially made of bamboo and then independently created in metal form 1,300 years ago. Small and light, it was the perfect instrument for travelling griot storytellers in West Africa. They believed that the angelic notes could float up to heaven and bring spirits down to earth.

Upon plucking one of the metal tines for the first time, I immediately realized that there is indeed a mystical element to the tone it emits. It is also quite easy to play, especially the version I had, since it consists of only 8 notes. Has someone ever asked you to name one object you would take with you to a deserted island? This has to be it. It makes for great company. I immediately had an innate desire to contribute to the history of the Kalimba by writing a short song for it.

Hypothesis

I figured that the best way to learn this instrument was to make like a griot and play it while I walked. Living in NYC, I walk a lot. I figured I would bring it everywhere I went and play it everywhere I walked. I could probably come up with something decent in a week.

Experiment

I started with my walk home to the subway station. I developed a pleasing four note repetition. Still playing, I made my way down the stairs of the station, caught a train and sat down. On the subway, I memorized a few variations on the loop. It’s a fairly quiet instrument. When the train was moving, only I could hear it. When the train stopped, a man next to me glanced up, curious. I smiled. He smiled back, looked down and continued to read. Nothing is out of the ordinary on the NYC subway. I continue playing on my walk home. Head down, deeply focused on memorizing the verse. The next day I created a complementary verse and walked into a stop sign. No biggie. Griots used to do it all the time, I’m sure.

By day 3 I had a 40 second song that I could repeat. Guessing I would soon forget it, I wrote down the notes. For proper documentation, I named it Ka Limba Limba. It’s 11 lines long.

I recorded it here for your listening pleasure. It’s quiet, so headphones are suggested:

Conclusion
I thoroughly enjoyed playing this little instrument. My thumbs are a bit raw from playing for a week. I’ll likely wait a few days before working on my next song.

Design

Call for Entries: Art Contest

March 8, 2013

From now until the end of March, we are hosting a call for entries for our Art Contest. This is a call for all original, 2 dimensional art work that UncommonGoods will print, frame and sell on our site in a limited run. The grand prize winner will win $500 and 5% royalties from the sales of their piece.

To learn the official rules of the contest, meet our talented judges and submit your work, visit the Art Contest page.

The Uncommon Life

Uncommon Personalities: Meet Sarah Stenseng

March 8, 2013
Sarah Stenseng, UncommonGoods Senior Product Development Associate

My hometown is…
Harlingen, TX.

My favorite product that I helped develop is…
The Pancake Plates designed by Jon Wye.

I’m inspired by…
People’s behavioral quirks.

My guilty pleasure is…
Pizza.

An uncommon fact about me…
Hmm. I’ve broken my left wrist twice.

My favorite place to eat (and drink!) in New York City is…
Thistle Hill Tavern in Park Slope, Brooklyn. They have a great veggie burger and cocktails!

My style is…
Simple, minimal.

Working at UncommonGoods, I’ve learned…
A lot! My background before joining UncommonGoods was in design, so working here has given me the opportunity to learn about the business side of the industry.

With a pile of stuff in front of me I would make…
(You’re given straw, a balloon, string, tape, a silver pipe cleaner, and a set of googly eyes. What do you make and who is it for?)

The first thing that comes to mind would be to make a toy for a cat. I would put the googly eyes on the balloon (of course), tape the straw to a table, thread the string through the straw and tie it to the balloon in a make-shift pulley system that would let me manipulate the position of the balloon by pulling the string (thereby provoking the interest of the cat). Unfortunately, I have a hunch the balloon would not last long in this design.

The Uncommon Life

MaKey MaKey Meets Frogger – An UncommonGoods DIY

March 6, 2013

The MaKey MaKey is a unique invention aiming to change the way we connect with the internet. Banana pianos, cat controlled cameras and high five orchestras are some of the recent contraptions spawning from this odd new technology which was initially funded from a KickStarter project with over 10,000 backers.

Frogger is a classic arcade game developed by Konami in 1981. Guiding a frog across the road and the river, the player is lost in a mental state of amphibian survival. It’s a simple game, with an addictive quality rivaling that of Angry Birds.

After playing around with the MaKey MaKey for a few weeks, I realized that I could use the MaKey MaKey to improve upon Frogger. For those who have played the game, you may ask yourself, is it even possible to improve on Frogger? Konami might say no, but I say yes. My plan was to put the player in the physical realm of the frog, where your legs are the difference between life and death.

I developed this in two test phases:

Test #1 – Touch Pad
Test #2 – Floor Pad

Out of the box, the MaKey MaKey comes with a circuit board, a USB connect and several wires pinched off with alligator clips.

Frogger frogs move in four directions. Up, Down, Left and Right. (Just like normal frogs). Conveniently, the MaKey MaKey comes with the same four directions. I hooked an alligator clip to each one:

The MaKey MaKey is basically an open source touchpad. You can hack any type of controller. All you need is electrically conductive material. Paper clips, people, spoons, water, apples, paint, etc… They are all compatible. I decided to use the most complex conductive substance known to man:

Play-Doh.

I made four balls of Play-Doh, squished them to a notepad, and plugged in to the other end of the alligator clips. Almost live, all I needed was a grounding wire. At the bottom of the Makey Makey there is long silver grounding strip. In order for MaKey MaKey to work you need to “ground” yourself, which essentially completes the circuit loop. For the last step, I grounded myself to the strip with a bracelet made from heavy wire.

Alternatively, you could just hold the wire, or attach the alligator clip to a metal ring or other piece of conductive jewelry.

*Note – If you are on a laptop, unplug it while using the Makey Makey. Otherwise you may lose your grounding.

I opened Frogger and started to play. I immediately got ran over by a car. Then I drowned. I forgot how intense this game is.

My Frogger skills were way off since my days as a 7 year old, but Test #1 was a success nonetheless. Obviously, Test #2 got delayed by a half hour as I tried over and over again to beat the level. Mustering all of my willpower, I stopped playing the game and moved everything to the floor so I could play with my feet. Oops! The grounding wire is only 1 foot long. I made an extension with a 6 foot piece of hookup wire.

Test #2 – Great success!

As I considered the possibilities, I realized that by expanding the distance between the foot pads, I could create a physical difficulty level much more in line with the frog’s predicament. It also became apparent that this was going to be quite an awesome gaming experience.

To take this to the next level, I needed a big room, more Play-Doh, a projector and Swedish House Mafia. Luckily I work at UncommonGoods, an office where it’s okay to ask your boss for such things with a serious look on your face.

I grabbed a few friends from the office and we found a nice big open space to lay down foot pads. We hooked up a projector for Frogger, connected it to my laptop, and hooked the laptop to the MaKey MaKey with the USB connect. For foot pads, we used aluminum foil, a little strip of Play-Doh to help keep the wire in place and painter’s tape to seal the deal.

Once the floor pads were tested, we fired up Frogger, killed the lights in the building and blasted Swedish House Mafia. Why Swedish House Mafia? Watch this video and it will all make sense:

As you can see, we took Frogger to a whole new dimension. The next morning my legs hurt.

MaKey MaKey is an amazing invention with endless applications. If you want to try it out for yourself, you can buy one here.

If you already have one and you’re looking for ideas you should start with YouTube. There are already hundreds of videos out there. Here are my personal favorites:

Top 10 MaKey MaKey Ideas:

1. Banana Piano
2. High Five Orchestra
3. Robot Boy
4. Musical Paintings
5. Birthday Flowers
6. Cheese Controlled Race Car
7. Kissing Karaoke
8. Electric Wind Chimes
9. Horse Simulator
10. Veggie DJ

For more ideas, you can check out the MaKey MaKey forum here.

If you have used MaKey MaKey to invent something we’d love to hear about it. Email us at makeymakey@uncommongoods.com.

Maker Stories

Inside the Artist’s Studio with Adrienne Vita

March 6, 2013

Artist Adrienne Vita | UncommonGoods

Through her exuberant illustrations, Adrienne Vita celebrates life, family, and friendship. “Coexisting” reminds us that, like giant polar bears and tiny birds, we all share the same planet, while the colorful family of cuddling wolves in “Close Knit” reminds us to hold on to those we love.

Feeling energized (and maybe a little mushy–in a good way) by Adrienne’s vibrant work, I couldn’t help but wonder where she brings her alluring animals to life. From across the country, the artist sent some positive vibes to Brooklyn in the form of her virtual studio tour. Although Adrienne mentioned that the sun was hidden behind clouds over Portland, Oregon when she held her photo shoot, this look inside her home-based workspace definitely brightened my day.

What are your most essential tools?
Brushes, pencils, pens, paper, an Exacto blade and music.

Where do you find inspiration within this space?
Well, my “space” includes a couple parts of my house. It started off as a logistical thing such as size of the rooms, hooking computers together with one router, etc. That became how and where I could set up my “spaces” to do my work. But I’ve grown to really like it this way over the years. Mainly, I share a computer “think tank” room with my husband (when he’s home) and have a drawing part in another small room. I like how when I draw; I don’t have the distraction of the computer or the business part of what I do because it’s in another room. Also, I use the basement for the really messy stuff, and sometimes move my work outside on the deck in the summer. It’s really nice to be able to switch it up.



Where does down time fit into a day in the studio?
Meditation time on my couch in the drawing part of my studio is a perfect way to recharge and get some moments of down time in between working.

How do you set goals for yourself?
I have a book where I write my goals but often refer to lots of colorful post-it notes and iCal for daily intricacies.

How and when do you decide to celebrate a victory?
Lot’s of dance parties! Coconut ice cream and treats are always a nice way too.


What quote keeps you motivated?
What does that quote mean to you? I have never read this book but I always liked the title so much – “Feel the Fear and do it Anyway”.

How do you recharge your creativity?
Traveling, visiting with nature, riding my bike, baking and of course dancing and singing! Basically, just doing things I enjoy that allow me to be creative and free in a different way.


What advice would you offer the you of 5 years ago?

Five years ago, I struck out on my own after working for various design companies for about 10 years. When I first started, I was worried about how I would make enough money and how I would stand out in a sea of talented artists. Basically losing sight of the big picture of the work I am here on this earth to do. Knowing what I know now, I would have told myself, “What you put out in the world is more than what you make or create. It’s about the connection with people, about the helping and healing that you give through your work that is important. That is why you make art. Do it in your own way and celebrate it.”