Art 511: Sensor Based Events / Physical Computing/ Electronics Syllabus

(Listed in Schedule as Electronics and Robotics) 

***Note - subject to change**

Spring, 2009 Tu-Th 7-10
 Professor Stephen Wilson
 539  (Fine Art Annex) phone:  338-2291
 More information about Conceptual Information Arts (CIA) Program (

Teaching Assistant:  Andrew Brammer 

*Note on class meeting time.  Since there are conflicts with graduate seminars and advanced CIA courses, the Thursday night time might be adjusted after the first week  pending discussion with members of the class.)

Web Resources:

Class Syllabus  (this document)  -
Class Schedule & Assignments -
Electronics, Arduino Resources -
Books & Articles on interactivity, physical computing, tangible interfaces, ubiquitous, etc -
Research in ubiquitous computing -
CIA Forum - jobs, events  -

Eric Caselton - You Tube Documentation of Final Projects (May,2009)

2009 Class wiki-    (must join via invitation)

old class wiki - description of 2007 projects, artists


Hands-on studio course to introduce students to techniques and aesthetics of creating experimental art/media events and installations based on technologies of electronics, sensors and control of devices. In both the art and research worlds dissatisfaction is growing with the limitations of the mouse and keyboard as computer interfaces. New technologies enable sensing of motion, location, and gesture... Similarly new paradigms of ubiquitous computing are exploring the possibilities of activated spaces in which objects are endowed with intelligence, communication, and responsiveness.

This course will survey previous artistic work that investigates these conceptual spaces Familiarity with computing, interactive media, Director, and electronics will be useful but not required.

The course will use the Arduino microcontroller board both as a self contained microcontroller (a mini computer capable of running interactive events)  and as an interface board for computers.  The Arduino is an open source, cross platform,  inexpensive hardware platform being supported around the world by artists and others interested in experimental media and interfaces.  (  Each student will be given an arduino board and prototyping kit to use during the semester so they will be able to work at home.   Consent of Instructor required.  No background in electronics required.

Course Objectives

Art & Physical Computing
Skills in Electronics, microcontrollers, and computer interfacing

**Limits on what can be taught:   Note the course cannot offer a full introduction to electronics and microcontroller programming  in addition to all of its other objectives.  Students will be urged to design events within the realities of the semester and the facilities.  For example, students will not be able to learn advanced kinetics and robotics although through clever use of found objects such as toys and appliances they may be able to achieve desired effects.  Similarly, students will not be able to learn full interactive media programming environments such as Director or Max/Jitter although enough Director skills will be taught to enable students with minimal prior exposure to create events.  The course cannot teach full Director skills.  Since the Arduino board allows serial communication, students will be able to use any programming environment they are comfortable with (eg Max/Jitter or Processing) although the course cannot offer depth support to these environments.   Students will be expected to tailor their art works to the realities of what they know and what can be taught within the limits of the course

Office Hours:

 Tuesdays & Thursdays 12-2  (Best to confirm by phone)

Course Requirements:

(**Note**  In CIA classes as much is learned from study and critical reflection on other's work as is learned from completion of one's own work.  This course places highest priority  on being present at class presentations of student work. Unexcused absence will not be accepted.  Even if you have not finished an assignment,, you must attend so you can see others work.  There is no way to make up the critique and analysis of seeing student work.)


Class Fee, Experimentor Kit, and Care of Shared Supplies

There is a class lab fee of $40.  Each student will be loaned a CIA Experimentor's Kit which will allow experimentation with the topics of the course without reliance on the class lab environment.  There is over $130 worth of equipment and supplies in the kit.  Each student will be required to return the kit (minus the use of expendables) in good condition at the end of the semester.  If the student loses or breaks equipment, they will be expectred to buy replacement parts.  Proof of lab fee payment will be required in order to obtain the kit.  Once the class is over a certain number of these kits will be made available for student check out if a monitoring system can be developed.

The experimentor kit's main equipment (that must be returned) includes:  Arduino board, USB cable, solderless breadboard, variable power supply, needle nose plier, wire stripper, alligator clips,  multimeter, and plastic carrying case.  It also includes an expendable packet of componets (resistors, leds, transistors, hookup wire, photocells, relay, etc)
experimentor kit image

In addition the class will offer access to additional shared tools and components.  These supplies can easily be lost and mistreated.  All students will be expected to help maintain the viability of these supplies - for example, cleaning up after lab sessions, putting things back in their place, systematically labeling things thought to be malfunctioning.

Most students will develop projects that will require purchase of additional supplies.  Plan on spending $20-50 for specialized supplies during the semester.


The class will be taught in accordance with mastery approach.  All students will be expected to learn the basic competencies of the course.  Students  will be expected to put in whatever time and effort that is required to learn those basic skills.  A student who is not meeting those requiements will be urged to drop the course.  An A will require extra effort over and beyond the requirements of the course (that is, an extra project and reading extra course related materials.)

Probation, Diabilities

Acadmic Probation
If you are on academic probation, make an appointment as soon as possible to work out what you need to do to meet the terms of your probation.

American with Disabilities Act (ADA) Accomodation
The Disability Programs andResource Center provides university academic support services and specialized assistance to students with disabilities. Stiudents with disabilities who need reasonable accommodatons are encouraged to contact the instructor.  The Disability Programs and Resource Center (DPRC)  is available to facilitate the reasonable accommodations process.  The DPRC is located in the Student Service Building and can be reached by telephone (voice/TTY 415-338-2472) or by email (

Health & Safety

Working with computers and electronic devices poses certain hazards to muscles, sight, posture.  Students need to be aware of these dangers and the precautions that can be taken.  Please consult the CIA safety guidelines.
CIA health and safety guide

Special Issues with Electronics
Electricity and electronics have some dangers associated with them - for example, electrocution, toxic materials.  Students will be taught safe procedures.  Most of the course will concentrate on low voltage electronics which generally will not do much damage.  110 v AC (wall plug current)  on the other hand can be quite dangerous.  Students may not work on 110v projects unless they are cleared by the professor or graduate assistant.  Any student working on these kind of projects without clearance or other unsafe processes may be asked to withdraw from the course.

Safety guidelines for working with electronics

Personal safety:

Equipment safety:
Additional resources

rev 2/16/09