Worknotes for March 2021: 'What is this prototype for?'23 March 2021
Last week I sent all the files necessary to build the first draft at my Ilkley prototype to China. That means the plotting files to make the circuit boards, the list of all the components on them, the positions of all the components. The factory’s going to make the circuit boards and attach most of the components for me.
This is good, because many of the components are tiny.
The Ilkley prototype is on two boards: a ‘brain’ board that contains the microcontroller and almost all the electronics, and a separate ‘control’ board that is just some IO and inputs - knobs, buttons. I am focusing on the brain right now: its “revision A” board is the right size and shape to go in our housing; the current prototype of the control board is just designed to sit on my desk.
About six hours after I sent it all off, I got an email: I’d designed around the wrong sized part. (I’d picked a 3mmx3mm QFN part instead of a 4mm square part, because that’s what had been auto-selected by the component library). This meant they couldn’t place the part on the board: it wouldn’t fit.
“Should we ignore the part and go ahead with assembly?”
At this point blood rushes to my head. That part is one of the reasons I’m not building it myself: it’s not really possibly to attach with a soldering iron, and I don’t have a better tool available at home. So maybe I should quickly redesign around the right part? I hammered out a new design in Kicad.
But now I’d have to send new files, new placements over, and probably start the order again. This was going to add delays, might not even be accepted by the fabricator, and so on.
At this point, I took a step back, and had a cup of tea.
Over said tea, I made myself answer the question: what was this prototype for?
Was it only to test the functionality of that single chip that couldn’t be placed? The answer, of course, was no. There were lots of things it evaluated, and lots of things that could still be evaluated:
- many other sub-circuits - notably, a battery charger, a second amplifier, a mixer
- the integration with the ‘control board’ and the feasibility of my ribbon-cable prototype
- how several parts ended up being fitted, which the fabricator has not used for me before
- the fit/finish inside our final enclosure
- not to mention whether I’d made any other mistakes on the board.
So far on Ilkley, we have been lucky: every single first revision of our hardware’s worked. This doesn’t mean we’re brilliant at everything; it means nothing more than that we’re in credit with the gods of hardware. Something will go wrong at some point - that’s what
revision Bis for. All that had happened was I’d hit my first big snag.
Prototypes aren’t about answering every question, but they’re rarely also about answering one. I usually teach people to scope them by being able to answer the question what is being prototyped here? - the goal being to understand what’s in scope and what is not. Temporarily, in the panic of a 4am email from China, I forgot to answer that question myself. It was good to be reminded how many variables were at play in that Revision A, if only to acknowledge how many things I have going on with that board.
I wrote back to the factory; ignore the part and proceed. We’d still learn a lot from the prototype, and revision B would contain, at a minimum, a new footprint for that 4mm QFN chip. I saved the hasty changes I’d made to the circuit board after the email in a new branch called
revision_b- which I’d return to working on once the final boards arrived.
Weeks 391-393: Props and Prototypes20 July 2020
I wrapped up phase two of Easington. We completed the beta of our interactive game-like thing that we built to explain the output of that phase. The prototype evolved a lot during the phase. Probably the best thing that happened as it progressed was that things I’d initially described in text were extracted to state. That is to say, we made it more gamelike: rather than describing other possible outcomes of an action, why not find a way of letting the user alter the state of the world, and then see what happens when they repeat the action?
It sounds obvious when I write it down, but when I’m head down in the code, it is sometimes hard to have that high-level picture. This is one of the values of weeknotes: acknowledging what I missed, and writing it down so I don’t forget. Making the prototype more interactive - adding new interactions, and making it respond more richly to them, turned out to be the right answer every time. Something to remember for the future.
This phase of the project has had me thinking a lot about propmaking, and its relationship to protoyping.
Props in films aren’t just one thing. Think about a prop like, say, a lightsaber from Star Wars. A single prop lightsaber will likely exist in several forms, including:
- a “hero” prop, that’s seen in close dramatic scenes. Made of realistic materials (metal, plastic, wood), full size, detailed. Something an actor can act with, and respond to. Something that will look good on camera.
- perhaps: further hero props in different states: with the blade extended and retracted, for instance, or “damaged” and “undamaged”.
- perhaps a separate functional hero prop for specific purposes. Imagine a close-up scene where we see the hero dismantling their lightsaber and repairing it: that “dismantalable” prop might be entirely different to the hero prop seen most of the time. (It might even be a partial prop - just the parts you can see in shot, and extra things to make it work also attached)
- stunt props. These look almost identical to hero props, but are usually made entirely of foam rubber, and cast from the hero prop. These are used, as the name suggests, for stunts, where the object might be bashed around, or come into contact with an actor at velocity. They also end up being used for scenes where there’s any rough handling of a prop that might damage the prop itself - being thrown, or dropped, for instance. And frequently rubber props will used for background action, made en masse to give to extras, or used when the hero prop isn’t strictly necessary - when the lightsaber is hanging from the hero’s belt in a scene where it’s not really used, for instance.
- once upon a time, props might have existed as scale models - a miniature lightsaber on a stop-motion puppet, for instance. Scale models tend to be more common for large objects, like vehicles or buildings.
- the modern equivalent of a scale model prop is a CG version of it, to be used in computer-generated visual effects. The prop has a digital double, perhaps made from a 3D scan of the object.
And for some of those props, on a large film shoot, there will be duplicates and spares.
I’ve been thinking about the way one prop exists in multiple forms, and the different roles they all serve, because of all the different kinds of prototype I’ve built so far on Easington.
And all of those prototypes are very, very different.
- Our working code makes a useful point about the current state of things, and lets other people explore the idea. But it’s not in any way production ready, and it falls apart a little if you don’t use it the way it’s intended. That’s our close-up, working-for-one-task prop.
- Our clickable mockups are like stunt props: they look highly convincing, fulfill a hugely important role, are highly robust, but the second you touch one you’ll discover it’s fake.
- Our video and audio demos are a lot like CG: entirely convincing, we can do whatever we want with them, but 100% fake - and not even interactive.
- Our interactive gamelike is a bit like a scale model: it has not just look/feel but logic as well, albeit in a highly constrained and limited way. It makes sense in its own little pocket universe.
Like props, none of these are exactly ‘real’, and none of them work outside the world of the project. But they all serve useful purposes, and like all the different prop lightsabers, they all work together to tell our story. Our scale models, clickable mockups and VFX are made convincing by the fact we’ve also shown genuine, working code, but in a rougher form. And they wouldn’t have the same impact if we didn’t have that “close-up” prototype.
The mockups and scale models help us invent and imagine, and help people using them imagine how the fragile working code might feel in the world, and in the near future.
The other thing I find useful about enumerating the different types of prototype we’re making is it helps me understand what their individual value is - and when they might be considered “done”. Because they’re all fulfilling different roles, they have different completion criteria. Some need to look very good; some need to function correctly; some need to be somewhere in the middle. Understanding what the prototype is trying to achieve in terms of its role, not just its functionality, helps me think about the right material to build it out of, the right level of detail to furnish it with, and when to put it down and move onto a different kind of prototype.