Roth Mobot: Circuit Bending for All

by Tinc Mag
January 28, 2011
Terrence Flamm

Roth Mobot founders Tommy Stephenson and Patrick McCarthy are well known within the tech community for their expertise in ‘circuit bending.’ Also known as ‘hacking,’ it’s a technique that involves rewiring discarded items and finding imaginative new uses for them. In the case of Roth Mobot, this often results in toys that are capable of playing music. At first glance, these bizarre instruments might seem like the jingtinglers and floobfloobers from The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, but they demonstrate the possibilities of circuit bending. Roth Mobot has been performing at theaters, galleries, and clubs since 2005. There are many non-musical benefits of circuit bending as well.

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“The bending/hacking community is very strong and growing,” McCarthy explained during a recent email interview. “Unlike most movements in art, benders/hackers are intent upon teaching and empowering individuals that often get swallowed by mega culture.” To that end, Roth Mobot offers a free weekly experimental electronics symposium at the Old Town School of Folk Music that draws visitors from across the country. They have worked on a wide range of projects involving bikes, fashion, and gardening. One student used circuit bending to design lamps, and according to McCarthy, it’s even possible hack a cocktail. As to our suggestion of patching together a remote control car and a clock to make a car that moves every hour, McCarthy felt it was entirely possible.

“The result would probably be a charming Rube Goldberg solution,” he responded. “Involving not only electronics, but physical devices constructed out of common items [like] large wooden spoons, bricks, coat hangers, etc.”

So, how does a non-tech person catch on to the way circuit bending works? Just think of electronic equipment as LEGO pieces, where the hacker plugs one old electronic thing into another, along with a piece in the middle, called a microprocessor, and voila, the technical equivalent of a hybrid plant: your Elmo clock is a psychedelic noise instrument.  These simple toys converted to electronic musical instruments are an excellent entry point, simpler than patching together a Wii and a hospital bed in an attempt to make a virtual reality machine.

  Assembling

“I personally have been working on deprogramming the ‘I'm not smart enough’ mind set that is so rampant in this country,” McCarty declared. In addition to its fun and creative aspects, circuit bending helps the environment by recycling materials that would otherwise become landfill. “That is our specialty. We are entering the sixth year of our quest to de-mystify electronics and empower individuals to do more with recycling than merely ‘putting stuff in the right colored bin.’”

While preaching the gospel of taking a responsible path to advanced technology, McCarthy and Stephenson have established close ties with bending/hacking communities in England, Russia, and South America. In 2010, Roth Mobot was nominated for an award in the “Digital Communities” category at Prix Ars Electronica, an international competition for projects that bring together art, technology, and society. McCarthy invited Toy Death, a circuit bending trio from Australia, to spend a night in his apartment in February during their first U.S. tour, even though he has never actually met them in person.


Roth Mobot has also become increasingly involved with the Arduino community, which McCarthy views as running parallel, and sometimes intersecting with benders and hackers. Arduino is an open-source electronics platform that enables artists and designers to create interactive objects and environments (open source microprocessors have been done before, but this brand is optimized for tinkering and provides extremely user-friendly in its documentation).  Last May, when Roth Mobot was invited to visit the Chicago offices of Inventables to discuss recent crossovers of technology and creativity, McCarthy and Stephenson used an Arduino to devise an interface between the Internet and a circuit bent toy.

Roth Mobot sees numerous possibilities as circuit bending expands its global base. Recent examples include hackers using circuit bending to alter video equipment, cameras, and almost any electric device, allowing users to create new products and functionality based on the parts of equipment they have. These garage innovations and crowdsourced improvements are bound only by creativity, and could even change entertainment fields such as theater and puppetry.


“There is no ‘wrong way’ of bending/hacking,” McCarthy said, while adding that safety measures should always be taken. “Bending/hacking is rife with ‘constructive failure.’ Not only do we accomplish the challenge put forth, we also germinate new unforeseen ideas along the way, usually resulting in multiple solutions that are far more elegant than the one which we had originally envisioned. We have yet to meet a challenge we didn’t like.”

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