Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab
Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab

INFO 490 Final Project – IoT Air Freshener

Question 1: After rereading your studio assignment write-ups, what is the most significant thing you have learned over the course of these assignments? This is not a question about tool learning, but rather a question about yourself as a learner.

I don’t think I necessarily learned much about myself in the way of being a learner, so I’ll try to answer this question from a different perspective. The most significant thing I’ve learned about myself is that, for lack of better phrasing, “I’ve still got it”.

For a bit of background, I first got interested in “making” around 8-10 years in middle school, after stumbling onto KipKay on YouTube one day. Very quickly, I became obsessed with the “maker movement”, and got a subscription to Make: Magazine along with a bunch of tools to start working on projects. I got so engulfed in this that I started to spend more time sitting in my “workshop” in the basement than at my desk doing my homework. It was some of the best times that I had ever experienced, because I finally found something that I enjoyed enough that I actually wanted to throw countless hours into.

Unfortunately, due to an increase in the pace of academics and a lack of support from those close to me, I slowly started to shy away from anything “maker” related, and started pouring my hours into video games and school. Not that there’s anything wrong with playing video games – hell I would love to just sit down and play Skyrim for entire days – but it was more just mind numbing entertainment and nothing intellectually stimulating (and I think it goes without saying that school was nothing appealing). From that point on I had a sour taste in my mouth about “making” because, as I had heard multiple times, I kept thinking “what’s the point?” and “when will you make something useful?”

Since then I had struggled to find something that I found as engaging or appealing, and just kind of floated onward through high school and college. In college I’m finally taking classes that appeal to me, but at the end of the day it’s still a chore. Thankfully, by some stroke of luck, one of my group members for a class said that she’s taking a class called “INFO 490” which is all about doing cool things at the Fab Lab. I immediately jumped on the opportunity – since hearing about the Fab Lab my freshman year I’ve been meaning to spend more time there, but could never afford the time commitment. By forcing myself to “make” for a class, I figured I could re-kindle the creativity and motivation that I had lost many years ago, which is exactly what I was missing this whole time.

From the first day of class it was like I never stopped “making” in the first place. The second we were tasked with designing a name tag using the laser cutter, I was incredibly obsessed, and couldn’t wait for the next time I’d be back at the Fab Lab. Instead of fantasizing what it may be to use tools like 3D printers, I was getting “forced” to use a 3D printer. I’ve even been able to spread the knowledge I got from this class; my mom has been wanting to get a sewing machine for the longest time but has hesitated since she didn’t know how to use one – thanks to this class I was able to teach her how to use one. It was reinvigorating – I was finally able to find what I liked the most.

As is evidenced by the quality and level of detail in my projects, I took this class very seriously. Whether it’s the very first name tag I made with a couple RGB LEDs, staying at the Fab Lab with Duncan until 1 in the morning to make sure my soft circuit pouch came out perfect, or my iteration assignment name tag which had a full blown LCD with an interactive menu, I made sure to put 110% into each project and making everything as useful as possible. Even though I ended up falling into the same trap of spending more time on “making” than my studies, it was easily justified since “making” was part of my studies. This was by far my #1 favorite class I’ve taken at this university, and I’m beyond grateful that the Fab Lab exists and that I was presented this opportunity.

Even though it’s been 8 years, I’ve still got it – that’s my biggest takeaway from this class.

 

Question 2: What did you make for your final project? This is less a question and more where I would like to see at least 2 in-process photos and 2 final photos/videos of your final project.

For my final project, I made an IoT enabled air freshener designed to work with Amazon Alexa.

Cracking this bad boy open!

Removing the battery holder to make room for the microcontroller.

Made a custom USB-B to MicroB adapter!

Some more electronics for controlling the button press.

Finished! “Alexa, freshen the room!”

View from the back, pretty sleek!

Most of the process went by fairly smoothly. I initially planned on having a 3D printed enclosure for the microcontroller along with a custom circuit board for any extraneous electronics I would need, but thankfully everything was much simpler than I imagined it would be and that ended up being unnecessary. Any issues I had with the project were easily addressed by the staff at the Fab Lab – most specifically Andrew and Brandon since they had the most experience in these types of things.

 

Question 3: What were your learning goals for your final project? Write at least one paragraph per learning goal about what you hoped to learn as you worked on this final project and what you actually learned.

My learning goals were as follows:

  1. Focus more on iteration during the making process
  2. Learn how to use Amazon Web Services (AWS, the service for interacting with Alexa devices)
  3. Get more comfortable with CAD modeling and 3D printing
  4. Learn how to mill custom circuit boards (PCBs) using the CNC milling machines

Goals 1 and 2 were my main learning goals, with goals 3 and 4 were minor goals (and ultimately unnecessary/not used, given the unexpected simplicity of the electronics).

Regarding my focus on iteration, I was able to attain this goal to a certain degree. Apart from the software aspect, there weren’t many opportunities to iterate in this project, so I didn’t get to as much iteration as I would have liked. I originally thought I’d be doing some more “rapid prototyping” since I was expecting to use 3D printing and PCB milling, however as I mentioned the electronics were unexpectedly simple and didn’t require either of these processes. The way I see myself “iterating” in this assignment is that I was first able to get the core functionality of the software working via a “backdoor” hack on the microcontroller. I see this as an iteration because it was a functional product and a “stop gap” on my way to the final project – the essence of iteration at its core. Regardless, even though I was able to iterate, I don’t think I was able to iterate the way I wanted to, with multiple versions of 3D prints or PCBs made through the process.

My second goal, learning AWS, was also only met to a certain degree. During the initial brainstorming and research that went into this project, it seemed that this would be a fairly simple project, requiring only a couple AWS services to get to work. However, during the development of the project, a bunch of minor discrepancies kept popping up that were specific to just my project. Thankfully Brandon at the Fab Lab has had a lot of experience with AWS, specifically with IoT devices, so I was able to make use of his knowledge and advice. The AWS framework that I needed to develop kept getting more and more complicated and eventually it got the best of both of us, which left me delving into territories not even Brandon knew about. Ultimately this left me unable to complete my project, which is a little devastating. The silver lining is that I was still able to learn a lot about AWS that will undoubtedly benefit me more in the future, I just wasn’t able to learn enough to get this air freshener to work.

Final thoughts on the process: I’m fairly content with this project as a whole, even though it ultimately doesn’t work. I know for a fact that the software on the microcontroller is correct, the modified air freshener module still functions properly, and most of the AWS works properly – this can easily be a pet project that I work on in my spare time to get more familiar with AWS. This project means a lot to me because I’ve had this idea for a while now, and finally being able to see it come to fruition is really awesome. Obviously it’d be more meaningful if it actually worked, but that’s not all that matters (though it’s a major component). I guess an unexpected learning goal from all this is that I pushed myself far enough that I failed, but still learned a lot from it.

 

Question 4: Do you consider yourself a maker and what does that mean to you now that it didn’t at the beginning of the semester?

As I mentioned earlier, I considered myself a “maker” at some point in the past, but that was almost 10 years ago. Since then, I think that the “maker movement” has changed, and I don’t think that “maker” is the best term to describe myself.

At the start of the semester, my definition for “maker” was pretty much the purest definition of the term – someone who “makes”. More specifically though, the term refers to anyone that had some type of niche, creative and “creating” hobby they partook in. Famous examples would be people like Bre Pettis, Ben Heckendorn, and the aforementioned KipKay – a quick Google search should clarify who all these people are in case it’s not clear. This is more or less what I aligned myself to; I liked to work with electronics and power tools, and I was overall a very creative person. So, naturally I aligned myself to the “maker” philosophy.

Throughout the course of this semester, it’s become apparent that the “maker movement” has become something that is more than just “making”. The way I see it, the “maker movement” also encompasses societal themes, such as justice and inclusiveness. We’ve seen many examples of this new take on the “maker movement” throughout the semester, whether it’s the Urbana Makerspace being very welcoming to transgender people or the Dustduino collecting data regarding poor air quality. It’s become more than just creating a gumball machine that works when you knock a specific pattern. I’m not saying this is necessarily a bad thing – it’s just the way the “maker movement” has changed in my perspective.

As a result of these changes, I don’t think I fully align myself as a “maker” anymore. Again, don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with the current state of the maker movement; social justice is a very important topic, but that’s not what I see in myself as a “maker”. I just want to make name tags with LCD screens and air fresheners connected to my Amazon Echo Dot, without getting boxed in and labeled with a specific word. These are just my thoughts, and it’s ultimately going to vary person to person as to how they define the term “maker”, and some people might even label me a “maker”, but from my understanding it’s not the proper label for me. Maybe “tinkerer” would be more apt – can we get the ball rolling on that? (lol)