7/17/2014– Kelsey Breseman
unRob, or Roberto Hidalgo, accepted my Skype call from his home/office/headquarters in Mexico. He leaned back on his office chair, put on his round glasses, and lit a cigarette. He was full of words, ideas, and inspirations – turning the camera so I could see electrical diagrams he’d convinced a friend to draw for him on the whiteboard wall, or pulling out a simple case he’d put together for a Tessel project. A couple of times, he called offscreen in Spanish to his business partner/friend/roommate for clarifications on an English phrase or a little fact.
I asked Roberto for an interview because he has impressed all of us at Technical Machine with the many simple but brilliant projects he’s already built with a Tessel and limited electrical expertise. If you haven’t seen his projects, you should check out his YouTube channel.
Kelsey: What’s your background in engineering?
Rob: My father was an electrical engineer. The first node of internet in Mexico, he plugged it in. So I grew up with that kind of stuff when I was really young. And I liked computers.
I got into a program on genomics, but I didn’t go, so I decided to do graphic design. But then I didn’t like school, so I dropped out, and here I am.
Kelsey: I saw that you have a cool domain name as the Surrealist Party– what is it that you do?
Rob: We do software. We’ve done all kinds of stuff. We have clients that are newspaper organizations and shit and we do their frontend and their backend. For web we do Node and Ruby. Most of our backend is MongoDB and stuff like that.
It’s just my partner and me, just the two of us. We’ve been doing this for four years.
The only time we used hardware, we developed a little box that you connect HDMI, you push a button, and it automatically transmits to the internet as live video streaming. That was pretty much the only experience I’ve had in hardware so far.
Kelsey: How did you make that?
Rob: It was just, like, we used an Arduino, and it had a couple of functions. One was to start up the system, because we had an embedded computer, and then we had to control the flow– to transmit, and to get feedback to the operator about the transmission quality and stuff like that.
We ended up doing most of that as a Node.JS server, with johnny-five, and then just communicating through the Arduino.
It was fucking complicated. You have to do stuff in C, and then the drivers don’t work. I actually contributed a couple of patches to the serial node thing to make it work.
Researching that project is how I came to know about Tessel, actually. I thought, it would be easier if I could just skip C and all of the layers behind it. So here we are.
Kelsey: Did you have something in mind to make when you ordered a Tessel?
Rob: Yeah. The first thing I made was– here’s the thing. The elevator in my building goes straight to my house. The keys for this fucking elevator are like eighty bucks. So I thought, maybe I could hack a wireless telephone at the base to make the elevator go. This is me not knowing shit about electronics.
So I just opened the elevator up, and I thought it could work. I could trigger a USB to serial port thing, I could trigger the locate button, then have the handset send the signal to the elevator button and call the elevator up.
The problem with this is that I can’t let my landlord see this. If he comes one day and there’s just wires coming out of the elevator button…
I thought it would be great if I could skip the base, skip the radio protocol, and just use WiFi. So I started researching that.
I wanted an embedded computer that could run a web server and talk through Wifi, and be able to be powered by a small battery. Tessel was just the perfect fit.
Kelsey: So this elevator– it doesn’t go to anyone else’s apartments?
Rob: It can, if you short the right pins, I can get the elevator to go to my neighbors’ houses. But we usually just call it for ourselves.
We developed a telephone to IP, so I made a node module that handles calls. The lady that helps us clean the place, she doesn’t have a smartphone, and we don’t give her keys because they’re so expensive. That was one of the use cases. She just calls this number, lets it ring a couple of times, and then the elevator comes.
I use it sometimes when I’m drunk and I can’t find the keys.
It’s a lot of fun.
The day I got it, my partner was in Brazil for the World Cup. I had a ridiculous amount of work that I needed to do, but I just said fuck it, Tessel is here, and spent six straight hours doing research trying to fix the elevator button I’d burned out, and then I made the Tessel call the elevator.
In that six hours, I was really excited, that’s when I posted the video [Ed. note: this video].
If I knew shit about electronics, I could probably do it in half an hour. Six hours is okay. It was like 5am on a Friday night.
Kelsey: So what else are you planning to make?
Rob: A friend of mine, an electrical engineer, has been teaching me to do bridges. What I’m trying to do now is build a theremin. I did something kind of like that with graphite [Ed. note: this].
My roommate, my partner, he’s very annoyed with me for making these noises.
I actually want to embed a Tessel into a guitar pedal. My guitar broke three weeks ago. I was very sad. So I bought another guitar, an electro-acoustic. I thought maybe I could do a pedal with it, and modify the effects through Tessel and through my phone.
It’s easier to just push a button with your phone than to lean down and mess with knobs.
That’s what I want to do with the Tessel for now.
There’s lots of stuff I’ve been thinking about doing, but I want to know more about how the actual components work.
I’ve enlisted most of my friends to have an electronics playdate. They’re coming in a couple of weeks to teach me stuff. Maybe something good will come out of it.
Kelsey: It’s cool that you’re poking into the electrical side of things.
Rob: Since I was little I always took stuff apart. One time I took apart the washing machine, because I wanted to know how it worked. I got electrocuted, and after that time I was scared about electricity and stuff.
It’s very frustrating. That’s the thing I like about knowing what the software thing does. If you use C and you have to take into account all the memory manipulations, and weird loops, and re-use somebody else’s code, then it’s scary and it’s frustrating, and you don’t do it.
That’s something interesting.
It makes hardware accessible for people like me who are stupid about electrical stuff.
I know my way around software, and I know how to make things talk to each other, but the actual physical part of it is mind-boggling for me.
The thing that I enjoyed the most was Wifi, built in. It’s ridiculous: the expense of an Arduino, plus a Wifi shield, you have to know stuff. My Wifi network is secure enough for this kind of purpose.
If I used straight radio, anyone within a 300 meter radius could open my elevator. This thing, they just need to know my Wifi network, and my password, and how to talk to it. It’s much more useful in certain cases.
For prototyping, this is the best thing I’ve ever encountered.
My electrical engineer friends, they tell me, I could do that probably in a couple of months. I tell them, yeah, you could do that in a couple of months, with a team of probably fifty people. You could do that for a much bigger expense than– what’s a Tessel? Ninety-nine dollars?
If you don’t want to spend a lot of time thinking about the implementation, but just hacking the idea, this is a great tool.
You guys made a really great thing. It has made me– you have no idea– very happy.
The satisfaction of doing software, and having things move from one side of the screen to the other is immense, for people who like those kinds of things to happen, like myself. But when you translate that to the physical world, it’s just like, you revert back to when you’re six years old and you figure out that you can plug a light bulb straight into the socket, and it will work, and it will do stuff.
Probably it will contribute to changing the culture: we’re not just programming for programming’s sake, but we’re creating stuff, making, building stuff, that’s something interesting. And it’s a lot of fun.