Library Machines & Raspberry Pi

Since the Open House in December, Library Test Kitchen has been preparing to go on the road. In just a few weeks we’ll be heading to Austin, TX for South By Southwest Interactive. With a huge hand from the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, we’ve secured a spot right in the center of the action for LABRARY, a bike-powered pop-up library that will be open to the public .


In addition to a brand-new inflatable reading room (designed and built by Ben Brady and Arielle Assouline-Lichten), a couple of student projects from last semester are getting revised and will be featured at LABRARY. One that I’ve been helping out with is Object Lens, by LTK III students Carmine D’Alessandro and Kate Brown. Object Lens “allows users to capture video of their drawings, notes, and other two-dimensional or low-relief objects.” The act of looking is transformed through the device, which employs a series of internal mirrors to set the user’s field of view; Object Lens “defamiliarizes and reframes the user’s experience of the object, and gives him or her an opportunity to easily narrate and save that experience.” The project explores questions of what can and should be archived, how the physicality of an object can be communicated through digitization, and how information about an individual’s relationship to an object may be folded into the archiving process.

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The Open House prototype of Object Lens used an iPhone for the brainpower behind recording video and audio; the SXSW iteration will be powered by a Raspberry Pi, which I’m putting together to hook up to a redesigned and rebuilt device that Carmine and Kate are working on. This is my first real Raspi project, and the process has been much more about learning what is out there than it has been coding and wiring.

Raspberry Pi is a single board computer that costs $35 and is about the size of a smart phone. There are a number of microprocessor options out there (see herehere, and this chart for a solid comparison). I chose to use a Raspberry Pi because it excels at graphics processing and has a very active community — we’d like all of the LTK projects to be as fork-able* as possible, so having available community and resources was an important factor. All of the above platforms have a number of ports (HDMI, ethernet, USB, more), as well as all kinds of accessories you can plug in — motors, LCDs, GPS, motion sensors, to name just a few.

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After choosing the right platform, the setup itself was quite simple. The essential piece of hardware is the Raspberry Pi’s camera (which is a pretty competent little thing, check out some high altitude ballooning). My Pi is running Debian and uses the picamera Python library. The program basically just records 30 seconds of video at the press of a button, using single LEDs within the Object Lens field of view as a non-intrusive countdown display. And that’s about it! Next step is getting everything to fit safe and sound inside Object Lens V2.0.

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*Forking is actively used in the open-source community. When a developer finds a code base that they want to use as a starting point for their own project, they “fork” it, copying the code and starting a new branch. We’d like to foster the same sort of sharing and building-off one another’s work with LTK projects by making them as easy as possible to copy, riff, and remix. Check out Fork the Cookbook to see the same principle applied to recipes.