Instead of using a typical rectangular board with arrays of pinholes drilled into the surface and underlying metal connections, electronics products designers could use so-called CurveBoards as developed by MIT researchers to get a more realistic physical interaction with their prototype, while conserving the possibility to modify and test their circuits directly onto an approximation of the end product’s form factor.
In a paper being presented at CHI (Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems), the researchers describe their CurveBoards as 3D-printed objects with the structure and function of a breadboard integrated onto their surfaces. Custom software automatically designs the objects, complete with distributed pinholes that can be filled with conductive silicone to test electronics. The end products are accurate representations of the real thing, but with breadboard surfaces.
“On breadboards, you prototype the function of a circuit. But you don’t have context of its form — how the electronics will be used in a real-world prototype environment,” explains first author Junyi Zhu, a graduate student in the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). “Our idea is to fill this gap, and merge form and function testing in very early stage of prototyping an object. CurveBoards essentially add an additional axis to the existing [three-dimensional] XYZ axes of the object — the ‘function’ axis.”
A core component of the CurveBoard is custom design-editing software. Users import a 3D model of an object. Then, they select the command “generate pinholes,” and the software automatically maps all pinholes uniformly across the object. Users then choose automatic or manual layouts for connectivity channels. The automatic option lets users explore a different layout of connections across all pinholes with the click of a button. For manual layouts, interactive tools can be used to select groups of pinholes and indicate the type of connection between them. The final design is exported to a file for 3D printing.
To validate the CurveBoards, the researchers printed a variety of smart products including headphones, smart bracelets and watches, Frisbees, helmets, headphones, a teapot, and a flexible, wearable e-reader. Preliminary user feedback hints that prototyping with the CurveBoard was overall faster and easier. Right now, a new CurveBoard must built for each new object. Ready-made templates, however, would let designers quickly experiment with basic circuits and user interaction, before designing their specific CurveBoard.
Additionally, the researchers want to move some early-stage prototyping steps entirely to the software side. The idea is that people can design and test circuits and possibly user interaction entirely on the 3D model generated by the software. After many iterations, they can 3D print a more finalized CurveBoard. “That way you’ll know exactly how it’ll work in the real world, enabling fast prototyping,” Zhu says. “That would be a more ‘high-fidelity’ step for prototyping.”
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