andrewlb notes

A twice monthly newsletter on design, theory, and other things.

Cover Image for Parasites, Symbiont, and the Scabs

Week Notes



  • Birthday!
  • Fine and dandy service design project
  • Customer interview and research work


  • Coaching
  • AOD
  • Denmark grant work


  • Hangout with Kevin!
  • Catchup with Thomas!
  • Catchup with Ryan!


  • Parents heading back to Canada, brother arriving this weekend

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Site Notes

Freaky Ven

Late last summer and in the fall, I was investing some time in relearning and updating my electronics skills. Like many, I'm pretty capable when it comes to arduino and pi projects, but had never gone beyond the perfboard stage. So I decided to learn how to design a PCB. This introduced the opportunity for a parasitic product.

The IKEA Frekvens (meaning Frequency) line of products was designed with Swedish music/design studio Teenage Engineering in 2018. Being a fan of TE (super unique opinion there), I was pretty smitten with these cheap and seemingly modular tools. So I grabbed a few. But like many, I ended up being pretty disappointed with one of the stars of the show: an audio responsive 16x16 LED matrix in a little cube. This product initially seemed fantastic. Surely it was set up to be easily hacked and modified...? Unfortunately no. The box itself was difficult to disassemble requiring some glue and potentially destructive removal of parts, and upon opening, a well considered LED board was attached to a relatively rudimentary circuit that held a small selection of animations.

Here's a picture for reference: the white board is the LED board, the green board is the PCB in question, and the black surface is where it was soldered onto the white board.

Instead of showing the live waveform of audio being played, for example, it showed a pre-animated waveform which saw the frame of the animation increment with a certain audio peak. So one might see the waveform advance in 4/4 time with the bass drum, for example.

The thing is: this board seemed to go counter to rest of the product line in question. Other parts of the Frekvens ecosystem were highly modular: for example, the speaker could be expanded with battery power, and could be attached to the lights with screw on parts. 3D printed extensions were also provided, so you could create some fairly unique daisy chained AV shows.

So I can only guess that the LED matrix decision was a cost cutting measure, or one tied to modification liability as IKEA wrestled with its internal approach to the IKEA Hacks phenomenon. (Small note: IKEA has been a consulting client in the past and I don't have any internal knowledge of their POV on this, but couldn't share it if I did)

This doesn't need to be the end of it, however.

Back when I was living in San Francisco, I was working on a project called the Decay of Digital Things which culminated in a course at the and a gallery show. Broadly speaking it was a look at how networked objects don't last. More specifically, I was mourning the death of the little printer, and trying to rationalize its demise against the tardigrade-like community projects like the Monome. (I think my current rationalization is that meme products don't last long, even with the best of intentions and no matter how utterly lovely they are).

But my evolved stance on this is that, well, they don't need to die. Do they?

Building a Parasite

When I started on my little parasitic product idea, my notion was pretty simple: can I create a board to simply replace that disappointing green rectangle that is shipped with? I ended up designing a pretty simple esp32 dev board that matched the footprint in KICad.

The above design doesn't actually FIT the footprint, so this version won't work. But the idea here is that this board could simply be soldered in place, and whatever animation or responsiveness you'd like could be programmed in as you come up with it. It would have the full array of LEDs available to it, as well as the onboard microphone and the empty slot for a photo-resistor (light sensing) that could be used as well.

Building like this was fun and I learned a lot, in particular thank to the feedback and advice from Tom Armitage and Danny Cellucci. It's also a project I'm planning on continuing, albeit pretty low on the priority list. Trying to build something that fit an ecosystem so directly (both this and the rehype plugin) has prompted some questions about how to frame these products.

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