The Maker’s Lab 2022/2023 Journal #2 – Back to the keyboard

by fingerplayers

This journal is an entry in The Maker’s Lab series. Click here to read the previous entries.

Co-ADs Ellison Tan and Myra Loke with maker Marilyn Ang

In the last few months, as we grappled with messy materials (read on to find out which), winding explorations of tactility and ephemerality, existentialism and the peaks of COVID-19 waves, our hands have left the keyboard. But we are back and will endeavour to share our entire process with you over the next few entries!

At the end of our first entry, I left you with my introductory encounters with the ideas of digital technology and tactility. In the weeks after, I decided to continue exploring two aspects:

  • The first – Playtronica and what it has to offer in its ability to create tactile experiences of sound
  • The second – 9 materials (of our inclinations), how we encounter them, and whether we could connect any Playtronica systems to them.
Timeline of Exploration


Playtronica is a manufacturer, studio and collective working to create interactive experiences through sound. Many of the projects from Playtronica involve bringing the human touch into the creation of sound. For example, by connecting their systems to fruits and turning them into musical instruments.

The system, in particular, that I explored is the Playtron. Playtron is a MIDI (musical instrument digital interface) controller that uses electrical currents to create sound. The system comes with 2 negative nodes and 16 positive nodes. The user is anchored to one of the 2 negative points while any of the other 16 positive nodes can be connected to a conductive material (eg. water, a metal spoon or a stapler). When the user then touches the material with a body part, the circuit is closed and a signal is sent to the computer. As each of the 16 positive nodes sends a different MIDI signal to a computer software, we can then interpret the signals and generate different sounds.

Playtron connected to 7 different nodes via crocodile clips
Playtron connected to Ellison’s (the user) arm via a sticky pad as she interacts with the material


The materials that interested us were ones that would undergo a transformation or change when left alone or in our interaction with them. Their transformative nature made them at the same time ephemeral yet tangible.

The 9 materials that we looked at were:

  • Kinetic Sand – In its changing states, it can be “solid” when compacted, and breaks apart with the slightest touch. it also evokes a sense of nostalgia. The texture is calming and induces a feeling of relief. It also does not stick to your hands or leave any residue. There is a kind of sense memory when playing with kinetic sand that harkens back to when you were a child at the beach. Enjoying the sand between your fingers brings back a kind of childish wonder as the kinetic sand can be shaped and moulded into different things. 
  • Fruit / vegetable – It is quick to decompose, and is easily available. It is an essential item for sustaining life, and yet often bought and thrown away because it’s neglected and left to rot in the fridge. 
  • Green wood – Wood is as natural a material as we can get. Green wood is wood that has just been cut and has not had the opportunity to age or dry out unlike commercially sourced wood that has been cured by allowing it to dry over time or dried forcibly by going through a fire kiln. 
  • Gel wax – Gel wax unlike Paraffin wax is jelly-like in consistency and is made of mineral oils and polymer resin. It is transparent until you add a colouring agent. There is sense of wanting to touch something of a jelly consistency as it induces a sense of fun and childlike behaviour. 
  • Soap – Soap has been used for centuries and is generally used by everyone in many forms from solid bars made of animal derived fats to liquid soaps used to wash the dishes. Everyone has a relationship with soap, no matter the age. Be it having a bath as a child, or washing a particularly greasy dish.
  • Super-absorbent polymer (SAP) – If you grew up in the 90s, you might have seen a sanitary pad commercial or have been shown in school how the absorbent layer between the pad is able to absorb large amounts of liquid and hold it in without leakage. This absorbent layer is made of dry super-absorbent polymers. These polymers are able to absorb 100 to 1000 times their weight. Other applications using SAP include things like Fever patches and heat/cold packs, as well as in many ways for agriculture such as preventing water from leaching into the sandy soil or preventing drought from irregular irrigation.
  • Ice – It is water in a solid state and in that state can be used for many things. Cooling us down with a nice cold drink, or having air blown around it to induce cool air for a home-made air conditioner. It is readily available, easy to make and transforms into many other states when interacted with. Even looking at ice evokes a cool feeling.
  • Linoleum – There are different types of linoleum, one solely for housing interiors and one more suitable for printmaking and other creative purposes. They are essentially made of similar materials, their main ingredient being linseed oil which is where the name linoleum comes from. Other ingredients include but are not limited to rosin, sawdust, and limestone. The action of carving linoleum for printmaking is something I personally enjoy and having a printed result makes the ephemeral action of carving something out of a blank piece of linoleum allows the print to “become tangible”. 
  • Air – Air is a mix of gasses that is present in our atmosphere and is essential to life on earth. 99% of earth’s air is made of Nitrogen and Oxygen. Air affects a lot of things around us like the colour of the sky that we see is caused by the way sunlight is scattered (blue light scatters more easily which is why we see the sky as blue). Once we introduce a change to it (for example humidity or temperature), it changes state and can result in rain, snow, mist, haze, and the list goes on.


By using the Playtron, we then explored our reactions and feelings towards the feedback (sound) that was generated by our physical interaction with various materials. One important aspect of my exploration was how to create a conductive behaviour within the materials that are innately non-conductive. I share the various trials that were conducted below.


Kinetic sand trials
Trial 3 – Graphite powder added and Playtron connected to a copper tape node


Orange peels and abalone mushrooms dried in the oven
Playing with orange peels and varying degrees of dryness


Myra sawing the wood
Ellison sawing the wood


Gel wax trials

(5) SOAP

Touching the bubbles
More with bubbles


Exploring with a sanitary pad

(7) ICE

Playing with ice cubes


Copper powder mixed into paint
Ink printing and making a sound

(9) AIR

Movement of air on foil

So, what happened next?

As such, because I had modified some of the materials too much beyond their original characteristics or form, we felt that it did not really attract us. After much discussion, we decided to continue more in-depth exploration of two materials – Ice and Bubbles (from soap) as these two materials provided the most interesting and intriguing tactile interactions. More in the next journal!

Before we end off…