On Creativity: Creating a Habitat for Artificial Bugs

“Water Bugs” was an electronic kinetic installation designed by me and fellow student Martin Hunt for the graduation exhibition at the Emily Carr College of Art + Design, in May 1989.

Our hope was to create an experience that was like watching an aquarium, except that instead of fish swimming underneath the water, the viewer would watch things that floated on the water. These things would end up being little devices made of wire, styrofoam and inexpensive electronic components.

Photo Gallery: Designing a Water Bug


What was it all about? What’s “Synthetic Psychology”?

Original Concept - Synthetic Psychology Vehicle
Original Concept - Synthetic Psychology Vehicle

I’d always been interested in the relationship between people and technology – between “man and machine”.

My original inspiration was an article in Scientific American called “Synthetic Psychology”, which described theoretical devices that had a wheel on each side and two artificial eyes that could sense light. Depending on which eye was connected to which motor, the little vehicle would either turn towards or away from a light source.The author’s premise seemed to be based on a viewer’s presumption of a synthetic psychology, coloured by their perception of the intention of the devices actions.

In actual fact, the little devices described were about as simple as a neuron: action > response, with no intermediary logic, decision-making or “thought”. The device’s responses would be hard-wired, but it seemed that a viewer would be likely to project their own assumptions about motivation onto the little devices. That made the viewer part of the process.

These vehicles are described in this book, under the section “Fear and Aggression”. (One of the basic diagrams from the original article is on the right.)

I spent a lot of time thinking about these little vehicles, wondering if I could build one, how it would move, and what a few of them could do together. My classmate Martin Hunt was stimulated by the idea too. Looking back now, I wonder if Martin’s background in programming cellular automata programs like The Game of Life inspired him to think in terms of an individual unit, its survival, and its relationship to units around it. It’s a fascinating idea.

Martin offered the idea of a contained environment where actions might be compared to behaviours, such as survival or aggression. In fact, if it were possible to get the devices to seek out a power source and “plug themselves in”, Martin suggested, then they would be able to recharge and theoretically run for long periods of time without maintenance.

At the time, I wondered if these behaviours would represent some kind of low-level culture, where the results of each bug’s actions (even though automatic and not determined by any on-board logical decision-making) would contribute to overall group performance.

I’d read about an experiment by the Architecture Machine Group at MIT which explored the relationship of autonomous actors  (specifically, gerbils) and how they adapt and respond to changes in their environment (specifically, a robotic arm). It would be neat to come up with some kind of environment – a group context – for these little electronic bugs.

Sure, but could I actually build one?

Water Bug Schematic Diagram, 1988
Water Bug Schematic Diagram, 1988

That was the million dollar question. Over the following months, I taught myself some basic electronics, how to read schematic diagrams, tried soldering, and dug out the only source of parts I had: my old Radio Shack 75-in-1 Electronics Kit, which my Dad had bought me for Christmas years earlier.

So, for the first few months of 1988, I played and hacked and tried and hoped and studied, gathering information and learning all the contributory little lessons that would slowly lead me somewhere. I read little circuit tutorial books by Forrest Mims, and I hunted for parts at Radio Shack and RP Electronics.

Finally, with a bit more background, and with significant guidance from one of my faculty advisors, electronics artist Dennis Vance, I learned about work circuits and control circuits, and ended up with a circuit that would vary current to a little DC motor, according to how much light was detected by a photo-transistor. That was the magic moment when I knew that the idea of our little Water Bugs could actually work!

The design was that each water bug had “eyes” (photo transistors) on the left and right side. Each eye was connected to a motor that drove a small plastic wheel (a coffee cup lid). The eyes would detect light from an incandescent lamp above, and the more light an eye saw, the more power would flow to its respective motor. The right eye was attached to the left-side motor and vice-versa. More light in the left eye would activate the right motor, which would, I hoped, tend to turn the bug towards a light source.

…and would it work?

I organized the circuit onto a small breadboard, and basically jammed it into a chunk of styrofoam. I put it into a sink of water and shone a desk lamp down. As I moved the lamp back and forth, the bug turned towards the light! It worked!

On the right is a photo of my first floating Water Bug prototype.

Video: “Water Bugs”

I ended up designing a few different Water Bugs. Martin designed a wonderful wooden stand containing a plexiglass water tray, and we assembled and painted the stand together. Martin’s ideas about lighting and the interactions of light and water were what I think gave the piece its real elegance and beauty.

In the exhibition, I used two of my Bugs which had shown the best light sensitivity and reaction. As the weeks of the exhibition went on, I regularly checked in on the bugs and tended to their needs (e,g, fresh batteries, and replacing an occasionally-dropped paddle-wheel). I also had to change the water once, due to a side-effect that Martin and I had overlooked: the formation of algae in the water tray. We jokingly referred to this byproduct of our lack of chlorination as “bug poop”.

Flash-forward to today…

Our Water Bug project was exhibited in 1989. Back then, electronics hobbyists and computer geeks were reading Byte magazine or Whole Earth Review, and passing plans around through BBSes and fanzines. Today, over 20 years later, all over the Internet, there are even larger sub-cultures devoted to hacking electronics and making interesting interactive doodads. Vancouver has an active Maker community as well. On YouTube, you can find many, many examples of Do-It-Yourself projects for creating homemade mini-robots using inexpensive parts. Kids in primary school are building simple toy robots using motors and brushes. High schoolers are programming more complex inventions using Lego Mindstorms or the Arduino board.

It’s all very cool.

To me, one of the most interesting of these DIY robotics projects is Mousey the Junkbot:

Kind of reminds me of a modern land-crawling version of a water bug… 🙂
But a lot prettier…


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Explorations in learning, ideas, and design by E. John Love