The Art Controller

Art Controller

Today we’re releasing a new open source kit: A stand-alone, microcontroller-driven relay module called the Art Controller.

The Art Controller project was originally suggested by our friends (and Maker Faire regulars), San Francisco Bay Area kinetic artists Christopher T. Palmer and Nemo Gould.  Amongst other things that they build are amazing mechanical sculptures that need to run for a little while after a visitor presses a button or inserts a coin into the slot.

The long-established solution for driving electronic artwork (along with many similar endeavors) is to use a timer relay module; a little stand-alone board with a relay controlled by a timer.  There are several types of these: fancy programmable modules, bulletproof industrial types, and simple low-cost boards with a 555 timer and a pot that you turn to adjust the delay.  As we understand it, Christopher and Nemo go through the latter type like jellybeans.  But, what they realized that they really wanted was something just like that, except that you could reprogram it if you wanted to.

Art Controller

Hence the Art Controller.   It’s a low cost stand-alone relay module, with an on-board AVR microcontroller, an ATtiny2313, that manages the timing and I/O.

It can be used as a replacement for one of those basic 555-based relay boards, but it’s considerably more flexible in terms of timing range and functionality:

  • The timing is adjusted with an 8-position DIP switch, rather than a knob.  This cuts down on guess-and-check, but also gives a huge range. With those 8 little switches, you can select times from 1 second to 31 hours. (The ranges are 1-31 seconds, minutes, or hours, plus a few intermediate ranges.)
  • It can work as a one-shot timer or a continuously repeating timer.
  • There’s an option to trigger automatically upon turn-on (reset).
  • There’s a separate cancel input, so you can build a “STOP” button.
  • There’s an option to cancel a trigger if you push the “START” button a second time.

It comes preprogrammed, and all of those adjustments can be done with switches and wiring— handy if solder is your favorite programming language —so no computer or programming are actually required to get that far.

But, when that’s not enough, the on-board microcontroller can be reprogrammed in situ (using the board’s AVR ISP programming header) to handle the most specialized applications, potentially taking advantage of up to 16 free digital I/O pins.

And that’s pretty neat. 

Art Controller

Beyond the obvious applications in DIY projects, automation, and controlling art projects, we think that this is also going to be a fantastic relay board for education. It starts out as a (well-designed) simple function timer relay board, but can optionally transition to a full-on microcontroller development board when you’re ready for it.

So that’s the Art Controller in a nutshell: a versatile, easy to use, low-cost relay board that you can reprogram if you want to.

There’s plenty more detail on our product page: The Art Controller at Evil Mad Science.

And, special thanks to Christopher T. Palmer and Nemo Gould for a great project idea!


This post is included in our Halloween Project Archive, where you can find ideas for props, decor, and more.

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10 thoughts on “The Art Controller

  1. This could also be useful for controlling equipment or lights to save power when somebody tends to forget to turn off the power when they are done. It might be useful for people with children who never turn off the lights when they leave the room.

  2. Nice! You may want to consider doing an instructable on this as well, maybe in collaboration with Christopher or Nemo, showing how they use this controller to animate one of their pieces. I think there’s plenty of budding kinetic artists that are put off by figuring out how to do the electronics.

  3. Of course, now I want an Arduino app with a graphical interface to program a controller over a USB cable to drive a couple of relays and a bunch of LEDs. Damn you! ;-)

  4. You should see if you can get this working with the Atmel Touch library, to get rid of dependence on mechanical switches. Which always seem to get broken on art/museum/zoo/etc “interactive exhibits.”
    In fact, I’ve been wondering if it would be a worthwhile project to do a bunch of “Open Museum” projects aimed at making those sort of “exhibit controllers” cheaper, more reliable, and more easily replaced. Leveraging some of the economies of scale that might be possible by sharing designs between multiple sites. OTOH, individuality is part of the charm of smaller venues, and who wants to displace a bunch of individual exhibit engineers?

    • That’s a very good idea. With the primary application, there’s only one trigger switch, and it shouldn’t be too hard to use a single touch-input for that. The DIP switches will hopefully be kept out of reach of the teeming masses. :)

  5. This is such a cool gadget! I’m kind of surprised this didn’t exist already. Are there others like this?

    • No bubbles burst on our end, but you seem to have missed the point entirely. As we said, there are many types of existing little relay boards, including ones (like the Altronix 6062) that have a simple timer with a pot to adjust timing and switches or jumpers for configuration. The folks who first suggested this product already go through quite a few of those (like jellybeans, we said).

      The Art Controller is precisely intended as a replacement for devices like those, adding a bit of configuration simplicity (with the DIP switches instead of knob for timing) and true programmability– on par with other relay devices costing 10 to 100 times as much –to handle all kinds of specialized applications.

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