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LAB Time Machine Communicator 2.0

The LAB Time Machine is a device that helps kids exercise their creative writing skills through a series of fictional prompts from “the future.”

The LAB Time Machine was built as a final project for a class called Haptic Action taught by Zack Jacobson-Weaver and Nina Barbuto at Carnegie Mellon University. The class format consisted of a series of lessons on traditional and digital fabrication, design/build challenges, and a 4-week long final project with a client.

What is Literary Arts Boom (LAB)?

Literary Arts Boom is creative writing laboratory that helps improve youth literacy through writing workshops and activities with a science fiction twist. They offer free and low-cost out-of-school programming to the Pittsburgh community that incorporate art, technology, and communication.

These are some examples of the LAB’s projects geared to make use of salvaged materials and inspire creative thinking.

About the project

I was tasked to work with Literary Arts Boom to create a tangible interaction experience that would help them facilitate their creative writing workshops. Throughout the summer, LAB runs writing workshops for children that need to be kept engaged while waiting for everyone to show up.

They wanted a creative warm-up that kids could engage with while they were waiting for their workshop to start.



Together with Paula Levin, the lead experimentalist at Literary Arts Boom, we brainstormed several ideas around time capsules, fortune cookie printers, ID badge makers, and Rube Goldberg machines.

Some early brainstorming sessions yielded a suitcase-style computer as well.

While we had many great ideas, we had to find the right balance of interaction, cost, and feasibility within the time constraints. We ran with our time capsule idea and made it interactive by adding dialogue with someone from a different time period. The concept was a device that would allow kids to talk to someone in the future about present day hobbies, food, and life. We called it the LAB Time Machine Communicator.

The concept was a device that would allow kids to talk to a future character about present day hobbies, food, and life.

Designing the LAB Time Machine

Based on the LAB’s previous projects, I knew I wanted the device to have a 80′s-era suitcase computer feel to it. It would need to combine salvaged materials with modern technology to create something that would feel like it travelled through time.

We visited a local “upcycling” shop called Construction Junction as well as many other second-hand shops to find materials for the build.
After browsing local thrift stores and electronics bins, I settled on a vintage suitcase, several automotive switches, usb speakers, and a 40-character LCD display.
A vintage suitcase from Goodwill with some of the raw materials I had scrounged up to build the time machine.

The suitcase was a perfect size and weight for children to put on their laps would give them a sense of ownership. To drive the display and interactions, I chose to use a Raspberry Pi Model-B and mini keyboard I had lying around from a previous OpenFrameworks workshop. The Pi would allow me to create a Python question and answer script and vary the number of questions to limit interaction time. Speakers driven by the Raspberry Pi would provide voice feedback for added excitement and believability.


The first step to fabricating the suitcase enclosure was to measure every part and model everything in 3D to get a sense of how everything would fit together.

Using my trusty tape measure and digital calipers, I was able to measure every part in order to visualize the layout in 3D.
Modeling everything in Rhino allowed me to visualize how different material thicknesses would affect the panel.
After the space was planned, I flattened the files to create cut lines for the laser cutter.
I experimented with various power and speed settings on the laser cutter until I was finally able to etch just the top layer of plywood to reveal the darker wood underneath.


I drilled small pilot holes into the placard and suitcase and used pop rivets to fasten them together.
To access the Raspberry Pi’s GPIO pins, I created a breakout board using an old floppy cable, some protoboard, and spare header pins.

After everything was cut, I worked on getting everything put together and functional. Breadboarding allowed me to make sure the wiring was working properly before creating a dedicated harness for the whole setup.

I created a dedicated harness by soldering together the spare end of the floppy cable and heatshrinking the connections for longevity.
Heatshrinking and securing all of the cables was crucial for child-proofing the electronics.

Design Solution

The final design was presented to a panel of judges with a wide range of backgrounds such as traditional fabrication, museum exhibit curation, and education. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and sparked conversations about how to expand the functionality to automatically track a child’s writing progress over time, use this information to help fund development efforts, and personalize other writing activities based on interactions with the LAB Time Machine.

Everyone loved the look, feel, and the childhood imagination it brought to creative writing.
The final LAB Time Machine Communicator 2.0 presented at the class’s exhibition.
Thanks for taking a look! Please feel free to see my other projects or reach out to me about your project or company. I'd love to chat.
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