Finding your Frekvens
IKEA, in collaboration with teenage engineering, recently released Frekvens – a portable music system with speakers and lights geared towards those who appreciate good quality, and quick party set ups. Teenage Engineering is known for their slick and thoughtfully designed synthesizers, specifically the OP-1. Their products have a bit of a cult following and so when Frekvens was announced, we were excited. We wanted to explore how this LED Matrix display might act as an everyday object which could be glanceable, showing useful and timely information. After a long battle to find just one Frekvens LED left in stock, including visiting IKEA before they opened and after they’d closed and struggling to find the last unit, we got our hands on one! And then the fun began.
Frekvens on its own, is an LED Matrix responsive to audio. The included patterns can be changed with a button at the back of the unit. This… wasn’t super exciting and so Sonny Windstrup (aka Frumperino) who has a long and beautiful history with hacking LED matrices, decided to put do something about it.
Sonny replaced the controller in Frekvens and wrote a Frekvens Arduino Library to control the lights in a more delightful way. And then we chatted with Sonny. Long ago, and far away, Sonny and our team used to create art projects together on the incredible ship, illutron. So when we heard Sonny had hacked Frekvens, we were excited to iterate on that. Here’s a video of Sonny’s hack:
We wanted to take it a step further:
using Frekvens to display useful data
To start with, we wanted Frekvens to have its own connection to the internet so it could pull from various data sources and display useful information. As it’s high time for allergy sufferers (grass pollen) we thought we’d start here. We’re rather interested in glanceable displays – things which are both NOT a black mirror (like your phone, which can suck you in for hours with multi-functionality) and, which also offers a serendipitous experience of noticing, and deciding to react or not. (We wrote a whole paper about this topic, you can check it out here).
So our first experiment with Frekvens is simply that – we installed an ESP32 and using data from http://pollen.axlrod.dk/ – a Danish pollen count website (so it’s local to us just now) we can now display when the pollen count for a particular pollen is high. Our hardware guru, Dzl worked on figuring out how to display information in an easy-to-see way, considering that the LED Matrix makes for a very low resolution screen. We experimented with scrolling text, various light levels, and eventually landed upon an abbreviation: “G” for Grass, or “B” for Birch, etc. because we found that the scrolling meant one would have to stand and wait for the values and thus decrease how ‘glanceable’ and immediate the display was.
Our next steps involve tangible interaction. In the IKEA version you can manipulate a button on the backside of the display to change between patterns – but there is also a microphone, and it’s easy enough to hook up any multitude of sensors on to the ESP32, such as an accelerometer to measure movement, a strain gauge to measure squeezing, etc. We’re going to experiment with this as tangible interaction is one of our primary interests. We’re particularly intrigued by the idea of presenting different types of information, for example, when the next bus or train is leaving, or how soon your ride share will arrive.
We’ll publish updates as we go along, for now, enjoy this little video, and the photos and shoot us your ideas for this project – and collaboration!