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Still Immigrating to the Digital World

This post has been cross posted to Lindsay Van Dyk’s Blog: Cautious Endeavours.

The following is a collaborative blog post that Lindsay and I have written to discuss our trials and tribulations of designing and implementing an interactive suitcase and immigration exhibit.

Adriana: Beginning back in January, Lindsay came up with a fantastic idea to create an interactive exhibit situated around an immigrant’s suitcase, which we chatted about here, and here.

Designing our project using Google Sketch-up

Lindsay: Immigrant history has always interested me and it was important to both of us to use real immigrant stories in creating this exhibit.  Just like more traditional historical projects, our first step was to explore the archives for some material on immigration – specifically immigration to Alberta between the years 1890-1914.  Living in Ontario is a distinct disadvantage when studying Alberta history, but thanks to the online archives of the Glenbow Museum and Peel’s Prarie Provinces, we found great pictures and newspaper articles.

Adriana: Of all the things we have learned throughout this project is the ability to scale back our designs and accept all victories, no matter how miniscule. Wide-eyed and full of wonder, our initial plans included an entire room of digital and interactive opportunities. A suitcase that could open by a motion sensor, poster-size touch screen advertisements from the late 19th century, and an immigrant child’s toys that could somehow communicate through Bluetooth and RFID technologies.

We quickly determined these illusions of grandeur were unrealistic and stuck to what we do best: crafting.

Once we were satisfied with our artistic endeavours, we needed to get back to business and focus on the interactive component of the course.

Lindsay: Our biggest obstacle and the source of all frustration were figuring out how to write the code to make our little project work. Coding made me slam my fists on my computer many times.  I think almost cried once too. As I wrote previously, we were attempting to use the RFID tags to open movie files stored on our computer.  We started with a base code provided by our professor Bill Turkel that set up the RFID tags and scanner. We hacked this code to successfully make the audio of the movies start up, but the videos were just a blank black screen. Processing is not really suited to play large video files and it wouldn’t work no matter what we tried.  We were at a loss as to where to go next.  But then….a stroke of genius.  Ok, not really, but Adriana suggested we try to make the code open YouTube videos rather than video files from our computer.  Processing is much better at opening URL’s so this seemed like a viable option.

We started in this new direction with our code, and miraculously, we scanned a tag and a YouTube video popped up!  Shouting and screaming ensued, with high fives all around.  That is, until we realized the video opened in 103 different tabs.  Apparently the code will loop continuously, opening the URL until you to tell it to stop.  We didn’t tell it to stop.  When your browser opens 103 tabs simultaneously, chaos ensues and your computer is no longer functional.  Fixing this problem took a few solid hours of trial and error in manipulating the code, but we finally succeeded in our new goal. An RFID tag is scanned and a video opens.  Sounds so much easier than it is!

For any curious coders or tedious techies, we used a ID-12 Innovations RFID reader on SparkFun breakout board and here is our magical Processing sketch:

import processing.serial.*;

Serial myPort;
String tagID = "";

void setup() {
   size(screen.width, screen.height); //sets display to fit screen 

   // set serial port to first on list and initialize it
   String portnum = Serial.list()[0];
   myPort = new Serial(this, portnum, 9600);

   // use third font available
   PFont myFont = createFont(PFont.list()[140], 82); //sets font


void draw() {
   background(0); //sets background as black
   text("The Immigrant's Suitcase", width/2, height/2); //formats the text
     if (tagID.equals("0E008E880A")) { //sets specific RFID tag to open a specific URL
      link("", "_self"); //sets specific URL
      noLoop(); //stops the video after it plays once
    // } else {
      if (tagID.equals("0E008E9525")) { //sets specific RFID tag to open a specific URL
      link("", "_self"); //sets specific URL 
      noLoop(); //stops the video after it plays once
     // } else {
        if (tagID.equals("0E008E8657")) { //ets specific RFID tag to open a specific URL
      link("", "_self"); // sets specfic URL 
      noLoop(); //stops the video after it plays once

// read bytes from the serial port and put them into tag string
void serialEvent(Serial myPort) { //sets up the RFID scanner
  loop();// keeps the sketch running continuously 
   String inputString = myPort.readString();
   tagID = parseString(inputString);

// read string and look for 10-byte tag ID
// assumes string begins with STX byte (0x02) and ends with ETX byte (0x03)
String parseString(String thisString) {
   String tagString = "";
   char firstChar = thisString.charAt(0);
   char lastChar = thisString.charAt(thisString.length() - 1);
   if ((firstChar == 0x02) && (lastChar == 0x03)) {
     tagString = thisString.substring(1, 11);
   return tagString;


Adriana: Before our project was ready for display, I had to put together a few short videos in iMovie using the archival material and uploaded them to YouTube.

Finally our project was ready to run

And now the moment you’ve all been waiting for…seeing this exhibit in action!

Thanks to Sushima for recording us

If you are interested in seeing the videos we used in the exhibit, you can check out my YouTube Channel.

Adriana: As perpetual over achievers, we weren’t satisfied to leave our project there. We called upon previous Public History grad and tech-genius, Devon Elliott, to help us create something with the 3D printer. The result was five Matryoshka dolls, made out of PCB plastic, which I sanded to fit together.

Adriana: After spending countless hours sitting in front our computer screens hoping something would happen if we just stared at them long enough, Lindsay and I have created a finished product, and by nothing short of a miracle, we survived. All things considered we agree this has been one of the most challenging but rewarding classes we have ever taken. As a result, I’m taking Inkscape tutorials in my spare time, and I can make LED lights flash like a pro. Oh! and the 3D printer we helped build has been touring around the digital humanities conference circuit. All-in-all, I’d say that makes for a pretty satisfying semester.

To see more photos of the process of creating the exhibit check out Lindsay’s Picasa Web Album.

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