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Q&A with Elizabeth Plowman: Student Group Builds Musical Staircase in Main Building

The student organization dLAB featured a set of musical stairs in Drexel University’s Main Building that was available for public interaction until mid-June. Created in honor of Music Hack Day, the project employs infrared emitters (LEDs) and sensors spanning each stair. When the invisible beams are broken as people walk up and down the steps, the sensors trigger synthesized notes from a Raspberry Pi computer. This causes a nearby amplifier to emit notes sequenced to match those on a musical scale. The purpose of the project is to watch how people react to the sounds when interacting by walking up and down the stairs. The set of musical stairs was carefully placed in the Main Building on May 18, 2013 where there would not only be the most foot traffic, but also the most diverse body of people, spanning from students of all disciplines to staff and faculty. Elizabeth Plowman, ’15 Electrical and Computer Engineering major and the president of the dLAB group, further explained how the musical staircase worked and what was involved in its creation.

What inspired dLAB to create this project?

dLAB was inspired by a similar project that became a YouTube hit by the group, The Fun Theory, an initiative of Volkswagen. The Fun Theory first created a set of musical stairs placed outside of an elevator in Stockholm, Sweden with the purpose of encouraging people to take the stairs instead of the elevator as a fun introduction to a healthy alternative. dLAB hopes to have the musical stairs deployed within the community in Philadelphia for others to use as well and is currently working on programming a new musical script by adding song clips to the cue and incorporating different sequencing patterns that will trigger other sounds when interacted with.

Who came up with the idea to bring this project to Drexel?

The idea for this project and more came from brainstorming sessions held every Wednesday from 4:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. in Drexel’s ExCITe Center. The group currently has 20 active members, but is always accepting more and is focused on collaborating with all disciplines.

What is the goal of featuring the musical staircase in the Main Building?

This is dLab’s first public project. The dLAB is the official makerspace, or hackerspace, of the Drexel community. The mission of the organization is to promote student body engagement, enable interdisciplinary collaboration and provide and encourage science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (STEAM) outreach opportunities through sponsoring group, hands-on technical projects. The larger goal is to be a resource for students to feel empowered to develop crazy ideas. The organization provides a physical workspace for and helps fund students driven towards hacking projects. It is open to all students from any discipline. The organization’s mantra is “if you can dream it you can build it.”

What kind of manpower was needed to create the staircase?

The project took about 60 hours to create from start to finish and was mainly built by a team of eight members, with the support of additional active members: George Slavin, AJ Elliott, Kenneth Chaney, Stephen Wolfe, Casey Hungler, Elizabeth Plowman, Patrick Cross, Rob Surrette, Om Mahida and Lyric Prince.

What kind of engineering skills were necessary to develop the staircase?

It demanded a diverse set of skills including the use of a micro controller, Raspberry Pi computer, basic circuit design, inferred sensors, wiring and the question of how to display the project graphically so that it would attract the most attention.

What kind of feedback has this project received?

The project garnered about 300 likes and over 100 reposts on social media with positive feedback overall.

What future projects is dLAB taking on?

dLAB also writes proposals to fund freshman design projects as approved by Dr. Youngmoo Kim, associate professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and director of the Expressive & Creative Interaction Technologies (ExCITe) Center. The group is currently funding two projects and looks forward to expanding on projects that possibly include building an eco-arch on Drexel’s Lancaster Walk and developing an LED wall that lights up when splashed by water as a form of “water graffiti.” All projects by the dLAB are meant for the public to interact with and enjoy.

For more information of the dLab, please visit their official Facebook page.