If life depended on explaining what’s going on inside of a computer at a fundamental material level, most of us would be screwed. Despite spending the majority of our daily lives using complex electronics, precious few of us have any clue what’s going on inside. Those innards are exactly what interest Berlin artist Niklas Roy.
Roy describes himself as “an inventor of useless things,” which is a funnier way of saying “inventor of things other people will think are useless.” In fact, his work is penultimately useful: An instant camera that prints on receipt paper, for example, or a tiny sweeping robot that uses a toothbrush as a broom. Earlier this year, he rigged his Berlin doorbell with a laser gun sound and an LED calling card. His work is glitchy and low-fi in a way that some might call twee, were it not underpinned with an incredible intelligence and engineering know-how.
Earlier this month, Roy was tasked with teaching a seminar on computing to a group of design students. The idea was to explore how computers function on a fundamental level by building digital mechanisms out of simple materials. “Can we build communication networks from scratch with rubber bands, rope, and cardboard?” Roy writes in the seminar description. “How do analog metaphors for Drag & Drop look like?”
The resulting projects are amazing (at least to someone with very little engineering experience). They include a working NAND gate and a functional arcade game, as well as a masterclock and a communication network complete with an information distribution knot. According to Roy, during the week’s many all-nighters, the students asked him to build a machine, too. “I always wanted to own a plotter,” he explains. “So I didn’t have to think too long about what exactly I’d build.”
It takes a few minutes to plot a word on Roy’s cardboard-and-glue printer. First you need to map out the coordinates (in essence, write your own image file), then translate them into actions using the rotary dials that move the plotter bed in the x or y direction. A binary “on/off” switch controls when the machine’s single red “printer head” (a marker) touches down on the paper. It’s pretty painstaking—but the results are worth it. His first demonstration yielded—what else?—that historic message, “Hello World.”