2Cents is an audio vending machine that serves the user a randomly chosen audio clip contributed by other users. Hanna Kang-Brown, Silva Shih, Angie Bond and I produced it as our final project for Clay Shirky’s Designing Conversational Spaces.

2Cents1 To operate the device, a user puts in coins to make the audio play. The coin receiver is hooked up to a Raspberry Pi multi-controller. In was designing with the ITP floor in mind, but it could easily be adapted for other locations. There is a button for each of the four types of audio clips available (Encouragement, Motivational Ass-Kicking, Wisdom and Random). We imagined the user to be someone working on the ITP floor who is taking a break from their work and can benefit from hearing someone offer perspective or advice.

The audio files are handled by Twilio. We provided a phone number so that anyone can call and add additional voice recordings. The number is set up like a normal voice mail system, asking users to press the number of the category they want. The files are stored in a PHP/MySQL database. Most of the other functions connecting Twilio and the Raspberry Pi are written in Python.

2Cents came about after we tried and user tested a number of different ideas. As a group, we were all interested in working with audio in some capacity. Audio is an intriguing format, with a unique power different from both text and video. It’s intriguing how speakers can give off certain clues about themselves simply through their tone and way of expressing themselves, not simply their word choice.

Our first ideas was to create a confession booth on the floor. We thought that people were more likely to want advice or feedback on a personal issue rather than to confess to something (but who knows). But when we looked into the idea, we saw that it had been done by enough other artists (including Candy Chang) that it seemed less compelling.

We next tried adapting the project into something briefly called Talk to the Ear, a physical installation piece that could be situated at different points around the city. But we had a tough time agreeing on specifics for it.

Our next iteration was called RadioTwitter. Like Twitter, it was focused on short bits of media (we experimented with recordings of 8-12 second sound clips). We thought about creating a channel where people would answer a topic or question of the day. The audio would be played back on a website in the order recorded. We assumed that people would listen to the previously recorded clips and then start offering responses to earlier clips that would appear later in the feed.

We first tried user testing this idea by simply getting a microphone and asking people to come over and speak with us for a few minutes. It being ITP, our classmates were willing to help out and do their part for our project. But we saw a trend quickly develop in that very few people wanted to actually listen to other people’s recordings. They simply wanted to answer our question and be on their way. We tried different types of questions as cues, but none worked better than others to address this problem.

Uninspired by our user testing, we brainstormed again and decided on the 2Cents idea. We moved quickly from that point in narrowing in on our idea and planning the implementation after that. We initially thought we would built it with an Arduino, ITP’s default micro-controller. But we heard that the Raspberry Pi was designed with an Ethernet jack and audio output built-in, so we decided to give it a try.

The biggest challenge of the build was that no one on our team is a particularly strong coder. The Python, PHP/MySQL and terminal commands were all a challenge. We ended up relying on the goodwill and knowledge of our classmates, especially Sean McIntyre, and my friend D’Arcy Saum in getting the prototype working (thanks, guys!). At the final presentation, the industry guests who were invited to give us feedback were extremely positive on the results. They liked the playful nature of it and the simple design. Clay also made note that he was glad we tried user testing our ideas before building anything, something that contributed to the final success of the project.


Sketch from the final brainstorm for 2Cents


Tech sketch of the idea, assuming an Arduino instead of the Raspberry Pi we ended up using in the end.


2Cents in the ITP Winter Show


Here is a video that my teammate Silva produced: watch?v=uE6B9fKXbxI&feature=youtu.be