Paper Signals is a project by the people at Google Creative Lab together with Isaac Blankensmith and Smooth Technology that combines paper-craft, moving parts and Google Assistant. What can I do with this you ask? Well, you could create an arrow indicator to show the price of Bitcoin. You could also create your own weather forecast device in a form of an umbrella. Got your attention? Good. Before we begin, please know that this article will not be exploring the technical specs nor the performance of the moving parts(micro servo and micro controller). With that out of the way, let’s get on to the review!
Go here for the official requirements and steps to get you up and running. For this Hands On Review, I had decided to go with the Umbrella Signal. Below I will share an overview of what you need and some points to take note off. The items you will need are: The electronic stuff, paper stuff, your phone.
Before starting, you will need to order the electronic parts that will power the paper signals. Do order quick as it runs out of stock fast. Once you have received it, follow the instructions on the Paper Signals website. Depending on which signal you choose, there are specific instructions on how to setup the micro servo and the micro controller (Adafruit Feather HUZZAH ESP8266).
For the paper templates, the website mentions to use 8.5 x 11” paper (80-100lb cardstock). I personally have a printer which only takes in A4 sized papers. So I had to search for printing services around Klang Valley. Majority of the printing services did not understand what 80-100lb cardstock meant. After further research on the Internet, I came to find out that the more common term used was grams per square metre or ‘gsm’. The higher the value, the thicker the paper. I ended up with this shop called Mummy Design. They’re located in Sunway and offer design and printing services. The personnel who attended to me was very knowledgeable and knew exactly what I wanted. For the printout, I requested 2 sets; one in 100gsm and one in 120gsm. Remember not to scale anything but to print at 100%. I recommend printing a few sets of each just in case. For the glue, I already had with me this craft glue I got from Popular Bookstore. The ‘applying stick’ was perfect for paper crafts like these.
You will need a phone(Android or iOS) with Google Assistant.
This project may test your patience if you’re not an arts and crafts person. Four to five incisions and folds in, I began asking myself “Why am I doing this again?”. Anyways, as mentioned, assembling the paper signal requires a lot of focus and attention. Cutting the paper templates was ok-ish. I encountered a little fraying but that’s cause I used 100gsm paper. I haven’t tried the 120gsm but I think it would be more ‘stable’ when maneuvering the blade.
Sticking all the pieces together was straightforward albeit slightly challenging due to my huge fingers. One thing to highlight if you’re doing the Umbrella Signal; In ‘Part 4: Build Microcontroller Enclosure’, at the end of Step 9, I recommend to insert the data usb cable that came with the Adafruit order. This is because it requires some force and doing that after you’ve assembled everything might cause your Paper Signal to tear.
Usage and Performance
Using Google Assistant to trigger the Umbrella Signal was simple. Launch Google Assistant and type in or say “Talk to paper signals”. Next follow the prompts to select your desired location.
After waiting for about 30 seconds to 1 minute for the Umbrella Signal to fetch the weather forecast, it will subsequently ‘open’ or ‘close’ the umbrella. Take note that if your umbrella is already closed, and you select a location that isn’t predicted to rain in the next few days, you won’t see any movement on the umbrella. In my case, I had selected Klang but couldn’t see any umbrella movement because it was to be sunny the whole week. This made me wonder whether I had to constantly trigger Google Assistant to get the current weather forecast. Fortunately I did not have to wait long for it to move as there was one afternoon that was about to rain. And lo and behold, the umbrella opened.
In terms of the positions, there’re 2; Either closed, or opened. Which means there’s no ‘slightly open’ to indicate a drizzle. Would be funny if the Umbrella Signal opened inside-out to show a thunderstorm approaching. One tip I suggest is to first set a location where its sunny then another location where its forecasted to rain just to test the umbrella movement.
If I could use a word to describe the overall experience, it would be ‘personal’. Having it with me for about 2 weeks, it was kinda nice to have something physical representing the weather, and not relying on a digital interface. Granted there were a few instances where the umbrella was open, but it didn’t rain the whole day. So take it with a pinch of salt as weather forecasts are still forecasts.
Paper Signals project by Google is a great introduction to those interested in home-brewed projects. In essence, it is a home-brew project that’s cleverly disguised with cute paper-craft. The various examples prepared on the Paper Signals’ website gives you an idea of what can be done with micro servos and micro controllers. Before this, I only watched from afar when one speaks about these because I’m too lazy and ain’t nobody got time for that. But after completing a signal, there’s a satisfaction that this thing you created is up and moving. Will I continue to explore further the dizzying world of home-brewed projects? Maybe. But I’m definitely more intrigued and at least I can say I’ve touched an ESP8266 board. I highly recommended Paper Signals for those who have some spare time and have always wanted to dip their hands in this area.