Academy Students Crack The "Internet of Things" Code


Students from the “Internet of Things” field trip. Photo by Mark Hellar.

You’ve probably heard of the “Internet of Things” (or IoT for short), but are left scratching your head as to what that term really means, or what it looks like in real life. To unlock the answer, I sat down with School of Web Design + New Media part-time faculty and 20-plus year tech guru, Mark Hellar to talk about our new class, “The Internet of Things,” and how Academy of Art University students are learning to build cutting-edge WiFi-enabled experiences.

Thank you so much, Mark, for sitting down with me to talk about our new “Internet of Things” class we just launched. Let’s cut to the chase: what is IoT, or the “Internet of Things”?

Okay. The Internet of Things. Well, we’ve had microcontrollers and tiny computers for years. But now they are finally getting cheap enough and ubiquitous enough that almost anyone can experiment with them. You can get a WiFi embedded micro-controller with a Bluetooth connection for just $20 now. You can control it from your phone, or across the world. With a board like Arduino or Photon ( you can be building your own networked device project in no time.

So, what does an IoT look like in real life?

Functionality, it could be like a Nest thermostat or the Amazon smart button. You just tap a button and it orders something for you. It could also take the form of wearables like Fitbit and other personal data collection devices. Or remote locks. Watches are examples—like the iWatch—though those are a bit more complex. The applications are limitless.

Tell us about some of the tools you’re using in the class. One tool is the Arduino kit. How is that being used, and what other tools are there?

We started out with the Arduino. That’s kind of the standard microcontroller, so that we can get up to speed with the programming and electronics. After we get past the electronics and basic programming, we move to something called Node.js (https://nodejs.orgis) JavaScript on the server. It’s very popular right now. It’s great for the “Internet of Things.” We use Web APIs to grab data and content from the internet and push it to our devices.

The second half of the semester we start using something called the Particle. That’s an Arduino compatible microcontroller with a broadcom WiFi chip on it. They’re $20 and the size of a postage stamp. Finally, taking the knowledge that we built up with the Arduino and Node.js, we start moving our projects to stand alone wireless Internet connected projects.

And our students seem to be catching on quickly. For me, this shows how we prepare students with the basics and then they are able to really stretch themselves in a class like yours.Switching topics, you and the class recently went on a field trip. Can you just tell us where you went and the purpose?

I really wanted to broaden the students on the whole topic of technology and art in general. We started with the “New Experiments in Art and Technology” show at the Contemporary Jewish Museum that was curated by Renny Pritikin. The exhibition spans three generations of artists working with technology.

The goal of that was to expose students to a diaspora of Bay Area artists who work with technology in an exhibition context. Also, I really wanted them to think [about] their own work and how it would be experienced by large audiences interfacing with it in a museum.

After that, we went to the Target Open House. That’s kind of like the home of the future, but it’s all the things we can already do now. The display is wired up with pretty much all of the current “Internet of Things” you would think of: Nests, Fitbits, Philips Hue Lighting, Smart Basketballs, things like that. You interact with it using tablets and large touchscreens.

For instance, you can follow a common scenario like waking up in the morning. There’s a kitchen; then the smart coffee maker turns on and the overhead lights turn a nice amber color, and then the smart refrigerator talks to these other devices. It’s a showcase of the “Internet of Things” in a commercial and consumer context.

You remember the old 1950s commercial images of the the “Kitchen of the Future.” It’s like the future is here now!

Exactly! And finally we went to the Children’s Creativity Museum. They have programmable robots for kids. They have LED walls. That’s really great because ... one of our students, Tomas Durkin, is the exhibits manager. He walked us through all of the exhibits he designs and manages. I want to give a huge thanks to him for helping to make our field trip such a success! Tomas walked us through the design thinking process that goes into creating an interactive exhibit and all the considerations that go into a meaningful educational experience for the target audience.

The target audience for the Children’s Creativity Museum is three to 11 years old, so those kids can destroy an exhibit! So it’s a great example to students of how to make a project, or [an] exhibit, in a real public context. To me, this is a huge challenge; of conceiving an interactive, interesting and sustainable exhibit that can be shown in a museum, or in a mall or other public setting.

So, this was a pilot class this semester. And so far, I think it is really successful. What do you look forward to in terms of the final projects, when the students are wrapping up the semester?

First off, I’m looking forward to seeing the final projects come into shape. We’ve got some really interesting projects. I’ve got one student who’s connecting his Apple Watch to his pulse and then to control motors that drive a drawing machine. It’s amazing!

tdurkin explains exhibit 2

Tomas Durkin, exhibits manager at the Children’s Creativity Museum, demonstrates an interactive installation. Photo by Mark Hellar.

… I believe that’s Gianluca Martini...

Yes. And we’ve been reaching out through the [School of Web Design + New Media] to the rest of the school. I just met with a student, Amal, working on the Nissan collaboration project with industrial design. She’s making a wearable that will trigger interactive projections, test your pulse and sends data over Bluetooth. That’s going to be pretty interesting.

Well, I just want to thank you very much, Mark. We’re really pleased that you are here and that you are exposing our students to so many cutting-edge things. I look forward to seeing the amazing projects you, and the students, create now, and in the future.

Wonderful. Thanks. It’s been a really fantastic 15 weeks in my life!