RadioGlobe Q&A with Jude PullenFollow article
As we sat on a late-night, pizza-fuelled, Zoom call back in May 2020 discussing potential projects to create in celebration of DesignSpark turning 10 years old, we knew that there was someone that we just had to call! (and it wasn't the Ghostbusters)
Since collaborating with award-winning product design engineer Jude Pullen on the Hack Superman project back in 2014, the former Dyson, LEGO and Sugru man has accumulated TV appearances on BBC 2's 'Big Life Fix' and Channel 4's 'Great British Inventions' alongside Sir David Jason. He also boasts creative experience across Hong Kong, Norway, USA, and Great Britain.
Jude is fascinated by solving unconventional problems, both mechanical and human. So, we set him the task of building us something special to mark our decade milestone using our free DesignSpark Mechanical and DesignSpark PCB software. The caveat? We wanted our community to be able to re-create it for themselves.
A few months on and he certainly hasn't disappointed, with the creation of the DesignSpark RadioGlobe. We caught up with Jude to discuss the project and find out more about his experiences, whilst taking it from an idea to reality.
What was the inspiration behind the RadioGlobe project?
I love the phrase “Incurably Curious” from the Wellcome Collection, in London. I have often felt that it sums up the type of person who enjoys the journey as much as the destination when finding things out. I think that many of the people on DesignSpark and other engineers/designers/creatives I’ve met over the years have this tendency. So I wanted to make something that enables this open-ended exploration and love of discovery.
The ‘brief’ from DesignSpark was very open-ended, but I knew that it had to connect to their past (RS Components was originally founded as Radio Spares), their current passion for making things (be it CAD and 3D Printing, etc.), as well as digital things and electronics. I looked at all manner of ideas, but this one just really seemed right on many levels.
How did the RadioGlobe project get started?
I really enjoyed ‘mapping out’ all of the aspects of the RS Components and DesignSpark brands. I explored the origins of RS and the decade long history of the DesignSpark community. I often work by ‘brain dumping’ everything I know about something, and then look for the connections between them. Then often do a bit more searching for new insights and provocations. This back-and-forth goes on for some time until something ‘clicks’. This sounds a bit vague at the end, but I guess I’m looking for something which has a meaningful connection between all of the components of the brief.
Then, of course, the prototyping starts. As anyone who has followed my work knows, I’m a bit of a cardboard (and other cheap materials) evangelist, as it gets the job done and keeps the ideas flowing. For example, the initial prototype took me about 30mins to make, which is faster than any CAD designer could get a 3D Print in my hands. Of course, it was flimsy and impractical to ‘build’ functional mechanical parts off of, but it provided a quick feasibility test, to ensure that the idea looked right.
The buttons and screen went through some big changes, as well as the correct resolution of the final design, but fundamentally the basics were true from this early iteration. I found this was often true at Dyson, that 80% of the final design was done in 20% of the time... and of course, the final 20% takes 80% of the effort!
In an increasingly virtual world, where similar tools for browsing radio stations already exist online, why was a physical version important?
To go back to the serendipitous source - I have to give a shout out to my friend David Over, who got me into http://radio.garden/ which does essentially the same thing, but online. I ended up musing over this with another friend Gaye Soykök. I went on to Tweet about it in early April (https://twitter.com/Jude_Pullen/status/1249002792938885122?s=20) about how ‘profound and humbling’ I thought this was. It stayed with me, and in May I got the DesignSpark Brief - clearly something ‘connected’ and it made sense to iterate from this inspiration.
I realised that one of the things I ‘missed’ in radio.garden was that it was web only, and the screen was.. well, yet another screen! Ironically, it was also the sheer scale of it that made it quite hard to use - there are so many stations, it’s impossible to remember where things are, and which you liked. So I felt that a) it needed to be a physical ‘interface’, and b) it needed to be far simpler - less choice would help.
Arguably both are great, but arguably for different reasons/people/situations.
Was a key element of the RadioGlobe to make it open source? Why?
Globe Calibration: The Calibration function took quite a while to develop, and indeed, with Open Source, people may well improve on some of the basic functions.
It’s not my first rodeo on the Open Source ideology... Critics often think you’re ‘giving away your ideas’. Whilst I think it’s risky to give away critical Intellectual Property, Trade Secrets or a ‘killer insight’, I think these need to be weighed against the reality of the commercial exploitation of an idea and the benefit of learning through a community. Some ideas are fully formed products, but this is something of an evolution - it actually gets better the more people who contribute to it. For example - even before ‘launch’, a technologist who works for some very cool companies, suggested I add a ‘Shazam Button’ - which is just genius!
Also, this is quite a niche product. But for those who really ‘get it’, music discovery is a big thing to them, and the tactility of the interface is very appealing. This is not for casual music fans, but for those who are somewhat intrepid in their pursuit of transformative music.
Of course, music is a big attraction, but clearly the other big platform on radio is News. This is perhaps the ‘humbling’ part of the experience, in that you can hear the same ‘breaking news’ interpreted very differently depending on which country you tune in to hear it.
Would you ever Kickstarter it?
It’s great that we have the option to, but in many ways, it depends on demand. As I said, the project is ‘niche’ and so it’d really be a ‘premium music interface’, before it becomes a ‘$50 executive toy’. It’s likely been more in the region of $500 at a guess.
With this said, if a company wanted to invest in this and Kickstarter it on our behalf, we’d be open to cutting a deal I’m sure.
I think the RadioGlobe actually looks pretty cool, but in a ‘fully realised’ or ‘perfected sense’ it is in a way ‘ugly’. I like this quote as it acknowledges the challenge in making a first attempt work, but that there is a long way to go. A Kickstarter would be a great opportunity to really revise the design and take things to the next level.
Did you create the project yourself, or were you supported by a wider team?
Don and Jude working on the integration of the Code with the Globe. Tricky!
Haha! I wish I was smart enough to create this all by myself! No, I didn’t. I did come up with the concept, and I did the preliminary evaluation of the feasibility of ‘can it be made’, but I’ve also learned from my time at Dyson that when trying something that has not been done before, it’s important not to only listen to those who are expert - but not fixed in their opinions.
Don Robson was my ‘partner in crime’ in many renegade projects at Dyson, and is a formidable intellect, and a very ‘flexible thinker’. We were quickly able to dissect the objective into its tasks and then evaluate which ones were most problematic or least understood. From that, we knew what would make/break the project concept.
Don was pretty confident that the code could be done by writing small programmes to compile the lists of Stations, Locations and Coordinates - and make them navigable. I make this sound simple, but it’s not, and it required considerable debugging and interaction, but upfront, Don was confident it ‘could be done’. It always takes longer and I admire Don’s persistence on this, amidst everything else he was juggling (helping on a Ventilator project as well as his main job in AI). As my dad would say “if you want something done fast - ask a busy person”. He aced it!
The hardware side of the project was more my responsibility. I was aware of a component called a Rotary Encoder, which would certainly allow us to ‘slice up the earth into segments’, and I knew that such points could be mapped into a tabulated form that would allow us to translate between spinning a globe and looking up coordinates and hence the station(s). The tricky bit was trying to find an Encoder with enough granularity - so the hunt was on...on the RS Components website of course (haha!).
What was the biggest challenge that you experienced during the project?
Rotary Encoder in the 3D Printed Housing, with DIY PCB. Very, very rough prototyping!
The Rotary Encoder specification was certainly the ‘keystone’ to the project - it simply would not work if we could only do a few 10s of increments. Most Encoders I’d worked with to date were usually around 20-40 increments, or ‘pulses’. And that was not useful to make a whole 360degree globe ‘searchable’ in a meaningful way.
This was a genuine test of RS Components. It’s often easy to dismiss such things as ‘I could get this cheaper on Amazon!’, and for many cheap-n-cheerful generic things, perhaps so - but this was basically looking for ‘NASA-grade’ components to ‘map the earth’.
After considerable searching, I found what I thought was the perfect component - a 1024 Pulse Rotary Encoder, with ‘Absolute’ positioning. I was tentative about just rushing into a £35/component purchase, so I decided to check with another good friend, Ryan White, who worked with me on BBC Two’s Big Life Fix, which was about helping people with disabilities, using technology and making. He now works for a company making Quantum Computers. As you do.
Ryan thankfully confirmed that I had suitable component - but this is where I need to point out I got lucky - and also explained that this was, in fact, the *perfect* component - as firstly the ‘Absolute’ part meant that all the positions used something called greycode - which meant each of the 1024 increments has an ID, so even when you turned the power off/on - it knew where it was! He also explained how the SPI interface was also compatible with Raspberry Pi (so good news for Don!).
The gig was on! Thanks to one incredible component - and thanks to Ryan too!
How did you make this in COVID / Lockdown?
Early Card ‘Sketch Models’. Note the Encoder ‘flipped’ position in the final version.
You can also see the ‘red line’ was from a WhatsApp/Slack discussion about the wiring.
Having been a Tech Scout for almost 3 years at LEGO, prior to becoming a Freelance Technologist, I had to develop a lot of ‘digital communication skills’, from dealing with bad internet connections (especially Audio and often no Camera!), to how to sketch ideas when there are no Post-It Notes or a WhiteBoard!
Often the ‘quick n dirty’ approach works best, and I’d often be mid-conversation with someone on Zoom, and just throw in a photo with a sketch on "like this" on WhatsApp in tandem. Because of COVID many online conference providers are raising their game, as this becomes more the norm, and people are choosing to work remotely more. I think it’s a positive thing - as organisations (like Dyson - which is literally in the middle of a field in Malmesbury!), realise that what they might lack in creative intimacy, they compensate for in global talent. Even now, I am literally as comfortable working with the US as I am the UK or Asia on recent projects.
What has been the most enjoyable/satisfying moment so far?
Pete Wood, Don Robson & Joy Chudhuri - in discussion about the Code, CAD and Build.
Working with people like Don, Ryan, Pete, and the wider DesignSpark Team. I’m not saying this to be ‘nice’ - this has been a consistent theme throughout my career in design, over a decade: My final year project was working with NHS professionals, Dyson was packed with incredible engineers and marketeers, and of course, LEGO was a dream company to expand my horizons of what global brands can do, both solo and in partnership! I’ve always realised my best work is teamwork - but to be specific - I love being in teams with people who are not like me (in some key aspect I admire), and this mix of respect, awe, curiosity, and enthusiasm has stood me in good stead over the years. I of course push for the project to be amazing, but I’m equally committed to the relationships being ones I am proud of and retain for many years to come.
Using Basic Gantt Charts and Slack, to keep track of work, and share ideas.
Did you learn any new skills or tips during the project?
Crash course in SSH, Linux and Raspberry Pi commands.
Test for discrete parts of the project - like LED, here shown ‘not working’! (should be white).
Until I started this project, I’d done very little work with Raspberry Pi code and knew nothing of Linux on a practical level. And although I had used Arduino quite extensively, I’d also gone to these ‘microcontrollers’ over the Pi’s ‘microprocessor’, as Arduino can run code from being switched on, which was usually a key attribute to working on electromechanical projects at places like Sugru and Dyson. I didn’t realise that Raspberry Pis could, in fact, be operated ‘headless’ (without keyboard, mouse, and monitor) via SSH command, so you can control them via WiFi connection.
I actually think there are a good number of engineers who would appreciate knowing this, as in hindsight there are clear advantages in using a Pi over and Arduino for more complex processing (like looking up radio stations and playing music!), but nobody wants to lug around a 26inch monitor when in a lab, etc. And it seems they don’t have to. I wish I knew this 10 years ago!
So this and many other Pi facts I learned on the fly from both Don Robson, and also the kind assistance of DesignSpark member Pete Milne who also helped resolve some of the Pi’s Audio bugs.
Pete Milne helping with a crash course on WiFi and debugging early RasPi 4B issue with Audio.
How important was it to have free software available to create the RadioGlobe?
Early CAD progress, using DSM for exploded diagram. All files Open Sourced.
The RadioGlobe is something that is ‘ready to go’ with V1.0 of the code, but the whole team, from day 1, was committed to the vision of people iterating and improving upon this. Modern platforms such as GitHub are perfect for this, and it’s inspiring to see contributions and improvements already, and many more suggestions coming in!
DesignSpark has always been a generous organization in its spirit and ideas. It is rare to see a company that sponsors projects which challenge what’s possible and provoke discussion. Their ‘community first’ approach means I am certain good initiatives will flourish from this, both externally and internally. This mindset keeps big companies curious, relevant, and fun to work with.
If you could highlight one product or piece of equipment that was the “hero” of the RadioGlobe, what would it be and why?
Sourcing: 1024 Increment (Absolute) Rotary Encoder, that will also work with Raspberry Pi!
Surely the Rotary Encoderwas the enabling technology that made this all possible. Although I could have made a geared system to use a lower resolution encoder, this would have added a lot of complexity and probably error (or risk of wear and tear becoming erroneous). Indeed, I had various "Plan B’s" in case I didn’t find a sufficiently granular encoder, but they were all somewhat arduous to make and would have been harder for the user to build.
So, I think this is the virtue of sourcing ‘the right component’. It takes more time upfront, but it means the project moved quickly and was robust in its final execution.
Threaded Brass Inserts - saving the day, with ‘best practice’ prototype construction.
The other one might sound crazy, but I swear by Threaded Brass Inserts! I think I first learned about them while at Dyson, but they are a game-changer for prototype rigs like this. If you just screw things together, the 3D Printed holes will wear out fast, and the thing will fall apart. Brass Inserts allow a metal ‘socket’ for a bolt to screw into. I truly believe these are a ‘hidden secret’ in R&D development of great prototypes, as it also reduced error in dis/re-assembly and testing. Sometimes the seemingly boring things can be very influential in good design!
What was your rationale behind changing the original angle of the globe?
A change in perspective. Shifting the ‘eye line’ to the Equator, (not the default N hemisphere).
The Earth is tilted at 23.5degrees, but this means it was really hard to see much in the Southern Hemisphere on a model globe tilted at that angle. That was especially noticeable when working on the cardboard prototype. So I adjusted this to 30degrees tilt instead. This meant that when sitting at the desk, in front of the RadioGlobe prototype, my eyes were now in line with the Equator - so it was evenly split N/S viewing angle.
As someone who is mixed-race (and whose child combines even more ethnicity), I enjoyed considering what a small ‘nudge’ could represent - not as a loud, dramatic one-off gesture but something that quietly changes one’s ‘normal’, one view at a time.
I remember at school being told that the ‘normal’ map we see on a wall has the UK pretty central, and apparently in early American maps, they drew the US ‘central’, and China also did its own thing in the past. It is perhaps human nature that each place puts ‘home’ center and ‘otherness’ radiates from it. Indeed, if one gets into the Mercator vs Robinson/Winkel projections of the world, it’s problematic to contemplate why we didn’t use the ‘correct’ projection until relatively recently. But, socio-political musings aside, it just looks and works better at 30degrees!
Have you got a favourite radio station that you’ve found?
I lived in Bristol for 4 years whilst at Dyson, and it’s hard not to have been exposed to some pretty serious Drum n Bass, and DubStep while there. I stumbled upon BooshFM in New Zealand, and it came pounding out the speakers. It became a soundtrack to many a late-night of CAD, soldering, and code.
It was also one of those things I noticed when travelling that the UK's best export might not be its cuisine, but it may well be its music. It’s almost like a time machine, when you realise that the music industry puts different price tags on certain music as fashion and demand change, so you can find a station playing older (i.e. cheaper) music, but with as much zeal as it was done when it was released.
I’d also been to Havana, whilst a student in Norway, so it was great to enjoy a country punching above its weight in musical influence, and sheer energy in discussions in their talk radio! I’m sure many of us are familiar with the notion that even though a language may be incomprehensible to us on one level, often with the emotion of music, or even the intonation of speech- much can be understood on a fundamental level. For all our differences, RadioGlobe is a project that reconnects you with our similarities and enables easy exposure to things we might not usually seek out in a browser.
I wonder what other things might benefit from such an interface....hopefully we’ll see via Open Sourcing the project!
If you could add three more features to the RadioGlobe, what would they be and why?
As mentioned previously - not my idea, but a first-rate idea! Who wouldn’t want to press this when listening to an unfamiliar song, and it is instantly identified - and then exported to your App as a playlist?! No brainer....but a heck of a brain needed to write the code!!
Spotify / LastFM - Travel Guide.
Spotify is great at helping you discover what you might like next. At the moment, RadioGlobe does this by Geography, and you can ‘side-step’ from one station to another via the Jog Wheel, or indeed - by a few degrees N/E/S/W. But it could be a powerful combination to input the data between the regional preferences and the genre/BMP/tempo/etc. of Spotify’s algorithms. Probably not a simple ask, but perhaps someone who knows someone might get in touch...
Treasure Hunt / Easter Eggs.
I loved the concept book ‘Masquerade’ and the modern take on this with ‘Ready Player One’ - so I think creating an ‘Easter Egg’, or a prize that is hidden in the globe would be really cool. Something that only the most adventurous of listeners would find, and something as a reward that is commensurate of that curiosity. Perhaps we’ve done this? What lies at 30degrees x 30degrees?
Oh and a 4th one would be to integrate with this: Radiooooo (5 Os) https://radiooooo.com/ does what Radio.Garden does, but also allows exploration between decades of music. It is quite literally a time machine. We need this in RadioGlobe!! Help us Radioooooooooooooo!
What advice would you give to anybody who would like to create their own RadioGlobe?
RadioGlobe is ‘childsplay’. My 4-year-old son seemed comfortable with the user interface in a few minutes and was then exploring the world with great enthusiasm. Latin American dance is fav.
I’ve spent a fair few years creating resources to help people learn skills in modelling, prototyping, and ideation. I get a kick out of imparting more knowledge than is necessary to just ‘get it done’. This might mean that some find my Guide long-winded, but for those people, I say ‘so skip ahead’, but for everyone else who wants to learn what it is like to go from Cardboard to CAD and from Curiosity to Code, this is a great ‘all-rounder’ of a project. It literally does the lot.
I hope that the journey of building it is as much fun as the working end result. It was for me!
View the full project by CLICKING HERE.
We just ask for accreditation, and non-commercialisation (without consent), but otherwise it’s totally free for personal use.
Jude Pullen was interviewed by Robbie Dunion of DesignSpark virtually due to the current Covid-19 social distancing restrictions.