Cybernetics for the Masses 5: The Southpaw Project

This fragment of Lepth Anonym’s talk is entirely dedicated to her Southpaw initiative as a subdermal counterpart of the Sensebridge’s Northpaw project.

The haptic Northpaw and subdermal Southpaw The Sensebridge hackerspace – they’re a couple of colleagues of mine – have the Northpaw, which is a haptic compass I’ve talked about earlier. It’s just attached to a PCB, and the PCB senses compass directions through a little compass module. It’s attached to some motor, which you wear on an anklet around your ankle. Whenever the sensor is facing north, the thing buzzes north (see right-hand image).

Very interesting concept, but I don’t like wearable stuff; I like subdermal stuff, so I decided to make a proper subdermal version. I bought a Northpaw and started trying to figure out how you would make this thing subdermal. I don’t know whether the word “haptic” is still appropriate, but it is a constant compass. This thing, if you wear it, is a constant sensor of which way is North, and if you implanted it, it would be a proper sensor of which way is north. It turned out to be a hell of a lot more complex than I actually imagined. I figured that you could just take a Northpaw, coat it up and put it in – and that’s not how it works at all. For a start, everything’s too big; for another thing, you can’t actually use motors – there’s no point using motors inside the skin, because that’s silly, you could just use electrodes.

The Northpaw: how it works Ok, so the Northpaw itself: Sensebridge built a custom PCB that runs it, but the whole thing just takes data in from a compass module, powers it via battery pack, uses a ring of servos, and it’s all held in place with this fabric anklet. You get it in a kit, you build it yourself, it’s pretty cool (see left-hand image).

It’s well tested, so the actual principle works quite well. Quinn Norton’s got one, it’s been in H+ Magazine, it’s been out for about 2 years, it’s very well known. Southpaw, which is what mine would be called, is the same thing, it’s just different hardware. So, these haptic senses have been around for a really long time.

Issues with the Northpaw in terms of subdermal implementation Existing Northpaw – you can’t just chuck it in: there’s batteries that it runs on, which is a bad idea to have those inside you. You have to think about bioproofing; everything is way too big. Like I said, motors are kind of stupid, because it’s just using a middleman, you really need electrodes under the skin. It doesn’t adapt to change of axis, so if you put your hand the other way, it won’t tell you which one is north anymore. It will be still pointing north as if you were walking directly. That needs fixing, but that’s not a problem, because you’ve got a microprocessor. And it only has 8 directions, which is kind of crap.

My immediate concerns are more about getting components rather than figuring out blueprints.

Current state of things with the Southpaw So, me and some people set out to fix this and make it not only better, but more of an implanted device (see left-hand image). It is just for fun, it’s not finished yet. Like I said, my control uses a much smaller microcontroller rather than a custom PCB, because I’m smart enough for that.

I use this little tiny 2mm by 3mm MSP microcontroller. Philips compass chip is a little bit bigger; I’m still trying to find a miniature version of that, but at a pinch a normal one could fit, too. It uses inductive receiver coil; transmitter coil is external to it, so you can charge it overnight while it’s still inside you. Lithium cells – I didn’t work out the coil by myself, somebody else helped me, I don’t know if they’re even here or not, but that wasn’t me; I’m not smart enough for that shit. Output is 16 neural-grade electrodes on your lower left leg – could be on your right leg as well. Mine’s on the left leg. Like I said, it could be anywhere you want. It’s just better on a leg, because that tends to be more of a stable axis.

Lepht’s most relevant concerns with the project My immediate concerns (see image to the right) are more about getting components rather than figuring out blueprints, because I know what I’m going to do, I just don’t quite have the money to do it yet. So, if anyone wants to catch up and do this instead of me, go ahead. Piecing together electronics – I’ve been doing that, I’ve been figuring out how to not shock myself with it, figuring out how to work the power transfer, all kinds of things; figuring how to keep the coil stable inside your body – it’s quite difficult also. It turns out all you have to do is make more stable cuts.

Plans for the immediate future Regarding future plans, well, they’re not really future, they’re more like immediate future, but I need to get a physical prototype working before anything else. The programming side of it is really not very hard: all it has to do is taking data and putting it out correspondently, but it needs testing.

Larger objects and Sugru: I’ve tested a lot of large things, but never altogether, so I don’t know how lots of implants in one area are actually going to go together. This is all very experimental. I need more people to join in also, because I’m quite bored of this just being me. If anyone wants to join in… Also I need to learn a lot more about electronics, because all this stuff I know involves a PCB, and that’s really not practical inside you.

Others can contribute a lot You could do this better than I can, pretty much all of you. You’re all hackers; I’m not a real hacker, I just do things like cutting myself up and stuff, but somebody with an actual real-world experience at electronics will be able to do really well at this. You just need to know what to use for coatings and what to put where. This is really not difficult knowledge, so people with better brains would be able to do better projects than me. It’s just that nobody does so far; probably because of the self-harm, but whatever, it’s not self-harm if it does something.

Read previous: Cybernetics for the Masses 4: Experimenting with Neodymium Implants

Read next: Cybernetics for the Masses 6: Questions and Answers

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