3D-printed CurveBoards enable easier testing of circuit design on electronics products

MIT researchers have invented a way to integrate
“breadboards” directly onto physical products. The aim is to provide a faster, easier way
to test circuit functions and user interactions with products such as smart devices and flexible
electronics. Breadboards are flat platforms widely used
for electronics prototyping. They are rectangular boards with arrays of
pinholes drilled into the surface. Many of the holes have metal connections and
contact points between them. Engineers can plug components of electronic
systems — from basic circuits to full computer processors — into the pinholes where they
want them to connect. Then, they can rapidly test, rearrange, and
retest the components as needed. But breadboards have remained that same shape
for decades. For that reason, it’s difficult to test
how the electronics will look and feel on, wearables and various smart devices. Generally, people will first test circuits
on traditional breadboards, then slap them onto a product prototype. If the circuit needs to be modified, it’s
back to the breadboard for testing, and so on. In a paper being presented at CHI (Conference
on Human Factors in Computing Systems), the researchers describe “CurveBoards,” 3D-printed
objects with the structure and function of a breadboard integrated onto their surfaces. Custom software automatically designs the
objects, complete with distributed pinholes that can be filled with conductive silicone
to test electronics. The end products are accurate representations
of the real thing, but with breadboard surfaces. CurveBoards preserve an object’s look and
feel, while enabling designers to try out component configurations and test interactive
scenarios during prototyping iterations. In their work, the researchers printed CurveBoards
for smart bracelets and watches, Frisbees, helmets, headphones, a teapot, and a flexible,
wearable e-reader. To validate the CurveBoards, the researchers
printed a variety of smart products. Headphones, for instance, came equipped with
menu controls for speakers and music-streaming capabilities. An interactive bracelet included a digital
display, LED, and photoresistor for heart-rate monitoring, and a step-counting sensor. A teapot included a small camera to track
the tea’s color, as well as colored lights on the handle to indicate hot and cold areas. They also printed a wearable e-book reader
with a flexible display. In a user study, the team investigated the
benefits of CurveBoards prototyping. They split six participants with varying prototyping
experience into two sections: One used traditional breadboards and a 3D-printed object, and the
other used only a CurveBoard of the object. Both sections designed the same prototype
but switched back and forth between sections after completing designated tasks. In the end, five of six of the participants
preferred prototyping with the CurveBoard. Feedback indicated the CurveBoards were overall
faster and easier to work with. But CurveBoards are not designed to replace
breadboards. Instead, they’d work particularly well as
a so-called “midfidelity” step in the prototyping timeline, meaning between initial
breadboard testing and the final product.

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