Chess Tutor


Marcel Duchamp said that “I have come to the conclusion that while all artists are not chess players, all chess players are artists.” Most beginners to the game never see the artistry or poetry of the game because of fear, confusion, frustration, or an increasingly strained relationship with their teacher/playing companion. I tried to answer the question, can I delight beginners by the unseen, unapparent aspects of the game?

As I set off on his task I began to see and experience chess everywhere – students in the lounge playing a ‘casual’ game, chess apps that allow asynchronous play, books (and books) of openings and famous games, chess algebra, Radiolab episodes, and a continuum of chess machines. The chess machines became the focus of my research, but I sampled greatly from the full range of chess culture to inform my approach.

Wolfgang von Kempelen’s fake chess playing automaton, the Mechanical Turk.

The ‘magic’ of the Mechanical Turk was important to me because magic, done right, results in delight and smiles. I looked at the DIY/maker space for practical examples and found projects such as this Arduino/Raspberry Pi powered wooden chess computer.

After completing my research, I outlined the following projects constraints and objectives:

  • focus on communicating the rules of the game – the starting positions of each piece and its allowed movement.
  • allot ample time to build and test multiple iterations of the interactive system that will gather info and communicate with the player,
  • utilize both light and sound feedback to engage the player,
  • and experiment with materials and gauge player response.

Creating the Illusion
In order to make the chess experience fun and magical, I felt that the technology powering the board needed to be invisible. Players needed to feel like they were playing a game of setting up the pieces and then moving them around without being hindered by or aware of the technology helping them along.

For this reason I chose to use a very simple concept of electronics called a voltage divider. A simple voltage divider circuit has two resistors in series with the first resistor (R1) acting as a reference resulting in the voltage read in between the two resistors (Vout) as a fraction of the input voltage (Vin) proportional to the value the second resistor. I planned to use this to my advantage by making the chess pieces the second resistor and feeding the Vout to an Arduino analog input.

Prototyping & Sourcing Materials
2013-10-30 00.36.30After I confirmed the feasibility of using the voltage divider concept, I needed to figure out how I make the chess pieces a part of circuit. I needed a connector that could be affixed to store-bought chess pieces and provide two conductors, for the two leads of the resistor. After some research, experimentation and user testing, I decided to use RCA cables and jacks because they could be bought for very cheap (or salvaged), seemed to be kid-proof, and were actually fun to use. Multiple testers remarked that it was fun to push in the pieces into my 3X3 prototype board.

After this initial prototype and testing phase, I launched into building my circuit. I choose eighth inch masonite for the guts of my board because it was light strong, and perfect for the laser cutter, which I used to cut 64 holes for RCA jacks, and 128 holes for red and green LEDs. The jack received the piece while the red and green LEDs denoted incorrect or correct placement respectively. The green LEDs would also light up the potential moves available when a player picked up a piece, as long as it was there turn.

With the guidance of Jeff Feddersen, I chose to use four 16 channel analog multiplexers to read the board and a 16X8 LED driver from Adafruit to control my LEDs. I should mention at this point that I was awarded a small prototyping grant from the newly created NYU Prototyping Fund.

Sourcing & Writing Code
As I was new to every component of this project, I chose to work smart by searching for experts who had used and written code to control some of the electronic components I was using. Luckily Adafruit components typically come with libraries downloadable from Github and I found a wonderful tutorial on the 76HC4067 multiplexers I was using here.

The placement and movement rules/guide I wrote myself. Code is will be on Github shortly!

The Build
Pictures say a thousand words…

I showed ‘Chess Tutor’ at the NYU Prototyping Fund Showcase as well as the ITP 2013 Winter Show. The experience was critical to stress-testing the design and gaining feedback on my design choices. More pictures below and a slick portfolio quality video is on its way…