MIT's 3D-Printed CurveBoards Are Breadboards for Wearable, Unusually-Shaped Project Prototyping

Printed in flexible silicon, MIT CSAIL's 3D breadboards are integrated directly into physical objects.

Solderless breadboards are fantastic tools for prototyping, but are typically flat slabs which don't play well for wearable projects. CurveBoards, developed by MIT CSAIL researchers, though, are different: they confirm to whatever shape is required, through the magic of 3D modeling and printing.

"On breadboards, you prototype the function of a circuit. But you don’t have context of its form — how the electronics will be used in a real-world prototype environment," explains first author Junyi Zhu of the problem behind the use of traditional breadboards for wearable and other embedded prototyping. "Our idea is to fill this gap, and merge form and function testing in very early stage of prototyping an object. CurveBoards essentially add an additional axis to the existing XYZ axes of the object — the ‘function' axis.

"People love breadboards, and there are cases where they’re fine to use. This is for when you have an idea of the final object and want to see, say, how people interact with the product. It’s easier to have a CurveBoard instead of circuits stacked on top of a physical object."

The key to the CurveBoard is a custom editing software, into which a 3D model of a target object is imported. Once imported, a "Generate Pinholes" function automatically creates the pinholes in as uniform a manner as possible — and enables either automatic or manual laying of conductive tracks between holes. When finished, the design is then exported ready for 3D printing — which takes place using a flexible silicone, with a custom-designed conductive silicone for the conductive tracks.

The team's work has proven the concept across a range of object shapes, from headphones and bracelets to a teapot — which was fitted with a camera to track the color of the tea as well as LEDs which indicate how hot or cold different parts of the handle are. In user studies, five of the six participants claimed that the CurveBoards were easier and quicker for prototyping these unusually-shaped projects than traditional breadboards.

The next steps: The creation of common object shapes as templates, and a simulator which will allow for early-stage prototyping to take place entirely in the modelling software, saving printing for when a more refined design has been created and tested.

The team's work has been published for the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, and is available under open-access terms from MIT's website.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire:
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