Geek Culture

Published on March 9th, 2015 | by Alexander Byrne

Geeky Gadgetry: A MaKeyMaKey Experiment

Children and teens are natural scientists trying to find out neat ways the world works. There are some inexpensive gadgets that a library can teach patrons how to build that can expand the world around them and exercise their scientific inquiry and their aesthetic sense. In this Geeky Gadgetry series, projects provide a platform for them to express their interests and get started on fulfilling pathways toward creation and ownership of their ideas and expressions.

MaKey MaKey

MaKey MaKey is deceptively simple. Take two wires, with an alligator clip on each end. Connect an alligator clip to an object that can conduct electricity. Connect one of the the other wire’s alligator clip to you, in a comfortable manner. Clip the object’s other alligator clip to one of the spots on the MaKey MaKey that will provide an input. Connect your other alligator clip to one of the “Earth” spots on the MaKey MaKey. Then plug the MaKey MaKey into a USB port on a computer. When you touch the object, the input the object is connected to will be sent to the computer. Simple, right?

Right. The experimentation and invention potential from this simple concept is nearly unlimited. All sorts of conductive objects can be used to send input to a computer, which can be turned into anything by a program running on the other end. The banana piano is a popular eye-catching introduction to the possibilities – once imagination fires up, you may find yourself learning more about the conductive properties of ordinary things than you expected in pursuit of trying to get something truly wacky into the mix. It’s possible to play a drum kit with the bananas, as well, just by changing the program from one that plays piano notes on certain inputs to one that produces drum sounds. Since the MaKey MaKey only provides inputs like a keyboard would, what happens with those inputs is entirely up to the program that’s being run.

The standard inputs provided by the alligator clips for a MaKey MaKey are:

  • Keyboard Up Arrow
  • Keyboard Down Arrow
  • Keyboard Left Arrow
  • Keyboard Right Arrow
  • Space Bar
  • Left Mouse Click

Photo credit: Jay Silver (JayAhimsa on Flickr)

This is enough to work with anything that needs those inputs – a surprisingly large amount of possibilities out of the box. For example, a project allowed players to play the dancing game Flash Flash Revolution by splashing in buckets of water corresponding to the arrow keys. Since Flash Flash Revolution only needs the arrows, it was able to work right out of the box. A different project, replicated by many, is using graphite (pencil) drawings to create a control scheme for the many Pac-Man clones available on the Internet, since that also does not require a large amount of complex button presses. If one had access to emulation, many classic game systems can be controlled with one or two buttons and the arrow keys. So long as the drawing itself doesn’t contain any shorts or graphite too close to other graphite, any kind of drawing could be used to create a controller. What a way to engage your artistic crowd – develop an embellished and good-looking controller that can be hooked up and used to play something through the MaKey MaKey. Or find the most oddball items you or your participants can image and see if a controller of some sort can be manufactured out of them. It will be a great way for kids and teens to learn about the various conductive or non-conductive properties of common materials, and their imagination (and what’s available) is the only limiter on what sort of creations they can come up with.

If you have kids who would want to work on the other side of the MaKey MaKey, any programs they can create, whether in Scratch or any other language could be tailored for use with the MaKey MaKey.

Kids and teens who are looking for a slightly more advanced experience can turn the MaKey MaKey over and see that there are jumper attachment points on the back. On the left side are eight possible keys to be pressed, and on the right, mouse movements in all four directions and both mouse buttons. The principles are still the same, and the alligator-clip items are also still available for use. Now, more complex entities could be controlled with more objects or more complex drawings, so long as the jumper wires are connected to conductive things. Which could mean, say, the number of emulated games increases several systems of magnitude, as all the four-button systems come into play, as do the eight-button systems. MaKey MaKey could be used to provide a discrete interface for someone to walk through an interactive exhibit where mouse movement and clicking is the primary way of getting to the information – like a science fair project. The possibilities increase exponentially, such that it becomes possible to spell words with alphabet soup pieces, based on the available letters.


Photo credit: Jay Silver (JayAhimsa on Flickr)


For those looking for the highest level of customization of their inputs (e.g. to change the keys that are pressed by the jumper connections, or to have entire actions or commands be performed through the pressing of objects), the MaKey MaKey itself is, in fact, an Arduino device. Anyone conversant in Arduino sketches can modify the configuration files so that any input the MaKey MaKey can receive can output any other thing, making it possible for the MaKey MaKey to control any number of sophisticated ideas that a computer can, or to make the MaKey MaKey itself the interface for any number of possible Arduino projects that don’t require a computer, so long as they can translate the signals coming out of the MaKey MaKey into something useful.

However you use it, the MaKey MaKey lives up to the billing as an invention kit – just about anything can be used on either side of the MaKey MaKey to create something awesome!


About the Author

Alex Byrne is a Youth Services Librarian with the Pierce County Library System, stationed at University Place, WA When not helping people with their technology issues or telling stories to young children and their parents in fleece pajamas, he is extolling the virtues of library cards, promoting off-the-beaten-path books to readers, and trying to find new cool things to do and promote. Contact him by email at or @HeofHIshirts on Twitter.

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