Strictly speaking, this post is about a project that is only tangentially related to mechatronics. However, given Pocobor’s name and history (and my background as a native Michigander), I couldn’t resist passing along an update regarding a unique public art project coming to Detroit.

In 2011, there was a successfully funded Kickstarter project to create a “life-sized” monument in Detroit that would pay tribute to that city’s greatest half-man, half-machine crime fighting hero. Although the pace has been slow, things are still moving forward and the makers have given us an update.

It’s nice to be reminded that sometimes, science fiction decides to look at the positive side of a future, more mechatronically advanced world. I can’t wait to see the statue.

Color Commons

I recently heard about Color Commons, an interactive public artwork created by New American Public Art. The idea is to allow the public to change the color of the Boston Greenway Light Blades via text message. You simply send an SMS to the Light Blades number (917.525.2337) that says what color you want the lights to be and within about 1 second, the lights will change.

I think this is an awesome project on several different levels. First is the element of interactivity – I really like art that engages viewers beyond a passive consumption level. I also think that the creativity and diversity of perspective embodied by “the public” can discover and create really interesting usage scenarios that the original artist would never have thought of (perhaps this just betrays a lack of confidence in my own creativity and artistic vision but nevertheless…).

It is also interesting to learn more about how the project was executed from an engineering perspective. The creators have generously published their source code and other details about their implementation to help inspire others – check out their project page here. In short, they used a Rascal MCU that runs Python and has a built-in web server and linked that module to a server, which they connected to Twilio to receive the text messages. When a message comes in, they parse it using a Python script to determine which color is being requested and then send the command to the Light Blades controller (a Color Kinetics iPlayer3 with ColorPlay software).

I love seeing this kind of project and hope it inspires others to create interactive art. Hopefully one of these days Pocobor will have time to put together one of the ideas that have been rattling around the office lately…

Exploded Views

I stopped by the SF Museum of Modern Art the other day for the first time in a few years and was blown away by Exploded Views, an installation by Jim Campbell (an alum of the EE and math departments at MIT – my kind of artist) that is hanging in the atrium. If you look above your head as you walk into the museum, you will notice 2880 white LEDs hanging from the ceiling in the shape of a large box. From below, you can notice that various lights are flickering on and off but the pattern driving them is not immediately apparent. However, when you walk up the stairs to the first balcony and then look back at the array, you immediately find that you are looking at a kind of 3d screen showing footage of moving silhouettes. When I was there, the film was a boxing match, but there have been several clips that have played at various times.

From a technical perspective, this piece is fascinating to me for a variety of reasons. First of all, the conversion of what I assume is originally standard 2d footage to a signal controlling when each LED turns on and off is a meaty design problem, especially given the ability of the 3d array to provide depth of field. Furthermore, I know from experience that driving large scale LED arrays can be a surprisingly involved process from a hardware perspective, involving thermal management and a significant wiring effort just to locate, connect and debug nearly 3000 LEDs without sacrificing serviceability.

Beyond the engineering points of interest, though, seeing the installation was an extremely compelling artistic experience. Campbell did a great job of executing what was an inspired initial vision to begin with and created an effect that was surprisingly sticky – I spent a lot longer staring at the piece then I normally do at museums and spent the next few days thinking about ideas for variations that would be cool personal projects. I think I talk a lot in these posts about how much I appreciate it when I see something inspiring, especially something that can get people excited about the potential of mechatronics – this is a perfect example and if you have a chance to visit SFMOMA while the piece is up (until October 23), I strongly recommend checking it out.

Granath, The Animatronics Dragon

I came across this scary guy the other day. He (she?) is an animatronic puppet that was built by students from the Poly Bots Club of NYU Poly Tech. It was built for the Puppetry Arts Youth Empowerment Program. I need to make one of these animatronic puppets for Halloween. You can learn more about the Puppetry Arts Program here.

Metal Machine Music

I’m always interested in people’s side projects, where they combine their engineering skills with labors of love. My musical taste also runs distinctly towards the loud end of the spectrum. This can be a common source of complaint from the other Pocobytes after a day where I’ve grabbed control of our speakers. So when the video below was brought to my attention, I was pretty thrilled with the results. Adding force feedback to playing an instrument is an interesting way to change the performer’s experience. It’s even packable, as he recently played a concert in San Francisco. The following video does feature loud, industrial inspired music, as well as some minor cursing, so headphones are recommended.

Kinetic Art

I’m always on the look out for cool art pieces that incorporate engineering. When I came across the Kinetic Sculpture exhibit at the BMW museum in Munich, Germany I was very excited. It’s basically a sculpture made up of metallic balls suspended on very thin wire to give the illusion that the balls are floating. The balls can be made to move up or down via the wires to create different forms. Enjoy.