I began with an idea for a mechanical diorama/musical instrument. I imagined an ocean scene, with four little stuffed animal rats rowing a boat under the moonlight. I originally wanted four traditionally mechanical motions to be my inputs: two cranks and two pedals. I imagined that these would control the rowing motion of each of the 4 main characters. In my mind, users would have to coordinate both theirs hands and feet to animate the scene.
My first challenge was, naturally, mechanical. Not being an engineer or even particularly good at physics, I focused on overcoming what to me was going to be the most challenging part of the project, the actual mechanism to move the ocean waves. I drew inspiration from turn of the century theater, where illusions and magic played an important part in the story. Before spending any time or energy laser-cutting a prototype, I used an Erector set and the shop tools to test a simple, hot-glued/rubberbanded-together plywood crankshaft. It worked! It was really clunky, and ugly, but as a proof of concept, it sufficed.
The next step was to create a circuit. I had to learn how to use stepper motors in less than a week. As it turns out, having four different inputs and outputs is difficult logic to write in Arduino because the supporting motor libraries can't read and write at the same time. Furthermore, while the crankshaft was a great solution for the waves, I hand't yet thought about the rowing mechanism for the rats. Only three weeks until the show! At this moment I had to make the difficult decision of foregoing my original one input per output plan and focus on the gestalt. Was it more important to know there were many different inputs and outputs, or to provide a pleasant and delightful experience for audience members? I chose the latter.
I went back to the drawing board with the mechanism, not focusing on any one part in particular, but on the whole diorama. The crankshaft suddenly became a logical point of interaction, to I added a big handle to one end and a tiny roller switch to the other. Voila! My mechanism was now my only input, and I could focus on the content of the scene.
I wanted to create the illusion that the entire thing was mechanical, even only the waves were actually mechanical and the rest of the scene would be controlled with Arduino. I used a lot of construction paper, glitter and glue to convey a low-tech look and feel. My circuit included 12 twinkling LED stars and two servo motors, one for the swaying moon and one for the rat. Yes, one rat; his other friends were too heavy for my little servo, so one rat had to do.
In the end, the cranking motion simultaneously moved the waves and triggered a roller switch connected to the Arduino, which activated the swaying moon, twinkling stars, and soft music. The scene was alive with light, music and color. It's still my favorite project from my time at ITP :)
Music Box 1 from Gabriela Gutierrez on Vimeo.