Thursday, September 29, 2011

Skinner Box

My big new project for Burning Man this year was the Skinner Box, originally brainstormed between me and my dad two years ago on the way back from the 2009 Burn. It is, simply put, a very cruel joke: an exercise bike in the middle of the desert which randomly dispenses hard alcohol. Before taking it down I made this demo video:


Not a very complicated project, but it was still a frantic couple of weeks getting it finished in time. I used a cute little 6 volt submersible food-grade pump which was being sold on Amazon for sous-vide cooking purposes. The bike was $3 from Goodwill, and I rigged up a simple tachometer using a $5 used bike computer. The non-contact magnetic sensor was just a reed switch, so it was trivial to detect it closing when hooked to an Arduino.

Photo by Jen Kale'a

It had flashing lights, a progress needle hooked to a servo, and a buzzer playing happy and sad noises to tap as many addictive gamer impulses as possible. Plus, of course, random positive feedback. The progress needle has to increment 15 times in order for a unit of alcohol to be dispensed. As long as you're pedaling, it will keep incrementing about every other second. Except that each time it does, there is a 4% chance of failure, which sends it back to the beginning. 0.9615 = 0.54, so you have slightly better than even chances of success each time you start. Each win provided about a third of a shot of the cheapest vodka I could find. Warm, cheap, slightly dusty vodka.

Photo by Jen Kale'a

It was fairly well received on the playa. We were camped farther out on 5:00 than we'd been hoping for, though, so there wasn't a huge amount of foot traffic. It mostly just confused people, I think. Most of the people who actually used it were the ones who knew what a Skinner Box was and got the joke from that level. I did catch one or two people engaging in classical Skinner Box behavior, though, developing complex theories as to when it would and would not dispense alcohol. We didn't go through nearly as much of the cheap vodka as I had planned for, so I spent some time on Saturday going around giving the surplus out to needful bars.


The el-wire sign I made for it turned out to be the best thing about it. It was a very convenient for finding camp at night. I was very pleased with its crisp, clean lines. I probably should only have used two colors of wire, though. I was going for a classic 50s neon look and I think the color scheme just looks kind of... toothpasty. Oh well.

Photo by Jen Kale'a
In the end, it was a fun project, but I won't be taking it back. I don't think I like doing static installations like this in front of camp. It encouraged me to just sit there waiting for people to come by. I want to be out and about, wearing and/or riding my art. I do have some other installation ideas, but they will be 1) bigger 2) more conceptually simple and 3) on fire. As they should be.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Kalamazoo: Out and About

It's been a busy month or so for the Kalamazoo, which is among the reasons why I haven't made a post about any of it until now. While I hope to take it out to events in the future, the project itself is now done as far as I'm concerned. Any further improvements would require radical changes to the drive train, and that just isn't going to happen. Too many other things to work on!

Scientific Expedition and Picnic
In early August a group of friends and I dressed up in our silly steampunk best and drove the Kalamazoo down to a nearby park for a picnic. We sipped lemonade from a mismatch of thrift store tea cups, nibbled on cucumber sandwiches, and generally had a grand time.

Many pictures were taken...
Photo by Gabriel Cain

In stereo, even...
Photo by Espressobuzz

And I've since taken some liberties with them:

A large amount of footage was also shot. Having recently been turned on the music of Caravan Palace, I couldn't resist making a full music video for their song Dragons. I think it nicely captures the feeling of the expedition:

A week later, Ignite Seattle teamed up with Dorkbot to put together ThingOut!, a showcase of local Maker projects. We took the Kalamazoo down, which turned out to be a really good choice. It was awesome! It turns out that kids love the thing. There were 3-6 kids climbing all over it pretty much the entire time we were there. They tended to pick up the mechanical skill of driving it a lot faster than adults, too. Maybe because they don't have other driving experience to unlearn first? The whole thing left me very eager to take the device to other events, despite the logistical hassle of having to rent a trailer every time.

Burning Man 2011
And a week after that I left for the playa, taking the Kalamazoo down for the second time. This made me a bit nervous, if only because last year had been such a big failure. But despite it still be very, very slow, it worked much better this year. Hooray!

On Wednesday night I took it all the around Esplanade. That was about 3.6 miles and it took over 7 hours (with many rest breaks, but still). My arms nearly fell off! But I did it. The Kalamazoo finally proved itself under full playa conditions. The addition of the trunk made an expedition of this length quite easy to pack for. We had 2 gallons of water, food, tools and bike pump for an emergency, and spare lamp oil for the lanterns. Very civilized
Photo by Jen Kale'a

People would occasionally jump on for a ride or to help pump, but we were going so slowly that was fairly rare. Got a lot of good comments, and some annoying/stupid ones. But the people who liked it really liked it. One person, upon finding us slowly creaking along out by the Temple, said we had made his Burn. Which, in turn, totally made mine.
Photo by Jen Kale'a