Last Sunday, Norman Tuck's 'your turn counts' exhibit reached a milestone of 10,000,000 turns and activated a new digital display screen from an ipod to activate the ten millions place. With some rough math on my part I calculated that the exhibit has been on the museum floor for about 420 days since the Exploratorium opened on April, 17th, 2013. Using that number as a basis for my guesstimations I calculate that the exhibit has been turned on average 24,000 times per day which comes out to roughly one spin every second (although in reality that's a bit of an overestimate because of the extra hours that the weekend is open for adult evenings, holidays, and special events).
So you might wonder when we will have to add another digit to the mechanism. According to my unscientific figures and assuming that museum attendance is roughly stable for the next decade, we will have to add a hundred millions place to the exhibit in eleven years and six months. Since the exhibit is a progression of display technology, Norman has until approximately Tuesday, Feburary 17th 2026 to figure out what format that digit will take. Will the numeral be a hologram, a biological display, a digitally fabricated structure, or a layer of technology superimposed on the physical world? I guess we'll all have to wait over a decade to find out.
And if current projections hold, and Pier 15 isn't submerged underwater by rising tides, in 115 years from now we will have reached one billion turns on the exhibit! Although I'm not planning to be around in 2141 it's fun to imagine how that far off digit will be displayed!
Earlier this week, Gautham and Navanya from the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology visited the learning studio for a mini-residency. They have an amazing aftershool and summer program as well as undergraduate classes related to making and tinkering. Our group was inspired by many of the workshop themes that they shared including interactive mapmaking, order and chaos, and patterns. One of the workshops that they offer is called "automata and circuits" so I guess we shouldn't be surprised by the contraption that they built on wednesday and left with us in the learning studio.
This beautiful automata makes connections between the wire of the turning shaft which is connected to one leg of the LED while the other leg recieves electricity from stretched out brass strands taken from a soldering iron tip cleaner.
It was very inspiring to meet with Gautham and Vanya and hear about their similar process of development and see how they have really stretched the possibilities of making and tinkering across many different settings. I can't wait to see how their workshops on linkages, mechanisms and circuits will lead us in new directions and ways of thinking about our current explorations of automata in the tinkering studio.
As part of the cardboard automata workshop environment in the tinkering studio, we are hoping to present a collection of different types of experiments with motions and mechanisms. I got inspired by a box of wooden kit parts from cabaret mechanical theater to make a smaller "exhibit-like" way to explore the activity in a way that requires less facilitation. I also remembered seeing some similar ideas at the lawrence hall of science and the houston children's museum and wanted to see if we could come up with some way for visitors to test out different cams and cam followers and experiment with one of the aspects of automata making.
Here's a video of how the cabaret mechanical theater set works. This was a great start, but we still wanted to make a couple changes like adding a hinged top to the box to make the easier for visitors to play around with the mechanisms and quickly adjust the set-up. We also made the boxes a little bigger and took away a few parts that made the activity more stable but less conducive to tinkering.
We built three boxes and made a selection of cams, cam followers, and axles. The laser cutter was a useful tool for us to quickly prototype different shapes and sizes of cams. We also made a first attempt at instructions along with some challenges.
Taking some inspiration from our circuit board set, we wanted to make the materials friendly and approachable. It's a challenge to create exhibits with lots of loose parts so we also wanted to simplify the setup as much as possible.
So after setting up a quick prototype station, we rolled the table out to the Tinkering Studio to see how visitors would interact with the parts. It was a challenge not to interfere as this would eventually become an unfacilitated experience. As could be expected, it was somewhat difficult for many visitors to figure out how to use the materials, but we stood back and observed and most people eventually figured out the set up. A couple positive things that we noticed was that once people got going, they tended to spend quite a lot of time working at their automata. At the end of the experience you could tell kids were proud of what they did and said "I made this" or "can you take a picture?" which doesn't usually happen at exhibits.
Since we noticed in initial trials that people had a hard time figuring out which parts they could manipulate. Lianna made this great diagram to show the way the pieces can be moved which we hope will make a difference. We also added handles to the top to indicate that you could lift the top of the box as a first step toward rearranging the machine. As with all new exhibits, one of the trickiest parts is coming up with the right language.
So far it seems like the exhibit will be a good addition to the space. It's quite cool to have a place to experiment with the same phenomenon of cams and motions near the cardboard automata area for those who are too young or don't have enough time to build their own automata in our workshop. One of our goals in the Tinkering Studio is to create several levels of participation so that visitors can be experimenting with the same artistic and scientific principles on different timelines and scales. We'll test the exhibit a little bit more and if it seems promising we'll begin to figure out how to make the parts sturdy and robust enough to survive the floor while still keeping the personality and character of the experience in tact.
Over the past several years of doing automata, we've developed some "classic" motion examples for participants to check out as they are starting to design their creations.
On the old PIE pdf for cardboard automata we show five simple examples and dissect the motions behind them so that people can get inspired to take those mechanisms and build their own creations. However after working on the floor with automata for the past few months we've changed some of the "common" motion models and added some new ideas to the mix.
One example motion that we've been messing around with is the "up and down" mechanism. The original version of this one used a crank with the opposite orientation, two side bars, and a lever for the cam follower to rest on. This version has a couple disadvantages as it adds a lot of extra steps to the process and because the lever takes up so much space in the box, it makes it difficult to add more cam followers to the automata for extra characters up top.
Walter came up with a new version of the "up and down" mechanism based on some automata that he had made in the past. It has a curved cardboard cam follower that moves up and down with the off set cam but doesn't spin because of the flaps.
And to continue the innovation streak, Walter created yet another version of the up/down movement for his metautomata™ that uses the same cam but a different method of removing the spin. A little cardboard circle keeps the cam follower touching the top piece but is not directly connected. I love how many different solutions there are for the same problem and having this diversity to the examples can help facilitators choose the best way to help people solve their own problems.
Another new addition to our set of examples explores how to make the motion of the automata fast or slow. By changing the relationship of the size of the cam to the size of the cam follower, you can adjust the speed at which the top piece spins. These examples are a little extreme but serve to demonstrate the principle.
Nicole ended up using the idea of the simple example to make this beautiful and funny automata with two dogs "chasing their tails" at different speeds. The addition of springs to the cam followers also really gives the dogs' motion a lot of personality.
Sometimes, a new idea for an automata inspires us to think about a new example. I made this surfer riding a wave on a straw pivot in a really convoluted way as I was exploring the materials. The crank shaft with wire ended up working but was not the most clear way to produce the movement. However, something about the motion was compelling to people and we saw several visitors try to copy the design faithfully.
So Lianna build this automata model that simplifies the design and makes use of the new up and down example. We use the generic yellow arrows so that people can imagine what characters or scene goes with the motion. I think this works really well to give people a sense of the possibilities of linkages and pivots without providing an polished (or in my case unpolished) example for them to copy exactly.
Each of these new examples is directly the result of us spending time on the floor facilitating the activity and a great example of how our time on the floor influences aspects of the activity design. Our models reflect new ideas that visitors come up with. We try to demonstrate the motions in a way that is clear and easy to understand but doesn't give visitors direct instructions on how to build and leaves the activity open to new ideas and personal challenges.
Another project done by EUPHRATES that I’d like to share is an animated short film that they created with Masahiko Sato. This was made as a promotion film for a new fashion label "A-POC” (A Piece Of Cloth) by Japanese fashion designer Issey Miyake and shown in Paris Fashion Week in 2007. It is very simple: you see white dots and alphabets moving on the black background, which somehow we recognize as the movements of fashion models.
This was made based on the study about cognitive science, particularly using the knowledge of “Biological Motion,” which is a term by Gunnar Johansson (1973). Based on Johansson’s study, the members of EUPHRATES held several workshops with high school students to experiment with the visual phenomenon, where they attached small points of light at the joints of the human beings to see if they could get impressions of human figures moving.
They also showed us some other videos from their workshop, and we learned that the figure could be recognized even when it was with some irrelevant noise dots (sorry no video for that)! It was interesting. We’ve been doing stop-motion animation in the Tinkering Studio for a long time, but never messed around with various animation techniques. I would be fun to experiment to develop new animation expressions and techniques using knowledge from cognitive science and human perception.