You’ve probably seen it; millions of people have. One of the first videos done by the animation company Animusic, Pipe Dream is a fun computer animation of a mechanical percussion orchestra, with little balls caroming off of drums and xylophone keys and cowbells before tucking themselves neatly back into funnels for reuse. It’s fascinating and clever and, when it was made in 2001, completely unrealistic.
In 2011, Intel decided to show off by making the Pipe Dream a reality. They spent 3 months and $160,000 to make this display, and Intel has some pretty high-powered geeks on tap. That makes it very educational to notice what features they included from the original, which ones they left out, and the new little details they added. They made a slick official video, but I prefer a cell-phone video someone took at a trade show and put up on YouTube. The amateur video shows a few more of the rough edges, which is what makes it so fascinating. You can actually see the design triage process in action.
Some features of the imaginary machine were clearly just too much to try in real life. For example, they gave up entirely on the idea of harvesting the little balls into funnels after they’ve bounced off of something, probably because it is very hard to exactly predict the trajectory of a ball that is bouncing off of a movable surface. People who can do it reliably get paid large amounts of money to play basketball or billiards. Animusic had no trouble creating this effect, but their balls are mathematical abstractions, not actual physical pieces of plastic.
On the other hand, the “sunflower style” xylophone was something Intel could pull off, and they did a remarkably good job. Check out the fast run of notes at 2:49 in the video and notice how clean a sound they get. They are throwing several balls a second out of a hopper in different directions over a distance of more than a foot, and still getting a good, crisp, musical-sounding tone from the xylophone. That’s darn impressive.
The Intel engineers also glitzed up the display with a bunch of LEDs that light up when a surface is struck, which the original animation didn’t include. But, why not? It’s easy and cheap to do; a visual response like this is almost “free” as long as you’re already detecting the ball hits anyway. So, might as well toss it in.
At this point, you’re probably wondering what the heck this has to do with bioinstrumentation, which is what I normally write about here. The more serious answer is that design triage is vital when you’re developing a piece of equipment. What features are indispensable? Which would be wonderful but are too difficult or expensive for your price point? Can you use clever design or coding to make up for the fact that you can’t afford a high-performance material? What easy but useful fe
But I also want to encourage you to think playfully. The Pipe Dream is not a very useful object, when you get right down to it, but that isn’t the point. By stretching themselves creatively to use the processors and servos Intel makes, the employees learned more about exactly what you could get the devices to do. That’s valuable. I also spend some of my free time making fun but impractical objects, and I have brought a lot of things I learned while fooling around back into my serious work. Academic sabbaticals were also intended to make space for this kind of thinking, but with modern academia being what it is, you will probably have to get your play time however you can. But don’t put it off entirely.
If you’re in a playful mood, and live in the New York City area, I would also like to encourage you to come to the World Maker Faire in Queens this month (Sept. 26 and 27). The Faire is nothing short of astonishing in its breadth of creative geekery: last year, I learned lockpicking, talked with the inventor of a pipetting robot, ate breakfast cereal straight out of the puffing gun, and experimented with an open-source EEG. If you think you might be of a hacker-y temperament, you owe it to yourself to go.
I’ll be giving a talk this year on Making for the Laboratory (http://makerfaire.com/maker/entry/51873/), and I’ll be hanging out a lot with my Makerspace, the Tech Valley Center of Gravity (http://makerfaire.com/maker/entry/52503/). If you’re at the Faire, come by and say hello!