Back from Rainbow Serpent now and mostly recovered from having too much fun. So much fun that I haven’t any pics or vids. The Mitochondrion mark 4.2.3 got a great reception, someone described it as brain-melting, which is one of the feelings that I’m trying to create, and I got to meet lots of other good people and see lots of other LED gear.
I’ve mostly been developing this glow staff for my own pleasure* but with an eventual goal of making these available to other people. “Eventual” can be a long time in the future, but Reese from Soul-fire had a spin (and looked downright wonderfull with it) and then bounced up to me and said “you should be making these so other people can have this experience”. That’s the best reason for hurrying this process along.
Of course, that needs me to get over the desire to be constantly chasing after the the bleeding edge of what’s possible. That bleeding edge is charging off into the future with brighter and more numerous LEDs, fancier sensors, and smarter chips every year. The mark 4 is at the limit of hardware that was state of the art 18 months ago, so next step means new microcontroller family, LED strips, and battery chemistry. It means balancing the chase for the bleeding edge with three things that will make other people happier: reliability, affordability, and controllability.
Reliability: I broke the mark 4 again at Rainbow, dropped it two metres onto concrete while climbing on a huge lotus flower lounging structure. I knew which part had come loose and I fixed it in the back of the van with two wire-ties, but if someone is going to give me their money, then I don’t want to let them down. Equally, if a professional performer is using this for an act, I feel a responsibility to them, to their livelihood, and to their clients. And I feel a responsibility to the planet not to make more crap that gets thrown away after five minutes.
Over the past few years, I’ve tested versions, dropped them, found the weak spots, and learnt a good deal about how to make them durable. There’s still lots more to learn and it’s the kind of learning that only happens through real-world experience. For instance, I thought I could get away without cable clamps and just rely on the locking connectors not to pop out. With the small internal connectors I’m using, that’s not the case. Cable clamps are needed to take shock loads off the connectors, which is an easy fix but needs a longer circuit board with space for the clamps. That’s the kind of thing I want to know before accepting money from anyone.
Affordability: I used to be a rocket scientist, where it didn’t matter if it cost $100 million. Back in the real world, the cost of the Mark 4 is best described by a pained grimace. For parts alone, the current version looks something like:
- Polycarbonate tube – $110
- 3D printed end pieces – $180
- 3D printed battery holders – $500 (if I wasn’t paying mates’ rates)
- Arduino Nano microcontroller – $90
- 20 NiMH rechargable batteries – $100
- Addressable RGB LED strips – $50
- Big voltage converter – $90
- Little voltage converter – $10
- Tantalum capacitors for little voltage converter, ethically sourced – $60
- 9-way motion sensor – $110
- Microphone, op-amp and audio analyser chip – $25
- Custom PCB – $50
- Screws, aluminium spine, sockets, connectors, resistors, caps, stand-offs, spacers, and sellotape – $haven’t counted
That’s well over a grand on parts alone (and forgetting labour, writing off development costs and ignoring costs from marketing, selling, and maintaining). Some of that is necessary cost, but much of it isn’t. Thus there’s lots of cost engineering to do. There’s three approachers for that. The first is design for manufacture. For instance, failing to sleep while back in Melbourne lead to a much cheaper design for the battery holders, like fifty times cheaper. Secondly, I can buy cheaper parts, if they will be reliable. I can get a copy of the microcontroller board for $15, but I’ve had 50% failure rates on the cheap ones and 0% on the expensive ones. So sod that. Thirdly, I can ask “is this functionality worth the money?” The audio sensor costs $25 and generating patterns in response to music will look pretty good. The motion sensor costs $100+ and generating patterns in response to movement will look pretty good. Will it look four times as good?
Controllability: Right now, the mark 4 just splatters a bunch of patterns onto the retinas of anyone nearby. When it starts spinning, it wakes up and goes nuts, when it stops spinning then it drops into one of the ambient modes, and then after a while it goes back to sleep. That’s cool, but it could be much more responsive to what is happening around it, how someone is using it, and what they are telling it to do. I’ve a lot of ideas about how to do all of those things, synching it to music, having it gesture-controlled, and wirelessly controlled from a phone. For performances, you’re going to want to set a sequence of patterns and trigger points. The hardware for all of this is in place, it’s just a question of writing the software and seeing what works in reality.
This year’s plan: So then, here’s what I’d like to do this year:
1) Use the existing mark 4 as a development platform for writing the code for sound-, motion-, and gesture-responsive behaviour.
2) Calve off the pattern generator code as a stand-alone library, so that anyone with an Arduino and an LED strip can use it to bring the shiny. This isn’t on the critical path, but I’ve had so much help from the Arduino community that I want to give something back.
3) Build the mark 5 with a view to a more saleable product. Current plans for the hardware are a gruntier microcontroller (probably an ARM Cortex), lithium batteries, the Neopixel LED strips (80 LEDs not 44, and four strips not two), and a new internal structure to hold all of this. I want something that reuses the mark 4 code, does more, costs less, and doesn’t break.
Hmm, maybe that’s the plan for the next two years. But at the end of those three steps, I want something I can give to other people, for them to test, for them to use and break in ways that I would never manage myself. I want something where I can share the learning process and then after that, I want something I can sell.
Oh, and I went to a very inspiring workshop on staff dance run by Wolf. I can just spin the thing in front of me, to create a worm-hole in reality for my brain to fall into, but there’s so much more possiblity in moving with the staff. So I want to completely change my style, into one that’s much less spinning and more dance and aikido.
For once in my life, I’ve got time. The house is built and finished, at least to the point where I don’t feel the need to work on it every evening and weekend. The day job remains enjoyable and makes me feel that I’m contributing to creating a better world, but at the end of eight hours, I can go and work on my own plans. I have the usual variety of other projects but none that I’m taking as seriously as the Mitochondrion. And now that my wrist is mostly fixed, I’ll be training aerials and getting back to aikido, but the time and energy that requires is returned over and again as a clearer and more productive brain results from a healthier body. So, bring on this year. It’s going to be fun.
* – And carrying something visible from a kilometre away helps my friends to find me in the dark at festivals. Admittedly, One of the good people I met at Rainbow was Gem. He makes pretty cool LED toys for his friends, with the reason that he wants to be able to find his friends at festivals. So yeah, that made me realise that I’m a tad self-centred. Rainbow was good for realisations.