A blog is only as good as the story it tells, and my story for the past few months is that I’ve been holed up in my basement a lot, trying to see how many safety violations I can rack up while rushing to finish my latest project.
Since OSHA hasn’t been in touch, I think I’m in the clear now- no major loss of digits, air quality is good enough to keep a canary alive, and I’m not telling about any tripping incidents.
I won’t count the numerous soldering gun events either, since I’m rationalizing that those are almost like what people pay for at tattoo shops (just without the ink or artistic intent).
All of this was in preparation for what I’ll call the “big boy show and tell”- the World Maker Faire held annually on the site of the 1966 Worlds Fair in New York.
The stories from this past weekend were many and varied- I connected with dozens (if not hundreds) of potential clients who were envious enough, nostalgic enough, and “seriously considering” partnering with me to build them a custom pinball machine in a theme of their liking. But the most enjoyable conversations had nothing to do with that.
There was the guy who shared his story of how he longed to be a “creative engineer” (a textbook oxymoron if ever there was one), and how he started his life adventure dissembling and then repairing TVs at the age of 5. He now does movie production work. He was eager to talk about the social messages of the zombie movie, George Romero as a genius director, and asked “why did you choose to keep all the old electronics in your game design?”
Then there was the college grad student who picked my brain about getting new micro controllers to work with all the “electronic noise” of an old pinball machine. She seemed genuinely interested, and she even took notes.
There were dozens of baby boomers who I spoke to who simply loved the sights and sounds (and the physicality) of an old pinball machine- and they played to relive their youth, and to refresh their flipper skills. The “BB of the H” (Baby Boomer of the Hour) and I chuckled together as we watched kids from 2 to 22 walk up to the machine wide-eyed, but not having a clue how to play such a thing without a joystick or controller.
There were the casual inquiries from others who mentioned that they had never seen this model of machine back in the day when they were players. It was always fun to tell them that this was the one and only machine of this type- and even though it looks and sounds like a 1970’s era pinball, those machines didn’t have enclosed fog generating systems or “infinity mirror” portals. “You made this?” was my favorite phase of the day ( but also made me realize I wasted a lot of time and money on signage that tried to make that as pretty much the point of the project.)
There were engineers, artists, scientists, inventors, small kick-starter funded company presidents asking me technical details about my Arduino control system architecture. Some seemed dissatisfied with my choices, but were more forgiving when I admitted that I bought a “Getting Started with Arduino” kit exactly 1 year ago at this very Maker Faire. That same story gave comfort to a few wannabe inventors who were intimidated by the entire concept of Arduinos and programmable micro controllers. If a Civil Engineer (the opposite of an Electrical Engineer, if there is such a thing) can do this- you can as well.
And then there were the zombie and horror movie enthusiasts who shared how NOTLD “affected” them with its bleak ending and ground- breaking visuals.
These were the many languages spoken at Maker Faire- and I was happy to participate in such a wide range of discussions in all of those languages.
The last few months have been frantic. Work duties during the week, and weekends spent “cramming for finals” with my Engineering Senior Design Team at Roger Williams University.
Well the finals are done, the Team has graduated and moved on, and I have been teaching myself new programming languages so I can build a custom fog/light/sound/special FX control unit for my machine.
As of today, the machine is symbolic of its own state- a zombie mechanism capable of limited movement and grunting- but lacking a connected “brain” to make it all work correctly as envisioned.
So to the world of breadboards, Arduinos, LEDs and servos I have journeyed.
I emerge from the other side of this jungle jumble of thought wires with clarity- it almost all makes sense now. I have a complex web of my lessons connected, buzzing, glowing, and moving on my actual (not virtual) desktop. The design all works now- lights flash multiple colors, moans and screams happen electronically as I direct them to- as opposed to haunting my dreams. Fog generators glow when expected as I touch trigger wires.
I now must transform this rats nest of success into the limited space of my zombie machine to make it come alive.
I now look forward to days of soldering and cursing my iron scorched fingers.
The sprint is now to get it all together and functioning in time for the planned “big reveal” in New York City- at the World Maker Faire in September- if they accept my application. If so, my work gets an audience of 100,000+ people.
As part of my application, last night I put together a crude video of the transformation of this custom machine. The story, as is the machine, remains unfinished- a stumbling, bumbling zombie still searching for brains.
The video so far can be seen here:
Happy New Year to all!
I blinked. Before I had a chance to open both eyes, the holidays were over, I was back at work, and I didn’t spend nearly as much time as I wanted to on my favorite hobby-business. In my last update, I introduced the Pinventions Senior Design Team working on a fog system for my “Night of the Living Dead” custom pinball project. That was in late November.
Here’s a quick update on what has happened since then:
1. The Roger Williams University Engineering School Senior Design Team delivered a summary of their work in a semester-ending presentation to faculty, students, and others.
2. I can only assume they all got A’s as a result of their awesome progress (and because they all looked sharp in their suits). Photo below.
3. Linda, Amanda, Jon and I had a nice long drive to PA to visit and celebrate a total of 3 Christmas’ with our families. Eve made alternate arrangements.
4. Amanda graduated from college a semester early. This was good.
5. Other stuff…
6. In pinball related news, I recently partnered with a talented comic book artist, Chad Cicconi, to help design a playfield for my Night of the Living Dead pinball machine project. Chad happens to be from my hometown- Brownsville, PA, and does some lawyering on the side (much like I do some engineering on the side- meaning that those are our real jobs).
I’d like to dedicate the rest of this blog to highlighting some of the comic book work Chad has done, and sharing some of the concept art he has created for my pinball project.
Chad draws (among other things) the FRACTURE series of comics for Action Lab Entertainment, and a recent issue has been receiving some favorable press. Review.Traditional (nostalgic) pinball art has many similarities to comic book style art, and I am not especially talented in that genre. I saw some of Chad’s work online, liked his style, and realized that he could help me with certain parts of my overall design. He has some great ideas, and I am excited to see how his work, my work, and the Senior Design Team’s work will all come together in the next few months.
There are a few surprises in store, but here is a sampling of what Chad is working on for me. Stay tuned, this should be fun.
P.S. I am overstocked with “donor” pinball machines (and running out of room since both Jon and Amanda are back living at home temporarily). I have 12 or 13 machines now (I honestly lost count), and would be willing to sell a few “as-is” (non-customized) for $500 to $800 just to clear up some space. If you are interested, let me know- I’ll get a machine cleaned up and working for you.
This past week I paid a visit to Roger Williams University and met with the Engineering Senior Design Project Team working on a self-contained fog generation system for my “Night of the Living Dead” custom pinball machine.Backglass Design
This is my third meeting with Alexander Gilman, Anthony Melkonian, Richard Mendoza, and Brian Stuckman- the “Pinventions Team” as they are known- and I am very impressed with their progress to date. We first met in late September when they visited my workshop, got a sense of what my business endeavor is all about, and learned about my vision for my zombie pinball machine design.
Meet the Team
The engineering challenges that I gave them were somewhat unique. I had done a lot of research into solving the series of engineering problems associated with this project, and there were no clear-cut answers for some of them. I also was pushing the limit in my requirements and expectations of this design team. For example, my design vision includes:
1. Development of a self-contained fog generation unit that could simulate fog (in a foggy cemetery scene in the back glass of the machine).
2. The fog generation needs to be almost instantaneous.
3. The fog should be controllable to a certain extent- with different modes that can be triggered by different game play actions- for example, fog could be swirling, low-lying, exhausted at the feet of the player, or be capable of being piped to an area beneath the playfield for use in other special effects.
4. The glass areas should be easy to clean, ideally with an automatic or self-contained cleaning system.
These design requirements would necessitate some pretty complex automation, including air handling, temperature control, and integration with older electronics from the base game design. I was a bit worried that this would all be a bit too much for these four students, expecting perhaps a “fun” and easy project (after all- zombies!).
But after our meeting this week I was pleasantly surprised. They had researched and solved the problem of instantly generating fog by hacking some of the electronics from a special kind of electronic cigarette, and they have been working with anti-fogging liquids (ironically) to minimize the need for cleaning the glass. They had completed some basic work on the computerized automation and airflow, constructed an acrylic back glass and constructed a working test/demo unit.
Trust me-There’s fog in the cemetery.
To their credit, they also printed out one part of my back glass design artwork and attached that to the test unit to give it a more realistic look. Even in the brightly lit classroom, the effect was impressive. Considering that they have 2/3 of the school year left to pull it all together, I am confident we will have an impressive prototype to show.
The students tell me that Dr. Linda Riley (program director for RWU Engineering) suggested that their fog generation concept may be worthy of a patent. I tend to agree.
Before I left the meeting, I offered them (and myself!) an even greater challenge- I suggested that they plan for completing their work a month or so early, and I would work to have the rest of the machine design completed and working by then as well- including original artwork for the playfield design as well as some other special effects to make additional use of the fog. Our hope is to put it all together and have the entire working machine there for the final presentation in May 2014.
Thanks to Alex, Anthony, Richard, and Brian for some impressive work to date. I’m looking forward to your presentation at the end of the semester, and to mentoring you all towards the completion of our project.
And finally, a bit of trivia about the theme of the design- “Night of the Living Dead”. Although this classic movie from 1968 is generally regarded as the first of a long line of zombie movies, the word “zombie” was never used in the movie. The flesh-eaters were called “ghouls”.
And now you know…
I enjoy writing these blog entries, and I want to keep my website fresh. I really do. I promise.
But I have been extremely busy doing a few fun things, a few charitable things, and a few other things designed to build my business and network. I have also heard rumblings from the underworld concerning my promise to pay $50 for any pinball design ideas I use.
And as I keep reminding myself and others- I still have a day job that I am committed to (FM Global needs to know that!)
But “Digress, I do .” says the little Yoda on my shoulder. So let’s tackle a few topics in order:
1. Pinball Design Contest
I received about 30 design ideas through various means (including Facebook, emails, and notes in bottles) -although an objective in creating the contest was that I was kinda hoping to drive up the traffic to my website. But never mind- a few of the ideas have real promise, and if I ever pursue any of them- I sincerely promise to pay off the idea man or woman. To be honest, I am not working on any of them currently- so there are no winners yet- and there are no losers! I wish things could be different. It’s not me, it’s you. You deserve prizes from someone better than me. Can’t we just be friends?
2. Roger Willliams University Engineering Senior Design Project
I am very excited that my endeavor “Pinventions” is sponsoring a senior design project at RWU. Some of you know that I serve on the professional advisory board for the university’s engineering school, and working with the faculty there we came up with the very cool idea of packaging a senior design project around one of my machine’s designs.
The challenge? Create a fog-filled cemetery scene in the back glass of my “Night of the Living Dead” custom machine design. To do this the team needs to develop a self-contained, self-cleaning fog management system that can respond to various actions taking place in a pinball machine.
Dr. Linda Riley at RWU tells me this was one of the most popular and most requested projects. I’ve already met with this very impressive team of young engineers who visited me at home for a tour of my shop and an overview of the project objectives. I can’t wait to see what they come up with. They are:
3. NYC World Maker Faire
I got my first taste of the Maker Faire in Providence a few weeks ago, and realized I am indeed a “Maker”- which is a difficult term to define. In general, a “Maker” makes, creates, hacks, mashes, etc. for his own enjoyment, or to challenge themselves to solve a problem that they may in fact create for the sole purpose of solving it. I create custom pinball machines (among other things).
Anyway, I am hooked on this “Maker” movement, and knew I had to attend the New York City version to saturate my senses and curiosity. I was not disappointed. The photo above is of me by the icon of the movement- the Maker Robot.
I also had a meeting with some “Make” representatives there who were more than a little interested in my pinball creations. Nothing for sure yet, but we continue to talk.
4. The Pittsburgh Pirates
I am a life-long baseball fan, and grew up in the 1970’s with the Pirates- Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell- these were my heroes. As a professional working in downtown Pittsburgh in 1992, I attended every home game of their last playoff series. As a “Maker” even then, I created a banner mocking the Brave’s “tomahawk chop” and hung it in the stadium. It even made the ESPN broadcast back in the day. Just prior to that playoff series in 1992 our daughter Amanda was born, and I recall watching the Pirates on TV in the hospital while Linda was in labor. At that time they were gunning for the playoffs (the Pirates, not Linda and infant Amanda), which they made, and cruised through until…
…my beloved Pirates were minutes away from the World Series. It was the seventh game of the NL final. They were ahead in the bottom of the ninth with two outs. Then with a single swing of the bat it all changed. A weak single. A weak throw from Barry Bonds to the plate. A lumbering Sid Bream- who for years prior had been a fan favorite in Pittsburgh but then the traitor bolted to the hated Braves-scored the winning run in slow motion, and sent the shell-shocked Pirates home to a cold exile for 21 years.
Pittsburgh baseball fans like myself have been in shock ever since, afraid to commit as fans, reluctant to ever come close to experiencing that heartbreak again.
Amanda just turned 21 a few weeks ago, and the Pittsburgh Pirates have had a total of zero winning seasons since that terrible day.
Let’s go Bucs!