HOW TO: Build a Rocketship Engine

Last night I had a great time lighting up The Uira Engine at DorkbotSF hosted at The Exploratorium.  Here is a brief video that Dorkbot put together with some highlights from my talk and some great video of the engine in action.  You can also check out some photos from the night here. Them Dorksbots are my people.

Code & Object – Parametric design with Processing

I just got back from NYC where I was participating in a great workshop organized by modeLab and lead by Marius Watz, focused on parametric design and generative art using Processing and MakerBots.

For those who mainly know me for my work in metal, high-voltage and kinetics it may seem surprising that I’m starting to incorporate digital tools into my practice. But really I’ve been using digital tools formt he very start, and almost all my work from The Triaparator to The Rocket Stop have involved a great deal of CAD and CNC work.

Now I’ve begun to take this trend a bit further. Before I was an artist I was a computation neurobiologist, and that work equipped me with a healthy skill set in programing and electronics. To he honest when I first left the lab I was reluctant to use these tools in my art, however, those days are over.

One of the many things underlying this change was my discovery of Processing and Arduino. These two amazing, open-source platforms provide powerful tools for artists and enable code and electronics to be used in an art and design prototyping without have a huge part of the works creation be focused on those two aspects of the project. These means if I want to make a work that has an element of robotics or programing in it I can do it (fairly) quickly, which allows me to focus on the rest of the work. And since I have a lot of these skills already I think they will really open up some great new directions for my work.

So, expect to see more code and electronics in some of my upcoming work.

For now enjoy these photos of some of the objects we created during the workshop. I focused on writing some code that allows me to manipulate simple spiral shapes as a way to get to understand how Procesing handles meshes. The first few photos show some of the objects I was able to print using this code. The later photos show some objects created by others.

It’s important to keep in mind that all these shapes are designed parametrically. This means that they were not drawn in the computer as was normally does in CAD, but these shapes are programmed explicitly and with interconnectivity between the variables that define them. Simply put, rather than draw the spirals on the screen I wrote the algorithm (the rule) that then drew the shape. More simply put, I did the math.

Mark Pauline on taking the long way around and spine robots

Shortly after I gave my talk at the Sonoma County Museum as part of the Mad Science show Mark Pauline, founder of Survival Research Labs gave his talk about founding SRL.

Mark and the SRL crew had their new Spine Robot installed as part of the show, and they did one of their famous street performances at the opening.  I posted some video of the SRL portion of the opening when it happened, you can find that here.

I missed Mark’s talk because I had a bad flu and I never saw that video of it had been posted.  Until today when I finally had some time to catch up on some of my feeds and I found the video posted on Suicide Bots.

So here is part 1 & 2 of Mark’s talk, the third can be found on the SRL site.

For those of you who are into the technical stuff, just jump right to the second video.

The Future of Art

Why I traded the lab for the studio.

Lightning in a bottle at the Sonoma County Museum

Here’s a video of part of my talk and performance at the Sonoma County Museum. The people who came asked really good questions and were really into it. We had a bunch of scientists and electrical engineers. I think they liked the lightning. There’s more video of other parts of the lecture to come.  Not only is there great video of the Engine working, but I also explain how it works kinetically, as well as some of the physics behind the effect.

The Uira Engine – Art and Science lecture at the Sonoma County Museum

It worked! When you try new things on an experimental sculpture, you can’t always test them before the show, so you just have to just do it there and hope for the best. And it was amazing that it worked! I knew we had done our job right when we had a bunch of physicists and electrical engineers arguing over what would happen next. They were taking bets. In addition to giving my talk about art and science, Ruben Margolin also spoke. And these photos were taken by Sean Donnelly. And there’s plenty of video of the lecture and the performance to come.

Recursive Drawing Machine: x-axis test

I’ve started working on a new sculpture that is a bit of a departure from many of my past projects. It’s  an interactive, recursive drawing machine.  I’ll post more about the details as the piece comes to life, but the core of it is the drawing machine its self.  I’ve made some great progress on the core mechatronics.  I’ve got the first axis (the X-axis) of the machine fabricated and I’ve got the stepper motor under computer control. In this video you can see the first test of x-axis.  A boring but important step to be sure that I’ve got the code, controller, motor and linear bearing all playing nicely together.

Massive Undertakings: Almost Scientific Interviewed by SyFy

While we wish they’d drop the Y and return to using an I, we’re honored to be featured in the SyFy channel blog Idea Lab.

Any interview where I get to ponder the awesomeness of Batman’s machine shop is a good one.

I’ve clipped out all the great media they used (you can find all that on the various project pages) but pasted the text of the interview below.


You’re a Stanford man, a smart fellow, a real scientist of sorts. Why do you choose to create things in the realm of the *almost* scientific? Why not become a regular lab coat guy instead?

Why did I decide to take all my scientific training and become an artist rather then a scientist? One part of it was looking for a new challenge. I realized that at the end of my life I’d probably be happier if I looked back at my life and saw a great breadth of experiences. This encouraged me to leave science because the longer you sped in science the more your world narrows and deepens. In art I saw the opposite.

Another reason I left the scientific for the Almost Scientific was so I could work more actively and creatively with the physical world. I got interested in science because I was really fascinated by understand how the physical world works. But in science you quickly leave the physical world behind for a world of abstraction. Sure, I ran physical experiments, but then I would spend many more hours, on my ass, in front of a computer, manipulating data.

I realized science started with the physical, concrete phenomena and then generates abstractions that communicate them. But what art is really about is starting with the abstractions and generating physical, specific phenomena capable of communicating them.

At the end of the day, it was more satisfying to start off with the abstraction I wanted to communicate, and to create something physical that was imbued with that idea. In my mind, this made me more an artist then a scientist.

Also, I never looked as good in a lab coat as I do in my dirty shop clothing.

How do “real” science and the imagination interrelate in your work?

Continue reading Massive Undertakings: Almost Scientific Interviewed by SyFy

Mad Science Show at the Sonoma County Museum

Thank’s to all who came to the opening of Mad Science at the Sonoma County Museum.

Below you’ll find photos of the show, a photo shoot and video I did of The Uira Engine installation, as well as a video that is part of the installation, made by Ben Carpenter, of me talking a bit about the piece, and finally a short video to give you a taste of the Survival Research Labs show.

Don’t forget, on November 16th Almost Scientific is speaking, and then performing a live, high-voltage experiment with The Uira Engine at the museum.
Sign up for The Lab Report (our newsletter) to get your invitation to the experiment.

Rocket Stop Video

Drawing in Processing

The First mouse click creates an attractor point. Additional clicks create points

Key Commands:
“-” change the movement direction
“BACKSPACE” Stop Motion and create a new attractor point with mouse click
“n” clears all points and screen
“c” Redraws the background

Science at Burning Man: Micro Zoo

This is a fantastic idea.  I love the idea of my Exploratorium friends running around Black Rock talking to people about the science that is all around them.  Everything from the chemistry of glow-stics to the physics of a white out. Check out their youtube channel for more.

You’re invited to become a Mad Scientist.

Almost Scientific will be showing The Neuron Chamber and The Uira Engine at the Sonoma County Museum’s upcoming Mad Science show.

The show opens October 30th and runs until February 6th, 2011.

This is going to be an amazing event!

Almost Scientific will be doing a high voltage performance on opening night alongside the legendary Survival Research Labs.

The show also features Applied Kinetic Arts members Nemo Gould and Reuben Margolin, as well as Exploratorium alum Ned Kahn.

Here is the museum’s description:

Continue reading You’re invited to become a Mad Scientist.

Great photo of the Raygun Gothic Rocketship and The Rocket Stop

By Dan Vanmoll