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Keep up with the latest about the Site 3 location, events, equipment, workshops and the fantastic art projects coming from this space.

EL Sequencer Sign

A while ago, I picked up a EL Sequencer board from SparkFun. The original idea was to use it in a mask for the Toronto Burning Man Decompression, but due to the amount of EL wire I was using, it wouldn’t work.

As the first Site 3 planning meeting approached, I decided to use the sequencer board along with an IKEA picture frame to make a glowing sign. Hopefully the idea of EL wire and Arduino programming together would make people excited…?

Sign at first planning meeting

Image credit: Darin White

The sign turned out really well, even though the EL Sequencer board has no documentation and some strange design choices. After a couple hours with a soldering iron, a hot glue gun, and the Arduino environment, I had a fully functional sign that would fade the letters (and number) in and out.

The sign itself is just EL wire attached to the inside of an IKEA picture frame with hot glue.

EL Sequencer Sign Front

The EL wire connects to regular wire, which connects to the sequencer board on the back of the sign (again attached with hot glue). The sequencer board is powered by a LiPo battery, the flat rectangle to the left. It also uses a standard EL wire inverter, the circuit board wrapped in black electrical tape.

EL Sequencer Sign Back

The sequencer board has eight sockets on the right of the board for connecting EL wire. On the left of the board, there are three sockets: one for power to the board (using a 3.7 volt LiPo battery), one for running the low voltage DC power to a standard EL wire inverter, and one for the high voltage AC power from the inverter output. The inverter attached here is from a standard AA battery inverter that every EL wire shop sells; it’s smaller because it was removed from its plastic case and wrapped in electrical tape to (sometimes) prevent shocks.

EL Sequencer Sign Board and Battery

A closer look at the sequencer board shows the microcontroller (the black square chip on the left), an ATmega168. It’s the same used in many Arduino boards, and the sequencer board itself is Arduino compatible. Using the six pins on the top of the board, it can be programmed using a very simple language, allowing for the 8 strands of EL wire to be turned on and off. The board even has a fade function built-in, so the brightness of the EL wire strands can be faded in and out.

EL Sequencer Board

The sequencer board is available for about $25 (and is available locally at Creatron, at College and Spadina), and inverters can be found for about $5. $30 for a programmable 8 channel EL sequencer is a really good deal. While the board does have some limitations– external inverter, limited number of EL strands on at once– this is still a great way of getting into more advanced projects with EL wire for much cheaper than buying a premade EL sequencer.

Site 3 Fading EL Wire Sign from Seth Hardy.

By shardy | 10 February 2010 | projects | , | 3 Comments   

First Site 3 Workshop – Arduino by Blinkenlights

We had our first workshop yesterday: Arduino by Blinkenlights.

The goal of the workshop was to put together a lxpl light board, and learn enough of the basics of the Arduino environment to control it. We had limited space, but just enough for six participants to assemble the kits with help from Seth and Jonathan.

The light boards have 16 individually addressable RGB LEDs, controlled with a shift register and LED driver. They’re designed to be easy to assemble, using only through-hole parts. Most of the workshop participants had not soldered much before, if at all, so this was a great beginner project to get people comfortable with assembling electronic components.

Before the assembly started, we talked about how the circuit works and went over what the parts are and what they do. After the kits were completed, we tested the boards with a simple Arduino program. Although we didn’t get much time to work on the software control side, the soldering lesson and practice was definitely worth it, and there will be more time in the future to work on writing software for controlling the light boards.

Everyone working

Some more pictures from the workshop:

Soldering and assembling

Soldering and assembling

Seth, Paul, and Mark

Seth, Paul, and Mark

Alex and Tracy soldering

Alex and Tracy soldering

Alex testing the light board

Alex testing the light board

Completed light board test

Completed light board test

Another test of the completed light board

Another test of the completed light board

Alex with completed light board

Alex with completed light board

By shardy | 08 February 2010 | learning | | 0 Comments   

Shannon’s Fireflies

Lead Arist: Seth Hardy, with support from Alex Leitch and Jason Bellenger
A Site 3 coLaboratory Project

*NEW* Project accepted for Nuit Blanche 2011! Find Seth at the Trinity Church/Labyrinth (near the Eaton Centre) in Zone B

Concept: Light Grid


“Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn’t mttaer in waht oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the olny iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. Tihs is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe.” (original source unknown)

Language suffers from an interesting paradox: while words are constructed to keep their meaning even if garbled, using words to construct meaning is often an incredibly difficult task. Listening to someone speak in a noisy room is easy for someone who knows a language, but mastery of a language where one can use it to create beautiful meaning is a skill that many never find in their entire lives.

In 1963, the mathematicians Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver published a book called A Mathematical Theory of Communication. One of Shannon’s greatest statements was a way that we can measure the amount of information in a word:

This definition has helped bring us many technological achievements. Every time that we use a mobile phone or the Internet, every time we listen to digital music, every time we watch digital video, we are using an invention that uses the same property as the very first spoken language.

While we can now measure information, we are particularly bad at quantifying meaning. When applying Shannon’s definition to language, it breaks down once we try to move from words to ideas, the way we assemble those words to say what we really mean. Words are easy to understand because they have a lot of redundant information, but redundant words may imply an entirely different meaning.

Why is it impossible to measure the meaning of what is being said, when we can so easily measure the medium?

We are not alone in being subject to the paradox of language. Fireflies communicate with much simpler information than words: simple flashes, on or off. However, through other context such as flash speed, position, and direction of the firefly, more meaning can be communicated. Fireflies can be confused, just as we can, when noise is introduced into the simple words that they speak with light.

Despite the confusion, we all still carry on, communicating the best we can in the ways we can. Artificial languages meant to eliminate ambiguity exist, but are academic curiosities. Even with noise that turns meaning into confusion, we’re somehow able to understand each other, in a way that Shannon’s definition of information can’t be used to explain.

Shannon’s Fireflies

Mathematics implies order: the first thing that Alice observes is a cube. The spacing of the points in the cube suggests that it is something of meaning, but what does it contain? The cube is five feet on each side, with something at each of the 216 points each a foot apart.

The fireflies are hard to make out in the dark, but are visible as they illuminate. Each can light up on all of their six faces, one color for each axis. Electronics and clear acrylic clearly do not make living creatures, but each firefly thinks and acts on its own; there is no central computer controlling the patterns, the way they light up.

Each firefly will see the light from others that are adjacent, and flash its own light on the opposite side. This way, light introduced at each edge of the cube travels across to the other side. However, relaying the light isn’t always perfect; sometimes fireflies do not respond with their own flash, sometimes they are confused and bend or split the path of light.

Alice, having walked up to the cube to inspect the fireflies closer, wonders how those on the edge of the cube would respond to her own lights. She takes out a small light on her keychain, and flashes it at one of the closest fireflies. The firefly lights up, which then wakes up its neighbors, and the stream of light passes through the cube to the other end.

Whispering Meaning

Alice has also noticed that on two ends of the cube, there are headphones with an attached microphone. She puts one of the headsets on, wondering what the fireflies have to say and want to hear. She speaks a single word– “hello”– and a set of lights send her message into the grid. As each firefly flashes, those around it flash in response.

The message she’s spoken propagates through the cube, but again, sometimes the fireflies misunderstand. Some don’t flash, some split and twist her message, sending light off in different directions. The people gathered around watching don’t know her secret message, only seeing it in a form of light.

As light from other directions come back her way, she hears words spoken aloud. Can she understand what is being said, or have they become so garbled that she only hears nonsense?

Bob has taken up the station on the opposite end of the cube. Alice has a secret she’s been afraid to tell him, but risks giving it a try. She speaks it aloud, quiet enough that only the fireflies can hear, and the light flashes pass information in his direction. But will they keep enough meaning that he’ll understand? She doesn’t know, but she feels like she’s made a first step.

Finding Meaning in the [LN]ight

The installation will start at sundown, and remain fully operational until sunrise. There are no set times for shows; people will be able to interact with the installation (either by speaking or listening, or by flashing their own lights at the grid) at any point.

Participating Artists

Shannon’s Fireflies is a Site 3 coLaboratory project, led by Seth Hardy with support from Alex Leitch and Jason Bellenger.

Floor Plan and Visual Aids


The 6x6x6 light grid will be 5 feet on all sides, with the whisper stations taking another three to five feet on two sides. There should be room on all sides for people to stop and interact with the light grid while other people continue walking by. These are the only requirements of the floor plan; for more details, see the section on site criteria.

Concept Art

Concept: Light Grid

Concept: Light Grid

Concept: Node

Concept: Node

Site Criteria

This installation is best suited for an indoor location, or possibly an outdoor location that is sufficiently shielded from rain and snow. Access to power is preferred but not required.

The ideal location is one where the grid can be set up on a slightly raised ledge, with some sort of balcony around it: for example, a lobby courtyard. An open location where people are able to view the grid from points above and below, as well as on the same level, would be optimal. The more angles and elevations for viewing the lights will give more perspectives and experiences for what the lights look like; the grid will look very different at an angle as it does head-on. There should be space on the ledge for people to interact with the grid with their own lights. This also makes the overhead view from a balcony important, so that more people can see the grid’s larger picture while the people up close see the specific interactions with the edge lights.

For best effect, the installation should be set up in a space where the ambient light can be lowered. It doesn’t need to be entirely dark, but lower light will make the lights in the grid that much more impressive.

Having a larger, open space with some sort of echo where people tend to speak quietly and be more mindful of what they are saying will reinforce the idea that words spoken into the whisper stations have meaning. The space shouldn’t encourage people to be silent, but make them more aware of the fact that their words are lighting the space up.


The installation will consist of the following parts:

  • Grid frame – used to suspend and bring power to the light grid
  • Grid – the light grid of 216 individual firefly units
  • Whisper stations (2) – a small computer (in a secured podium) with headphones and a microphone attached
  • Whisper lights (2) – a two-dimensional grid of 36 lights and sensors which convert words to light and vice versa

The light grid, whisper stations, and whisper lights will need electricity. If standard 110 volt wall power is available, this will work. If it is unavailable, the installation can be powered off of 12 volt batteries (such as car batteries). These batteries will either be sealed batteries or secured in battery cases.

The audio levels will be minimal, as the sound will be played through headphones. The lights will not be bright enough to be disruptive, i.e. not high-powered floodlights.

There will be at least one member of the artist team present at all times to ensure that the equipment stays in proper working order. No maintenance of the installation should be required during the night (and it will be tested prior to deployment, we don’t want things breaking down!).

By shardy | 04 February 2010 | projects | | 1 Comment   

The Heart Machine

Interactive Art Proposal for Burning Man 2010
A Site 3 Collaboration
Concept Artist: Christine Irving
Email:   christine (dot) irving (at) gmail (dot) com


The Heart Machine – One Page Summary (pdf)

The Heart Machine Schedule (pdf)

The Heart Machine High Level Timeline (jpg)

The Heart Machine Fuel Tanks and Flame Effects Components (pdf)

The Heart Machine LNT Plan (pdf)

Click on Images Below for Larger Image View

The Heart Machine
In Fritz Lang’s 1926 movie Metropolis, Freder, the main character asks, “It was their hands that built this city of ours, father. But where do the hands belong in your scheme?” His father answers, “In their proper place – the depths.”

At the heart of the city, the heart of our Metropolis, exists a machine: the heart machine.  Without the heart machine the city and civilization as we know it would fall apart. Yet without humans to interact with it, the heart machine would cease have a purpose; cease to exist.  In the absence of this symbiotic relationship the heart machine sits silently on the playa and participants passively wander the night looking for “something.”

How we perceive technology guides our interactivity with the heart machine.  Do we watch passively for the machine to react to our presence or do we take active control?  Do we reach out and explore without fear or do we wait to take the lead from others?  Even if we do reach out and explore, no one person can wake the heart machine.  We must visit the depths of our metropolis together to build the connections the heart machine needs to interact and communicate with us.  We, the citizens of metropolis, are the nerves, the arteries, the lifeblood of the heart machine and her warming fires are our reward.

Concept: Metal Balls

The Heart Machine Concept: Metal Balls

Concept: Human Sculptures

The Heart Machine Concept: Human Sculptures

Interactivity with the Heart Machine
Without the citizens of our metropolis, the heart machine does not exist. Within the space of the heart machine there are five 10″ metal balls mounted on 3′ posts.  Although pilot lights for the flame effects are lit, the heart machine means nothing without the laying of many hands.

Participants must complete the circuit by holding hands and creating a human chain between the center ball and any of the 4 outer balls.  Once a connection is made, the switch is turned on and a large flame effect is their reward.

The possibilities of what is created by participants depends on their imagination:

  1. a group of 3-5 participants hold hands to set off one flame effect
  2. the same group keeps the center contact but the chain of participants moves around touching each of the 4 outer balls; creating a flame sequence
  3. 5-10 participants self organize to set off 2 flame effects at once
  4. musically minded participants realize by breaking and reconnecting the human chain, they can create an organic beat born in flames
  5. 12-20 participants can work together to set off all 4 flame effects at once; perhaps initiating a hidden sequence within the heart machine

The possibilities are endless but the interaction is always all inclusive and encourages strangers to interact with each other.  Imagine a lone burner walking by.  She hears a group of people calling to  her, beckoning her to come over and join them.  When she approaches they explain they need her as the final link to create the connection.  She joins in and a burst of flames lights up the night.  More people come over to see what is going on.  By the end of the play, new connections have been made within the heart machine.

The Heart Machine Concept: Human Sculptures View from Above

The Heart Machine Concept: Human Sculptures View from Above

35′W x  35′L x 4′-7′H
At the center of the heart machine a 10″ metal ball rises 3′ above the playa out of a small box.  Surrounding this center ball are four other identical metal balls placed 20′ to 25′ away at 12:00, 3:00, 6:00 and 9:00.  Each of the outer balls are paired with a flame effect placed 3′ further out.  The flame effect looks exactly like the Burninator and includes a safety fence perimeter.  All balls are lit from a solar charged LED wash placed at the bottom of each post.  The lighting creates the illusion that the balls are glowing and ensures the participants easily see them from a distance.

There is no need for wires between the center ball and outer balls as participants are the capacitance link.  The flame effects are self contained with their own fuel, arduinos (control circuits) and switches.  The corners of the safety fence for each fire effect will wash red and yellow LED lighting onto the tanks.

It is the simplicity of the heart machine and how participants must interact with her that makes it beautiful and engaging.

Over the summer we will also design and test human sculptural elements that may replace the metal balls as a symbolic and intuitive interface paradigm.  We will also design with interactive buttons as a backup interaction strategy.

The Heart Machine Layout

The Heart Machine Layout

Flame Effect Components

Why mess with a good thing!?!  Except to Canadianize it!  The following component images are not ours.  After our initial design we realized our flame effects look like Burninator. So with the exception of a few modifications of controllers and XBee wireless for effects, our flame effects will follow the Burninator model.  The Burninator images are from http://4bc.org/burninator. Thanks!

Burninator Safety Tower Burninator Safety Tower
Burninator Safety Tower "Eh"

Burninator Safety Tower "Eh"

Burninator Safety Perimeter

Burninator Safety Perimeter

Burninator Safety Elevation

Burninator Safety Elevation


Another reason why we are keeping with the elegant design of the Burninator flame effect is that we can follow the tried, tested and Burning Man Artery approved safety plans. The existing safety plans of the Burninator will be enhanced for the Heart Machine. The full safety plan will be submitted and discussed before the event, with the safety procedures, mechanisms, and diagrams.

  • instant shutdown mechanisms
  • tip sensors
  • automatic burn sensors with shutoff mechanisms
  • remote controls
  • coded identification of permitted operators
  • electronic and computer lockouts of control mechanisms
  • components are propane- and pressure-rated
  • valves and other components are industrial-strength
  • a trained safety crew is always present
  • spotters are present to ensure towers are intact
  • a safety bike is present to reach towers immediately
  • towers have perimeters and are at a safe height
  • the equipment is tested and inspected daily
  • the system is locked out except during system engaged times and when crew is present

We have a fantastic crew of professionals and bootstrap playa veterans sprinkled with a dash of eager virgins.  Our crew is broken into several project areas with some crew members spanning more than one area by choice:

Build Stream 1 – Electronic and Software Components
Build Stream 2 – Mechanical and Flame effect Components
Build Stream 3 – Interaction, Sculptural and Design Components
Overall Project Management and Coordination
Fund Raising and Communications
Just Get’R'dun

We will recruit other dedicated playa crew members from our local Canadian communities.  All crew members are expected to participate in the build, maintain and cleanup of the Heart Machine while on the playa.

Our core team in in alphabetical order:

  • Pat Ford (realtime safety critical systems architect)
  • Seth Hardy (Computer Science; lead software architect)
  • Christine Irving (project manager and concept creator and task master)
  • Alex Leitch (programmer and art fund raiser; goddess of getting stuff done)
  • Neko (Product and Fashion Designer; builds cool shit and goddess of fabrication)
  • Chris North (Post Grad in Interdisciplinary Design Strategy; sculptural concept man & design coordinator)
  • John Rose (building contractor; flame effects lead)
  • Max Stevens-Guile (MSc Computer Science; electronics design)
  • Peter Stevens-Guille (MASc Systems Design; lead mechanical engineer)
  • Mark Szilard (B. Eng , Chemical Engineering; flame effects consultant)
  • John Yoxall (the man with the on playa plan and resident wine expert)
  • Toronto Burning Man community and our sister communities (pARTicipants)

We would personally like to thank:

  • Flaming Lotus Girls who have acted as a mentor to Christine and the project concept
  • Dave X and Eric Smith for making sure we know more than nothing but less than everything
  • Burninator for inspiring BEEEG FIRE & playa safety plans
  • Jason Bellenger… because we can and should


The Heartmachine Timeline Summary

  • March 1 through 2 – Notification of grant status (celebrate or wallow)
  • March 7 – The Heart Machine project kickoff meeting
  • March 8 through 19 – Final review and confirmation of project work breakdown structure, materials, budget, team members, project plan, action items and communications. Artery will be updated on progress and budget during status report
  • March 21- Project website updated
  • March 29 – Order parts and email receipts to Artery (project status report)
  • April 8 through 23 – Delivery of parts and review fund raising activities* for the summer
  • April 24 through 30 – QA parts and integration (project status report to Artery)
  • May 1 through July 4th -
  • - Build Stream 1: Assemble, program & manage electronic components
  • - Build Stream 2: Assemble, safety & manage flame effect components
  • - Build Stream 3: Assemble and integrate sculptural and design components
  • - Fund raising activities (parties, raffles, test the heart machine, etc.)
  • July 5 – Fund raising checkpoint (project status report to Artery and email receipts)
  • July 17 through August 1 – Integration of build streams, QA and testing
  • August 1 – project checkpoint of transportation, budget, fund raising and integration
  • sign-off by all build teams (project status report to Artery & final transportation cost*)
  • August 9 through 14 – packing and transportation prep / logistics confirmations
  • August 16 – The Heart Machine ships via truck from Toronto to BM
  • August 25 – The Heart Machine arrives on playa (project status report to Artery)
  • August 26 – Arrival of remaining primary build team members (10), registration at artery, build logistics review and confirmation with Artery and camp setup
  • August 26 through 27 – Transportation of the Heart Machine to playa location, trenching (if required), collection of propane tank donation from Eric Smith, and initial build setup and electronics/component testing without fuel. Walk through of team roles and schedule for the playa. Follow up with Artery on any issues and provide status update if required by the Artery
  • August 28 – Onsite delivery of fuel and testing of the Heart Machine with Fuel components
  • August 29 – Contingency day for troubleshooting / retesting
  • August 30 – First run with eager playa metropolis citizens / contingency day for retesting
  • August 30 through September 4- the Heart Machine runs every night for 4 hours or as long as we have fuel (80 gallons); tanks will be purged every tank with onsite delivery the next day
  • September 5 – Option for one additional night if fuel and circumstances permit
  • September 5 through 6 – cleanup, LNT activities, main camp and site transportation prep and logistics.  Review site with the Artery for sign-off
  • September 6 through 8 – The Heart Machine ships via truck from BM to Toronto
  • September 18 – The Heart Machine arrives back in Toronto and cleaned up for Tcomp

*Note: the status report will include any budget reductions due to fund raising / donations / money saved if we secure a better transport contract prior to August 1. Timelines include slack for contingencies, troubleshooting and delays.

Leave No Trace Plan
If trenching is required for wires we will lay rope over the wires to reduce the amount of playa we need to dig up during clean up.  As our flame effects are similar and inspired by the Burninator for standalone components, the cleanup will be straight forward:

  • No residue from the flames will ever touch the playa
  • The only damage to the playa will be from (1) the minimal narrow trench made for the wire (only if required) and (2) 5 posts secured by 4′ rebar; the trenchs and posts will be filled and compacted completely
  • All other materials can be broken down simply and will be removed
  • Dust mounds are raked and dispersed
  • The greywater will be dispersed carefully so as not to make marks or transported out
  • The area will be ‘moop’ed and inspected for wire, zipties, etc.
  • Solar power will be used to charge the 12v batteries so there will be no generators to manage or clean up

Always Have a Plan B
The crew of the Heart Machine have been on the playa long enough to know that you must not only have a Plan B but a Plan C, perhaps a Plan D and then a very robust twisted sense of humor.  To compensate that Murphy is alive and well on the playa, the Heart Machine will design and bring two additional interaction connections should the first human connection fail due to damage or playafacts of life.

Backup Option 1: Run CAT5 cable in the trenches and use an insulated closed loop to complete the connection

Backup Option 2: Run CAT5 cable in the trenches and use big fun buttons or interaction at each sculpture to complete the connection; participants must coordinate their movements to engage the flame effects.  Different movements invoke different sequences that reward participants as a group

cuteoverload says it all...

Always Have a Plan B

By cirving | 03 February 2010 | projects | | 2 Comments   
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