Design, hack and build – I recently took part of the Garage48 Hardware and Arts hackathon in Tartu. H&A type of hackathons attract a diverse range of participants – artists, designers, electronics, mechatronics, software engineers, and marketeers – who team up and build a physical prototype during one hectic weekend. For those who have not tried it – it is generally much harder to build functioning devices than building a software demonstrator to a product idea as common in traditional software-only hackathons. Hardware is (often) hard indeed!
The best products (or those that receive the most awards) would usually need be presented as a fully-rounded product idea together with a nice package and a functional demonstrator. If it all works out, you can develop the concept and test your idea with end-customers as there are quite a few other workshop participants around. However, H&A hackathons are also perfect events to build and validate one aspect of your design or test your product concept only partially. The most important is to set a realistic target that helps you to move forward within the given time frame. Working towards a holistic product demonstrator does not necessarily help you to focus on the key problems that you want to solve.
Our team wanted to create an immersive experience connecting VR with an exercise device such as treadmill, rower etc. The idea was to give an extra incentive for those sitting behind their desk all day to get up and move a bit. Since we had a gym bike with us from which we could easily read the speed from and we had team members familiar with building 3D interactive environments, the most crucial decision that we had to take was whether to use a head-mounted display or to build a solution with a projector and a panoramic screen. We decided to go for the latter for two reasons. Firstly, such opportunities to build something physical with all the available resources (people, materials, space and tools) are scarce. Secondly, we got some initial positive responses from potential end-users.
A truncated icosahedron
We picked this geometry for a couple of reasons. The volume of this Archimedean solid seemed to be right considering that it should accommodate some moderate movement of human body yet provide a screen for projection of the virtual environment. Since it is made of regular polygons, it is also fairly easy to manufacture from sheet material. The truncated icosahedron is composed of regular hexagons and pentagons (think of a football/soccer ball). We drew those hexagons and pentagons and modelled by hand in Rhino*. Then designed connectors for polygons and sent drawings to Eccom (thanks guys!) for laser cutting. Polygons were cut from 4mm plywood and connectors from 8mm. 30 minutes of assembly and our VR cave was ready!
Time to test it! You jump on the bike, select your track and off you go. Unfortunately, we only managed to build in the one-way interactivity from the gym bike to the VR, but it was enough to validate our design assumption. Panoramic screen and an exercise device work very nicely together. You do get a very good sense of being immersed into the environment and that can be further improved by including appropriate projection mapping technology.
*As a pathological computational designer my first instinct is always to search for scripts that handle the geometry even if it is a simple one. It is not always the right thing to do due the time restriction, but I did eventually mange to find some moments to finish this Grasshopper script to create the truncated icosahedron. Please feel free to download the truncated icosahedron GH script it from here and use it anyhow you like. It works with Grasshopper (version 0.9.0076) and you need to have the Weaverbird mesh editor installed.