This Instructable is an overview of my project, called "What You Make of It", that I created during my residency at Pier 9.
What You Make of It is a kinetic art installation that uses light and mirrors to display software-generated poetry. Fifteen laser-cut mirrors in the shape of letters hang by chain from ceiling-mounted motors. When rotated, each letter changes the angle at which light reflects off of it, spelling out various words and phrases on the wall behind them.
Step 1: Concept development
This project was the result of a lot of experimentation, trials, tribulations, and failures before I came to the final piece seen in the video in step 1. The idea for working with mirrors came to me from a fascination with the physics of light, how it behaves, and how it could be manipulated in order to create meaning in the context of an interactive art installation. Light is one of the most important forces in the universe. It is through light that we are able to perceive our world, and it is through our perception that we create our world.
One of my early prototypes involved suspending many small round mirrors from strings attached to a frame. The idea was that the mirrors would be arranged in space in such a composition to form once word, but that the light reflected off the mirrors would form a different word. Attached are two video, one showing the initial prototype and another that instead of using simple round mirrors, uses mirrors that were cut in the shape of letters to spell out two different phrases.
Step 2: Design
I was very pleased with the result of the The Eyes They See sculpture, and decided that I wanted to push this one step further. My plan became to create a larger version of this sculpture, and attach the mirrors to motors, programming them to turn, and redirect the light reflected off of them in various compositions, in order to spell out various phrases over time.
Conceptually I was influenced by the writings of philosophers Robert Pirsig and Steven Pinker, who both have written about how language is a lens through which we interpret, understand, and in a sense create our world. For me, poetry is a way of breaking the rules of language, by so doing we create new meanings, and therefore new ways of seeing the world.
In this vain, I chose to work with the phrase "What You Make Of It" , in reference to the individual's power of creation. Using some anagram solving applications I found online, I could see that the letters in this phrase would allow for over 500 different possible words, and tens of thousands of possible anagrams.
The image here is from my original proposal for the project, describing the scale and how I envisioned it would be installed at the Pier 9 studio space.
On to fabrication!
Step 3: Making the mirrors
Once I settled on the font that I wanted to use, I laid out the text in Illustrator, converted it into outlines, and added tabs from which the mirrors would be hung. Two points of attachment for each mirror ensures that they do not spin around too much, and have a nice predictable resting position.
I cut these out on an Epilog laser cutter from 1/8th inch mirrored acrylic. Attached is the Illustrator file.
Step 4: Making the frame
I designed the frame specifically to fit the particular type of Hitec servo motors that I am working with. The servos run along the rails along the entire length of the frame. Four wholes on the corners and one in the middle are used to mount the frame from the ceiling using 1/4" threaded rod. The tabs cut out around the edge are used to fit the acrylic box that sits on top of the frame and conceal all the electronics.
I waterjet the frame from one piece of aluminum, which is great since it is strong, light, and conductive, and therefore can be used as a common ground for all of the electronics.
Attached is the vector file for the frame.
Step 5: Making the box
I then made a simple acrylic box that sits on top of the frame and conceals all the electronics and cables. The box is 48" long, 4" deep, and 6" high. I initially created the box using this web tool for creating press-fit boxes. I then modified the design so that it can be put together in smaller pieces, since my laser cutter bed is too small to cut a 4 foot long piece of acrylic, I split the front and back sides of the box into two pieces each.
In my Illustrator file, the box is made up of six pieces that are press-fit together. The front and back are made of two pieces that are glued together. I designed it this way specifically so that I could take it apart and flat-pack it for shipment.
After cutting out all the pieces, put together the front and back sides, and glue the 2" x 6" rectangle piece along the seam.
Step 6: Assembling the motors - Part 1
Out of the box, the motors come with a circular disk attached to the shaft. I designed special wings that will attach to the motors. These wings are used as a mounting structure from which to hang the hooks and chains that will hold the mirrors. The Illustrator file for these wings is attached here.
Step 7: Assemble the motors - Part 2
Now it's time to attach our custom motor mounts to the motors.
Step 8: Mounting the motors to the frame
Now we are ready to mount the motors to the frame.
Step 9: Wiring it up!
I used an Arduino Mega to control the 15 motors, and this is affixed to the middle of the frame.
CAUTION: Before plugging anything in it is important to insulate the bottom of the Arduino with electrical tape. This will prevent it from shorting when its placed on the conductive aluminum frame ;)
Each motor has three wires. Black is ground, red is power, and yellow is signal.
Wiring the ground
I use the frame as a common ground for all the components, by attaching the black ground wires it to the frame using one of the bolts that is holding the motor in place.
Wire the power
I needed to use a separate external power supply for the motors, because the Arduino cannot draw enough current for all the motors. I used a small breadboard to wire all the power together, so that one external power supply is being used to provide power to all 15 motors.
Wire the signal
The power and signal cables need to be extended for each motor, to reach the middle of the frame, where the Arduino Mega is. Since the Mega has more than enough inputs, I simply used pins 31-45 for motors 1-15.
Essential here is to use a common ground for both the power supply for the motors, and the power supply for the Arduino, otherwise the signal going to the motors will not work! Wire the ground coming from the Arduino output ground to the frame. Wire the ground coming from the motor power supply also to the frame. Now there is one common for all the components! Great!
Step 10: The software
This was the most challenging part of the project for me. With the help of some friends at Pier 9, and a lot of time doing research online, and sketching diagrams in my notebook, I was able to figure out the trigonometry formulas I needed in order to calculate what angle the mirror needs to turn at to redirect the light to a particular spot on the wall.
Attached is the Arduino application that runs the motors to direct the reflected light to spell out different words. Also attached is the custom library called LightLetter, which is an abstract representation for each letter. This is where all the trigonometry calculations for figuring out what angle to rotate the letters at happens.
In the end, I came up with a pretty robust system, that basically let's me enter any words or phrase into the software, and all the logic and formulas for what angle to spin the motors at happens internally. At the moment there are a few different modes that the software can be set to. A SWEEP more basically moves all the letters back and forth across the wall slowly, this is very useful for calibration. A DEFINED mode displays a particular sequence of words in the order that I define. A RANDOM mode randomly picks words from a pre-defined list.
Step 11: Mounting the frame
I mounted the frame to the ceiling, about 4.5 feet away from the wall, and 1.5 feet down off the ceiling. I used 5 toggle bolts; one for each corner of the frame, and once more in the middle to prevent the frame from sagging in the middle.
Step 12: Mounting the mirrors to the motors
I experimented with many different types of strings, threads, and wires from which to suspend the mirrors. In the end I went with chain for a number of reasons, but mainly because using chain allowed me to control the length fairly accurately, and attaching hooks to the ends of the chains made it easy to mount and unmount the chains to the motors and the mirrors to the chains.
Step 13: Making the light
Another challenge was finding the right light source. Because the space that the project was being installed in has a quite a bit of ambient light streaming in, I needed as bright a light as possible. But, in order to have a sharp reflection, the light source also needs to be as small as possible. Fellow artist resident Paolo Salvagione pointed me to this solution of using a single super-bright LED with controller and power supply.
However, since the LED is super bright, it also generate a ton of heat. I designed and fabricated this custom heat-sink that also acts as a wall-mount for the light. It is made up of several stacked layers of aluminum that was cut on a waterjet. Built into it is a potentiometer that allows me to easily control the brightness of the light, and a recess in the front where a mask can be mounted to easily mask the light.
Once it is assembled, the light is mounted 8 feet off the ground on the wall directly behind and centered on the hanging mirrors, so as not to shine directly into people's eyes. Plans for the water-jet pieces are attached here.
Step 14: Putting it all together.
Once the frame is mounted to the ceiling, and all the other pieces are prepared, putting it all together is relatively simple. The chains are hung on the motors using the custom-made wings that were attached to motors. Once all the chain is up, hanging the laser-cut mirrors is a cinch.
Step 15: Finals words
Although this project was super challenging, I'm really happy with the way it turned out. I learned a ton during the making of it, about electronics, trigonometry, fabrication, and the physics of how light works. I plan to continue working on it, and have ideas for future iterations of the work. Going forward, I would really love to integrate a more meaningful method for computer-generated text. I'm currently working on implementing context-free grammar into the application.
Thanks to everyone at Pier 9 for giving me this opportunity! And thank you for reading.