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Our friends at Syyn Labs, the folks who brought us the Rube Goldberg Machine for OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” music video, recently did some commercials for DieHard, one featuring Gary Numan performing his classic song “Cars” on actual cars (their tuned horns), playing them on a keyboard, all powered by a single DieHard battery. We were intrigued and asked them to tell us how they did it. They sent us this article and behind the scenes video. Thanks, guys! — Gareth

The Making of the Syyn Labs Car Organ

By Adam Sadowsky, Eric Gradman, and Todd Taber

DieHard has a history of torture-testing their batteries. From leaving a car on a frozen lake for three months in1975 to starting five cars simultaneously, they like to prove that their product performs under extreme demands. Recently, advertising agency Y&R Chicago has been reinventing the classic torture tests, including powering beat boxer Reggie Watts in a 2009 YouTube viral video. So when the agency and noted music video and commercial director James Frost asked us about collaborating to build an organ using 24 black and white cars for the DieHard brand, we were very excited. We had the pleasure of working with James when we built the large Rube Goldberg Machine for OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” music video, so we knew this project had tremendous potential.

The agency’s and James’ requirements were straightforward enough: use a single DieHard Platinum battery to power the entire 24-car organ for a song. When a key is pressed on a keyboard, the corresponding car illuminates its headlights and honks its horn, which is tuned to the proper note. The cars have their batteries removed, so the battery powers the entire organ, including a 12-tube fluorescent light “cube.” Oh, and after the song finished, the same battery has to start all 24 cars. The battery specs suggested it was possible, but the technical challenges were significant.

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(See the making of video and the actual DieHard commercial after the jump)

The horns were easy enough. We tuned 24 after-market horns for each car in advance, and installed them to the corresponding note on-site so that we didn’t damage any of the rental cars’ stock horns.

The first real challenge was powering the cars. Syyn Labs team member, physicist, and electric car enthusiast Dan Busby devised a plan to connect the cars to the battery in two parallel busses using 1000 feet of 1/0 welding cable. We also tapped the power bus for three 8-relay boards gating power to the lights and horns, and for an inverter powering the florescent cube, the MIDI keyboard, and a laptop. With everything running, the battery discharged in about 10 minutes.

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The second major challenge was that the cars were all different, ranging from an 80s Impala to a brand new Lexus, all rented a mere two days before the shoot. Each car’s electrical system and headlight configuration was different — each a unique puzzle to solve.

Many of the cars had HID headlights, which required high-voltage power and computer control, however every car had relatively low power incandescent high beams. We identified and removed the fuses for each high-beam circuit and replaced them with special connectors designed by Syyn Labs team member Eric Gradman. We spliced the horns into the headlight circuit and ran a pair of wires to a relay board. When each car’s external relay was closed, it energized both the high beams and the horn. Most cars’ high beams could be locked in the “on” position. But in some cars, a complete power loss — as would happen every time we swapped batteries — would reset their high beams back to “off.” The solution was to gaffer-tape the high-beam lever to the steering wheel in the “on” position.

Eric developed an elegant solution to integrate the keyboard with the organ. He used USB-over-CAT5 repeaters to connect the three relay boards to a laptop and wrote software in Python to read MIDI from the keyboard and generate serial commands for the relay boards.

But at a critical moment, we hit a problem. The relay boards that we’d tested extensively off-site were behaving badly. They would run fine for a minute, then one or more would suddenly fail. Filming was fast approaching and we didn’t have a functioning organ or an explanation for the problem. We were frustrated and out of ideas when we noticed that whenever a car’s ignition started, boards immediately failed.

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We realized that 1/0 welding cable, carrying thousands of joules from the battery to the cars, was running alongside unshielded CAT5-USB cable. EM coupling between the two not only fouled the signal, but had already burned out a USB port on Gradman’s laptop.

Gradman solved this by connecting the relay boards to an additional laptop behind the cars. He connected the laptops via Ethernet—which is less susceptible to interference—and frantically rewrote his software lying on his belly on the desert playa. Our reengineered solution began working literally as filming began… just in time for electronic music icon Gary Numan to step up to the 24-car organ and play “Cars.”

And here’s the resulting commercial:

The folks at Syyn Labs asked George A. Kurkowski, DieHard Brand Manger, a few questions about their popular DieHard “torture test” campaigns:


Tell us about DieHard’s heritage, and lengthy history of torture testing batteries?

In 1967, the first DieHard battery survived more than 26,000 starts and stops in extreme temperatures without a single failure. That legacy continues with our Torture Labs campaign which showcases the performance of DieHard Platinum. The DieHard Labs sole goal is to take each Platinum battery to the extreme, to showcase the features of a DieHard battery that consumers look for in our brand: trust, performance, and a long-life.

What made you interested in using Gary Numan, and his song “Cars,” in this campaign?
In a nutshell: Cars playing “Cars”…. how cool is that? Our challenge as a brand is not only to reach out to our customers who already know the brand, but also to attract new consumers who may not be familiar with DieHard. Music is a terrific way to reach younger customers via YouTube and to engage them in a category that frankly isn’t cool: car batteries. We’ve managed to use the wonderful ideas brought forth by Y&R, execute with two popular entertainers such as Reggie Watts and Gary, throw in some production magic, and power them all with a single DieHard Platinum battery… The result: engaging our target audience, in a social environment, in a fun and meaningful way.

More:

Gareth Branwyn

Gareth Branwyn is a freelancer writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture, including the first book about the web (Mosaic Quick Tour) and the Absolute Beginner’s Guide to Building Robots. He is currently working on a best-of collection of his writing, called Borg Like Me.


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