For many people in Britain Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the Royal Institution‘s annual Christmas lectures. This year the lectures were focused on hacking, making and tinkering—and the grand finale of this year’s lectures was a building sized game of Tetris.
I talked to Kate Mulchay—the Royal Institution‘s Christmas Lectures assistant—who was the lead hacker for this year’s lectures, about them, and her work building the cornerstone demonstration that closed out the series.
You were the lead maker for this years Christmas Lectures, how did you end up there?
I feel really lucky to have been given the role of Christmas Lectures Assistant for this year’s set of lectures. This job covers many diverse elements but mostly involves researching interesting makes and hacks, building props and demos for the show, science checking and designing how-tos for the Royal Institution website. I love making and tinkering and love empowering people to experiment and learn new skills. Before working for the Royal Institution I worked at the Science Museum for several years. While there I designed interactive workshops and activities combining science, art and craft. I really believe that there should be more cross over in these subjects. I also got to do lots of explosive experiments and meet some amazing scientists. Before that I worked as a Maths, Science and English teacher for a few years while doing making on the side.
Have you always been a maker of things?
I have always been a maker. There aren’t many crafts, materials or home science or tech experiments that I haven’t tried out but not always with the best results. I have had many maker related mishaps but I’ve learned so much along the way. While working at the Science Museum I also worked for a company called the Make Lounge in London which taught lots of different craft classes. I loved that I was doing both science and making – my job at the Royal Institution perfectly combines these.
What was the inspiration behind the Tetris skyscraper project?
Playing Tetris on a building has been described as one of the ‘holy grails’ of hacking. It mixed coding, hacking and technology but also creating an installation that looked beautiful. The idea of creating something so big and on such a large scale was very exciting. We wanted something that would be interactive and fun as well – not simply displaying an image on a screen. A Tetris type game was perfect as it worked well with the pixelated screen and having an audience member playing the game really brought it to life.
Tell us about the technology you used, did you use a lot of components off the shelf?
Yes, all of the technology that we used for Tetris is available off the shelf. We were determined right from the start that we wanted to light up each individual window and that projecting onto the building using expensive technology wouldn’t reflect the spirit of the lectures. We couldn’t use the lights within the building as they were big units that lit several windows at once. My initial idea was to use DMX washer lights because they are programmable and powerful. We could connect these to microcontrollers that we could wirelessly control and network together. But once again DMX lights aren’t off the shelf kit.
Luckily a friend of mine Jonty Wareing, who founded the London Hackspace, put me in touch with Philips and they leant us a large number of Philips Hue led light bulbs. These light bulbs contain networked microcontrollers so that they can be remotely controlled. They’re a little expensive but they definitely are a consumer rather than a industry product.
How were the components networked together? I’ve seen similar lighting projects done with XBee mesh networks?
The light bulbs on each floor were remotely controlled by a “bridge module”. The bridge is used to control multiple lights, but it wasn’t designed to be used on this scale! This module can be connected to a network via an Ethernet port and then contains a ZigBee module which creates the wireless mesh network. We wanted to use the building’s pre-existing network system to control the game and communicate with the bridges but unfortunately this proved impossible. In the end we gathered together a bunch of standard commercial routers mostly from Ben’s amazing group of friends and Ben constructed a temporary network with one router per floor. The bridges used this network to communicate with our laptops outside.
Skyscraper Tetris – Behind the Scenes
We had approximately 200 cheap desk lamps which we set up in each window. Although the bulbs were very powerful they still looked like bright coloured candles in the windows from the outside of the building. We needed to diffuse the light from the windows. We papered the windows with baking paper which acted as a diffuser for the lamps. We then hung a mylar sheet (the foil sheets you get from first aid kits and which are thrown around marathon runners) from the top of the window behind the lamp which sat on the window sill. This foil sheet meant that the light was reflected back out of the window so we got the maximum lighting effect from each bulb. This setup needed to be cheap and quickly and easily constructed as there were 182 windows and we had only 30 mins to install it.
The game was played from a laptop in a garden facing the building which connected via our temporary network to the bridges on each floor.
Did the project get the sort of reaction you expected?
In all honesty on the day we had lots of problems with our temporary network and it didn’t work quite as easily as we had hoped. It worked perfectly the day before when we were testing it. The lecture was filmed live on a very cold and wet wintery night but nevertheless people watched from outside the building and were really impressed and excited. I think maybe the rain, the fact that we’re a lot more people there on the night and maybe the television crew’s remote signal, might have caused some interesting wifi issues. Following the broadcast of the lectures we have had loads of positive feedback. I am particularly impressed that people have been really inspired by the project and appreciate and are thinking of ways that they can wirelessly control lights or build smaller led displays of their own.
You also work on the Ri’s “Things with stuff” series, can you tell us about that?
A big impetus of this year’s Christmas Lectures was to encourage people to play and tinker. I worked closely with the wonderful Ri Channel team and in particular Anthony Lewis the Digital Communications Officer to capture our fun ideas for makes from the really silly—the basic battery motor Christmas tree, to the slightly more involved—the Raspberry Pi Twitterbot. Although I was very busy preparing the Tetris demo it was so much fun to build the little makes for the series. If I could change one thing I’d probably have done more careful sewing on my wearable tech jumper – it’s very messy.
How to make LED Throwies
The first of the Christmas Lectures for 2014 is now online on the Ri Channel.