learning the ropes

things I made at ITP and after: sketches, prototypes, and other documentation

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Secret Tree Accepted at Maker Faire

I found out last week that the Secret Tree was accepted as part of the Maker Faire in San Matteo, CA. Unfortunately, the notice was a bit too short for us to be able to make the trip.

posted by Michael at 10:25 am  

Friday, April 20, 2007


Images from the latest building session.

I made a solid wooden frame to hold one of the aluminum pulleys. There’s a problem, though. The shaft exhibits a fair degree of wobble when the gyroscope is spun. During critique on Thursday, it was suggested that there should be a piece of metal in the hole so the bottom of the shaft will turn more smoothly. It would be even better to use bearings… which I’ve now tried.

I salvaged bearings from the read/write heads of two hard disk drives. Mounting the bearings was tricky, though, because they must be precisely aligned. This is even more difficult for me as my bearings aren’t the same size. You can see this in my pictures of the PVC pipe gyroscope.

Gyroscopes 001 Gyroscopes 003 Gyroscopes 005 Gyroscopes 006 Gyroscopes 007 Gyroscopes 002 Gyroscopes 009 Gyroscopes 011 Gyroscopes 013

I think I would like to make a gyroscope frame out of metal pipe next.

posted by Michael at 2:32 am  

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

[M/Bre]aking Things

My friend Mark P. Sullivan always said he wanted to make windchimes with all of the dead hard disk drives he had collected over the years. This came back to me as we struggled to find ways to make music with tops, so I started disassembling all of the broken drives I could find to listen to the sound of the platters

Tops 001   Tops 002   Tops 003  Tops 005

Case Mods
We modified our original protoype using one of the disk platters. Several small screws were placed within a cavity in the top beneath the platter in the hopes of making a sweet ringing sound. This was not successful. The centripetal / centrifugal (I always confuse them) force kept the screws jammed against the walls of the top as it spun so it didn’t make any sound.

This is the best spinning top we have so far. Its proportions are comparable top those given in an article we found about machining tops from aluminum.

Tops 016

Whistling… Not Quite
I tried to drill holes in the platters, thinking it might be possible to get a whistling sound as the top spun. The only sound I produced was a pop as the platter shattered. It appears that the disk platters are not metals as I thought. They shatter like glass.

Tops 010

I constructed another test top out of a metal cone from a ceiling-mounted air vent we found on the junk shelf. I did my best to match the “ideal” top proportions.

Tops 012   Tops 013

This one doesn’t spin very well — and is quite dangerous when launched from the power drill.

posted by Michael at 3:24 am  

Monday, April 9, 2007

Top-Related Links / Reference

Top Design Principles
Machining Tops from Aluminum Stock
Beautifully Handcrafted Tops
Paper Clip Top

Where did the Spinning Top Come From
Every possible way to slice up the properties and names of tops….


The sounds Ian Russell gets out of his tops are quite diverse considering he is only using a ribbed wooden fruit bowl as a resonator.

shaft – stem, peg
center of mass

posted by Michael at 3:08 am  

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

Update on Tops

This entry will catch up on some of our progress in creating a series of musical tops.

The week of our prototype presentation, we built a number of sample tops.

I also purchased two toy tops for a performance I gave in Designing for Constraints two weeks ago. One is a “BayBlade” and the other is a Duncan gyroscope.

Bey Blade

I wanted to gain a better appreciation for how tops are constructed before we tried to make more of our own.

We discussed creating acoustic resonators for the tops to spin on and also tried to think of ways to make sounds with the tops. Qwanya (sp?) turned me onto the sound of tempered metals. She explained that her favorite sound in the Physical Computing Shop comes from the top right draw of the toolchest. The hole saws ping melodically whenever the drawer opens.

Hole Saws

After presenting our prototypes in class, we received the following feedback:

  • Become conversant in the vocabulary of tops
  • Look at Taiwanese tops
  • Consider the correlation between the tops and music. What is it?
  • What about whistling tops?
posted by Michael at 1:44 pm  

Monday, April 2, 2007

Final Project Proposal – A Series of Tops

Greg Stringer and I will create a series of musical tops which act as an improvised toy orchestra. Each top in the series creates a distinct and pleasing musical sound. As multiple tops spin simultaneously, their musical sounds will combine into a larger homogeneous sound. The sound of several tops spinning together will be unique and fleeting; it will be difficult to spin the same tops in exactly the same order at identical velocities.

I’m interested in systems which enable musical improvisation among people who have the desire to create music but lack the technical competence on a musical instrument. The musical tops present a low barrier to music creation; they are found in many cultures and require little skill to operate.

Spinning tops transform from one shape into another. No matter the starting shape of a top, once it rotates it forms the shape of a circle. In recycling, a similar process occurs. The designed shape of an object, after its operating lifecycle is complete, is transformed back into raw material and then back into a new designed object. The rotation of our tops will refer to this process.

The tops will be constructed from salvaged parts to highlight the theme of reuse and the cycle of products from raw material to designed object and back to raw material.

Several types of tops will be created to provide desired musical properties: percussive and melodic sounds.

posted by Michael at 9:08 pm  

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Improvised Musical Instrument Links

I’m looking for inspiration for the types of sounds we can make with musical tops.

- Outdoor musical instruments

- Experimental Musical Instruments

posted by Michael at 2:06 pm  

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Final Project : Concept Development

The Final project for Living Art will adhere to the following process:
Concept Development

Earlier this week, Ji-Sun Lee and Youjeong Paik approached me about collaborating on the final project. I was still on the fence about whether to try combining my Audio Art final with this final.

Ji-Sun, Youjeong, and I brainstormed plant-like ideas yesterday. Today, So-Young joined us for a bit. We played around with a number of ideas.

make a wish-0 make a wish-1 make a wish-2 make a wish-3 make a wish-4
make a wish-5 make a wish-6 make a wish-7 make a wish-8 make a wish-9
make a wish-10 make a wish-11 make a wish-12 make a wish-13 make a wish-14

At the end of our session today, we ended up gazing at the stars.
make a wish-14

What: Make a Wish
“Make a Wish” is an immersive environment that offers the participant an opportunity to gaze into the night sky and make a wish on a falling star.
make a wish-15


  • Ji-Sun and Youjeong visited an exhibition recently of an artist who uses mirrors to create infinite interior spaces. We want to explore this idea further using realism rather than surrealism.
  • This project shares some common themes with our Secret Tree project: the need to express certain interior realities privately and private public spaces.


  • Fiber optic strands will be used to simulate stars in the night sky
  • Stars to be dimmed using AD5206 digital potentiometers
  • Immersive environment sound using stereo speakers


  • Shooting star effect
posted by Michael at 9:16 pm  

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Secret Tree on TechTrek.tv

Special thanks to Caleb Clark, Anh Nyugen, and Rucyl Mills for their awesome work in filming the Secret Tree.

March 24th, 2007. New York City.
Episode 4: 4 minutes

Wherein we take at Michael, Aichen and Sun’s Physical Computing project "Secret Tree.

They have more episodes at http://techtrek.tv

posted by Michael at 12:14 am  

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Secret Tree Schematic

Last night, in preparation for building a perf board, I drew a first draft of the schematic for the Secret Tree.

Secret Tree v1

There are several things to do yet to properly document the project’s electronics:

  • Add the clock crystal and other required components for the ATMEGA-8
  • Draw a system block diagram
  • Draw the finite state machines (although this may be overly complicated

Anyone have suggestions on how to simplify this schematic?

posted by Michael at 10:59 am  
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