Sunday, January 01, 2006

My Robot Suit

September of 2001 was an all-around undoubtedly shitty month. Aside from the events of the 11th, things were going badly for me on a personal level, as well. I had just quit my job as QA manager in August--a job I had been in for several years. I was still an emotional wreck, and my state of mind was only made worse by a really messed up week in Black Rock City and San Francisco (though hanging out with Kara in Reno for a couple days after was fun).

The one thing I did have going for me was a healthy savings and relatively low monthly expense. This was good, because obviously when the towers fell there weren't many companies in the hiring mood.

Rather than sit and go slowly crazy (or, more accurately, crazier than I already was, which is another story) I figured that a good way to pass the time would be to make a robot costume for Halloween.

When I first got the idea in my head I had only vague thoughts of what it might end up being, but I decided that what I really wanted to go for was "1950s sci-fi", a sort of retro-chic. I headed off to Home Depot to get some ideas.

Once there I was immediately struck by the idea of using one of the round mechanicals and making the robot cylindrical. This design decision was pivotal, in that it dictated all subsequent decisions, and actually made the end result turn out far cooler than I had even imagined was possible.

In the picture the suit is pretty far along in construction. Some of the harder things to do were,

1. figuring out how to design hinges as well as clasps for the "door" (which had to be opened and closed by people other than myself, since once I had my arms inside then there was obviously no way to reach it),

2. figuring out how to cut out holes for my arms that were in the right position and the right size,

3. figuring out how to protect my shoulders from the sharp edges that I had cut, 4. figuring out how to make a clean cut for the "eye hole", given that it needed to look nice. Even in my original conception I had imagined using livewire and LEDs to give it that retro feel, but I didn't think of the grid pattern (that you can just make out in this photo) until right before it was time to come up with something.

I was very happy with how it ultimately turned out.

I ordered a whole bunch of LEDs from AS&S, an awesome surplus catalog, and I had a ton of copper wiring (why? I dunno). When the LEDs arrived I literally spent 3 days soldering the wires to the LEDs--a total of over 25 hours' labor to get them all ready to be put in the suit. One of the guys in my roommate's band thought that I was constructing a bomb. Pretty funny.

It was at about this time that I started thinking that I should maybe enter a few costume contests around town. There were several that had prizes of over $2500, and I figured that I would be a shoe-in with this thing.

I didn't want the lights to blink all at the same time, so I set them up on 8 different circuits, and had my friend Jim generate some random numbers that would give me a direction and a count so that the layout of the LEDs would be as random as possible (i.e., "from the current LED, move 3 spaces left"). The effect, when all was said and done, was striking. The lights would go in and out of phase with each other in such a way that you couldn't tell which lights were on what circuit.

The actual work of doing the wiring, though, was a tedious and frustrating nightmare. I would often lose my place and have to retrace my steps to figure out where I needed to put the next light. Worse was when I would be checking the connections and would accidentally put too much juce through the curcuit, blowing out all the LEDs in the process. At a certain point I just ran out of time. The thing was, though, that by that point it looked so cool anyway that I figured enough was enough.
I had to build shelves to hold all the batteries. You can tell from this picture approximately how many LEDs I ended up using. Since each 9 volt had to power a minimum of 3 LEDs (any less and it would be too much power and they'd burn out), and sometimes I'd squeeze an extra one in there just for fun, that means there were about 95 of 'em.

The red wires you see are some of the el-wire that I used.

The finishing touch, which unfortunately you can't see in the pictures, was a strobe light that blinked every 2 seconds. That really created a subtle, but awesome, effect, like you were in the presence of something dangerous.


Here I am wearing the finished product at my friend Jim's Halloween party. It was actually too tall for me to fit through his front door, and I couldn't bend over or sit while wearing it, so 6 people had to lift me and tilt me back and then carry me into the house.

I stood around in it for about an hour, but this kinda sucked because everyone at the party was out in the back yard, and it was difficult for me to talk through it anyway, so eventually took it off.

But soon it was off to a local bar for their costume contest. I got there a bit early, and the band Dred Zepplin was playing. I didn't know this at the time, but they have the annoying habit of—and this is not hyperbole, I swear—ending every song they do with 10 minute jam sessions. By the end of the show I was nearly crying from the torture. I think at one point I yelled for them to please stop, though of course they couldn't hear me. Anyway, the prize for the winner was $3000. I made it into the finals, and I thought for sure I'd win it, because all during the night people kept coming up to me asking to take a photo with me, but some ass with a terrible grim reaper costume won because he had packed the audience. This defeat soured me for going to a couple other costume contests over the next couple days.

I did, however, wear it one more time for a performance of my roommate's band. During their set they did a cover of "Iron Man", and I came out and wandered up and down the length of the audience area. It was humorous.

1 comment:

steve said...

Great story and pics (nice blog too)! You gotta resurrect the robot again someday!