So my group of friends and I exhibited our “Neobombe” prototype at the Singapore Maker Faire last weekend. After submitting our proposal more than two months ago, we managed to scrap together a working prototype. It is far from perfect and has a lot of room for improvement. Given more time and budget, we could make it pretty awesome, but it has to do for now. Four of us from ArtMakesUs were actively involved in this project and I estimate we spent about two man-months doing this project. We worked on it on the side while doing our day jobs. Our expenses added up to about SGD2,000 coming out of our own pockets. I focused on the electronics while the rest of my teammates did the programming and the build. The Neobombe concept was the brainchild of my programming teammate. I helped execute the idea via the hardware electronics, spending the bulk of the budget on the electronics.
We had generally positive feedback from the audience during the maker faire. They loved the idea behind the art installation and enjoyed the interactivity – they could see their Enigma-encoded twitter messages being “intercepted” by the Neobombe, and then decrypted live in front of them. The only negative feedback came from some of the audience members who are electronics-trained. They gave feedback that for a hobby project, we probably spent too much money. We should have ordered all our 36 stepper motors and shields from China, from websites such as Taobao and Ali-express. I ordered these components from Adafruit from the USA cos I loved Adafruit’s quality assurance as well as their online forums and extensive documentation. Our former lecturer from LASALLE who dropped by said we went “crazy” on the project budget. No regrets though.
You can see the test setup for the electronics follows the line diagram: two power supplies, two usb hubs, one power distributor board, 11 Arduinos and three rows of stepper motors.
One note regarding the power supplies and power distribution board, and also for the Arduinos, is that I should have created electronic enclosures for them. Like a black plastic box casing or similar to help protect against accidental short circuits, like, if, for example, someone spilled water on the electronics or touched the positive and negative terminals with wet hands. This step would be a matter of life or death for AC circuits or DC circuits with high voltages. For 12V, the repercussions would be a lot milder, but if this project were a public commercial installation, this precaution would be necessary. You can never predict the behaviour of young children. During the maker faire, we realised that this Neobombe project is pretty incomprehensible to children. How do you explain encryption, Twitter, computers and WWII in simple terms?
There was a horrendous amount of wires. Cable management is important but we weren’t very successful at this. We wanted to expose the cables though. For the raw-looking aesthetic.
Soldering the JST connectors took up 20 hours. I actually kept count. It was laborious indeed. But my soldering skills + 1. I was proud that none of the connections broke during the two days of the maker faire. I had my soldering iron on standby just in case. The JST connectors were very useful for fast setup and tear down for the installation. JST stands for Japan Solderless Terminal, named after the company that first made these.
The ribbon cables helped cut down the mess by a lot, else there would be quadruple the amount of snaking wires lying around.
These were relatively easier to do compared to the four pin JST connectors for the steppers.
Our original idea was to have light strips for each motor and we even went so far as to design and 3D print the above model – the mount and casing for the printed circuit board (PCB) light strip. We even spent SGD400 on making 40 of the following PCBs. The PCB (in green) was meant to be slotted into the 3D printed stepper mount (in black) and covered by a translucent casing (shown as transparent).
But we ran out of time and budget. 3D printing takes up a lot of time. Neither did we have the budget to do a commercial 3D print to save time. But if we had budget, I wouldn’t use the coin cell battery which has to be replaced daily. It doesn’t make sense for a permanent installation. Instead, I would use the Adafruit slip ring with flange. See following image. This cost USD15 though and we need 36 of these.
The slip ring allows for rotating LEDs since the wires at the top can be rotated continuously while maintaining contact with the wires coming from the bottom. You can add a proper LED strip with many LEDs, instead of single LEDs, powered by a wall adaptor instead of coin cell batteries.
If we had more time and budget, we would create a proper rack frame for the motors, Perhaps even do a steampunk look with metal parts and exposed gears. We could also add an alphabet ring to each of the motors since technically, the motors move from alphabet to alphabet, from A to Z. If. If only. A big “if”. Well, we have to leave it as it is for now.