Friday, November 9, 2012

Scott's Scary House, Part V: The Hauntening

While everyone else in the country has already moved on from Halloween to some election or other, my brain is still stuck in October 31st. What went well, what needed work, what was scary, what was just embarrassing. I don't intend to pick apart every detail here, but I figure I did owe one final post on one of the big elements of my show. That would be the animated dresser drawers, complete with spooky schematics and demonic diagrams. First though, here's one last tour of the whole room.

It took a while of playing with camera settings to find an adequate combination for a blacklit room. The actual light level in the room is about half of what you see here, but the camera was happier with a longer exposure, so everything looks brighter.

Hard to see here, but the text in the mirror reads "I'M WATCHING YOU,"
which is written backwards on the sheet on the opposite wall. The fan, also
visible here, provided a nice billowing breeze to the sheets in the room.

The mirror itself is screwed onto the crib so it doesn't
fall over during the night.

The possessed dresser, as  pictured above, was intended to be the centerpiece of the room. At random intervals, the drawers that are covered in the fluorescent hand prints jump in and out, as if someone - or something - is trying to get inside. How does it work? Let's find out...

Since the undead were otherwise occupied on this night, I had to resort to good, old-fashioned automation components. Making this little effect was a lot of fun and, as it turned out, not terribly complicated, as long as you're comfortable with some very basic aspects of electrical, pneumatic and software design. ...I guess "not complicated" is a relative term here, but I think you'll get it by the time I'm done.


Let's start at the beginning, with the actual brain of the device: the Arduino Uno. This nifty little controller, custom-designed for hobbyists such as myself, is what drives the whole thing. It's literally the same controller I used for my Evil Eye the year before. It runs a very simple program which waits for a semi-random amount of time - between 60 and 90 seconds - and turns on an output which triggers a pneumatic valve. After another two seconds, the output is released and the valve returns to its initial state. A new wait time is selected and the process repeats itself.


So far so good. Just one problem. The Arduino is basically just a PIC microcontroller stuck on a board that makes it easy to interface with. The output pins of the controller are versatile, but can only provide 40mA at 5V and cannot directly trigger the pneumatic valve, which needs 75mA at 24V. How to get from one to the other? Observe:

This circuit would probably get me laughed out of most professional outfits, but as with most things, it's the results that matter. What it does is take a 24V power supply and use it for a couple purposes. A regulator knocks it down to 12V to power the Arduino. A transistor is used as the interface between the controller and the valve. When the 5V Arduino output pin goes high, it "switches" the transistor on, allowing 24V to actuate the pneumatic valve. At the same time, an LED lights up indicating the circuit is active. When the pin goes low, the switch is closed and the valve releases. 

The other two LEDs function first as a power indicator to let me know that the system is on and then as a "heartbeat". This is just a part of the program that turns the LED on and off once per second to indicate that it hasn't died or frozen.

Here's the what that lovely circuit shown above actually looks like:

What a beaut!


Anyway, we've figured out how to turn our pneumatic valve on and off. But the valve doesn't do much in isolation, so we'll need a few more components. I've got an air compressor that I bought a while ago as part of a pneumatic nailer kit from Lowes. This comes with a regulator, which I've set to about 30psi. It turns out this is about the optimum setting for this effect. Any less and the compressor will deplete to and stay at zero when the effect fires. Any more and the air pressure will hit the drawers hard enough to make the whole dresser nearly capsize.

Nylon tubing for the air also came from the Lowes also and the various fittings I needed to hook it all together came from Automation Direct, an online retailer for various components. The pneumatic cylinders which are the heart of the effect came from a local electronics surplus store (as did the valve, for a whopping $1. Hooray for second-hand parts!).

Two cylinders, nose-mounted to the rear of the dresser.

The cylinder pistons are threaded, which allows me to attach
the drawers to them with a couple washers and nuts. This is
how they're pushed out and pulled in.

The 24 volt valve. Probably on sale because of a missing/broken
plastic hood where the power comes in. Still works, though!
Those are all the components. Here's how they all fit together:

There are two different types of cylinders. The bottom one is a spring-return mechanism, meaning I only have to push it out with air and when the pressure is released it'll return to its initial position by itself. The top one is a double-acting mechanism, meaning that I have to supply air pressure in whichever direction I want to push it. This is actually easy to do with the valve I have because it's a two-port valve which is always supplying pressure out of one of its ports. When it's triggered, it simply alternates which port is pressurized. The way this is all configured is such that the drawers move in alternate directions when the effect fires. The lower drawer moves in and the upper drawer moves out, then back again...

...The spirits whisper in  their rage. The luminescent, disembodied hands try to get at their demonic possessions in the drawers. The furniture shakes and jumps with their effort. They might not be able to get what's in there, but they just might be satisfied with... your soul!

...Or at least that's how it was supposed to go. As it turns out, repeatedly slamming particle board with 30 pounds of pressure in a small area is eventually more than it can handle. At the top of the evening, the  back of the upper drawer broke, which is a shame because that piston had the longer stroke (the drawer came out more) and what I was left with was more a lurching dresser than a finely tuned effect. The bottom drawer continued to work through the night.

In the couple evenings leading up to Halloween I would have this effect going along with the sound and lighting while I worked on other things. I found myself more spooked than I would care to admit, subconsciously, anxiously awaiting the next time the dresser would move, but never being able to acclimate because the timing was just random enough. My wife didn't care to spend more than a couple minutes in the room. My three year old didn't seem to mind at all. I figure with all this exposure to spooky stuff he'll probably be afraid of nothing when he's older. Or everything.

The whole design and construction process for the room in general was a pretty organic one, constantly changing as I came up with new ideas and found new props. The dresser, however, was the one thing that remained the same from start to finish, though, and even if it got mangled before its time, for a while it was looking and working exactly how I envisioned it from the start. I find that more satisfying than than any of the accolades or screams that I heard that whole evening.

Now to start thinking about next year. Maybe something happy and fun?


Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween 2012

It's about 7:30 on October 31st. Amber is out with Atom and some friends of ours, collecting treats and I'm holding down the Frightening Fort. I just thought I'd hop online a record a few of my thoughts about this whole process.

...First, I'm very happy with how things turned out. Yes, there were more than a few compromises, but I haven't been on a job yet where that doesn't happen, and the end product is always satisfactory. In the hour or so that kids and families have been stopping by I've heard more than a few screams and exclamations of haunted delight. I've heard several folks say that it's the best in the neighborhood. Take that, stupid neighbors with better things to do!

...I'm thinking that I should have thought to somehow reinforce the back of the dresser drawers, where the pneumatic pistons push them in and out. The first thing that happened tonight was that the upper drawer broke and is now motionless. Good thing I animated two drawers. Live and learn.

...Putting a container of candy in the room was a bad idea. The first group of kids to come in emptied it tossed it on top of my haunted bed. This leads into my next thought...

...Kids are inconsiderate twerps and deserved to get scared. No, you can't reach into my candy bowl and grab more candy. You get what you get.

...I'm amazed the whole room hasn't been torn apart. I'm anxiously waiting for someone to jump on or get pushed on top of the bed, destroying it.

...It's a little after 8pm and I'm getting low on candy. I hope things slow down soon. I hope I get to keep some of those Hershey Cookies 'n Cream bars for myself. I suppose if Atom and his friend get back soon I can give away some of their candy if I need to. It's Halloween Socialism!

...Surreptitiously videotaping people who come into the room is problematic. It's very hard to do it discretely while I'm sitting there behind the curtains because the camera screen can be seen. If I leave it there unmanned it will undoubtedly get found and stolen. It's also probably illegal.

...The dresser, hobbled as it is, still mostly works, but it hasn't been the source of screams that I thought it would be. I think the overall atmosphere in the room is spookier than any one element.    Just goes to show the importance of a good audio mix and lighting scheme.

...Atom and company returned a little while ago bringing a much needed candy infusion. I don't think he'll miss a few packets of Nerds. 

...About a quarter after 9 now. Traffic has declined to a trickle and no one has come by in 10 or 15 minutes. My choice is either to keep things open and continue to blog about it or shut down for the night and relax in bed with some wine (red wine, of course). I think I'm going to choose the latter.

Happy Halloween, everyone!

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

All Hallows' Eve...Eve

Two days until H-Day. The installation is going well. Too well. I find I can't spend more than a little while in the room without feeling like something is going to sneak up on me. Part of that is the soundtrack I picked. Last year I used a piece of a "ghostly voices" track for my Evil Eye, which was a big part of its success. This year I'm using that same track, but the whole thing, looped over and over. And over.

It whispers things like "Get Out," and "Help Me," which served as inspiration to decorate the walls with those phrases. The "walls" are just a series of solid color bedsheets that I stapled to the garage ceiling to block off the rest of the junk I've got in there. This is so visitors don't have to experience my Drill Press of Doom, or my Electric Sander of Mild Annoyance.

Anyway, I've got the room laid out with most of the decor in place, but one of my challenges was to figure out how to light all this. I didn't have too many choices, really. I could spend a lot of time and effort laying out some kind of lighting scheme and then figuring out where and how to mount lights, or I could just throw some fluorescent blacklight bulbs into my existing ceiling fixtures and call it a day. Actually, I was a little hesitant to do even this, because using blacklight is one of those things that I might consider cheating in some circumstances. In the end I'm glad I did it though. It creates a truly ethereal look when illuminating a room full of white sheets, and it also lets me do the aforementioned painting in blacklight-sensitive paints. Nothing says "Go Away" like glowing red paint on a glowing white sheet.

While I've got the bed and dresser in place and working, I've decided to not do anything with the mirror. My plan initially was to suspend it from a ceiling joist with some fishing line so it appears to be floating on the wall, but I just don't think that's going to happen. When putting a real dark ride together at a theme park, there's an extra layer of safety that goes into anything that's suspended over people's heads. While the mirror isn't in the same ballpark as some of the contraptions that would normally fall under that spec, that is one of the things that cross my mind when I think "Well, why don't I just hang it from the ceiling with fishing wire?" There's a lot that could go wrong and I'm not willing to risk that. Scaring kids I'm okay with. Injuring them, not so much.

Last week I promised to write more details about the haunted drawers, so I apologize for not doing so today. The problem is that I want to do that when I have time to write a really good description, complete with diagrams and pictures to illustrate how it works, and I just haven't had that kind of time, what with actually trying to construct this whole thing. I promise more details soon.

In the mean time, there are still a few things to complete before Wednesday. I've got to finish cleaning up the room and getting everything off the floor, decide what other pieces of furniture I may need in there, and come up with a sign to put in front. Because this is turning out so sublimely unnerving, I've decided to make it an optional experience, giving people the choice to just bring their kids to the front door for candy if they want to skip it. This way the only nightmares they'll get are from eating too many Smarties and fun-size Milky Ways.

I'll leave you with a couple more bad pictures of the current state of the room (standard cameras are not good at dealing with primarily ultra-violet light sources without special filters).

Monday, October 22, 2012

Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite

This year's Halloween project has been all about "found items." My previous post was about how I hacked apart a gaming chair I'd found on the street to make a built-in sound system for the garage. In addition to that, Amber had found some furniture in the neighborhood which looked like it had potential for our daughter's room. It wasn't long until I got the idea that I could incorporate them into my Halloween project. Frankly, they were old and spooky enough already that I didn't think I'd have to do much work. Although now I think I owe my wife a number of household chores.

The two items she found were an old mirror and an upright dresser, which are probably 20-30 years old each. The dresser I'm building some pnuematics into to make the drawers come alive. More on that in the next post. The mirror will just need a little surface treatment to fit into the overall decor. The one piece that was missing from the whole set was a bed. Or, more precisely, this:

Just looking at this picture gives me the heeby-jeebies. For such a low-tech effect, I think this turned out amazingly well, and what you see above is only a trial run. The ingredients are simple: a mattress, a frame, some lights and a prop or two.

In keeping with our "found items" theme, Amber picked the mattress up on the roadside in our neighborhood (this place is turning out to be a wellspring of useful junk). Step one, complete. However, since it wasn't a glowing mattress, I had to help it along with some lights. In the above photo, the mattress is back-lit. In order to facilitate this, I cut off the cloth and padding on the underside to let any light I place beneath it shine through more easily.

I actually had a leftover mattress frame to sit this on, but that turned out to be not quite what I wanted. The lights placed beneath the mattress would just spill out from under it and ruin the effect. So I built a custom box-frame for it using some wood I had leftover from other projects. 

Note the translucent material draped across the center. This is some fluorescent ceiling light cover material I'd bought for another project and never used. One of the design challenges for this bed is to have a way to support the mattress, but not have anything opaque that would cast a shadow from a light underneath. These pieces accomplish just that. They'll hold up the mattress and a few props, but that's about it. If a kid decides to jump on this Halloween night, I'm in trouble.

Now we've got a mattress and a frame, but no lights. I experimented with snaking some rope lights through the mattress springs, but that didn't give me the unholy glow effect I was going for, and it was a pain to boot. So I just grabbed a couple of red compact fluorescents that I'd got a several Halloweens ago and placed them on the floor beneath the mattress. That did the job nicely. 

So far it's a great looking prop, but it's missing something; the inhuman element, you might say. Fortunately, I have yet more old Halloween props at my disposal. 

The skull and other parts were from a past time when I was less concerned about the cheesiness of my decorations. I think they go to good effect here, though, when combined with some old clothes and draped over with another bed sheet. The pièce de résistance, though, is something that can't be experienced on this page. We have a sound machine that we've been using first for Atom and now for Trillian to provide some nice white noise in their room at night. One of the settings is "heartbeat." That gets placed underneath the mattress with the lights. In a perfect world I'd sync the lighting with the sound of the heartbeat, but I don't have the budget or time to pull that off this year.

When I had finished this setup, I left it on for a little while and did some other things in the house. When I walked back into the darkened garage with just this thing on, I have to say I was a little creeped out. This may actually be too much for the little ones in the neighborhood. Believe it or not I do give that some weight, so I'll have to think about how it might get toned down by the larger design of the whole haunted room. When I get tapped to do an entire house in Halloween Horror Nights at Universal, then I'll pull out all the stops.

Until then... sweet dreams... 

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Speaker Hacking

Halloween preparations are coming along nicely so far. I'm not exactly where I'd like to be, but I almost never am at this point. I'll likely be scrambling the week before, but that's pretty much how these things go (and it's where the fun is, anyway).

I'll have a post soon on some of the pneumatic control I'm attempting, but I wanted to put a quick one up about my new sound system, which will probably wind up being the most successful and enduring part of this job. 

Last year I made use of my home theater system to provide some ambiance and specific cues for my Eyeball of Doom, but that was a pain for a few reasons. One was having to extend my speaker wiring to reach outside the house, then having to figure out how to hide them in trees, and finally protecting them from the elements when it rained. For that reason I decided to move my next presentation into my garage, but I wasn't really sure what that meant for sound.

This post is made possible by the fine makers of the XRocker chair.
So you can imagine my elation when I was driving through the neighborhood and I saw a used gaming chair that someone had put out to pasture by the road. I quickly nabbed it and brought it back to the house. I had no idea if it worked - the power cord was gone. It's usually not hard to find replacements, but the power requirements for this chair were a bit unusual, so I had to call the manufacturer, who sold me a new one for $12 plus shipping. When I received it, I plugged it in, hooked up my iPod and... viola! Sound! Now the rest of my plan could come to fruition.

Now, I couldn't really destroy this thing without using it first, so I made sure I spent an evening with my laptop plugged in and playing various games. I quite enjoyed the experience, but it wasn't practical to keep the chair like it was, despite the fact that my son, Atom, had fallen in love with the "music chair." So, let the hacking begin.

A box-cutter knife made quick work of the back of this chair, and the main interface on the side came out with the removal of half a dozen screws. It's attached directly to the subwoofer, but the cables have connectors that come out easily. 

Even better, the subwoofer assembly is an isolated box that's mounted to the middle of the chair via L-brackets and the whole thing comes out easily. The only thing that presents a problem for completely removing the whole system is the 5W, 4-Ohm speakers that are on either side of the chair. I had to cut the wires in order to remove them. That's not a big loss, though since I had intended to extend them anyway. This is what the whole mess looks like once it's been removed:

Perfect! Now to mount it. There's some decent attic space immediately above our garage. I'd previously used it to install electrical boxes for some florescent fixtures I'd added, precisely so I could do this kind of work in the garage in the evening, without having to depend on a 100W garage door opener bulb to see what I'm doing. 

Armed with a 3" hole saw blade for my drill for the speaker mounting holes, some 18 gauge speaker wire from Lowes and some wire nuts, I mounted the stereo speakers on either side of the garage ceiling. The wires lead to some storage shelves in the back of the garage, where I placed the subwoofer and control panel. I used some of the same screws and brackets to afix those two things to the shelving.

Note the ultra-cool LED ring in the speaker. High class stuff, here.
Mounting speakers in drywall: easy.
Not putting my foot through said drywall: not so easy.

It was extremely satisfying to plug the reconfigured system in for the first time and have it belt out some of my tunes. I had to resist the urge to turn it all the way up because everyone else was asleep in the house by that point. It's not a huge system, but it fills the garage very nicely with a great stereo effect and the subwoofer supplements it nicely. Since it's not in a chair and vibrating you directly anymore, the base has to be turned up nearly to max, but it still does the job.

I think this will do very nicely either for providing some spooky ambiance during Halloween, or just letting me listen to my favorite show tunes - I mean, cutting-edge indie rock - while I'm working on this and future projects.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Scaring Children on a Shoestring Budget

It was mid evening on Halloween last year when I opened the door to greet a father and his young daughter. The father was genial and the daughter, dressed like a fairy, looked a little unsure if she wanted to be there. "It took her five minutes to get the courage to walk to your front door," said the Dad. I smiled and replied something to the effect that I'm glad she could make it up, and dolled out an appropriate amount of sugary goodness. Inside, I was thinking, "Yes! Success!"

Here's the reason this young lady wanted to keep her distance:

Through Septempber I'd been considering ways to spice up Halloween a bit, and for some reason, "Animatronic Eyeball" was the idea that stuck. It seemed like a neat idea that wouldn't be impossible to pull off, especially with a little help along the way. For that I'll have to thank my wife and one of my co-workers. 

So, how does this work? 

According to this informative diagram, the main Eyeball is made of a few components. The Arduino controller is the main brain of the system. It sends signals to both the servo motor and to a pair of RGB LEDs. The servo is attached to the main axis of the Eyeball and, at the command of the controller, executes quick, jerky, random movements. The LEDs (suggested by my co-worker) are programmed with a couple sequences - a normal and "angry" one -  which the controller can switch between.

An infrared motion detector, mounted off to the side, picks up when someone is approaching and sends a signal to the Arduino. At that point the controller tells the servo to snap to the center and tells the LEDs to go to the "angry" look.

At the same point, it sends a command to my laptop computer, which is running a separate program, loading and playing sound files. Those sounds are - you guessed it - sent to my home theater system. I've hidden two speakers and subwoofer in my front lawn to provide some spooky ambiance and the "I'm watching you!" that plays when someone approaches.

The mounting apparatus for this contraption came courtesy of my table saw and some of the spare wood I had sitting in my garage, plus some black spray paint. The eyeball itself is a cut-off tupperware bowl which my talented painter wife made into an excellent, bloodshot orb which stares into your very soul. The rest of the details on how this all works are plentiful, and I will be happy to provide specifics if anyone is curious (like just how did I call a soul from Purgatory and infuse it into The Machine?).

Here's my Halloween ethos: I will never, ever, put a pop-up skeleton, drooling zombie or cauldron-stirring witch in my yard. I admire the folks who put those together, but even the creepiest of them just barely register on the scare-o-meter by the time they're sitting next to someone's candy bowl. In fairness, that's not entirely true since they probably scare the bat symbols right off the pajama-wearing, caped crusaders of the neighborhood. You've got to admit, though, it's a lot easier to laugh off a twitching, plastic skeleton than it is to ignore the eyeball that actively scans the road and whispers to you when you're close.

Keep watching!
Starting soon I'll be blogging about my progress on this year's project, which is even more unreasonably ambitious than last year. My plans are bigger, I'm going to need more props and holy crud I've only got three and a half weeks to do it in!

I've done some initial experiments which have panned out well enough, but turning my garage into a haunted room is going to be no easy task. As always, these projects are as much about learning new things and pushing my boundaries as they are about scaring little fairy girls. 

So stay tuned! There will be maniacal laughter, tears of eternal lament, and howls of pain as I once again drop the hammer on my foot. Also, I'm all for trying to make this an interactive experience, so if anyone has some ideas or ways to improve what I'm doing during the process, I'm happy to listen.  

Happy Hauntings!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Hello, World!

When learning a new programming language, it's a minor convention that the first thing you learn is how to output the phrase, "Hello, World!" Then you proceed to learning a new syntax, new methods, properties and idiosyncrasies of the language. After all that, a few migraines, copious amounts of coffee, and cursing the computer and its children through seven generations, finally you may know enough to put something together that's useful to yourself, and, if you're good, maybe a few others. 

Fortunately, I've got a head start of over three and a half decades in learning the language that I'll be using in this blog. However, I do want to reach a bit outside my usual writing comfort zone (which exists somewhere between bad high school poetry and technical manuals) in order to bring to you some of the content I want to. What type of content is that? I'm glad you asked:


'PLC_kursus (13)' photo (c) 2010, Green Mamba :)--< - license: want to know what goes into making a theme park ride? Me too! I work for a company that designs, assembles and installs control systems for themed attractions - primarily for Universal Studios these days, but for other clients as well. I fancy myself a controls engineer, but while my skills and knowledge have increased quite a bit in the few years I've been doing this, the fact is I've still a ways to go. For now, I'm just an Engineering Associate - though a talented and handsome one - who needs to bone up on various subjects. This is where you come in.

Let me explain: I find that there's only a couple good ways to learn things. One is by doing. Want to learn to program? Write one. Want to learn to about wood-craft? Build a swing-set (more on that escapade in future posts). The other way to learn is through teaching. That, it turns out, is going to be one of the main purposes of this blog. I'm going to be learning about things that I feel are important for me to know and then turning around and trying to explain them as best I can. My goal is to do so in a way that keeps things simple and interesting. 

As an example, I'll be posting in the near future about signal reflections in transmission cables. Sound a bit esoteric? It's actually pretty interesting stuff and has some everyday applications I'll talk about.

I also hope that part of this process will be interactive, where anyone can call me on something I've gotten wrong, or ask questions about something I haven't covered adequately.


I tend to think big. When I was young, I had an ambition to cut up my Dad's old Chevy Vega and turn it into a Transformer. Besides the fact that it would have been the lamest Transformer ever, I didn't have the skills or tools to pull it off. Now that I'm older, well, I still don't, but at some point I decided to not let that stop me from creating the things I want to. Tools I can buy, now that my allowance is a bit higher. Skills... well, what better way to get them than by diving in and making something (see above, re: Doing).

As it happens, I'm just gearing up for my second big project this year: Halloween. This is my Christmas. Seriously, I do nothing for that holiday, decoration-wise, but for Halloween I have given myself bigger and more ambitious assignments for each of the last few years, and this year I'll be detailing the process for you here. 


I've got a lovely wife, Amber (who has a blog of her own), and I'm father to two wonderful little children, Atom and Trillian (who don't have their own blogs...yet). I may occasionally feel inspired to write about some aspect of parenting - or spousing, for that matter - the laughter, the tears, and how much time I've had to spend in the Naughty Chair.

I am an atheist, a fact which probably wasn't missed by anyone who spent more than a moment looking at this blog's banner. The Darwin Fish was a symbol thought up as a reaction to a prominent religious symbol, that then took on a life of its own. Why did I choose to co-opt it for my blog title? Mostly because I enjoy the word-play with my name, but also because my atheism is a part of my identity. That said, it's not my intention to write a series of screeds against religion here. But because this is "my party," I won't rule out posting a piece on some news nugget or other that strikes a nerve.

So, I've introduced myself and set my goals, written a slightly overlong introduction to the blog, and you're still reading this. That means you're either a member of my immediate family, or you've taken a little interest in what I'm doing here. In either case, I thank you and I look forward to putting out as good a blog as I can.