Rent-a-dog lives in my ‘The Under the
Pier Show’ on Southwold pier. Simply stand on the treadmill, hold the
dog’s lead, and go for a walk, watching the route on the TV in front of
you. The dog has his own TV and obviously has his own perspective of the
walk. Now I look at the finished machine, it seems
quite a straightforward, almost logical, idea. In fact the design went
through all sorts of changes, and took about 4 months to build.
It started when I was given one of
the pier’s gym treadmill running machines that had gone wrong. I stripped it down and I spent a few days playing with
it. I reduced the gearing to slow it down and experimented with a walking
leg mechanism. The leg is freely hinged at the top, and has a motor to
move it up and down so it touches the treadmill half the time. When the
treadmill is moving, it pulls the leg back when in contact. When the leg
lifts off, it swings back, giving a surprisingly convincing but
entertainingly chaotic ‘walking’ effect.
Cam simply lifts leg off treadmill
Moving treadmill drags leg back when in contact.
Pleased with this, I tried afour leg version, which worked even better. I then stopped,
not sure what to do next but confident that the rest of the idea would
soon fall into place.
(Incidentally a few year later I made another version of this mechanism for a friend
who wanted a dog to walk along a track).
Back to Rent-a-dog. Six months after
building the walking mechanism, I’d got no further. At the time I
felt that a straightforward dog walk wasn’t enough – I wanted it to
have more bite - to be about some daft aspect of the modern world. I spent
ages trying to make it something to do with political correctness gone mad
– political correctness for dogs. For a while it was going to be a dog
driving test – pass and you’re fit to be a dog walker. Still no
further with the idea, I had a few weeks free in February and got involved
making the fibreglass dog – called Dotty and modelled on Princess
Anne’s bull terrier that kept biting the servants. Making the dog was
fun – though not entirely straightforward. Everything had to be
particularly strongly made as the dog was going to be open for the public
to touch and maul about. I also made it far too narrow at first – not
having a real bull terrier to look at, just working from photos.
Encouraged by having a finished dog walking on
the treadmill, Graham Norgate and I built the wooden frame to hold the TV
monitors and the electrical control system. Trying it out, it quickly
became obvious that it was impossible to walk and watch both your screen
and the dog’s screen at once. So I bought a tiny screen for the dog –
and placed it out of sight of the person on the treadmill.
I now had a machine that
looked nearly finished – but I was still just as stuck on what the video was
going to be and what the machine should look like. I wondered if the dog should
go on an adventure, discovering a bomb or something – I even tried to design a
mechanism so the dog could hold a bomb in its mouth. At the beginning of May I
was still stuck.
Fortunately, one of my
fellow judges at the Alternative Weathervane competition was Guy Browning. He
writes really funny stuff for the Guardian and is a hero of mine, so I persuaded
him to come and look at the dog. His reaction was why did the dog have such a
tiny screen that the person on the treadmill couldn’t even see! Surely the
basic entertainment was the contrast between the person’s view of the walk and
the dog’s. It made me realise that I’d lost the plot - the double view had
been my original idea but had somehow got completely lost along the way.
At this point I was also
influenced by an automata collecting box I’d recently made for Guy’s
hospital. I’d had similar concerns, wanting the idea to have more bite, to be
about current NHS politics, but had eventually just made a nurse feeding a coin
to a patient. This had been a great success with the public, and persuaded me
that simple ideas, done well, can often work better than intellectually more
I changed direction with the dog and went back to my first idea of the two views
of the walk. I realised that the treadmill should stop whenever the dog found
something interesting – and then you watch it on his screen. I bought a
scarily expensive large LCD TV for the dog’s view, and rebuilt the frame so
the screen was visible from the treadmill.
I then spent even more, buying a large format
computer printer, as I had an idea of the dog walking round a surreal
version of Southwold. This was exciting. I found that I could take digital
photos of buildings, print them out about 300mm high, and then cut them
out and ‘fold’ them into 3D models. On a miniature scale, I was
rediscovering the tricks of the film lot – what needs to be 3D, and what
looks good enough just as flat photos. Looking down a street for example,
the nearest houses on each side needed to be 3D, but the rest looked fine
as a single photo. Playing with this technique, the story for the video
animation evolved quite rapidly. The walk progresses down the high street,
through the churchyard, onto the common and down the seafront. The story
was assisted by my neighbour’s ginger cat Percy, who spent a lot of
time in my workshop. He loved both performing for a camera, and also
chasing dogs. It became obvious that the walk had to turn into a cat
I was still not sure what the machine should look
like. I wondered about aping the style of the London tourist buses –
‘The official sightseeing tour of Southwold’, decorated with union
jacks etc. While it would have been fun that the dog’s idea of the
sights would include steaming piles of poo and discarded chips etc, the
exterior of the machine seemed to look just too like the real nostalgic
Southwold for comfort. By chance, my partner Meg had just been charged
twice for hiring a car in Ireland so the kitchen table was full of car
hire documents – the fine print is really scary! Suddenly it all seemed
to fit and the machine turned into Rent-a-dog.
all the artistic decisions, there are always lots of technical problems. In this
case, I was doing all the videos as DVDs (the previous rides have all had lower
quality video CDs), so there was a lot to learn about DVD authoring. For a while
I couldn’t get the videos to change track reliably. Then I had to ensure it
was completely safe. The main hazard with a treadmill is that people might trip
– particularly small children. I obviously have an emergency stop button, but
having watched a few kids using it in my workshop I decided a height restriction
was also important – to stop parents dumping toddlers on it. I added a
handrail along the front both as something extra to grab, and to stop spectators
jumping on in the middle of the ride. I was also concerned there was a remote
possibility that kids might try to snuggle up with the dog and get caught up on
the moving treadmill – so there’s now a beam sensor to cut the power if
anyone gets too close.
Graham and I finally
installed the machine in the arcade in 2004. At first, all I could
see were the things I’d got wrong. The worst thing was that the video was just
too slow – I had thought people would need a bit of time to get used to
walking on the treadmill before anything too interesting happenedin the video. I was totally wrong – people started looking round the
arcade, bored by the opening video, and once bored, never fully regained
interest. Then the DVDs were still behaving unreliably and people were often
walking along watching a blank screen (I was amazed how little they seemed to
mind). When it did work, most people spent the whole time watching the dog’s
screen – I think because it had better contrast and was a more comfortable
distance from the eyes. A week later, with a re edited video – shortened and
with the dogs view reduced to the bottom half of the picture, it seemed
infinitely better, but the next day the PLC computer which controls everything,
went completely dead and had to be replaced.
will probably be more teething problems, but as I write, the machine is finally
running smoothly. Its a relief for me finally watching people enjoying using
it – blissfully unaware of its tortuous birth.
This is the japanese version. You walk on a treadmill and
pull the dog's lead to guide it through the video game. I was sent this photo
three years after I'd made Rent-a-dog, but I think the machine pre-dates mine.