engineer

tim   .

                                                      


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.   hunkin

                                                         


cartoonist

 

                       MAKING ALIEN PROBE

Iíd never given aliens much thought until I started working in America. There, aliens are alive and well, even though most of the stories date from the cold war. There is Roswell, sector 41 and endless Alien movies and books. Aliens in Ďreal lifeí stories always look and behave remarkably similarly. They have the trademark peardrop eyes and abduct people and subject them to examination. Believers claim the similarities of the stories confirm they are real.

 

My interest though was enjoying the aliens as part of US popular culture. When working in the US, I stay with my friends Liz and Wade. Wade is an ex arcade owner. We often talk about new ideas for machines and for the last couple of years have been talking about Alien machines. My idea of an Alien was more Mars Attacks (the Tim Burton film) than anything else.

 

So Alien Probe started from the simple silly idea of giving people an anal probe. I wasnít sure if it would be possible so it became a challenge to think of a way of doing it. I still wasnít sure when I arrived in San Fransisco at the beginning of March. I was supposed to be installing a clock in the new Exploratorium building but it had got lost somewhere in shipping. This was so stressful I needed a project to distract me and what better than solving the alien probe problem. I had made a rough prototype, tried it with people of all sizes and convinced myself it could work before the clock finally turned up. 

 

Once home, I made the frame for the main tentacle. It had to be unbreakable so its made of 12mm  polycarbonate, which is almost bulletproof . I sent photos to Wade and he said it looked vicious. Naively I had never thought the machine might be scary, and then I realised I was scared by all the Health and Safety implications of the tentacles shooting out. My basic principle, balancing all the mechanisms and using small air cylinders at low pressure so everything moves with very little force was good, but there were still lots of details like finger traps to be worked on. 

 

Alien under construction 1 video

I didnít have any strong idea about the little alien in the chamber, so I invited Matthew Robins and Tim Spooner to work on it for a couple of days. This was great fun and very productive. We now had an alien with a video projection body with physically animated tentacles. They returned later when the machine was nearly finished to work out the sound track.     

I made most of the machine in less than 2 months Ė afterwards I realised Iíd been lucky not to have so many distractions as usual. The main problem was the probe strength lever. I wanted some sort of feedback so the person using the machine was aware how hard they were probing the alien. This was a link to the famous 70s psychology experiments where students were encouraged to give people ever stronger electric shocks. I tried lots of things Ė viscous resistance, incremental vibration and recoil when the trigger was pressed. I spent over two weeks on it. In the end I decided the most effective was audio feedback Ė so the pitch rises as you increase the probe power, combined with variable recoil.

   

  Alien under construction 2 video

I had the idea that the Alien would speak in a robotic voice, translated from its mother tongue, but Matthew had been working on a much more vulnerable, sympathetic voice, which gave it much more character. It now felt really bad to probe it at full power. 

We filmed close ups of human eyes and mouths to project on the Alienís body. These worked well but werenít enough Ė they got too samey. We tried all sorts of other effects, bubbling compressed air through old bitumen paint was our favourite, but the biological effects were still more compelling. So there are now sometimes multiple eyes and mouths which are really alien. 

Two days before it was due to go to the pier I decided I really didnít like the little Alien Ė the white silicon tentacles looked too shiny and solid. So I completely remade them, this time with clear silicon and white silicon Ďhairsí, and lit them from below. It was a spectacularly improvement, much more mysterious and more homogenous with the video projection body.

 

Itís exciting moving a new machine to the pier, but people showed no interest in the Alien at first. I offered a couple of people free goes and they liked it, so it may develop a following.

 Three weeks later:
 I never really know how people will use a new machine, what stuff they ignore or donít understand. The first obvious discovery was that people aren't scared by the big alien, they just think its funny, which is a relief. Sadly most people couldnít really hear what the little alien was saying so I changed the sound track, with the scientist reading out the Google translations. I also added a Ďmapí of the little alien to encourage people to explore. The main problem though is that its quite boring for friends and family of the person using it until the giant alien appears because only one person can really see into the chamber. I added a mirror which reflects the chamber image really well, but people didnít seem to use it. The feedback wasnít all bad though. I heard one boy saying it was the best thing ever and another pleading with a parent for the money to do it again. Iíll run it as it is for the summer, but at the moment Iím tempted to make it a much shorter experience so onlookers get the satisfaction of seeing the giant alien appear without the long wait.  

I shortened the game but its still not popular. Its taken me a long time to realise that its mainly the look of a machine that tempts people to use it. I now think the problem with alien probe is that its not obvious what is going to happen. Back to the drawing board. 

A few months later I got sent this image of an equine anal probe. There are so many potential arcade games!

 

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