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
Alien under construction 3 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.
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.
few months later I got sent this image of an equine anal probe. There are
so many potential arcade games!