have more respect for celebrities than I used to. I assumed they must
enjoy the constant media attention. If they always said no to the
media, there wouldn’t be
anything to write about. However, when launching my London arcade ‘Novelty Automation’ I needed
publicity and discovered what a minefield I’d entered.
Naively I thought journalists would love the new arcade's
and links to the 18th century London cartoonists. But no, the journalists’ eyes all glazed
over when I enthused about it. They wanted to write about me, the
eccentric inventor. Getting wound up about it started me thinking about the bizarre celebrity
don’t really understand why people are interested in the lives of the
stars. Celebrity gossip provides cheap content for magazines and
newspapers but people must enjoy reading it, even though they never take
Thinking about celebrity somehow reminded me of a
1960's arcade game called ‘Chopper’, in which you flew a small helicopter
round a series of skyscrapers trying to touch various targets. I already had a vague idea of
updating it, turning the helicopter into a drone and adding a video
camera. Now it was obvious the drone should be spying on celebrities.
celeb prototypes video
The original mechanism made the helicopter far too
jumpy for the video to be viewable so the helicopter/drone had to be
steadier, supported by a rigid arm. The problem was that a motion gantry
would dwarf the tiny drone. The final arrangement isn’t perfect, but it
does hide most of the mechanism.
Mechanically it’s relatively simple, there are just
the three axes of movement for the drone. However getting all the
mechanism to fit in a small space was tricky. It was also very difficult
finding a reliable way to reliably sense when the drone bumps into the
building. The modern way to do this would be to have encoders on every
axis and create a virtual map in the software. However it wasn’t easy to
fit tiny encoders and I’m never that confident about programming so I
opted for sensors that detects a physical collision.
I made several collision sensors I was proud of, but
as the mansion got more detailed, its various overhangs and ledges
defeated them all. The sensor is currently mk5 which is better than the
others but still not infallible. To make it work I had to rebuild the
mansion to eliminate its most problematic features.
Choosing the camera for the drone wasn’t
straightforward. I ordered several different types from China, all
claiming 170 degree viewing angle and 900 lines resolution, but they
varied wildly. Quite how any of them could possibly have 900 line
resolution with the output via an ordinary composite video RCA phono
socket I never understood. I initially chose a tiny camera with a true 170 degree
field of view because the wide angle gave a big sensation of moving
Later I realised it was crucial for the game to be able to
recognise the stars from a distance so I needed higher resolution. One of
the other cameras produced a better picture but it had a smaller field of
view and was physically bigger. I had to rebuild the drone yet another
time to incorporate it. Three months passed fiddling with the details.
Other aspects of the machine were more
straightforward and fun. I had the idea that when the drone got close to a
celebrity in the mansion, the video would cut to animation, but had no
idea what the animation should be. However I’d found a brilliant
satirical magazine called ‘Underground’ which had been distributed
outside Holborn Station. I tracked down Liam Shaw and Louis Barclay, who
led the team that had produced it, and persuaded them to get involved. We
initially intended to use anonymous people as celebrities - I've no idea
who most of the people in the magazines are. But obviously the people who
read the magazines do know, so to make the satyr work for a larger
audience it had to be A listers. Liam and Louis wrote nine great screenplays. With
their stories and Molly Barrett ably operating the characters, the
animating them was great fun - I felt like a real film director.
Making the model mansion was also an unexpected
treat. I never thought architecture could be such fun. I’d prepared for
weeks by watching estate agent tours of Beverley Hills mansions on youtube
so my brain was fine-tuned for the task. I started cautiously with the
left side of the mansion working out the materials and style for the
model. (Its made out of foamed PVC, the stuff estate agent signs are made
of. It’s quick to cut and glue and comes in lots of different
thicknesses) Once confident of my construction technique I could revel in being
This was my chance to be Osbert Lancaster, a
childhood hero of mine who drew architectural cartoons. The back of the
mansion is Spanish style, much favoured in Beverley Hills, not my taste.
The front is deep south colonial, a style I love. Having made three sides
I realised the final one had to be modernism – Beverley Hills developers
often spend a fortune building modernist mansions to tempt the stars. I
wanted the entire building to be believable so I tried hard to fit the
modernist wing but eventually came to the conclusion that Modernism never
ever fits a traditional building. This is great for my model – it just
makes it more ridiculous and cartoonlike – Osbert Lancaster would be
proud. However it makes me sad to think of all the buildings ruined by
‘adventurous’ modern extensions - it’s a completely impossible task.
Although the machine wasn’t quite finished, I took
it to the pier for the autumn half term. This was my last chance to try it
out with a crowd before the quiet winter months. It wasn’t successful.
The drone stopped randomly and even when it didn’t people got bored and
wandered off. They hardly ever saw any of the animations. The major
problem was that it wasn't intuitive triggering the animationby the drone colliding with the mansion. I needed to sense when the drone was near the target rather
than when it bumped into it! It was surprisingly quick and easy
adding a simple encoder to the zoom in/out axis to do this. I stuck 4 tiny
rare earth magnets round the motor pulley and used a reed switch as the
But even with the remote sensing people were still
getting bored, spending too long flying the drone without seeing much of
the animation. I almost doubled the speed of the drone which led to more
problems when it collided with the building. The breakthrough was changing the program to make all
nine animations play automatically when they came in range. Finally people
started to enjoy using the machine.
A few weeks after
finishing CELEB I watched the 'Bling Ring', Sophia Coppola's film about a
true story of a gang of teenagers who broke into Beverley Hills mansions.
Some of it was filmed in Paris Hilton's mansion. Her shoe closet
made the interiors of my mansion look feeble. Some celebrity lifestyles
are so extreme they are impossible to satirise.