tim   .


newpad.gif (50 bytes)

.   hunkin





I 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 satire 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 circus. I 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 it seriously. 


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 through space. 

 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 the architect.


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 animation by 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 sensor. 

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.  





about the site


links to
other sites

where to see stuff

contact me