The basic premise is that it would be cool for a 200 foot building to have a really large video game playable on it. We figured that if we put a light behind each window on each floor, we could simulate a computer screen by flashing the lights on and off. In the end, strings of Christmas tree lights strung on wood salvaged from packing pallets proved the cheapest way to put ten squares of light behind the windows of each floor. The idea was originally presented to Techhouse, a housing group on campus for students enthusiastic about Science and Technology, by Techhouse member Keith Dreibelbis.
Initial work by Dreibelbis and others in the 1997-1998 academic year was discouraging both logistically and technically. It wasn't until 1999-2000 that Techouse as a body had learned enough and had enough enthusiasm and energy to make the project happen. Soren Spies, Techhouse Projects Manager, did initial designs with ideas that had come up during the interceding years and convinced house members that the project could be done if everyone put in some effort. Artist and house member Nik Lochmatow began thinking about how to mount the lights and had the idea to garner the support of the Visual Arts department. He talked to professors there and got professor Wendy Edwards to sponsor the project as an independent study for him. With the academic impetus, Spies and Lochmatow took the idea to Dean Inman of student activities. He pointed them towards Florence Doksanksy as a potentially helpful librarian. This led to meetings with Barbara Schulz and later with Ginine Hefner. All of them were excited and helpful. They were the ones who asked us to only run the system after the library was closed so as not to disturb the patrons.
Spies also asked Debbie Lister in Event Support what sort of things we'd need to worry about for the actual running of the installation and she immediately took it upon herself to set up several meetings with important people from Facilities Management. She was the one who put us in touch with Brown lead electrician William Salisbury, who proved invaluable both as a mentor and advisor on the project and as someone who found us spare materials and opened doors that needed opening. Additionally, Techhouse had met Paul Brookes of fire safety after an incident in the dorm; he came to both meetings in the Sciences Library and was very encouraging about the project. Everyone thought the idea was really neat and they wanted to say yes. Our original plan to run wires through PVC pipe in the stairways was opposed by the fire safety people, but they proposed allowing us to use an unused dumbwaiter shaft instead. This proved far a far better solution, giving us space for wires and a logical out-of-the-way location for our circuitry.
With Lochmatow and Spies working on approval and the design of specific lighting elements, all 30+ members of the Techhouse community (including some alums and out-of-house members) became extremely excited about the possibility of the project being finally completed. Much of our design was based on cost and availability of parts. We started with our biggest task: preparing a string of lights for every single window space in the building. Some lights were purchased on after-Christmas clearance and free packing pallets were located before the second semester began. An assembly line was set up and weekend after weekend people slowly pitched in their time and effort to create dozens and dozens of light frames.
When now sawing boards or stapling frames, Spies spent much of his time looking for electronic parts and finalizing the circuit board designs. Several important new parts, such as the relay drivers, had to be "figured out" because we were buying and using parts which we had never seen, let alone used before. Relays were the first items to be tested. After they were purchased (another victory at $.90 each), nearly 25 people put in several hours each to get the wires cut, the relays soldered, everything insulated, sealed, and tested such that a relay was present in every framed string of lights. Lochmatow kept a careful eye on manufacturing and the overall athsetic of the project. He even gots his parents involved when we ran out of clearance light-strings and needed more, cheaply.
The circuitry's specific design ended up being redisegned by Spies and Brett Heath-Wlaz when the initial boards proved too hard to build. Spies spent a lot of time going to Radio Shack and Home Depot to get parts to keep production moving.
For specific, long periods of time, the following people were heros:
Heath-Wlaz and Curran Nachbar soldered _all_ 11 of the floor controller boards that were eventually used in the building. Brett in particular had board-production down to 1.5 hours of memorized work (compare to well over six hours to build the original design).
Rob Netzer, unofficial Techhouse advisor, soldered many, many relays and connectors, but also turned a Super Nintendo controller into a wireless game controller -- it worked (albeit slowly due to our faulty computer hardware, not his doing) with a range of over 300 feet.
Dreibelbis, Ryan Evans, Neel Joshi, Clara Kim, Lochmatow, Dan Morris, Kali Wallace (also the ever-supportive Techhouse president), and others served tirelessly on a team to debug the system after it was installed. During this time Evans wrote much of the multi-purpose code (vs. specific test code) that was later used to easily control the whole building in a variety of ways (images, scrolling text, etc).
William Patterson, classroom teacher to many Techhouse members over the years, not only explained everything we were doing wrong and why the system didn't work, but also helped us get the parts we needed to fix it on incredibly short notice.
John Leen (who also made playable the Tetris code written by Heath-Wlaz and others) Lochmatow, and Kim set up the playing station night after night during that week in April.
The list could go on. It was an amazing amount of work. People who had never done anything related to a Techhouse project put in many hours. Overall, about 25 Techhouse members worked on the project, with roughly 15 putting in long-term consistant efforts and probably 5 or 10 of those putting in more than 100 hours over the course of the semester.
But it was really fun. We were pursuing a dream. We were motivated, relatively well-orginazed, and could see where we were going. Some of us held tightly enough to the belief that it was going to work that others were convinced just by our conviction. Each step along the way was a victory even if nothing else worked. Each late-night electronics experimentation session a small step and each positive word from the university an encouragement to keep at it.
We learned a lot too. About ourselves and of what we are capable. And how fun it is to work together towards a common goal. About electronics and how far exactly you can drive voltages over cheap ethernet cable. About what we had learned and who we had become since the first attempts at the project.
Techhouse is an amazing place; this project proves it not just to the world (we had mention in the media from slashdot to the New York Times and Time magazine to Discover magazine and the Chronicle of Higher Education) but to Techhouse members past present, and future.
Long live Technology House.
— Soren Spies