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home > Electronic Artwork > "Eight-Bit Ant Farm" > Construction of
Kinetic light Sculpture

The construction of
"Eight-Bit Ant Farm"
Collaborative artwork with
Remo Campopiano and Jonathan Schull

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Construction began in my studio.  Remo stayed with me for 5 days, and we worked non-stop for 12-14 hours each day stopping only for food and sleep.  We began by designing and building the boxes that would house the electronics.  There were a lot of holes to drill for the wiring feeds to the lights and solenoids that bounce the ping pong balls!
While I took on the basic construction of the wood boxes, Remo set to work wiring the grid of LEDs that light the inside of the balls, and the grid of solenoids that bounce the balls.
Remo and I struggled with how to fit the laptop so that  it's screen could be seen in multiple reflections beneath an assembly of tapered mirrors that makes the screen image repeat out into a huge curved surface.  We had sized the boxes to fit the ping pong balls and didn't leave much room to squeeze the laptop in.  We ended up cutting away much of the interior sides of the box walls so the laptop could slide in under the glass.  Below Remo checks sizing and assembles the mirrors.
Once the boxes were built, Remo took them out in the field beside my workshop and sprayed them with the gray faux stone paint that we found in the hardware store.  It has a heavy texture that has the advantage of hiding all the imperfections of our construction!
The boxes were separated by 2" lengths of pipe that allowed us to pass wiring through them.  The assembly sequence required a lot of head scratching as we bolted each section together.  At one point we had to back off and start over.
We had struggled with the design of a pedestal, and finally settled on a standard white cube that is the same dimensions as the artwork.  The extra room inside was used for wiring feeds to the boxes above.  I also built the 3 acrylic cubes (see one on the floor lower right).
After 4 long days we were able to see the basic structure taking shape!
After Remo left, I set to work designing and building the electronic controls that light the balls and control the 64 solenoids that fire the balls in the air. The final wiring stage was very tedious - 128 wires to connect from the LED lights to the circuit boards!
I built a structure to support the video camera above the ant box - note the vent holes in the lid.  We added a circular fluorescent lamp under the white translucent base of the ant box to give the camera more light.  A look inside the box below the ants shows a  yellow bucket which contains water that is wicked up through 4 tubes with rope inside that keep the oasis material wet inside the walls so the ants can have water.
I set to work programming the electronics.  After downloading the video processing code that Jonathan was writing I installed it on the laptop and connected my electronics to the serial port.  Jonathan's code sent out 8 bytes of data formatted so that an array of on/off bits (1=on) were received by my controls.  I programmed the lights and solenoids to respond to this data by lighting or "pinging" as needed.  The data screen on the right shows a typical output from Jonathan's code.
We ran into an interesting problem when we found that the laptop could not accept a second video digitizing input since it would need a second USB port.  So I built a small video switcher that is controlled by the laptop.  Jonathan could send code to the parallel port that would select which camera signal to switch to the video digitizer hardware.  I built the switcher into a cough drop box!  We used all the ports on the laptop: USB for the video digitizer, serial port to send data to the balls, and parallel port to control the video switcher.
After 5 days of physical construction and about a week of electronics it was ready to ship to the museum.  Fortunately the whole thing fit inside my Chevy Blazer!  Remo and I drove it down to New York and all 3 of us spent a long day finalizing all the details of installing the ants and tweaking the code.