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March 10, 2008

Coachella

For the past few months, and really accelerating in the last couple of weeks, Dad and I have been working on a new piece, set to debut at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival April 25-27. At its core will be a much improved spherical display with high-res surface complemented by volumetric accents, all in 24-bit color. On-board will be on the order of 10GB of removable flash memory, combining the increased resolution and color depth with a much greater potential show length as well as much easier program changes. All of this will lend itself toward a renewed focus on content, which is a very exciting thing for me as a big step toward the high-definition three-dimensional canvas which I originally envisioned with the ORB.

To make this a reality, I've finally crossed the void into the world of FPGA, and I'm loving it. The ability to quickly create massively parallel hardware in a few lines of code is really powerful. It takes a bit of getting used to, but within a few days I was generating the beginnings of working code in VHDL, largely with the help of Volnei A. Pedroni's Circuit Design with VHDL and the Altera Cyclone III Starter Kit. Now, just under a week into serious development, I feel as though I've got a pretty good handle on things, so the learning curve isn't as steep as it initially seemed, particularly if you've got some crossover experience developing both software and hardware.

As is unfortunately too often the case though, the learning curve seemed steeper when it came to using some of the pre-existing libraries I found. I needed SPI to access the flash memory, and so I started looking for libraries. The Altera board shipped with Quartus II which I'm using for all of my development and is a pretty nice package. Quartus leads you directly to Altera's NIOS soft-core processors with all kinds of great add on modules. These designs are cool because they allow you to set up part of the FPGA to act as a microprocessor meaning you can develop in a typical procedural language like C where appropriate, using the hardware definition languages only where necessary. The demos were easy to walk through and I thought I had everything figured out — until I read about the $2500 per seat licensing fee.

I'd heard of OpenCores and it sounded like a really cool project so I thought I'd check it out. OpenCores is essentially Sourceforge for HDL (hardware definition language) designs, albeit much less trafficked. It appears that there is some great work going on there, but at my level of knowledge, the documentation was just insufficient for my needs. If I really needed a fully-featured CPU running on my chip I'm sure I could have figured it out given enough time, but as it stands it's far from plug and play. And as the countdown timer on coachella.com continually reminds me, the show starts in 45 days, 17 hours, 28 minutes and 26 seconds. So it's time for action.

As it turned out, I spent a bit more time tweaking the SPI module I had been writing prior to looking at the soft cores, and with just a bit more effort, got it up and running. I then began work on a state machine that controls the SPI module and passes the data out to a set of PWM modules which actually control the LEDs. I'm still working on scaling the code and getting some of the finer control functionality implemented, but all indications are that with a few more days of work the code will be 99% complete. Then its on to PCB design, construction, and content.

In parallel with the electronics, Dad's hard at work building two chassis, one to ship to Manhattan for me to use as a framework to finish the electronic development and another to finish out in time for Coachella. We've got a totally new look this time, a bit more design-influenced and incorporating some cool high-tech materials. I'll get some photos of that part of the process up here as soon as they become available.

In the meantime, it's back to work.

June 12, 2007

Technology on your time

Bringing the Maker Faire home:

Thanks once more to the entire Maker Faire team for a great time (and the banner).

In related news, according to the official site, Jimmy Kimmel Live! will be airing the Maker Faire segment on Wednesday, June 13. Watch for the makers!

May 24, 2007

Nervous.

Brent Green (nervousfilms.com) in the midst of an urgent and inspired performance with his group from Pennsylvania, accompanying his beautiful short film, Hadacol Christmas, at Maker Faire 2007. Watch the films here.

May 19, 2007

The ghost of Jimmy Kimmel...

...on the ORB!

Jimmy and his team were great. We shot a short interview which should air on Jimmy Kimmel Live! within the next couple of weeks. Jimmy said he "felt like the Mona Lisa" and that his mug on the ORB was "the most beautiful thing I've ever seen". MAKE!

May 14, 2007

En route.

This comes to you from a quiet hotel lounge on the east side of Denver on our way to the MAKE Magazine Maker Faire, where we will join some 400 makers (including a handful of ITP'ers such as Andrew Schneider, Team Botanicalls, Giana Gonzalez, Tom Igoe, and last but not least, FabInfo instructors Toru Hasegawa and Mark Collins) with ORB and ultraORB in hand and ready to exhibit. A few tens of thousands of attendees are expected of all ages and all walks of life and I'm expecting a fantastic time sharing our work with the curious as well as exploring the rest of the exhibits. I'm also slated to give a talk/demo on Thursday's Maker Day, a day of events held specifically for the exhibitors and other presenters and organizers.

Maker Faire is held at the San Mateo Fairgrounds in San Mateo California and is open to the public on May 19-20. Advance tickets are $15 for adults, $10 for students 21 and under, and $5 for children 12 and under ($20/$15/$5 respectively on-site). Hope to see you there.

March 13, 2007

A day late and a dollar short


A truckstop of yesteryear on I-80 in Wyoming.

Where am I?

March 12, 2007

On stage


On stage at TED2007, presenting The Orb. Photo by Pierre Omidyar, flickr: pmo.

Thanks to Anand Agarawala for the tip.

Mountain view


Mountain scenery off I-80 in Nevada.

March 11, 2007

Wow.

Billed as a conference unlike any other, TED2007 lives up to the hype. A powerful talk from Bill Clinton and a beautiful performance from Tracy Chapman were among the many highlights of the last two days. It was truly an honor and incredible experience to take the same stage as so many greats. TED is a really dense conference, and it's going to take a few days to digest everything and report in more detail on some of the specific talks. In the meantime, Ethan Zuckerman has been doing a nice job of blogging the event.

Not that TED is all work and no play, however. The TED Grand Party last night, held in a converted jet hangar was an amazing opportunity to talk with such a great number of fascinating people. I'm sure there were so many others that I hope to meet in the future.

I do want to point now to the art of Greg Brotherton, a gifted sculptor from Los Angeles who exhibited two pieces in the TED galleries. A deep history, a strong philosophy, and raw talent combine to create amazing pieces of great beauty.

I leave you now with a few photos from beautiful Monterey, CA:

March 8, 2007

TED Speakers' Dinner - Monterey Bay Aquarium

What a welcome to TED. The speakers' dinner was attended by an enormous cast of brilliant people and big names in the community. It was truly a fantastic and inspirational event that took place in a beautiful setting, the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

The great surprises of Day 1 for me were the optimistic take on the trends of violence in the world, presented by Steven Pinker and the closing act of the day, musician Raul Midon, who blew the audience's mind with solo acoustic guitar, soulful vocals, and trumpet solos without a trumpet. Amazing.

Day two is off to a great start with a stirring first session, starting with a passionate presentation on global warming by engineer-turned-VC John Doerr and closing with yet another enlightening talk by Lawrence Lessig. Anand Agarawala's 5 minute talk on his invention, BumpTop, a physical desktop engine, was also impressive and extremely well received.

Session 4 is underway. More to follow...

March 6, 2007

Got there.

The mirror array of a solar power plant off I-40 in Southern California.

March 5, 2007

On the Border

Sunny skies frame the scenery on Interstate 40 in western New Mexico.

March 4, 2007

West of the Mississippi

Crossing the Mississippi River at Alton, IL on a cold winter day.

March 3, 2007

Going to California

Loading The Orb just before leaving Manhattan last night for TED 2007 where I will be giving a 5 minute talk on the piece and my upcoming work and exhibiting in the conference gallery. As much as presenting, I'm looking forward to soaking in an impressively diverse lineup consisting of people from Bill Clinton and Richard Branson to Tracy Chapman and They Might Be Giants.

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