Sun, Sand & Selective Laser Sintering

It’s the Summer. It’s an extremely hot day here in London, the hottest day of 2011, in fact. So it’s with just the tiniest stretch of the imagination that I could be right there in the desert watching Markus Kayser at work on his next great experiment.

He’s built his own solar-powered 3D printer out of a large panel of magnifying glass and a computer-guided motorised panel, the raw material being the desert’s primary natural resource: sand.

With his design, he is able to create a focused laser beam that melts sand, so that it cools and hardens in a design of his choosing. In effect, he is ‘growing’ his designs right out of the sand. It’s really, really impressive:

Markus describes the process on the project’s website:

Silicia sand when heated to melting point and allowed to cool solidifies as glass. This process of converting a powdery substance via a heating process into a solid form is known as sintering and has in recent years become a central process in design prototyping known as 3D printing or SLS (selective laser sintering).

These 3D printers use laser technology to create very precise 3D objects from a variety of powdered plastics, resins and metals – the objects being the exact physical counterparts of the computer-drawn 3D designs inputted by the designer.

By using the sun’s rays instead of a laser and sand instead of resins, I had the basis of an entirely new solar-powered machine and production process for making glass objects that taps into the abundant supplies of sun and sand to be found in the deserts of the world.

Markus with his Solar Sinter
Markus with his Solar Sinter

Sintering is a natural process, commonly occuring products being Fulgurites, which are glass tubes that form deep in the sand when lightning strikes in the desert. Each have a unique quality: colour; shape; consistency and location, which together with their ‘atmospheric origins’ they’ve become quite collectible artefacts.

My take is that Markus’s device will allow command over the sun to grow one’s own kind of ‘artisanal fulgurites’, quite a powerful idea, and undoubtedly a great use of technology that harnesses our most abundant natural resources in a really cool way. Nice one!

Design Excellence in Tron Legacy

I watched Tron Legacy this weekend.
Awesome movie, if only for the following reasons:

  • The music
  • The aesthetics
  • Jeff Bridges
  • That’s it

Despite not having the greatest storyline or script, the film has still had quite a profound effect on me thanks to its frankly mind-blowing visual identity.

As with most of the films I watch these days, I like to do a quick post-view scan of the web to consolidate my thinking around certain plot points, characters, or to brush up on production trivia.

This time, I hit up IMDB’s forums to read others’ views on Tron’s iconography, delved into some pretty weird fan pages, and researched the history of the crew – but in all of my post-view readings, I think I’ve found the major contributing factor towards why this film looks so damn good.

This film looks so damn good, in my belief, due to Joshua T. Nimoy, a software artist who worked on the film’s procedural artwork and user interfaces, which add a thick and gooey layer of believability to both Encom’s software, and to Tron’s 3D environment.

He has this to say:

I made software art before there was Flash or Processing. Things have not grown easier or harder, they are simply different. I am not just a user of Adobe and 3D programs. I work in the source ideas from which those programs originate. If I need a new algorithm, I learn it from theories, ask one of my peers, hunt for reusable code, or invent my own way. My most contagious meme is BallDroppings. My most visible work is commercial. My artiest works have shown in serious galleries and museums.

So, here we have a guy who is just brilliant at design, working on some of the world’s coolest and most progressive brands, plus a shitload of other stuff, and who knows how to hack to achieve a great effect. Pretty much the perfect dude to lead the march at Digital Domain when they were asked to work on Tron Legacy.

Following clearance from Disney, Josh has published a fascinating piece on his site about his work on the film, which I’ve pulled some interesting thoughts from:

I spent a half year writing software art to generate special effects for Tron Legacy […] in addition to visual effects, I was asked to record myself using a unix terminal doing technologically feasible things. I took extra care in babysitting the elements through to final composite to ensure that the content would not be artistically altered beyond that feasibility.

I take representing digital culture in film very seriously in lieu of having grown up in a world of very badly researched user interface greeble. I cringed during the part in Hackers (1995) when a screen saver with extruded “equations” is used to signify that the hacker has reached some sort of neural flow or ambiguous destination. I cringed for Swordfish and Jurassic Park as well. I cheered when Trinity in The Matrix used nmap and ssh (and so did you). Then I cringed again when I saw that inevitably, Hollywood had decided that nmap was the thing to use for all its hacker scenes (see Bourne Ultimatum, Die Hard 4, Girl with Dragon Tattoo, The Listening, 13: Game of Death, Battle Royale, Broken Saints, and on and on).

I like this guy even more now – who hasn’t cringed at stuff like this?

In Tron, the hacker was not supposed to be snooping around on a network; he was supposed to kill a process. So we went with posix kill and also had him pipe ps into grep. I also ended up using emacs eshell to make the terminal more l33t. The team was delighted to see my emacs performance — splitting the editor into nested panes and running different modes. I was tickled that I got emacs into a block buster movie. I actually do use emacs irl, and although I do not subscribe to alt.religion.emacs, I think that’s all incredibly relevant to the world of Tron.

Now, I don’t understand much of that last paragraph, but it’s cool to consider that there are people out there applying proper nerdery to their work, that 99.9% of people would totally miss. It just makes things better, doesn’t it?!

Coffee Too Hot To Handle? Try These

Coffee Joulies are a new invention that reduces and sustains the temperature of hot drinks, while looking pretty awesome in the process. Their inventors are “two Daves” from New Jersey, who have engineered, prototyped, and produced their first run of units over the last eight months.

They claim that Coffee Joulies are “miniature thermodynamic heat storage devices” which appear to function via some kind of endothermic/exothermic reaction:

They absorb excess thermal energy when the coffee is initially poured too hot to drink, cooling your coffee down to a drinkable temperature three times faster. Once your coffee reaches the right temperature the beans release that stored thermal energy back into the coffee, keeping it in the optimal temperature range twice as long.

They have proven results, too:

And the beans themselves look really cool:

Thanks to Tom Allen for the link – reckon I might try to get a hold of some!

Are You Ready For Your Close Up, Miss Colada?

BevShots have discovered what you’d call a niche: they take your favourite alcoholic drink, crystallise a single droplet of it in an airtight container, photograph it at 1000x under a microscope, and then sell the resulting image on a printed canvas.

And man, are these things selling! Since August last year BevShots estimate sales of over 20,000 prints ($24.99-$549). The product is aimed at the ‘hedonist with a mind for science’ segment: those who appreciate good photography, laboratory conditions and a damn-tasty cocktail now and then.

Here’s my favourite image, the classic Vodka and Tonic:

The shots are taken in Florida State University’s chemistry department, where founder Lester Hutt developed the approach, which can take up to three months to produce an image.

Lester says:

“What you can see in the magnified pictures are the crystalised carbohydrates that have become sugars and glucose. With my background in chemistry, I saw the potential in these kind of pictures and am so glad to be able to offer them up as art works. It is a pleasure to show people what makes up their favourite drinks and how beautiful it can look.”

Most alcohols are blends, with varying levels of carbohydrates, sugars, acids and glucose, so each shot taken is entirely different from the last. Some favourite drinks are so pure that when they crystallise  into their component parts, they fall apart or don’t dry out properly. So, not unlike the perfect Margarita, they’re pretty hard to get ‘just right’, sometimes taking up to 200 attempts.

Here’s some more of their work – click through for the full images or visit BevShots.

I’m thirsty! Who’s for a drink?