Building a Time Machine

Hacking up some Inter-Dimensional fun

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The Experience

You’ve followed the directions on your mysterious invitation, and are ready to re(pre)incarnate as your past or future self. You enter through the blue door, stepping into a tiny white room that hums with the whirring and ticking of a machine. In front of you is a wooden panel with knobs, dials, and hoses, but you are drawn to the inset glowing screen that tells you, “touch me.”

It communicates with you through a series of messages, warning you of the risks and regulations of inter-dimensional time travel, before instructing you to fix your hair and smile for the camera. Whether or not you’ve noticed the embedded camera lens in the door above the ipad, you hear the turn of the autofocus and look up in time for the shutter to click. You’re then told to proceed to the door to your right, and are faced with a decision: to enter through the past or future. The glowing screen thanks you on behalf of ad infinitum, our “company,” and leader in interdimensional soul traversal.

Once atop the stairs, Billy Holiday (Katrina) greets you, slipping you a drink to forget your current life. As you take your first sip, Ernest, time technician to the stars (Jonah) swoops in with your official Entry/Exit Visa for interdimensional travel. The photo you took just moments ago is printed on an official form, stamped and approved by the proper authorities. You fill out the form with various facts and anecdotes from your past life and then wander off to mingle with famous incarnations like Amelia Earhart, Mr. and Mrs. Hart, a constellation, Mata Hari, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Edward Scissorhands, vampires, rodeo clowns, and other personas from across the world’s timeline.

The Building

Two days before our party, we still didn’t have a time machine. Realizing the concept meant:

  • Getting an ipad to trigger the shutter of an external camera.
  • Moving that photo upstairs automatically to another computer
  • Printing the photo out at the right size and placement to fit within my template.
  • Hiding the modern technology behind a steam-punkish-styled facade.
  • Doing so quickly with limited skills.

Luckily I had Justin to help with sawing holes in the door and crafting the look of the physical room, but as for development I was on my own. I work mainly with web technologies: HTML5, JS, PHP, MYSQL…etc. I don’t know C or Objective C. There are probably many better solutions than what I was able to hack together, but here’s what I pieced together.

Conjuring up a Hack

The ipad displays a simple, jQuery driven site that eventually makes an AJAX request to the server 1 and tells it that it’s time to take a photo. It doesn’t feel like a webpage since the browser’s address bar is disabled, as are pinching and scrolling.

A MacBook Pro, connected to the camera via USB, and hidden behind the door, continually checks the server every second via an Applescript 2.

The Applescript then invokes an Automator app which tells Katrina’s DSLR (Nikon D40) to shoot off a photo 3.

It proceeds to run the photo through some basic image manipulation and file handling 4. Automator is a simple, drag & drop tool for automating a series of actions. I found that my laptop could not correctly trigger the taking of photos (bug), but Katrina’s thankfully could.

The file is then dropped in an Dropbox folder 5 so that the computer upstairs can grab it 6. I’m sure it all would have gone faster if I had just passed the files around on the internal network but I was just happy to get it working.

Finally, the computer upstairs reacts to the new photo, printing it out on a template 7 that I had already created with the forms fields, and the approval stamp already in place. I fit 3 forms per sheet of off-white card stock.

If I had time I would

  • Do it all within our local network to cut back on latency, and optimally implement Sockets so there was no need for the Applescript.
  • Make a better backdrop. I spent all my time making it look good from the perspective of the guest entering the house, I forgot that the camera needed to be facing something interesting as well.
  • Tighten up the system and figure out why it essentially broke down near the end of the night :(
  • And if I really had extra time I’d start playing with Arduinos and figure out how to make the knobs on the door control the lights, sound… etc.

Getting the whole system to work just as the first guests arrived was thrilling, though I’m sure there are simpler hacks (suggestions welcome as we’re planning a leap-year day-long Trans-Siberian Experience). It was awesome to greet people at the top of the stairs with their personalized Visas in hand. “There you are ma’am. We at ad infinitum are happy to assist in your soul traversal. Can I take your coat?”

It couldn’t have happened without Aldo, machinist and clock maker (Justin), who fearlessly took his saw to the wooden door, collaborated on the look of the Time Machine room, and put together a mechanical soundtrack that ran behind it all. Fox Spirit (Shao), La Roma (Caterina), and Lady Day (Katrina) crafted the upstairs ambiance, food and signature drinks, and designed the dinosaur-operated ouija board.

Come kick it with us for the Trans-Siberian : )

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