Taking advantage of all that is seen or unseen.
For the past few years, Double Bear Rolled has hosted a Halloween party to bring the various teams together to share in a night of meet-and-greets as well as foster an environment for brainstorming on what the following year’s projects and products could focus on. To keep things interesting, that same party has a costume contest, complete with trophies.
Since we typically host this event, we haven’t spent any time planning or dressing up as hosting such an event usually detracts from participating in any planned activities at this event. The problem we aimed to solve with this project was to build a creative yet subtle costume that would require low maintenance and be flexible enough to enable the wearer(s) to manage the hosting activities required of the event while providing opportunity to participate in the costume contest.
In 2017, the two winners ended up being a near-perfect Sansa Stark costume and honourable mention went to a “Dark and Stormy” costume. Both costumes were homemade and really showcased a level of creativity and relevance to our Double Bear Rolled group that (obviously) earned the players recognition.
This was our first project involving any kind of circuitry. While setting up the Smart Mirror involved some hardware, there wasn’t an opportunity to build custom components from scratch. After following Adafruit tutorials to build out the Smart Mirror project, we found a handful of opportunities to purchase and wire-up custom costume components with programmable LEDs. With a Double Bear Rolled halloween party creeping up on the calendar, there seemed to be an opportunity to take on a small scale hardware project and an attempt to snatch some glory.
When building anything permanent or hardware based, measuring and planning are key aspects of the project. A lot of our software development process at Double Bear Rolled and in our day-jobs is focused on a flavour of Agile Methodologies. The same applies during the planning stages of making custom components.
For example, to start this project, we anticipated we’d drill a series of holes into a mask, wire up the programmable LEDs behind the mask, and only the light would be exposed through the drilled holes. The arrangement (pictured) of those lights would need to be in close enough proximity to complete the circuit, and distanced enough to provide an effect that seemed fluid or gradual on the wearer. We didn’t want to pursue a circuitry project that made the wearer’s head look like a singular coloured light bulb, we did want to enable the use of gradients and (super scope creep’d to think we could) provide some audio-feedback informing the colours and patterns of the lights.
In software, we’d throw a few ideas into a tool or interface, test, tweak, and keep moving forward. With the more permanent nature of soldering wires and materials, prototyping needed to be more focused and quite literally, loose. Through the use of bread boards, we were able to simulate the circuitry without having to really get carried away physically constructing the mask or other components. This was really a fun part of the project: being able to see or preview lightening or animation sequences in some kind of real-time, without having to do the work of building out the final product. An unanticipated aspect of this hardware project was the involvement software would need in everything. By almost a level of arrogance we went into planning and crafting without accounting for the amount of time needed to build out some kind of software (or modify an existing or open source piece of software) to trigger the programmable LEDs to do our bidding.
In the failure to anticipate the software element of this hardware project, our scope nearly doubled. Understanding the right way to program the Adafruit components was needed even to really dive in and modify an existing or open source set of instructions that would be sent to the LEDs. Additionally, a lot of the cool (open source) mobile apps designed to integrate with the LEDs would still need a way to communicate with the lights, so that instantly means providing an additional component (at the time it was scoped to be a bluetooth module) which had its own dependencies. Before we could even look at adding a Bluetooth module, we had to consider this mask - the final product - was going to be on the wearer’s face. Was there physically enough room to have a power supply, wires, LEDs, and a face all behind the same mask?
Spoiler alert: There. Was. Not.
When this project was on the verge of exploding in scope, we actually took the opposite approach. Through the assistance of a non-Double Bear Rolled team member - a former Chicago-based electrician - we were able to scope the whole project down to two lights, a small power supply, and a small board with the brain behind governing the lights. No joke, if that water-cooler conversation with the electrician hadn’t happened, this project likely would’ve died weeks before the Halloween party.
Testing became very interesting. Having a “prototype” (the breadboard-powered greatness) allowed us to preview the end result without making anything definitive or final with the mask. Loosely taping the components to the inside of the mask (pictured in the few seconds at the end of the Bellytronics video) allowed us to preview the end result. Then adhering the electronics to the mask (pictured in the Mask Testing video) gave us that final pre-Halloween party feel of the weight and fit of the components as part of the costume. Each one of these mask tests, by the way, was done while wearing a beanie/hat that would not be a part of the final costume.
The mask was a hit for the first 20 minutes of the party. The final product showed a glowing LED light from the right eye socket and pushed colour onto the wearer’s head, all as planned. What wasn’t anticipated or planned was the potential for the software to malfunction and maintain a steady coloured state. In retrospect, it wasn’t clear if the software malfunction was due to faulty wiring or faulty software manipulation. What was meant to be a multicoloured mask, after those first 20 minutes, was a solid green-eye and red-hair display. Still entertaining, but missing the mark.
Additionally, of all the prototyping, testing, and measuring of how the hardware would work on the wearer, one key point was missed: the changing human body. What the electrician failed to mention and what we failed to plan was for exposed skin to be in direct contact with the components. Anything from exposed skin on metal wires receiving a charge to the inevitable sweat from dancing with the mask on would provide issues. Also not anticipated was the weight of the components and the effect the weight would have on the mask. The mask was paper mache. While seemingly solid, the components in fact bent the mask a little tighter than the original form of the mask. When it came time for the party, the mask was already curved to an angle sharper than the original tests - and while this didn’t seem to affect the LEDs’ visual aesthetic, it did contribute to the surface area of the wearer’s face to the exposed components.
Last note on this project, while a temporary splash at the Double Bear Rolled Halloween party, wearing the mask throughout the evening was not sustainable. Throughout the evening, the different modular costumes by attendees were swapped and shared in a fun effort to share the love throughout the party. A Harry Potter themed costume suddenly has rainclouds for a head, Sansa Stark sported a mustache at one point, and even a Vampress was eating garlic bread. (Ok that last one is less about costume swapping and just something we all had a long laugh about.) By about the second hour into the evening, after the costume swapping and different team members trying out the mask, something had malfunctioned related to the exposed components. Whether make-up or bodily fluids or even adult beverages mixing with the components, they started to burn. The project had to be disassembled from the mask as the power supply began to provide mild electric shocks through the forehead of the final wearer. While there are no lasting scars on any team member’s forehead, the part in one particular team member’s hair seems to be a little deeper than it used to be, and oddly in the same of the ring of LED lights attached to the top of the mask.
As with all great parties hosted on behalf of or in honour of Double Bear Rolled, something had to catch on fire. For this evening’s festivities, the “Dark and Stormy” costume (which, not pictured, was consistently paired with the adult beverage of the same name) maybe have soared too close to a tiki torch. Over a dozen Double Bear Rolled team members, transfixed by the clouds erupting in flames, had their smartphones at the ready while sheepishly proclaiming “ohhhh, nooo, maybe put it out” while raising their smartphones to a documentation-enabled-angle.