Google ATAP Project ARA
The Living Tamagotchi
Google wanted the impossible. Their special research division ATAP developed a phone meant to last a lifetime. It could be upgraded and modified to suit any taste or situation. However, Google needed an experience that would set the platform apart beyond it’s customization features. They wanted something that no other major company would dare try - something to make users truly care about their phones.
The creative agency Midnight Commercial proposed an audacious project: turning the phone into a real-life Tamagotchi. The user would look into a microscopic world contained inside an ARA module through their phone’s screen. This would turn the phone’s owner into the caretaker of a whole ecosystem of six-legged algae-munching tardigrades (aka water bears). Midnight Commercial came to Super-Releaser to help take this crazy idea and turn it into reality.
Tardigrades: not as immortal as advertised
We developed a biological testing program along with custom equipment to engineer a safe home for tardigrades. Although they’re capable of surviving in harsh environments, we discovered the microscopic creatures need the right conditions to thrive and multiply.
Getting up to Speed
We worked closely with Midnight Commercial and Google to nail down specifications and jump right into physical prototyping. With some quick iterations, we got a scope on the program and created a Gantt chart to manage the research and delivery goals. This plan helped Midnight Commercial’s Product Director, Noah Feehan, shape the user experience in tandem with findings from the research track. We connected up with ATAP’s manufacturing partners Wistron and OmniVision to reflect their tolerances and affordances for volume production. The architecture we landed on was a super-thin optical stack (only 4mm top to bottom) that magnified the tiny water bears through a microlens array.
Parallel with that, we helped manage our contract bio lab’s tardigrade experiments to ensure that their deliverables lined up with the path-critical elements of the final micro habitat. These included testing injection molded plastics for toxicity, methods for sustaining algae populations, and ideal starting conditions for the environment.
Our final deliverable before Google decided to shelve the ARA phone was a piece of hardware designed to bring the whole system together. The POE, for Precision Optical Evaluator, unified a microlens array, tardigrade biome, and image sensor in one package. The elements rode on planar flexures that could be adjusted down to the micron to tune the critical parameters determining the quality of image that would show up on user’s phone.
This system brought everything together: the microlens array, tardigrade biome, and image sensor. Not only did it help us dial in manufacturing tolerances, but it also gave us live images from real tardigrade biomes to reconstruct on ARA hardware.
What we Did
Measurement Equipment Design
Live Prototype Demonstrations
Testing Protocol Design
Cross-Disciplinary Literature Review
What it Took
2 trips to Menlo Park
1 custom microlens array
8 EDM flexure plates
2 laser distance sensors
3 lab technicians
A Virtual Landscape
Cadillac, Genetex, Interview Magazine, and The Story Lab teamed up to produce an interactive sculpture for The Marfa Film Festival. Genetex offered their unique hardware (a rear-view mirror that doubles as a backup camera screen) to be the interaction’s keystone. Midnight Commercial developed the concept of a virtual landscape that you could peer into through the mirrors, and came to Super-Releaser to help make it a physical reality.
The central challenge of the project was integrating all of the hardware driving the mirrors. With 250 screens for festival attendees to interact with, everything had to be robust, lightweight, and swappable. Super-Releaser used quick iterations, mechanical jigs, and some tricks pulled out of the lean factory playbook to get everything printed, assembled, and tested with time to spare.
Designed to travel
Since Horizon needed to travel, all the mechanical elements had to be robust. We worked with the structural design team, led by Casey Bloomquist, and the install crew to streamline all of the mechanical elements for positive mounting and easy swapping to make sure nothing could leave the crew out in the cold on site.
Closing the Loop
The relationship between the audience, the mirrors, and the sculpture needed to be carefully considered to make sure the audience experience was always the top priority. The Genetex mirrors, being design for the automotive industry, could handle quite a bit of abuse. All of the custom hardware we created had to be thoughtfully engineered to meet those same standards.
If you’ve been to a children’s museum or outdoor festival, you know how hands-on people can be with interactive art. We worked with a local metal fabrication studio to prototype and refine the installation’s structure to ensure it stood rigid even with a crowd all pulling on the mirrors at once. We also consulted with Midnight Commercial’s art director to make certain the sculpture could be assembled and disassembled easily without compromising on the visual design.
Made to multiply
Horizon rode the line between boutique one-off design and high volume production. We had 250 mirrors, mounts, microcontrollers, optical systems, and accelerometers to enclose.
This called for quick prototyping to nail down fastening methods and ensure migraine-free assembly. Rapid iterations helped optimize designs, keeping printing time minimal and eliminating post-processing. The optical system was also designed with snap-fits to reduce assembly time and asymmetrical profiles to circumvent incorrect installation.
What we Did
Test Equipment Design
Custom Tool Design
3D Print Optimization
Lean Manufacturing Development
What it Took
250 rear view mirrors
250 Raspberry Pi’s
250 micro SD cards
8 custom crates
4000 hours of 3D printing
3 alignment jigs made from chipboard and masking tape
Samsung Physical Filter
Samsung Physical Filter
Screened in PyeongChang
Samsung requested an interactive sculpture to show off their transparent OLED technology at the Pyeongchang Olympics. The concept Midnight Commercial and 2x4 developed in response was a bank of screens each playing a slice of animation that combined to create a 3d image.
Midnight Commercial approached us to figure out how to get a set of irreplaceable custom screens to float in the middle of a darkened room at Samsung’s tech pavilion. We launched in, gathering specs on the Olympics’s logistics, air freight constraints, the mechanical loads involved in hanging a few hundred pounds off a freestanding wall.
The screen enclosures needed to be demure and simple to let the animations shine. The final design was a black satin-finished sheet-metal prism. We developed a parametric pattern in CAD and looped in a sheet metal fabrication shop to optimize the design for their workflow and integrate fasteners to minimize post-processing. It was critical to take a first swing at the manufacturing to prove out the fastening system, fabrication tolerances, assembly method, and cable management.
Off the wall
Though the Physical Filter was powered by some impressive technology, everything the audience experienced came down to the effect emerging through the screens.
Quickly fabricating enclosures and getting a working demo on the wall got us a high fidelity experience in a short period of time. This also helped us solidify other mission-critical elements like manufacturing tolerances, install/removal, data, and our structural safety factor.
Putting it in the air
Having a version fabricated in production-ready materials allowed us to rehearse and document the installation/removal process so that the on-site team wouldn’t have to start cold. We selected a dovetail rail for getting the screens mounted with a margin for adjusting the layout in PyeongChang . We also gathered or fabricated all the necessary installation tools, like a custom go/no-go gauge for checking the wall and a lift truck for hanging the screens.
Parallel with the design and fabrication, we worked with 2x4’s architects and the Samsung team to put together the event space. We did some calculations to specify the freestanding wall that held the screens. We also helped design a dais to provide a soft barrier between the sculpture and audience, and a route to hide the screens’ cables from view. We produced plan drawings and design guides to make sure the PyeongChang construction crew and our install team were all on the same page.
Finally, before crating, we created go bags to make sure the install crew (David Cranor from the production team and Nathan Lachenmyer from the IT/EE side) had duplicates of all the necessary tools, hardware, and connectors, plus a few extras to get them out of a jam.
Everything is clear
The clear OLED screens needed special handling to make it through prototyping, testing, air freight, and weeks of all-day exhibitions. Not only would the thin glass highlight any scratches or fingerprints, but one careless mistake in handling and the whole project was toast.
We consulted on the packing and crating hardware to facilitate install and takedown. We developed crates that came apart in stages to offer maximum support until the wall was holding the load of the screens. We also designed methods for routing cables and sealing the enclosures to ensure technicians were out of the danger zone whenever they were handling the screens.
What we Did
Design Documentation, Drawings, and Guides
Freight Contract Review
What it Took
6 custom OLED screens
3 sheet metal hardware catalogs
11 late nights/early mornings to match time zones
2 travel impact drivers
2 really swish install toolbags
12 feet of dovetail rail
1 hilarious KakaoTalk thread