Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Penultimate Morrow Post

This is the threatened "How we designed them" post.  I'm going to try to make it short with lots of pictures.

The design process was exploratory and iterative, but it was framed into two distinct sections; the "on spec" preparatory work, then a firm commitment to build.  The only late adjustment in contract was pushing the deadline back.  Of course I was consulting at every step, floating lots of sketches and renders back and forth as ideas developed.

As is usual with such things, it ends up being as much compromise and circumstance as it is art and science.  We were always aware of how things should "really" be both in the world of the Morrow Project and in the real world we pretended this project might exist in.  We chose to go in different ways not due to ignorance, but due to need.

This was the original feeler:

I am looking for two prop items:  the CBR Kit, and the Med Kit. Attached are text descriptions of them, and a picture of the CBR kit from the game book (there was no picture of the Med Kit).
Time:  by October?
Price:  $200 each?

The original thought was to 3d print the boxes, and fit them up with radio salvage knobs and lights.  Having the knobs and switches move was a strong goal.  Having ANY active electronics was a stretch goal.

I took on the project on the understanding that I would use it to learn about sculpting and casting (and do that in addition to whatever 3d printed component there would be) and that I would do electronics but that would be for me and not part of the contract per se.

Once we had a "go," it was time to determine just what these boxes should look like.

For those that don't know, The Morrow Project is a pencil-and-paper role playing game first published in 1980.  The setting is post-apocalypse America, the characters people from the modern day who were placed in cryosleep by the eponymous project to help rebuild civilization when they awoke.

Most of the player characters are members of small Recon teams, who, awakening on their own a hundred-odd years in the future, are soon tooling across this Road Warrior-ish landscape in their high-tech military vehicles and equipment trying to find out what happened to the rest of the Project and find their role in this new world.

My friend's campaign is very much 1980's, using largely the equipment and technologies available in that time.  However, project founder Bruce Morrow is generally suspected of having been a time traveler and there are already items of technology (such as the ubiquitous Morrow Project Fusion Reactors) which are far in advance of anything we can do today -- despite their vintage wrappings.

This made things vastly easier!

So the stuff might look like late 70's/early 80's military radio gear, but unlike real-life chemical weapons detectors it didn't need ports, vials, lubricants, pumps, and a manual a foot thick.  Whatever was inside the box did the job by high-tech magic. The outside of the box was merely the power button.

This is a valid interpretation of the rather sketchy descriptions as originally published:

TYPE Detector/Treatment Kit
WT. .79kg
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS A combination detector set and treatment
kit for chemical and biological agents as well as radiation. The kit will sound an alarm and identify any dangerous chemicals in the area. If
pressed against the body it will automatically inject the proper
antidote (the kit contains 6 doses). It will sound an alarm 75% of the
time if a dangerous biological agent is in the area. The kit will also
detect and measure radiation, as well as keep a record of the amount
of radiation the person wearing it has been exposed to. The kit will
sound an alarm if the radiation count goes up above the background

NAME Medkit
TYPE lndividual First Aid Kit
WT. .68kg
ADDITIONAL COMMENTS An automatic medical kit that will fit on
an equipment belt. The kit will treat small wounds, close major
wounds, automatically inject or spray antitoxins, antibiotics, coagulants, pain-relievers, sleep-inducers, and stimulants, (8 doses of each).
It will also read off the patients vital signs for a doctor or medic. The kit automatically functions when it is pressed against a wound or the skin. The pain-relievers, sleep-inducers, and stimulants can be injected on demand. The kit also contains instructions for the treatment of major wounds.

So the development focused on some shape of buttons and dials that would look period, look cool, do something in the real world (so the players could mess with them), and could at least sort of be linked to the in-world functions they were meant to command.

We broke that down pretty rapidly in terms of the CBR Kit in that it should have two lights that lit up (one for Rad threats, the other for Chem/Bio threats), a small display, and a selector knob to go between the different functions.

Based on the expanded description from my friend's campaign materials, we added terminals to connect an M42-type external alarm horn, and a sensitivity adjust knob.

We really, really wanted to have a clear way of displaying two different pieces of data in three forms; the current radiation being measured, a "safe time remaining" estimate based on current rates, and the lifetime dosage for the person issued that particular CBR.  Based on the look of period radios (which often had lovely compound dial/switch/dials) I sketched and sketched trying to get some kind of a thing you could twist to set current sensitivity and desired degree of protection and be able to read off approximate time-of-safe-stay from that.

But in the end it was too complex mechanically, and there wasn't enough space on the footprint.  Our compromise is that all this information is on the display.  Somehow.  And with the one multi-purpose button, you can page between different displays to call up your current lifetime dose, or whatever other format you wanted.

Actually executing anything like this fell foul to both time involved in programming and the desire to put in something more useful in a prop: since, of course, we don't expect to encounter significant radiological hazards while sitting around the kitchen table, I dropped most of the programming of the CBR displaying "Yup, still zero" to concentrate on programming it to say "If I WAS seeing an unshielded nuclear pile right now, this is the kinds of readings you would be getting."

(Given the budget, I'd put wireless links into the boxes and write a Processing ap for a laptop that would allow the referee to simulate threats and track dosage during play.  But this is the Morrow Project game, not the "sit around calculating quality factors for 1 meV alpha particles against resistweave coveralls" game.)

As a point of interest, the final sensitivity scale is in mSv/hr (milli-seivert is less common than milli-REM in-period, but looked nicer in raised letters), and ranges from a multiplier of 1 to 1,000.  Given that "radiation" is hardly a singular entity but depends on quality factors, rest time between doses, and etc., the lowest reading still ends up being 10 to 100x natural background level (meaning if you assume a display of three digits to the left and two to the right of a decimal point, it would display a flicker of the last digit in most parts of the US today).

And at the highest setting -- again roughly speaking -- a single-digit reading would within one hour give you mild radiation sickness at a 5% fatality rate, a reading of 6-8 would give you nausea, fever, confusion and and LD 50/50 within the first hour, and if all three digits are lit, congratulations, you are now standing inside the containment during the Chernobyl disaster.

I don't know why it was decided it should fit into an existing and common ammo pouch (probably that this same pouch was used for other Morrow Project gear already).  That gave firm dimensions to the CBR Kit.  In addition, the one drawing in the original book had a weird cut-out curve in it.  So that became a defining element of the design (even though the curve is not in the same place on either of my boxes).

And since there was a firm footprint on the faceplate, the next design phase was paper dolls.

I literally cut out shapes of every kind of small display that might conceivably fit in the top, and the nice-est looking indicator lights and the smallest rotary switches they had at my local electronics stores, and pushed them around on a piece of graph paper representing the top of the box.

And it was cramped.  Very cramped. 

I really wanted 7-segement LED (the expanded description was specific on it being a 7-segment display).  I couldn't find any small enough.  I toyed around with OLEDs, and even the idea of a simple backlit still image, but at last stumbled upon another appropriate display technology of the era:

The Vacuum Fluorescent Display (VFD) was made practical in 1967 but really started to appear in car dashboards, clock radios, and some hand-held games in the early 80's.  It is a hot anode display, wherein electrons are released from a heated filament and directed by high-voltage grids and plates before activating a phosphor coating.  They are bright, and most often a cool greenish blue in color.

And it fit in the space.

During all of this shape development, we looked up radiation levels, read up on chemical weapons, and thought about the mysterious Morrow Project Universal Antidote. 

Sure, in a better world, we'd have more idea of how the controls specifically worked.  But the constraints of time and space and funds, and the need to make a prop that looked good and was fun to play with, kept most of these thoughts in the theoretical.

After nailing down that there would be a simple sensitivity knob (no mechanically connected dial and pointer), and that the other main control was a selector switch with the basic functions Off, Test Mode, Normal, Silence Alarm, and Inject People with Antidote, it was time to develop the rest of the look.

Way back in the LED Display phase I'd settled on a shade hood as a basic part of the look.  LED's, especially period ones, are hard to read in direct light and this was a common shape in early calculators.  Also, Military Radios and other field equipment tending to be out in, well, the field, they usually have various insets and rails and other protection for switches and other bits that might get knocked off.

Oh, and almost inevitably, controls are labeled in either raised bits or stamped bits into the housing itself.  We tinkered a whole bunch with ideas of etching brass, laser cut plastic, die-cut stencils, and in the end determined it was just barely possible to make letters that were big enough so they could be 3d printed right into the plastic.  Even the scale dial on the sensitivity switch could be done this way, although confirming that meant careful reading of the Design Rules pages at the Shapeways site!

And that shifted the design process into 3d, with all the parts carefully imported and scaled:

  And then started adding all those little curves and rails and so forth.

The dual-function element of the device -- having twin indicators for Radiological and for Chemical/Biological -- led  to the bi-level faceplate, visually linking the sensitivity knob to the radiation light, and the "I have an antidote for that" light to the chemical/biological light.

And it was originally in my mind that the button was a dedicated test button and there was some kind of specific thing you did between turning the selector there and pressing it that was important enough to make a raised thingy pointing to it.

In the end, as I said, it was largely compromise.  But it was printable.

The development process for the Medkit was less elaborate.

Because, really, how could it do all that?  We did toy with making a multi-selector switch that would move between "Treat Wounds," "Inject Stimulant," "Inject Pain Relief," "Give Sleeping Pill," "Read Vital Signs," and "Give Medical Advice."

We pretty rapidly dispensed with actually trying to simulate the ludicrous idea that useful medical advice was going to be streamed off that tiny seven-segment display.  And outside of the obvious idea that there's a spray injector -- probably on that convenient limb-diameter curve the original Morrow Project artist indicated -- we had no good idea for simulating the idea of "healing."

What is it doing?  Reaching out little robotic arms?  Smearing the patient with magic chemicals?  Pretty much, in-game this thing was a D & D Cleric.

We toyed for a while with using a six or eight-position selector switch, but that finally fell due to not wanting to get into trying to create a nice looking dial plate.  Looking back, I realize that water-slide decals on tin sheet would have worked just fine for graphics.  But by that point I was impatient to finish and just went with raised letters -- this time achieved through pre-cut styrene -- and the assumption that most of the functions were gotten to VCR-style through looking at the display and pushing buttons.

That pattern of three buttons was meant to be the navigation controls for the display (page forward, page back, enter).  But they also came out of a conscious effort to associate the look with another piece of fictional medical/scientific equipment:

Thus the shade hood is larger and stands tall of the base, and has a row of three buttons under it.

And that was pretty much it for both functional and aesthetic design.  The poor Recon Team member is assumed to be pressing the buttons back and forth, squinting at the squiggly characters on the display and hoping they are going to inject a pain reliever out of the "apply directly to forehead" part of the box, instead of the box telling them that the patient has halitosis, and is also a horse.

So the only real nod to function is the fancy injector head:

Which is actually a lot smaller than the render above might indicate:

The big selector switch pretty much turns the box on and off.  Well, okay; it does move it between "Diagnostic" mode and "Treatment" mode but the latter is more correctly described as "release the safety on the auto-healing part and let the box work."

Oh; late in the day we realized there was no reason the Medkit had to be the same dimensions as the CBR Kit, and as a fun nod we based it on the in-period First Aid Kit (basically a box of bandages) and made it to fit in the same pouch.

The other major design factor in the Medkit was my desire to sculpt it instead of printing it.  The top plate alone of the CBR Kit cost forty bucks to 3d print, and the cheapest we could have gotten the body done was over a hundred. 

As it happens, between silicone mold compound, casting compound, and various foam, balsa, styrene, and filler products used to make the sculpts, I probably spent more than that.  The trade-off is now I know how to do that.  Plus, I have the molds now and could, technically, cast more.

My choice of sculpting materials limited what kinds of shapes I could do easily.  Particularly, panel lines and recesses were very difficult.  Otherwise they might have formed much more of the look of the things.  In the end, the boxes themselves are quite simple in shape and decoration.

(And I just realized I have no pictures of the Injector Thing on the Medkit.  Which does have an LED in it, but it isn't fancy.  Just a simple blue LED I sanded down nearly flat to diffuse, and covered with hotglue to further fill the space inside the injector.)

Okay, here goes.  Bathe in the blue light of mysterious healing rays!

(For gaming purposes, we've completely ignored the in-world function of the navigation buttons, and each does something amusing with the lights and sound chip in the prop.)

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