Saturday, March 12, 2016

Teal Deer

So in the middle of working a morning show and doing overtime at my regular job to try to make up those missed hours, and with a lighting design racing closer and car breaks down. And it has been raining hard all week.

Yesterday walked to work and back in the rain, worked ten hours in soggy shoes, came back cold and exhausted. Weird. Usually I just grab something from the deli across the street, but I was so tired I actually decided to cook something. And before I could start a curry, I found myself cleaning the kitchen.

I still haven't gotten the benefits package at work, but they are promising a raise with it now. When it happens. I still miss building scenery. Also weird. I'm helping to make a physical product -- heck, I've assembled some of the final product myself -- but it doesn't feel "real" in the way that the (obviously ersatz) theatrical scenery or props do. Maybe it's the theatrical audience that makes it seem more real.

But with all that said, I'd be just as happy not working any shows for a while. I'm finally starting to adapt to work, and yes it is a little boring but not so much as to drive me stir-crazy. And I'd just as soon spend my evenings running out to TechShop or otherwise working on props-related projects. I don't have a huge need right now to get involved in the craziness of Tech Week on top of this full-time work.

(Especially this coming couple weeks; lighting is going to take some long nights, I still have the kid's show in the morning, and I don't want to take a lot off time off work because my boss is on vacation and I'm covering for him!)

So a good curry, ten hours of sleep, dry clothes, and a Saturday morning on which I have nothing explicitly scheduled. I need to go up and look at the roof. I'd love to do more cleaning. The radiator guy may call about my car. And there might be a rehearsal and I'd really like to watch one or two and take notes before things go crazy there.

But right now I'm listening to 20's jazz and finishing a mug of fresh-brewed coffee and thinking about electronics projects. I just threw together a sound board light that I'm using on the current gig, but that -- as well as a couple other ideas that came up during the show -- would be easier if I had some DuckNodes already created and ready to pop in. (For this, I was able to clumsily re-purpose the simple driver board I last used inside a prop radio).

Over and over, I feel I should be able to grab something out of a bag when someone at a show I'm designing asks "How can we make the gunshot sound match what the actor is doing?" or "How can we put a light inside the magic lamp?" But as hard as I try I can't seem to get over a basic conundrum.

I'm fine with making something that is too complex for the task -- a Swiss Army Knife when all you need is a pair of tweezers. I'm even okay with the larger footprint. The power issue is a little messier, as is the question of command direction (aka, does it send a command from the stage, or get a command from the booth?) But the real stumbling block is that the real flexibility is in software.

In software, the same physical circuit board can either run a pre-programmed chase sequence, or can respond to a voice Dalek-eyestalk style (or do it multiband, graphic EQ style) via software DSP. But these possibilities, plus interactive behaviors I haven't yet dreamed up (because the show I need them for hasn't started production meetings yet), exist because of software.

We've basically entered Star Trek (Next Generation) technology here. I can make a black box that is essentially agnostic as to the input(s), power supply, output(s) -- the same box can without any physical alterations take a microphone input or a photocell or a microswitch or a radio link, and output to high-power LEDs or rope lights or solenoids or servo-motors -- but Geordi needs to be in the loop.

I've tinkered with this for a while with the DuckLight. The DuckLight, to recap, is a bank of constant-current drivers backed by a microprocessor. I've already built these so you can select (via a dial) what it does when turn on... a candle-like flicker, an Apple Product pulsing, a back-and-forth flashing. It is quite possible to let the end-user dial up some variety to these pre-programmed behaviors with a bit of tricky programming. Possible, that is, but annoying in that programming-the-VCR way of holding down one button and pressing another to try to get at what you want.

The next step up in flexibility is to create a user environment that runs on a personal computer. This is the most economical solution, but it bumps the per-device cost by at least ten bucks to permit full USB connectivity, and even then probably requires the end-user fiddle with drivers. And then there's a terrifying amount of programming to try to forecast what the end-user might want to do and break it into a simplified presentation of options via a custom GUI.

So, really, it makes the most sense to just go right to programming the device directly. The physical infrastructure is no more costly or complex. In my opinion, the learning curve is no worse, either. And the flexibility is vastly greater. But to a lot of people, being asked to program is an insurmountable barrier. They won't get the thing because they fear they won't be able to do this. (And if they have the confidence to program it, they are already half-way to just building their own physical layer as well!)

So thus I keep stalling on the idea. I can make these things for myself. But I can't figure out how to make ones that would be useful to other people. Not ones that will offer the inherent flexibility to do everything from connect a physical doorbell on stage to a sound effect played from the booth, to putting a pulsing lighting effect inside a stage prop.

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