The Mechanical Oracle is an immersive installation that captures and contrasts the methods that fortune-tellers, scientists, designers, speculative fiction writers and professional futurists use to imagine, predict and prepare for the future.
Like an inquisitive interlocutor, the electro-mechanical machine scans an imaginary void for voices that bring to light the mystical methods, rational systems, creative approaches, design strategies and data driven techniques that lie behind each specialism.
The Oracle celebrates the power of the human imagination to speculate about the future - while sharing insights on how to gain agency over what might come next.
The installation consists of two horizontal surfaces - a reflective mirror-black pool of magnetic oil positioned at waist height, and a rear-projection screen suspended from the ceiling, just above head height. Images projected onto the overhead screen are reflected into the oil down below. Viewers need to peer over the table’s edge to see the projected image clearly.
This arrangement produces the optical illusion of a fathomless void, as though a rectangle had been cut from space. Peering over the tables edge and into the oil, viewers see the digitized interviewees emerge from the boundless chasm below. For some, the experience creates a mild sense of vertigo, a visceral manifestation of the uncertain and increasingly surreal futures expressed by the machine. The complex reflections are also reminiscent of the ‘scrying’ methods used by fortune-tellers to divine prophecies from black mirrors.
Underneath the mirror-black oil, a series of machines discreetly control 180 rare-earth magnets in perfectly timed unison, sculpting the black liquid into three dimensional words and patterns. The rising and falling words generate questions, add emphasis to the interviewees responses, or create an undercurrent of meaning - giving the impression that the Oracle is guiding the conversation.
The overall effect is a kind of continuous ‘focus switching’ - between a near-focus fascination with the magnetized words, and a far-focus view of a depthless space. Combined with an immersive soundtrack, the installation helps create an almost meditative, trace-like state, relaxing the viewer into a more receptive frame of mind.
The project is still a work in progress. The work of capturing the interviews is starting to gain momentum now that it’s safer to meet people in person. In the interim, I am able to share some of the more abstract sequences, made to explore the expressive potential of the medium. These will eventually be arranged between the interviews - so the overall experience shifts between the factual and the poetic.
“Let Them Not Say” is based on a poem of the same name by Jane Hirshfield, one of the USA's most celebrated contemporary poets. Performed by actor Geo Espilanty, the black mirror becomes a literal and metaphorical space for reflection.
This sequence takes its starting point from Wolfgang Sach’s essay "Speed Limits" - from the exhibition catalogue : "Speed - Visions of an Accelerated Age", from the 1998 exhibition at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, London. Partly inspired by Julian Opie’s Road paintings made around the same time, the sequence transitions between lucidity and hallucinogenic motion sickness. The music is Facades by Philip Glass.
Projected and reflected lights dance in time with this solo piece for piano, written and performed by Chilly Gonzales. An abstract intermission in which the light sculpts itself around the mounds of oil, which are in turn sculpted by the invisible lines of magnetic flux created by the magnets.
Producing this installation was a multi-layered process that included engineering 11 electro-mechanical machines, designing and fabricating custom printed circuit boards, writing firmware code, and fabricating the structures that support the oil and overhead video projection.
After the machines had been calibrated and tested, I developed a system for scripting sequences that control the machine in time with the video projection. A custom developed application by Mark Slee enables precise control of the magnets.
These images capture some of the process engineering the Letterpress, starting with the first proof of concept prototype, and working all the way through the rapid prototyping techniques that made it possible to produce 180 individually controllable linear actuators move up and down in perfect synchronicity.
The magnets are arranged to produce a unique hexidecimal font, capable of producing any letter from “a” through to “z”, or numbers “0” through to “9”.
The first “proof of concept” prototype used electrically controlled solenoids to punch the magnets up and down.
The prototype was successful in so far as it showed the principle of writing with magnetic oil could work, but the movement of the magnets was too abrupt, making the oil wobble like jelly.
The next prototype used multi-threaded shafts set in bearings, spun around by servo motors. Neat as this solution was, the parts were too expensive to scale 180x (one unit for each magnet)
Someone once told me to keep an ‘inventors book’ documenting every step of the process. I ended up with 3 books, each a couple inches thick. These pages show the finished circuit board designs.
At the heart of the system - this simple motor driver circuit, capable of controlling 2 motors. My finished circuit design squeezes 9 of these onto a single board - enough to control 18 magnets per unit, and produce a single letter.
The frame design was tested using cardboard cut with a laser. The actual frames were cut from aluminum using a water-jet. Since both technologies are based on the same principle, I could be (mostly) confident that they would come together in the end.
Mechanically and electrically identical to the final design, this detailed prototype confirmed the magnets would produce legible letters and numbers, appearing and disappearing at a comfortable pace.
Switches detect when magnets have reached the maximum limit of their movement. These mechanical switches were later replaced with optical switches - which are far more robust and don’t produce a “clicking”sound.
The system includes just enough feedback to detect when magnets have reached the maximum limit of their movement. These mechanical switches were later replaced with optical switches - a more robust and quiet solution.
To help improve the legibility of each letter, the magnets are arranged with their polarity in mind, so the oil tends to conjoin or divide, depending on the position of each segment.
3D printing the magnet mounts saved time and enabled successive iterations, helping tighten the design and push the segments closer together.
One of 11 fully assembled units, showing the aluminum frame, finished circuit board design and all of the magnets in place.
The design includes several features that will help keep the installation in service - such as these motor driver chips, mounted on removable miniture circuit boards.
Using rare-earth magnets instead of electromagnets generates a huge saving in electrical power. The system makes intermittant use of 12v and 5v supplies - seen here as tranformers mounted along the base.
The overhead rear projection screen hangs on cables suspended from a secondary frame that also supports the video projector. The structure can hang from ceiling mounted bolts, or load bearing trusses.
Steve Thompson welding the aluminum structure at the Exploratorium workshop in San Francisco.
Images projected onto the overhead screen are seen reflected in the oil below.
The kinetic words interact with the projected image, flexing the light around the magnetically produced forms.
The Magnetic Letterpress is programmed using this software application - built by Stephen Braitsch using Open Frameworks. It features a timeline with editable keyframes - used to tell the system when to move magnets up or down.
This project was made possible due to the Bay Area's community of makers and engineers whose help and advice helped steer the way forward. The first prototype came to life with help from Scott Minneman, running the machine on an Arduino Mega. Michael Shiloh then helped with the design of the control circuit, which I later developed into a custom PCB. The original application used to program the sequences was written by Stephen Braitsch, using Open Frameworks. The system was later updated by Mark Slee, and now uses Mark's 'Chromatik' software, connected over OSC to Vezer and Mitti.
The brushed aluminum table and suspended screen was fabricated in the San Francisco Exploratorium and Autodesk Pier 9 with the help of Steve Thompson. The fabrication process was also assisted by: Dante Obcena, Carlos Rodriguez, Quincy Quinton, He Zhang, and George Grenley.