How I Built It: Spaceship Or Interactive Light + Sound Sculpture?

How I Built It: Spaceship Or Interactive Light + Sound Sculpture? New Piece To Glow At Columbus Museum of Art

by Daric Gill

{Time-Lapse Video of Process Above}

“The Circadian Machine”

The Circadian Machine” is a fully mirrored geometric pod that can sense motion, displays undulating lights and sound, tells time, and alters its actions based on each day’s sunlight cycle. In late 2019, I set off on the most ambitious challenge in my portfolio. To do this I spent the next 10 months sketching concepts, writing 50+ pages of codes, learning new CAD software, designing custom circuit boards, composing music, and blending together all the areas in my artist utility belt. As the late winter and early spring of 2020 unfolded I dug deep into my soul, hunkered down in my home, and worked from sun up to sun down on this single project. As the summer turns to autumn, I’m emerging with what I think is my finest sculpture yet. It is truly the single most challenging and accomplished work I’ve ever made–and all during a global shutdown. I’m so grateful that you’ve taken the time to land on this page. Please check out the video, browse the gallery, and share.

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{Explore the creative Easter Eggs behind this sculpture here}

Ideas & Prototyping
Interactive Light & Sound Sculpture by Daric Gill
Hundreds of pages of product specs, custom designs, caliper measurements, and test calculations!

The Circadian Machine is part of a larger series called The Living Machines. They are interactive robotic installations that mimic the emotional nuances of living organisms through light, motion, and/or sound. The idea for this piece started when I saw a note left in a museum during my time at an artist residency in Dresden, Germany. It said, “I wish time slowed down when I was having fun.” With this inspiration, I began thinking about what this may look and act like. Although the pandemic has veered the original concept into a totally different direction, I’m exceptionally proud of the regenerated ideas and execution that came to fruition in this piece. 

Interactive Light & Sound Sculpture by Daric Gill
Writing codes from a cafe when things were still opened.

As is the case in art-making, there’s no user manual for creating a new idea. I knew that the most expensive aspect of this project was the mirrored skin. Before any of the outer shell could be made, I first needed to build a prototype (or few). So I spent months making mockups, rearranging the electronics, writing & rewriting codes, and working out the mistakes before settling in on a final edition. Thousands of hours went into researching, developing, or building components from scratch. This included everything from writing music just for this sculpture to hand-designing parts to be laser cut, to the hand-made rubber-backed brackets with specific degrees, and even designing custom circuit boards. Lets just say the digital caliper had a permanent spot on my desk.


About The Mirrored Pod
“The Circadian Machine”

After months of research and hundreds of designs, I settled on a a truncated hexagonal bipyramid. This form was a blend between the bell-shape often seen in plants, the segmented radial designs that are everywhere in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider experiments, and the futuristic utility of a reentry capsule found on an astronaut’s spacecraft. Once a hand-sketch was settled on, I knew that I might need to rescale the design on the fly to suit material perimeters and potential transportation and gallery needs. I took about a month to learn the basics of Fusion 360, a professional-level CAD program that could easily rescale and calculate degrees and dimensions. This is in some ways, a sister piece to “The Shy Machine”, a much smaller sound-reactive machine that opens and closes depending on ambient audio levels.


The Electronics

The 2 main control modules run 50+ pages of looping codes (mostly Arduino-based, with some JSON and C++ thrown in. 

Control Panel (detail)

LED & Music Module
The LED & Music Module is a combination of an M4 Express micro-controller and a Music Maker FeatherWing. This module triggers relay switches that direct electricity from a power supply to the speakers/lights/Wi-Fi Module. It also calibrates and gets feedback from 2 infrared motion sensors, modulates the signals that run the LEDs, stores/selects the 50 different chimes, controls 2 marine-grade speakers, and receives transmissions from the Wi-Fi Module.

Control Panel (detail)

Wi-Fi & Time Module
The Wi-Fi & Time Module is a stack made from a Hazzah32 micro-controller and DS3231 RTC (Real Time Clock). The clock can keep current time as well as calculate past and future times, based on the codes and calculations inputted. The Wi-Fi Module retrieves and sorts through a long list of astronomical data to extract longitude and latitude, sunrise, sunset, and other information. It then uses that data to calculate future time slots or trigger moments that set off later actions. If any incoming data matches a flagged moment, it transmits snippets of codes over to the LED & Music Module. All of this sorting and calculating takes a lot of brainpower. It also shuts off the daytime functions during non-gallery hours.

Power Distribution & Amps
The heart of this piece is a 24 VDC power supply. This power is run to an amplifier and a giant buck converter that transforms it into a more manageable 5 volts. I used automotive-grade in-line fuses and a fuse box to keep things in check. 

Interactive Light & Sound Sculpture by Daric Gill
First impressions show they work just fine! Looking at how to improve them.

Custom Circuit Boards
The main control modules run off of 3.3V and send signals to the lights using that same voltage. Unfortunately, the LED light strips (RGB WS2812b 5050) run off of 5V. A translator (or logic level shifter) is needed to express that signal to the lights without mismatching voltages. As this work will be in museums, I wanted to add the extra precaution of beefier wires, capacitors, and resistors to each strip to smooth out voltage and data spikes. To make this process look more professional and streamline future projects, I designed and fabricated a terminal block breakout board for the logic level shifter and a LEDCalmer for each LED strip.


Writing The Music
Circle of 5ths… looks like a clock, right?

I composed nearly 50 short pieces of music for this sculpture. Each special function, hour mark, or event has a corresponding chime that can last anywhere from a few seconds to a full minute. At the core, there’s a tool in music theory called The Circle of 5ths. It’s a 12-positioned wheel that represents the relationship among the 12 tones (or pitches) of the chromatic scale, their corresponding key signatures, and the associated major and minor keys.

Each of “The Circadian Machine’s” chimes are layered chords that arpeggiate (or rise and descend in order) corresponding to that time’s position on the Circle of 5ths. In the morning, the music runs around the clock using the warmer major keys, while PM hours are in darker minor keys. The soft tones of a marimba strike out the Normal Hours. For the New Hours, I’ve added more layers of piano and harp to the marimbas.


Built-In Disability Friendly
“The Circadian Machine” (side view)

After debuting a few light installations to the larger public in museums (including a real airplane wing that lights up and connects to NASA), I felt a responsibility to create something that could be appreciated by everyone, including the under-represented art-enthusiast with disabilities. With lights and sound already addressing the auditory and visual senses, the next design challenge was to create something that would be wheelchair accessible that also holds up to my conceptual theory. To achieve this, the mirrored pod has a low ground placement and a tilted mouth angling towards the viewer rather than directly up. People with various vantage points can now easily gaze into the pod from whatever position feels the most comfortable.

Building On Challenges
Interactive Light & Sound Sculpture by Daric Gill
Writing & designing in the woods in my neighborhood.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least acknowledge the unique challenges we all have faced in the last few months. A large part of this project was being resourceful and adaptable. This malleability meant I had to change both the concept and the build process from the ground up several times. There were months of navigating manufacturing shutdowns, shipping delays, studio facility closures, income loss, and lost orders. The first iteration of hardware and coding was initially based on samples to be gained from travel. That clearly had to be scrapped along with the touch-sensitivity hardware and codes that had already been built. But in the end, I’m fortunate that I had to go back to the drawing board so many times. It made me truly scrutinize each and every aspect of this piece.

A special note to showcase some amazing people:
Like the heroes they are, Adafruit quickly pivoted during the pandemic to create masks, surgical gowns, and other needed medical equipment. Their full range of staff was paid, even if not used for production. They also re-allocated some of their workforces to create even more free, open-sourced educational resources. It’s for these reasons (and many more) that I support their company. When they couldn’t make their parts, they partnered with their competitors to get you what you needed. Sure, I can buy parts for much cheaper elsewhere, but Adafruit has proven an overwhelming ethical treatment to their employees and has shown clout when the world has needed it the most.

This piece has been made with the help of grants through the Greater Columbus Arts Council, the City of Columbus, a partnership with the Columbus Museum of Art. Pre-pandemic, I was given a generous grant that helped finance some of this project. The CMA will soon house this work in their Greater Columbus exhibition this fall.

While I was toiling away on this piece, the Greater Columbus Arts Council rose to the challenge during a time of public hurting. They raised funding to pay artists who were making work promoting justice and peace.  I wanted to thank them all.


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