March of the Snowmen
March of the Snowmen

Spinny the Snowman
Spun around so freakin' fast
And the music played up and down the stairs
And the lights they danced and flashed

Oh, Spinny the Snowman
And his happy snowman place
Proved one more time that the third floor team
Is the holiday-est in Gates!

[the theme]   [decorations]   [dancin' lights]   [spinny the snowman]   [the contest]

The theme for this year's Gates Building holiday decoration contest was "Winter Wonderland", whatever that means. This theme was promptly ignored by the other floors, but the third floor decided that we could produce an immersive, interactive, tasteful display and stay within the confines of the provided theme. So we went to work creating a snowman world with our usual technical flair.

Our theme was snowmen, so the basic strategy for this year's decor was to find any object that looked vaguely decorative and try to turn it into a snowman-related item. Results follow...

Task one: turn the weird computer museum rack thing into a giant snowman ski slope. No problem for our dedicated team, equipped with various pieces of wire, construction paper, and of course a happy-looking snowman. Here Jim, Kayvon, Jeff, and Daniel get the job done. A midnight Safeway run provided critical tissue paper and paper towels.

Task two: get paper snowmen from everyone on the floor, and hang them decoratively to demonstrate our floor's massive participation level and incredible creative strength. Some were more creative than others; pictured here are Vaibhav's "did you hear that we made a giant camera array?" snowman, Scott's "designers think outside the box" snowman, Billy's "antialiased" snowman, and Heather's "this is what my face would look like as a perfect sphere" snowman. Also pictured here is Dan's "you can steal my snowman if you want to but you're going to lose the contest and it serves you right for stealing my snowman hahahaha" snowman.

Task three: fill out the lobby so it's totally drenched in holiday spirit. Two more corners of the lobby were devoted to snowy-themed decorations... the tree is a given (although damn doesn't it look nice). Jim came through again with his secret art skills, embedding Calvin, Hobbes, and - what's that - a SNOWMAN (!) on our window. I don't even know where the little snow guys came from, but they looked nice on the big white thing that is clearly _not_ a computer. And Ron continued his trend of last-minute late-night xmas code-a-thons, delivering a "what would you like from Frosty?" system using Anoto pens. Because Frosty brings gifts.

Inspired by random crap we found on the web, Monzy took charge of the "musical Christmas lights" project. A Winamp-equipped PC drove 10 relays, each of which was connected to a string of lights. The result: an immersive, more-or-less-Christmas-related musical experience. A short video demonstrates the lights in action. Monzy also compiled a behind-the-scenes video of the project.

Step one was the creation of a computer-light interface, based around a microcontroller that switched a series of FETs, which switched a series of 120V reed relays. All of this hardware lived - perfectly safely - on this breadboard. Monzy did the design, and recruited some help from Augusto and Merrie for the breadboarding.

The next step was arranging the lights in the lobby, in a way that added some festive spirit to Monzy's technical achievements. Merrie made snowmen from xmas lights - quite an achievement - and Mike worked the xmas trees, which hung from the ceiling.

The software component of the project - which kept Monzy up until just a few hours before the contest - took the form of a Winamp plugin that allowed a user to record a sequence of light transitions with the keyboard, i.e. to "play" the song on the lights. This was recorded and played back with the mp3 in the future, making for a captivating installation...

The centerpiece of our lobby setup (in the literal sense, i.e. the thing at the center of the room), was a large snowman, spinning around in motorized glory. Our original vision was to have him partially shield the lights to cast snowy speckles around the room, but at some point we realized that we're computer science folks building a giant spinning snowman, and either we could build a giant snowman that fell apart and probably hurt someone in the process, or we could build a pretty-big-but-not-quite-giant snowman that spun around forever and was built like a tank. We went with the latter option.

Since stills can't quite capture the spinning-ness of this project, we grabbed videos of spinny doing his thing in the lobby and the rotational platform undergoing one of its first tests.

Step one: steal parts we can steal, make what we can't steal, and buy what we can't make. A handful of power supplies, a surprisingly massive motor, some foam tape and a rotating chair (now reduced to a bearing with adjustable height) fell into the first category. Acrylic pieces that fit the motor shaft (thanks to Bjoern) and several pieces of cut-and-drilled wood fell into category two. Basically nothing other than spraypaint fell into category three.

Step two: build a frame to hold Spinny (a name I just made up now) (during construction he was referred to skeptically as "this large snowman that may or may not spin around"). Conveniently, the graphics lab has piles of 80/20 (reconfigurable metal frame) all over, so we just needed to cut some wood to fit the 80/20 and drill holes to hold the motor and the top and bottom of the chair bearing (which was not made out of someone's chair). This setup turned out to be ideal, since we didn't know exactly how tightly we were going to want our gears to fit together, and the 80/20 let us slide them into place until the friction was just right.

Our gears, FYI, were wooden circles wrapped in foam tape, pressed together to create a friction drive (lower-right). Gearing down the motor was essential, since it was rated at some ridiculous speed (many thousand RPM), and spinny was not going to survive fifty turns per second.

Step three: build a snowman. Spinny himself was constructed from garbage bags stuffed with newspaper, covered with white paper, and spraypainted. The body sections were held together with various combinations of glue and large dowels. A tiny snowman (lower-right) was put on the motor itself. When we later cranked the motor up to 13V (from its usual 5V), this was the first component to fly right off.

Step four: assemble and move him into the lobby. After a few tests in Augusto's office, we set him up on center court. As we discovered last year, dim lighting in the #1 key to victory in this contest, so we went to great lengths to dim the large lights above Spinny.

Finally the contest day arrived, and it was time to put our smiles on and impress the judges with our thematic consistency, tehnical efforts, team participation, and - above all else - dim lighting.

Our presentation to the judges highlighted the particpation of the floor (making all those little snowmen), the participation of the construction team (how many CS grad students does it take to build a snowman?), and the general awesomeness of the setup. Monzy gave a live performance of a TSO piece on the lights. It was Christmas-riffic, and they were impressed.

The second floor was a strong competitor and had us pretty worried. They had a pretty cute video where lots of folks on the floor sang a wintery song and it made everyone feel pretty warm and happy. And their "international wonderland" theme was somewhat PC and therefore posed an additional risk. Fortunately for us, their student participation clocked in a little low, and their decorations didn't compete with their cool video.

The fourth floor had some clever puns about Turing machines, but those were mostly over my head, and I'm a grad student in CS (the judges were not CS folks). The first floor was pretty... primarily traditional lights and decorations, and they didn't get much student participation. Also there is circumstantial evidence suggesting that a certain first-floor individual stole a certain guitarist-shaped snowman from a certain third-floor lobby on the morning on the contest.

In the end, justice was done, and the third floor claimed another xmas-time victory. All who participated enjoyed some holiday lo mein, including mini-Spinny, who had recently been flung from the motor (the pre-lunch event was a three-power-supply, 13V, 8-amp test of the snowman apparatus, which held up surprisingly well).

Previous winning xmas contest entries: