Sparky and Marque

Sparky and Marque

Make: Magazine has assembled a terrific profile of the Sparky project in anticipation of Maker Faire Bay Area 2009.  Read it Here.

The folks at Make are a great bunch.  They publish an essential how-to magazine and host the ultimate DIY science and art fairs all over the world.   They have always been supportive of Sparky.  Thanks Make!


Sparky uses a Mac Mini and LCD

Over the years, Sparky has gone through many changes and upgrades.  The current version uses a Mac mini  and Lilliput headrest LCD monitor.  At first these components were powered by a small 12v. lead acid battery connected to a DC/AC inverter, but here’s a simple hack for running a them both directly from a lithium ion battery pack.  Since the Mac and battery  both run on DC power, this hack eliminates the DC/AC inverter and the Mac’s brick-sized wall wart.  And the Li-Ion battery is a fraction of the size and the shaves more than 7 lbs. of the robot’s weight.

The new battery is a Digipower, 4.4Ah universal laptop battery from Radio Shack.  It comes with a charger and a bunch of adapters for different laptops, cellphones and PDA’s.   It offers a choice of 16 or 19 volts out, as well as  a standard 5 V USB port.  The Mac Mini requires between 14 and 18 V. and is easily powered from the primary power out, but the monitor is designed to run on 12 V  A little probing on the battery’s internal circuit revealed an onboard 12 v. source, but getting that 12 V. power to the monitor would likely require a hole cut into the case and some sort of adapter hanging out, unless we opted to use the USB out to power the 12 V. monitor.

12 v. jumper wired added go Digipower battery circuit

Jumper wired added to battery

This part of the job was much easier than we originally thought, requiring little more than splicing a single jumper wire on the battery circuit board.  This choice comes with a BIG WARNING however.  USB uses a 5 V power standard.  Rewiring the USB for 12 V. means it will instantly DESTROY any and all USB devices  plugged into it.  It is ONLY to be used as a power source for this 12 V. monitor.  It is highly recommended that you clearly label this USB port so that it doesn’t become a iPod killer or worse.

The only other part of the job is splicing Molex connectors to the Mini’s Power cord and RCA connectors to the monitor. We added connectors to both the original and the new wires so the robot can switch back and forth between the two batteries in just a minute.

Why Molex and RCA connectors?  Two reasons.  First, both connectors are designed to work reliably over and over, and second, I already had them lying around.


RCA spliced into USB for LCD power cord

Molex spliced on Mac's power cord

Molex spliced on Mac's power cord

Lead acid vs. Li-Ion

Lead acid vs. Li-Ion

In a somewhat scientific head-to-head test of both battery systems, we put them each on Sparky in full running mode.  The original lead acid edged out the Li-ion with a running time of 1:35 to 1:10.

These results are pretty close to each other considering the lead acid is rated at 7Ah and the Li-ion is rated at 4.4Ah.

We also discovered that the Li-Ion runs a bit hot, so Frank suggested cutting a hole in the case, adding a 40mm fan and running it directly from the battery internally – the fan can be powered off the USB’s original 5 v. source, so it’s a fairly straight forward modification.  I’ll update this post when I have pictures of that.


Little Hacky, sitting on little Macky

After reading some recent Giz posts regarding the Hackintosh Netbook made with a Dell 9 Mini I was intrigued.  I needed exactly that.  A small, affordable Netbook running OS X to be used as a “control booth” for Sparky, able to run our modified Skype video chat software as well as the joystick control plug-in.

When the Dell came up for sale recently for $199 I jumped at it.  I upgraded the RAM and built-in webcam, but I mistakenly selected an 8 GB SSD hard drive.  This project would have gone sooo much easier if I had the 16 GB upgrade.  It came to about $275 with tax and shipping direct from Dell.  I also purchased a fresh 10.5.6 OS X install for about $130 and an 8 GB USB Thumbdrive for about $30.  I already owned a no-name external DVD drive (actually a CD-RW I later found out) so I thought I had everything I would need.  And patience.  Did I mention patience?  Because that’s the one thing that was really needed once I realized how many work-arounds this project would require.


Connect Mini 9, OS X, Ext HD, Ext CD-RW, 8 GB USB Flash, Dell Mini Forums and Brain

There are many posts out there with more details than I could ever provide, so I’ll skip my usual step-by-step and leave it to the pros, but I will describe our solution in a broad stroke:

Ultimately we used another Macbook to install an OS X boot disc on an external hard drive and booted up the Dell with that.  We already had an 8 GB thumbdrive prepared with a slimmed down version of the 10.5.6  installer disc and we used that to get OS X onto the Dell.  To squeeze the bulk of 10.5.6 onto an 8GB SSD, we had to sacrifice the text-to-speech voices, as well as Apple’s mail app and all the other options available during the “custom install.”  After numerous attempts we finally squeezed it down enough to fit.

As usual John C. Killed this project, ultimately delivering a perfect little Mac Netbook.  But it took patience and creativity.  It was an all-weekend, one-step-forward-two-steps-back kind of  experience – mostly due to my poor choice of SSD size and thinking my external CD-RW was a DVD.  Without those two mistakes, it is entirely possible to hack a dell 9 mini into a Mac in a few hours, I’m sure.

The final cost is about $450, less than half of the cost of the cheapest Apple laptop, and about a grand less than Apple’s netbook-ish Air.  It may not have a big hard drive or internal DVD, but it’s not missing them either.  It’s meant to be a Apple netbook.  And that’s exactly what it is.

Some resources:
Original Gizmodo post
My Dell Mini Forums –  All things Dell Mini
Monolingual – for slimming down OS X
Sparky Telepresence Project 

fe4f7f48-fb87-434b-9ba6-931868b8a99citvtradioiconI’ve been a friend and supporter of the Interactive TV of Tomorrow show and conference since their beginning, and was recently interviewed for their weekly radio show by founder and host, Tracy Swedlow.

We chat about being an independent content producer, landing ( and losing) a TV show deal, as well as tools and strategies offered by new technology.

Listen to the whole interview HERE.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Sparky Jr. Teaser Intro

The Challenges of Making a Living as a Living Maker.

Like many of my peers I think of myself as a “maker” – a creative inventor of new art, ideas and things. Every so often one of my projects will strike me as so cool, so useful and timely (or ahead of it’s time), that it just begs to be developed into a product available to everyone. As a person who is usually positioned as an “industry outsider,” I often watch in frustration as my unrealized ideas are brought to market by someone else. In fact, I know many people who have experienced the same excitement and disappointment of a “Hey, I thought of that years ago!” moment.

With the popularity of Make, Instructables and online streaming video, the self-distribution process has become a common routine for thousands of do-it-yourselfer’s looking to share their ideas, and I am no exception. When I get a new idea for a project, I generally draw up some plans, shoot a how-to video, post it to my blog and move on. Like so many others, I send the idea out to the world with a bit of online promotion and let the crowd determine the project’s usefulness for itself. Some projects will gain a small following, some will fall flat, and a few will go viral and get thousands of views.

But what do you do when you have a prototype for a new product or idea that has the potential to disrupt an entire industry and possibly create another? How do you serve the conflicting needs of A) protecting your idea while simultaneously B) trying to spread the word? Sure there are patents, copyrights and trademarks, but intellectual property theft is still rampant and easy. Even the standard non-disclosure agreement (the dreaded NDA) carries very little weight when potential investors or partners refuse to sign them.

Whether in the fields of robotics, TV, interactive media or green technology, as an outsider to all the industries in which I develop new products and ideas, I have become all-too-familiar with the “glazed over” look of someone forced to listen to my pitch for a new show or product. As a rule, people in these industries generally refuse to look any unsolicited material, which means that without an agent, manager, lawyer, or some kind of rep, I am viewed more as a potential legal risk than as a resource for fresh ideas. Is it any wonder that I start to position any work I make as postmodern “fine art” – a category in which almost anything goes, if properly contextualized.

Recently I resolved to openly share my next DIY project with the world. I developed a version of the Sparky telepresence robot on an entirely open and available platform, using open source software, Skype, old computer technology, Vex robot building kit parts, and many other commonly available bits and pieces. I posted the step-by-step video and plans online and even wrote an article for Make magazine detailing the decision to “open source” the project. (The full story is available here. The step-by-step DIY plans are here.)

More recently, while continuing to refine the robot, I stumbled on yet another innovation to the Sparky idea – something so simple, yet so remarkably powerful that it could easily jumpstart the nascent mobile telepresence industry by overcoming the remaining hurdles to wider acceptance of the format – and do it at a pricepoint several orders of magnitude cheaper than any other robot with similar capabilities (Sorry, I can’t say more…).

But this time I hesitated before openly sharing it. This new idea seems too revolutionary, too valuable to just “give away.” Maker or not, it should be reasonable to want to capitalize on such a personal invention. You know, actually pay some bills or buy food with the fruits of my labor… So how does my prototype get developed into a manufactured product when I have no money, no investors, and no industry “experience?” How do I sell my interactive robot idea to a toy or technology company when they refuse to take a call or meeting?

A few years ago, the answer seemed easy. Posting work to the web was the way to get noticed – and for a brief window you couldn’t miss. My first foray online, a personal art gallery, was wildly successful – back in 1996, when such sites were still rare. As recently as 3 years ago, my modestly popular DIY videos on youtube actually landed me a TV development deal with a major network (it fell through). However those opportunities seem increasingly rare these days.

In all honesty, how likely is being discovered on Youtube today? Consider this… With an average of 10 hours worth of video clips uploaded to youtube every minute, there is a lot of material to sift through for even the most determined researcher. 15 minutes of fame? 15 seconds? How about 15 clicks?

Every new self-promotion technology can seem like an opportunity, so just to be safe I personally operate my online art gallery, 2 blogs, an email listserve, Facebook group and a Ning social network. I fear Twitter is inevitable I just joined Twitter– all just to distribute and promote my work, plus I have a TV pilot “in the can” and pitches for several other shows at the ready. If you are adverse to self-promotion, you don’t want to get stuck in an elevator with me.

So I command an arsenal of weapons of mass promotion, but these tools I use to move my career forward can just as easily be the stumbling blocks to my success. After all, they are also being used by millions of others with the same aspirations. As the networked world continues to offer more people an onramp to the information highway for driving forward their goals and dreams, that highway becomes increasingly gridlocked.

Where does this democratized, gridlocked, mega-promotion environment leave the maker with a really good idea or new product? Does one simply accept their fate and let their work rise or fall based on Diggs, youtube rankings and other external forces, or does one become a “PromoSexual,” willing to do anything and everything to pitch their idea to anyone who will listen? (Shameless plug: I have a 26-minute pilot for a TV show about this very topic called, no surprise, PromoSexual).

In fact, maybe that’s the answer right there – the shameless plug; the willingness to act utterly and completely shameless when promoting one’s work, essentially embodying a commitment to self-promotion that is so complete, that there is no way to separate one’s real life from their “reel” life. Andy Warhol pulled it off for decades, and it seems to be the standard M.O. for Joaquin, Paris, Miley and most of today’s Hollywood. Why shouldn’t it work for anyone? I recommend you try it.

Sure, there is bound to be some backlash. In some ways, no one likes a showoff, and your new “in your face” attitude will certainly chafe old friends on Facebook. But to constantly Twit-cast your every little thought or move is becoming the way to network. So, with that realization in mind let me just plug these projects I’m excited to share with you, and as always, feel free to contact my rep with offers…

Marque Cornblatt Fine Art: Sculpture, performance and conceptual art gallery
Gomi Style: DIY, green lifestyle and design series
MediaSapien: The art and culture of virtual identity
PromoSexual: TV follow-doc series pitch
SparkyJr: social network for DIY, mobile telepresence enthusiasts
Twitter: @Cornblatt

sparky_makeThanks MAKE!

One of the best resources for all things DIY, MAKE Magazine, just published a story I wrote about Sparky, the Autonomous Telepresence Robot project that I’ve been working on since the early 90’s.  

The project has come along way since those early days, transforming from a crude assemblage of found parts and junk into a robust, web-based, mobile telepresence platform that uses cutting edge technology to function almost anywhere. 

There are free instructions and software available at, so you can build your own Sparky robot using stuff you probably already have.

Click the widget below to read the whole story.

Look Inside >> 
Volume 16

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