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We at Gomi Style are pleased to announce the launch of our new sister site: SparkyJr.com.

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Sparky Jr. is a one-stop shop for everything you need to make your own DIY videochat robot. We give you free software, instructions, templates and more – Plus a whole community of people making their own telepresence robots and rovers.  Post your projects, ask questions, and see what others are making.

The Sparky project has been featured in Make Magazine, on PRI’s Studio 360 radio show, and been presented at AFI’s DigiFest, The San Jose Museum of Art, the SFMoMA and museums and galleries throughout the country.

Click Now and join the growing community of DIY Telepresence robot builders

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I didn’t intend to make a Bioshock / Fallout 3 character mash-up.

Self Portrait - Fly Daddy

Self Portrait - Fly Daddy

The Self Portrait – Fly Daddy. Over the course of months, objects in my studio get assembled in interesting ways –  like legos, but with junk.  Bits and pieces are added, then taken away, then added again, until the assemblage of found objects and recycled scrap transforms into “something.”  At first, it may be unclear what the new thing is  –but as I continue to work, listening to the materials and their stories, they usually suggests a figurative character, some kind of weird living being with a personal narrative and rich history.

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Fly Daddy Side View

This new piece seems to ask the question: What do you get when you cross a Big Daddy from Bioshock with a Bloatfly from Fallout 3?

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Fly Daddy Rear View

The answer is some kind of armored flying Cyclops apparently.

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Fly Daddy Detail

Some of the materials used include a video loop played on an embedded mini DVD player and LCD monitor, a coffee bean dispenser, a paper lantern, a brass drain cover, several magnifying lenses, brass wallet chain, scrap textiles, brass and copper hardware.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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 

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Sparky Jr. Teaser Intro

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 GomiStyle.com, 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
Programer John Celenza performs as Sparky, the web-enabled telepresence robot

Gomi Style has posted instructions on how to build your own web-enabled telepresence robot, including custom software that is free to modify.  

Click here for the complete Sparky Guide to Web-Based Mobile Video Chat