Syyn's Rube Goldberg Machine for Google

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To make its unique machine for the Google Science Fair, Syyn Labs constructed a bunch of typical science fair experiments, then made them interact with each other in a playful chain. Even if you watch the video multiple times, you still might miss exactly what’s happening. So here's the breakdown, from the opening hamster-powered wheel to the big finale, a world map with glowing volcano eruptions.

Read the article

Watch the photo shoot

See the Rube Goldberg machine

Making of the Rube Goldberg machine

And meet the Syyn'ers

Stage 1
The machine's timing is crucial, because it's the lead actor in the 30-second and 60-second ad spots (one is running on the National Geographic Channel). Syyn broke down the action by the second. It begins with a hamster running on an exercise wheel, which triggers a falling door that activates an oscillating fan that blows over three trifold presentation boards (featuring wind power illustrations drawn by Sarah Lawlor, the wife of Jonathan Zames, the director of the video).
Before Filming
Here's how Syyn Labs' headquarters in L.A. looked in October, when the Google machine was underway. Planning and construction took about three weeks apiece.
During Filming
And here's how the space looked during filming in November. Syyn ended up going with 16 experiments. For the shoot, they were arranged in a horseshoe with the automated camera on a track in the middle following the action.
Hamster -- Make that, Mice -- Power
Syyn had planned to use a hamster on the treadmill, but the animals were too nocturnal. "When the day came to shoot, they were sleeping, so we used our back-up mice," says Syyn president Adam Sadowsky. "They performed like absolute champs." (And yes, Syyn found them good homes after the shoot.)
Stage 2
Syyn learned how to build a Rube Goldberg machine while collaborating with OK Go. It was the company's first RGM, as the Syyn team calls it. They learned the importance of making a machine that not only works reliably but is visually interesting. Notice all the movement at this stage: swinging magnets, an inflating balloon, falling objects.
Magnet Car
The last trifold board falls, landing on a lever that propels a little car with a magnet toward a row of magnetic poles. It's impossible to overstate the precision required in each interaction of the machine. In this case, the car must arrive at the magnets at the right speed and position. If not, Syyn has to start over and reset all the modules in the machine up until that point. It's tedious work.
Magnet Module Under Construction
Opposing forces make the upright magnets spin, the last one releasing a string of dangling magnets (a reverse Newton's Cradle for those you keeping score at home). That, in turn, pulls another string causing a balloon with baking soda to leak into a bottle of vinegar. The balloon was one of the reasons the machine failed about 30 times while filming each version of the video.
Baking Soda-Vinegar Balloon
The chemical reaction between the soda and vinegar creates a gas that inflates the balloon (having flashbacks to science class yet?). "If the balloon overinflates and sprays vinegar all over the table, that's a drag during filming, because now you have a big wet spot on the set," says Sadowsky.
Stage 3
The balloon inflates, raising a ramp, a metal slide welded by one of the Syyn staffers. (That's right, one of them is a trained welder.) A ball rolls down and hits a little bar, releasing a magnet that's holding a feather in a vacuum tube.
Feather-ball Drop Under Construction
This drawing was on a whiteboard at Syyn headquarters as the machine was coming together last fall. The ball and feather then fall at the same rate: the square root of two times the diameter over 9.8 meters per second squared. Yes, there will be a quiz.
Slinky
The ball emerges from the tube, rolls along a welded rail and frees a Slinky poised on a set of wooden steps that were built from scratch by Syyn staffer David Paris. The spring flips itself down the stairs, lighting up each step on contact, and lands on a tray at the bottom that releases a rubber-band car.
Rubber-band Car
The car heads toward its target, an electrical switch that closes a circuit, allowing current to flow.
Stage 4
Next up, razzle dazzle and a bit of danger. The current is no mere spark. It's a 10,000-volt electric arc as bright as a lightening bolt. It ignites a rocket that actually takes off. Kids, do not try – repeat NOT – try this at home. Or at school, for that matter. You might get expelled. Then again, you could get recruited by Cal Tech.
Jacob's Ladder Under Construction
Each module was overseen by a different Syyn member. Dan Busby, a physicist and engineer, was responsible for the electricity climbing two long metal rods, the experiment known as Jacob's Ladder. "I pulled the transformer out of the trash at Cal Tech years ago and knew it would be great for a project," Busby says. "But I didn’t know what."
Rocket Under Construction
As white-hot as the electricity is, it burns quickly and isn't ideal for lighting a fuse. Syyn used flash paper, rubber cement and other highly flammable materials to accelerate the rocket launch. Then they had to power down the rocket. "We wanted it to shoot 12 feet, not 400 feet," says Sadowsky. "A few times it flew with such force the nose cone embedded in our roof." They also built a contraption to catch the rocket so it wouldn't crash onto other modules.
Hand-Crafted Components
Most of the pieces were custom-made by Syyn, from the bridge made of thousands of Popsicle sticks to the metal gantry holding the rocket upright before launch. The rocket released a string that made the moon drop onto the stick bridge, where it rolled down an incline.
Stage 5
Brent Bushnell, a Syyn co-founder and video game entrepreneur, created the laser field. The first laser hits a sensor, which rotates a mirror reflecting the laser onto another sensor.
Laser Field
In the smoke caused by the rocket launch, a green backwards "Z" emerges. The last mirror reflects the laser onto a sensor that causes robot fingers made of Legos (one of the online science fair's partners) to type.
Setting Up the Last Stage
The fingers type the word “Eject” on a keyboard, which forces an eject tray open on a computer drive.
Stage 6
Time for the big finish--glowing lava snaking through plastic tubes across a world map. "There are two things I'm worried about," Syyn art director Hector Alvarez said before the shoot. "The rocket and the volcano. They're hard to make consistent."
Volcano
The ejecting tray tips over a tube of liquid that flows along a channel and mixes with another chemical, creating neon orange lava.
Let the Lava (and Beer) Flow

As usual, Syyn worked on the machine right up until deadline. "We were here at three in the morning and back at six," says Bushnell. When filming ended at 7 p.m., the Syyn gang celebrated with a bonfire and beer. "We had a nice party in the parking lot that went into the wee hours."

Read the article

Watch the photo shoot

See the Rube Goldberg machine

Making of the Rube Goldberg machine

And meet the Syyn'ers

Fire! Lasers! Electricity! Inside Syyn Labs' Machine for Google Science Fair [Slideshow]

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