Rube Goldberg Machines complete a simple task in the most inefficient way possible. They tend to be sprawling contraptions that can take days to set up for a single “run.” Not so with Melvin, the world’s smallest Rube Goldberg machine, who is currently traveling the world in a suitcase.
Melvin is smart: he geo-locates himself using GPS, documents his audience with his built-in smartphone camera, and talks about his “runs” on Facebook and Twitter. After each successful run, he spits out a stamped postcard that reads “wish you were here.”
The bespoke code that powers Melvin’s digital presence was developed by Dutch designers HEYHEYHEY. The studio originally developed the software for Melvin’s big brother, a large Rube Goldberg built last year in an Eindhoven factory designed by De Stijl master Gerrit Rietveld. The original Melvin, who also interacted with his audience, was seen by more than 14,000 people during Dutch Design Week. Afterwards, companies and festivals began approaching HEYHEYHEY to rebuild the machine. “But the conclusion was always the same,” says the studio. “Melvin was simply too big and expensive to rebuild.” They set out to build a portable version of Melvin in early 2012, and debuted the smaller, more agile machine in Milan at Salone Internazionale del Mobile last month.
Small Melvin’s chain reactions are produced using random objects ubiquitous to the last two hundred years: a record player, a pipe, a bow-tie, a stamp. But during each “run,” a complex set of digital chain reactions are also taking place. An Android-powered smartphone snaps an image of people in the audience, and a custom-built app sends it to a web server where it’s tagged with a URL and a GPS location. Each photo is analyzed with a script built in Visual Studio and uploaded to Melvin’s social media channels with a message about how many people were watching Melvin’s run. Finally, each of the runs is cataloged on a map using Google Maps’ API.
In a way, Melvin isn’t doing anything a garden-variety tourist doesn’t do. In his creators’ words, he’s “a proper traveler,” snapping photos and bragging about how many friends he has on Facebook.