Where did the idea come from?‘As we’d been visitors to Maker Faires past, we’ve always discussed the projects we’d seen afterwards and invariably there’d be something really cool seen by one person which had been completely missed by the others, or worse, we’d remember having seen it lying on a table, missed the significance of what made it really cool, and walked past. Sometimes there might have been something we all remembered and loved, but were confused as to which hackspace’s table we’d seen it at, due to the organisers tending to put all the hackspaces together making them sort of blend together in the memories of the visitor - the floppy drive orchestra for instance fell into that category, we all remembered seeing it because it loudly drew attention to itself, but memories were hazy as to which hackspace had made it.’ ‘We ALL remembered the interactive games and activities and noisy things, and we liked the Heath Robinson-esque custom-built machines. So when we decided last Autumn that we were going to push for being exhibitors this year, we thought it best, if we wanted to be remembered by visitors, to not make a stand out of our individual projects, and instead to stick to either one project or one theme which makes it just one thing for the visitors to remember us for, and so wouldn’t get misattributed to someone else. It should be something interactive, demanding participation, and we’d cajole the public into joining in. We didn’t have the SpaceHack idea yet, instead mulling over potential themed ideas like trying to pull off some technology-assisted magic tricks or paranormal feats or grant apparent superpowers to visitors via wearable electronics, projections, Kinect cameras and the like, so could still be a collection of individual smaller projects but the visitor would remember the theme that tied them all together and the fact that they participated rather than just observed. We’re a hackspace without a real space, just a weekly meeting in a room with no maker machinery and that is also used by other groups on other days, so individual projects we could bring in and take home again seemed to be as ambitious as we could go.’ ‘It was around October, shortly after a game of Henry Smith’s brilliant smartphone game Spaceteam, when the idea for SpaceHack came to us in a sudden flash of non-infringing inspiration. We should make a game involving shouting randomised technobabble at each other and operating physical controls! It seemed to tick all the boxes - it could fit on the sort of spaces hackspaces were getting allocated at Maker Faire, and it would sort of advertise itself within the room, as yelling nonsense with a sense of urgency and panic tends to draw attention in crowds. Mucking about with controls and displays and LEDs and stuff seemed ideal, and it would exercise a few maker skills for its fabrication involving nice laser-cut parts, 3D printed parts, woodwork, circuit design and so on. So we all agreed to go for it.’
The first concept on paper
Can you tell us some more about the design?
Spacehack Construction Montage Video‘Enclosure design went through a few ideas, and originally might have ended up being entirely laser-cut, though thank goodness we didn’t, it would have been much too fragile. In the end we were inspired by Pimoroni’s PiCade cabinet and thought we’d do something like that - substantial wood box but with a console top that would be a sandwich of laser cut plywood, printed labelling and shiny clear acrylic at the top, hopefully thick enough not to bow and break when all bolted together. On top of the consoles we wanted our instructions pods to look like some sort of interesting starship instrumentation and so we then had plenty of strands of work for different people to work on - John made a first console casing, Dan set about designing the sandwich of layers for the first of the laser-cut console tops in Inkscape and I was adding to the text generation code. Nick started designing CAD files for our instruction pods, and we were tremendously fortunate to be contacted by Rob who’d been at Leeds Hackspace and had read of our need to do laser cut pieces from our mailing list. Rob is probably the only person I know who had a huge laser cutter in his bedroom, so was in touch at just exactly the right time for us, and our design work was guided by his experience in a way that would have been much more painful and expensive if we’d had to go through a commercial service - indeed the very dimensions of the console tops were largely dictated by the dimensions Rob could comfortably cut.’
What obstacles did you encounter?'As is always the way with all IT projects, what once seemed like ages away suddenly started looming close, particularly when we were hoping for a four-player game and had only one console physically made, unfinished code, only partly-wired electronics, and some as-yet unsolved technical hurdles, with wiring trying to safely work with four different voltages. Rob moved house, and his cutter went out of action after we’d made two of our four console tops so we had to go with a commercial service for the last two. I spent two weeks in America with the server-side game code way behind schedule. John’s RepRap started playing up and we didn’t have the top parts done. And just as we made a big push to get everything done in time, when it seemed like we might actually make it, we blew up two Beaglebones with a wiring problem - and we’d only just had exactly enough. They seemed to be out of stock at Farnell where we’d got them originally. They seemed to be out of stock *everywhere* in the UK - and, on closer inspection, out of stock everywhere in the world too! We were extremely lucky in that Element 14 had been manufacturing their own licensed clones, and their first big UK batch of 800 or so hit their website into stock just as we needed them, so we got several including spares as well as replacements. Sure enough, two days later they were all out of stock and the next deliveries were going to be in May.’ ‘And so the push to complete in time was able to keep calm and carry on. The first legitimate two-player game played from end to end with all elements essentially in place only took place over the Easter weekend, and Dan and I got a huge amount of hardware and software minor problems solved during that long weekend. It’s been a long time since I last went round a friend’s house to ask their mum if Dan and I could go up to the attic to play spaceships, but that’s what our Easter mostly consisted of. So at that point our four-player game had two fully working consoles, one mostly-wired one with John, one not-at-all wired one, and software which worked but had had no real play testing and tuning - but we finally had enough to know it was not only going to work, but it was going to be *BRILLIANT*.’
How was the Maker Faire debut?‘By the Friday before Maker Faire, we arrived to start setting up some time around 2.30pm with 3D printed parts still warm from the printer and still fringed with rafting, and we were there assembling and trying to finish till kicking out time at 8pm with the game still not ready. On Saturday, the first day of the Faire, we arrived at 8am with the public due at 10, and managed to find one console failing to boot entirely - we had spares set up but decided to try booting the Bone with our electronics cape removed, then plugging it in hot - and that worked. We got three consoles working at around 10.01am.’ ‘We hadn’t realised it was going to be so noisy though - what works OK in a quiet room with people who know how the game works, becomes very difficult if you’re trying to explain how to play to three people at once spread along a long table. Eventually after some LCD glitching on one console we decided to only enable two and concentrate on that - much easier to organise, explain and watch over. Even if we’d had all four working flawlessly in plenty of time, we’d still have had to do that on the day as it would have been unmanageable.'
Game play at Newcastle Maker Faire‘Despite all the hurdles and the mad scramble to be working on time, we could see in the faces of the people we grabbed from the crowd to play our game that it really worked, once people ‘got’ it they loved it, and it was simply wonderful to watch people go in under two minutes from being a timid technophobe saying “Oh, err, I don’t understand anything technical!” to shouting “Set spherical vessel to red! WHO’S GOT THE SPHERICAL VESS- Oh wait that’s mine - OK it’s RED, NOW WHAT!”, with the most urgent tone of voice imaginable! Kids were coming back time and time again, bringing friends and playing with other kids who’d already learned how to play. We gave out hundreds of cards and they all went to players who’d enjoyed the game. Mitch Altman and Jimmie P Rodgers had a go and got immersed in the randomly generated world of SpaceHack (click here for a video), BoingBoing’s Cory Doctorow had a go and tweeted about it, and by the end of the first day even Henry Smith the author of Spaceteam, which we’d coincidentally been playing only moments before having our completely independent idea for SpaceHack, had retweeted a link to our game.’
Some sample actions:
- Set multitronic filter to magenta alert!
- Decrease polarity knot to 9!
- Plug in the centrifugal F-screen!
Some sample emergencies:
- Don't panic - The engines cannae take it any more! Stand by!
- Red Alert - the ship is critically low on bubbles! Stand by!
- Warning - Dai..sy, dai..sy...! Stand by!
- Emergency - I can't let you do that, Dave! Stand by!
- Danger - the ship is going to crash into Button Moon! Stand by!
Some sample post-game posthumous medals:
- The Royal Feather of the Federation for your drinking games.
- The Elite Heart of Moon Command for your adequate effort.
- The Golden Dagger of the Illuminati for your tea making.
- The Bronze Shield of the Empire for your plucky effort.
- The Cosmic Mark of the Somme for your singing.
What's next?'We'll be taking SpaceHack on the road to other events too - this weekend we're at the National Space Centre in Leicester as part of Towel Day, a celebration of Douglas Adams, where SpaceHack will be masquerading as the Infinite Improbability Drive, click here for more details. We're also hoping to come to the Mini Maker Faires at Manchester in July and Derby in October.'
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