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PComp midterm in the key of C: Keeping Track of the Spin

For our midterm, Patrick Grizzard, Ted Hayes, and I built a data auralizer.


We started discussing ideas around wind chimes and (with the help of significant caffeine) eventually ended up at SpinTone: an array of ten 70 mm 6W computer fans, each attached to a news outlet and mounted over a Smart Water bottle that resonates with a conch-like sound whenever its corresponding fan turns on.

It should be noted here that for some reason (probably the frequencies involved), none of the microphones we used to record the SpinTone were able to pick up the sound of the bottles over the noise of the fans. You can almost hear them in this video:


By varying the size and the amount of water in the bottle attached to each fan, we created internally consonant but mutually dissonant sounds for the liberal and conservative media outlets. So you get a nice harmonic interval if the Huffington Post and the New York Times are talking about something, but nasty noise when Fox New joins the conversational fray.

When a user inputs one or various search terms, a program we wrote in Processing uses the Yahoo! search API to query each of the sites and return the total number of search results. Our goal was to have some cutoff point that would determine whether an individual fan turned on or stayed off, but because the extent of each news source’s online archive varied tremendously, so did our totals. For instance, a search for a common term such as “France” in the New York Times tended to return between 100,000 and several million results, while the same term returned a fraction of the results from theWall Street Journal–not because France was being discussed disproportionately more in the New York Times but because the Times‘s online archive is much more extensive. We hacked together a somewhat arbitrary set of scaling factors; a more robust version would delimit searches by date range, something we were unable to do through the Yahoo! API.

There is a ten-second delay as the program gets results from each of the sites. Once the results are in, Processing interprets them and sends them serially to an Arduino running this code. The fans attached to outlets which return a number of search results above the cutoff turn on.

This is very nice, but it’s also fun to play the fans like an instrument (a news organ?) using the computer keyboard:

The nice thing about SpinTone is that it is pretty much infinitely extensible: it’s incredibly easy to change the sites each fan is linked to and because it relies on Yahoo! search rather than XML feeds, if a site’s online, SpinTone can play its results. Some possible mods:

  • I’m Your Biggest Fan: Rather than being linked to a particular site, each fan is linked to a particular celebrity across gossip sites. For when you have to know if Paris or Nicole is hotter right now.
  • Baseball Blowout: Each fan represents a particular game and one glance is enough to tell you who’s up.
  • Election 2008: The fans keep track of election data as it comes in from various sources. Know who’s calling what when without switching channels!

Some other related videos:

Initial Proof of Concept (can’t hear the bottle):

Ted’s initial fan test:

All wired up:

The final wiring with a detailed explanation:

With LED’s (and good bottle sound):

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