Setting the scene
As you may recall from my previous column on this topic, some time ago I acquired a rather tasty antique television cabinet, circa the 1950s or 1960s. As we see below, this little beauty has since been lovingly restored.
My intention is to construct a caveman diorama inside the TV. This will, of course, be augmented with capriciously cunning effects powered by one or more Arduino or chipKIT microcontrollers. The idea is that you will be looking through the TV screen into the inside of a cave. Toward the back of the scene will be the entrance to the cave. The following image — which I ran across on Google ages ago — provides a good starting point for our discussions.
Note especially the background scene we see through the doorway with the mountains in the distance. The perspective gives the impression that our cave is reasonably high up the side of our own mountain. In the case of my diorama, I'll probably commence with a painted background as a starting point. In the fullness of time, however, I intend to replace this with a flat-screen computer monitor mounted at the back of the TV, and to use this monitor to display a 3D rendering of the mountain scene.
This will be a large step along the way to tying my diorama to happenings in the real world via the Internet. When it's daytime in the real world, it will be daytime in my diorama; when it's nighttime in the real world it will be nighttime in my diorama; when it's a nice day in the real world, all will be sunny in my diorama; and when it's storming in the real world… well, the folks in my diorama better look out, is all I can say. We'll also account for the four seasons — the distant mountains will gradually become covered in snow in the winter and will change color to reflect tree and plant life throughout the rest of the year.
There's a lot more to this than I'd realized. On the one hand, you want to see enough mountains through the doorway to “set the scene”; on the other hand, you want as much sky as possible, because this is where the really interesting stuff will happen, like pterodactyls flying around during the day and a really large moon crossing the sky at night. This moon will follow the phases of our own moon. Most of the time it will be a regular milky white/gray, but the color may change occasionally to match occurrences like the Full Pink Moon in April, the Full Strawberry Moon in June, and the Full Blue Moon, which occurs approximately once every 2.7 years. The sky will also provide the canvas to present awesome lightning strikes during storms and the Milky Way and shooting stars on clear nights (my meteor showers — which will be timed to match those in the real world — are going to be awesome to behold).
So, do you want to see the current state of play? You do? Well hold onto your hat because here we go…
It all starts with a mockup
I always like to start a project like this with a cheap and cheerful cardboard mockup, just to get a feel for where I'm headed. In the image below we see a sketch of the mountains on a backdrop, with a mockup of the cave wall and doorway in the foreground. In between there's a mockup of some treetops, which will eventually be replaced by 3D models to give the scene some “depth.”
I'm going to be working with 1:32 scale figures and artifacts. Based on this, as we see, I've raised the bottom of my entrance to be about nine feet above the base of the cave. In the fullness of time there will be a wooden ladder linking the floor of the cave to a ledge forming the entrance. Raising the doorway in this way will allow me to do the trick with the tops of the trees while — at the same time — preventing observers from seeing the bottom of the flatscreen display.
Next, I removed the glass screen and associated plastic bezel from the front of the TV to make it easier to work with, and I mounted the mockup inside the set. This allowed me to move the entrance to the cave and the tops of the trees back and forth. As always, there are contradictory requirements here. On the one hand, I want the cave to be as large and to go back as far as possible; on the other hand, I need a sufficiently large gap between the entrance to the cave and the flat screen TV to make the 3D trees look realistic.
In the same vein, I want my doorway to be as large as possible so we can see a lot of the background scene, but I don’t want to detract from the fact that the main action takes place inside the cave. I tell you, all of this starts to make your head hurt if you're not careful.
On top of everything else, it's important to remember that I really don’t have a clue what I'm doing — I'm making this up as I go along. Fortunately, I do know enough to not make things symmetrical, because asymmetrical is more interesting. Also, I'm aware of a few nuggets of knowledge, such as the rule of thirds. Thus, the end result as depicted above is my humble attempt to satisfy all of these requirements.
Yet another consideration is that I don’t wish to construct the diorama directly inside the TV set. One reason for this is that I don't want to damage the set itself; there's also the fact that I don’t want to spend countless hours on my hands and knees; and it might be nice to be able to create additional dioramas in the future and to swap them in and out.
The solution is to create an “inner sleeve” to accommodate the diorama itself. Thus, once I'd established the relative locations of the key elements forming the scene, I jumped into my truck and raced down to the workshop of my chum Bob the master carpenter. Since Bob has all of the tools one would ever need already powered-up and ready to rock and roll, it literally took no more than about ten minutes to fabricate the parts required to construct the inner sleeve. The image below shows these parts once I'd returned to home base.
The next step was to use “five minute” epoxy to glue everything together. The following image shows the corner braces being attached to the two side pieces.
Unfortunately, I got a little carried away in the excitement of the moment. While the side pieces were setting, I decided to glue braces to the top and bottom of the back panel. The problem is that I forgot to allow for the thickness of the top and bottom sections of the cave (in hindsight, the one exact science, I should have left these braces for last). This explains why — in the image below — we see that had to flip the back panel such that the doorway now appears on the opposite side of the cave.
Now, you may or may not know that I originally started this project a couple of years ago, but I became stalled because I didn’t know how to construct a realistic-looking cave. The reason my diorama has returned to the front burner is that, a few weeks ago, my wife (Gina The Gorgeous), who is a realtor, met a couple who were looking at houses.
Whilst talking to the husband, Mike (who used to pilot attack helicopters, and who is now in charge of safety and keeping them in the air), Gina discovered that his hobby is creating model railways and dioramas.
Mike's problem is that he wants to add all sorts of sophisticated lighting effects to his dioramas, including houselights, traffic lights, street lights, etc., but he doesn't know much about microcontrollers and tri-colored LEDs. By comparison, I can waffle on about MCUs and tri-colored LEDs for hours, but I know nothing about creating dioramas.
It was a marriage made in heaven. Mike and I now meet up at my office for a few hours each Saturday — I teach him about microcontrollers and he teaches me modelling techniques. The picture below shows Mike in my office this past Saturday.
Originally, we'd considered carving Styrofoam to create the structures inside the cave. After some experimentation, however, we decided that cardboard would better serve the purposes of this project.
Lots of stuff to ponder
Some time ago I saw a photograph of the inside of a cave with a small waterfall showering down from halfway up one of the walls. The water was coming out of a tunnel, and I decided I'd like to have something like this in my cave because it adds visual interest and it makes you say “I wonder what's down that shaft?” While thinking about this, I decided that it would be even more interesting to add a ledge, and to have one or two figures lying on the ledge looking down on the inhabitants of the cave.
The image below shows a (very) rough sketch as to where I'm going with all this. At the back of the diorama we see the entrance to the cave, with mountains and sky in the distance and a wooden ladder from the entrance to the cave floor. Mike has suggested that one of the mountains should be a volcano, with smoke drifting up during the day and flickering fires at night, and the occasional eruption at random times to keep us all on our toes.
On the left wall we see the ledge and a small waterfall coming out of a passage and falling to a pool in the cave floor. On the ledge we see two characters that appear to be spying on the other folks in the cave. Who are they? We don’t know yet.
In the center of the cave is a fire, around which a group of cavemen will be sitting chatting to a figure depicting yours truly in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts. Near the bottom of the wooden ladder will be an H.G. Wells-esque time machine idling away with its big disk slowly spinning and small control lights flickering away.
In addition to the main fire, there will also be burning torches around the cave for illumination. But then I thought: “If we have a time machine, we can also have modern lights.” The idea is to have cave paintings on the right-hand wall, and to then have a number of flood lamps on tripods being powered by the time machine and illuminating the paintings.
As an aside, although the TV set's old cathode ray tube and associated electronics have long gone, there's a monster speaker in the bottom of the cabinet. I'm planning on using a WAV Trigger sound effects card to provide an audible component to the proceedings. In addition to the sound of wind, thunder, pterodactyls screeching, volcanoes erupting, and suchlike, there will also be the background mutter of conversation. Most of this will be in the form of caveman-like grunts, but occasionally you'll hear me say something that's time- and season-appropriate.
When it's stormy and windy, for example, you might hear me say something like “In the future we've invented something called a door that we use to fill the entrance to our caves. In addition to stopping the wind, it's also useful for keeping bears and mothers-in-law out.” In the summer you might hear me waffling on about the joys of air conditioning; in the winter I might be pontificating about heating systems; and when a comet appears or a supernova explodes (and they will, oh yes they will), then you can bet I'll have something to say about it all.
So, things are starting to come together nicely, but I do still have a few burning questions…
A few burning questions
Everything I've described thus far does sound rather exciting, doesn’t it? Well, it does to me, and that's what counts. However, it's important to remember that I'm still at the beginning of this project. In fact, all we have so far is the underlying structure for the ledge as shown in the photograph below.
Having said this, a ledge is nothing to be sneezed at. Last week I didn’t even have a ledge, and by the end of this week I hope to have a large portion of the rest of the cave well underway, so I'm definitely wearing my happy face.
As I mentioned earlier, however, I do still have a few questions, the first of which being “Where are we going to get 1:32 figures for the cavemen, cavewomen, and myself?” I've looked around the Internet and these things are few and far between. Most of the ones I have managed to find involve the characters throwing spears or hitting each other on the head with clubs, and my mother certainly wouldn’t want me to be associating with that type of person.
One solution might be to obtain nude “Adam” and “Eve” type figures and then make tiny clothes for them. Alternatively, are there 3D models of people one can lay one's hands on (no pun intended)? If so, would it be possible to add appropriate clothing, scale them to 1:32, place them in appropriate positions, and use a 3D printer to create the little scamps, after which I could hand-paint them?
Another question involves modelling the waterfall and the pool. Mike says he hasn’t tackled water yet, so this will be a learning experience for both of us. If you have any suggestions, these would be very gratefully appreciated.
Similarly, I'm wondering about modelling the fire and the burning torches. I don’t just want to paint these; I want them to be flickering merrily away. One approach would be to place small LEDs in the heart of the flames, but I'm afraid this wouldn’t look very realistic. I'm wondering about mounting larger LEDs outside the scene and using optical fiber to bring the light to where it's required. Do you have any thoughts on this?
Actually, if you have any thoughts on anything to do with this project, I would be very interested to hear them. What do you think about my using flood lights to illuminate the cave paintings, for example? Personally, I really like the fact that our time machine-based narrative allows us to do things like this. I also like Mike's suggestion of having a volcano. Are there any other objects, phenomena, and sound effects we might want to incorporate into the proceedings? If you have any cool ideas, now would be a good time to share them with the rest of us.