Star Trek Material Science is Finally Real: Transparent Wood

It’s not transparent aluminum, exactly, but it might be even better: transparent wood. Scientists at the University of Maryland have devised a way to remove all of its coloring, leaving behind an essentially clear piece of wood.

IMG_20160518_110605By boiling the block of wood in a NaOH and Na2SO chemical bath for a few hours the wood loses its lignin, which is gives wood its color. The major caveat here is that the lignin also gives wood strength; the colorless cellulose structure that remains is itself very fragile. The solution is to impregnate the transparent wood with an epoxy using about three vacuum cycles, which results in a composite that is stronger than the original wood.

There are some really interesting applications for this material. It does exhibit some haze so it is not as optimally transparent as glass but in cases where light and not vision is the goal — like architectural glass block — this is a winner. Anything traditionally build out of wood for its mechanical properties will be able to add an alpha color channel to the available options.

The next step is finding a way to scale up the process. At this point the process has only been successful on samples up to 1 centimeter thick. If you’re looking to build a starship out of this stuff in the meantime, your best bet is still transparent aluminum. We do still wonder if there’s a way to eliminate the need for epoxy, too.

Scrolling a Message on a Building in a Time Lapse Video

[Saulius Lukse] has a really interesting way of turning a couple of buildings into his own addressable display. The effect is not seen in real life, but is a clever video rendering with stock he pulled from time-lapse cameras. Now if you want to play Tetris using the windows of a building you add wireless lightbulbs to every window. But that’s a lot of work. You can fake playing Tetris (or scrolling messages in this case) if you just show a video of the buildings and swap in your own image manipulation.


[Saulius] starts with a time lapse sequence of a city scape. It needs to be one with a large building or two to provide a good scrolling surface. The building is extracted from the scene with the background transparent. The really time consuming part is creating a distinct image with one window lit for each window that is going to be used. This set of windows are the ‘pixels’ used to create the scrolling images. This is accomplished by masking out one image of the building with every office light turned off, then masking out each window individually with the office illuminated. This masking means everything going on around the building (traffic, weather, people) will be preserved, while the windows can be individually manipulated.

Next the program jinx is used to create the building animation. This program is designed to create scrolling messages on LED panels. [Saulius] provides a Python script that takes the images, the output of jinx, and combines them to create the final set of moving images.

The result is a city wishing you a “Happy New Year!”

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Building Things with Lean Pipe

Sometimes you just want to build something quickly and easily. Maybe you just need a basic structure for your actual project, or perhaps you want to be able to easily modify the design. Maybe you don’t have access to many fancy tools to build a solid, lightweight structure. Another possibility is that you want to be able to break down your structure and move it at a later date. In cases like these, you might want to consider using lean pipe.

Lean pipe is kind of like K’NEX for adults. It’s made up of metal pipe and specialized fittings. If you’ve ever worked with PVC pipe before then this may sound familiar. The difference is lean pipe is stronger and designed specifically for building sturdy structures. The fixtures designed for use with lean pipe are much easier to work with than PVC pipe. With PVC pipe, it seems like you never have the exact right fitting and you have to build your own adapters, quickly increasing the cost of the design.

A typical lean pipe fitting will either slide over the end of a section of pipe, or wrap around it somewhere in the middle. An adjustment screw can then be tightened to clamp the fitting in place around the sections of pipe. The video below does a good job demonstrating the different possibilities with fittings. The primary issue with this material is that you might not be able to find it at your local hardware store. Luckily, a quick Internet search will turn up a number of online purchasing options.

So what can you build with this stuff? Cody has been building himself computer desks with an industrial look. He first starts out with the frame design. This is the part that’s made from the lean pipe. Once the frame is completed he just needs to work on the wood surfaces. All he really needs to do is cut the wood to shape and then finish it to look nice. It then lays in place and can be bolted down for extra security. Continue reading “Building Things with Lean Pipe”

Skyscraper Tetris Lets the City Know how Good or Bad You Are

If you’ve clocked one-too-many hours at Tetris, it might be time to show the world your skills on this skyscraper-sized display on the Shell Centre in London. [Benjamin], [Tom], and their “army of volunteers” took to the Shell building and assembled their super-screen from a collection of 182 networked wireless lightbulbs, some tracing paper, and mylar to create a playable interface from the Jubilee Gardens below.

[Benjamin] doesn’t deliver many of the technical details on his post, but he does give us an overview. He achieves full wireless coverage of all floors by spacing out 14 TP-Link WR702n routers, each running the same version of OpenWRT. This interface wasn’t [Benjamin’s] first choice, as he would’ve preferred to tap into the building’s existing wireless network; unfortunately, he was left without support from the building’s network team. Equipped with a large donation of wireless bulbs controlled by a central bridge, [Benjamin’s] Python-adaptation of Tetris can refresh the building about about 1-to-2 frames per second. Given his description of the bulb interface, we suspect he’s using the all-too-familiar Philips Hue smart lightbulbs to illuminate the building.

In case you haven’t heard of Faraday’s Christmas Lectures, they’re the UK’s nationally broadcasted “science special” featured at the end of the year and founded in 1825 by [Michael Faraday] himself. The goal of these Lectures is to introduce young people to some aspect from the sciences. We’ve seen giant Tetrises before, but not in a way that inspires such a young audience. We’re thrilled to see that hacking both in software (Python, LAN networks) and hardware (ZigBee, OpenWRT) made the cut for this year’s special. After all, why should MIT keep all the fun to themselves?

If the building-scale is just too big for your taste, why not have a go on your oscilloscope?

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Power Index Window Display turns buildings into LED matrices

What started off as a fun project using light bulbs picked up some sponsorship and is going on tour. This project now uses LED modules controlled on the 2.4 GHz band to turn buildings into full color displays. It’s the product of students at Wrocław University of Technology in Poland. The group is something of an extra-curricular club that has been doing this sort of thing for years. But now they’ve picked up some key sponsorships which not only allowed for upgraded hardware, but sent the group on a tour of Universities around Europe. Who would’ve thought you could go on tour with something like this?

Much like the MIT project we looked at in April, this lights up the dark rooms of a grid-like building. It does go well beyond playing Tetris though. The installation sets animations to music, with a custom animation editor so that you can submit your own wares for the next show. Don’t miss the lengthy performance after the break.

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MIT Students take Tetris to a grand scale

Careful, this hack might foster doubts about the level of fun you’re having at you own Computer Science department. Last weekend a group of students at MIT pulled off a hack of great scale by turning a building into a Tetris game board.

The structure in question is the Green Building on the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Campus. It houses the Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Departments, but was chose based on the size and regularity of the grid formed by the windows on one side. The group hasn’t provided much in the way of details yet, but the video after the break shows the game play and start-up screen. The middle portion of the building is used as a scrolling marquee to display the word “Tetris” before the game pieces start falling. We’re only guessing (and we hope you will add your conjecture in the comments section) but we’d bet they assembled a set of wireless RGB LED lamps and set one on the sill of each window. There does seem to be a number of ‘dead’ pixels, but it doesn’t diminish the fun of the overall effect.

If you don’t have your own building to play on, you should go small-scale and implement Tetris on a character display.

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Tetris on a building

Around a year ago, a bunch of blinkenlights were installed in the HCI-Building of ETH Zürich. These LED spots weren’t interactive and only showed hardcoded patterns. Of course a bunch of LEDs demand interactivity, so for the first-semester party this year a giant game of Tetris was built on the side of a building.

There’s no official build log, but from what we’ve learned, the LEDs are connected to a DMX controller that is in turn plugged into a computer and the University’s ethernet. For the command and control of the Tetris game, a USB joystick was connected to an old Dell that was pulled out of the junk pile.

The software for the project, LED side of the project was written in Visual C++ reusing old Tetris routines and example code from the DMX controller. For the controller portion, everything was written in C. The controller simply dumps chars into a TCP port on the second computer. While the Tetris board was only 3 pixels wide, there was a fairly massive queue of people wanting to play.