Engineering and Artistry Meet an Untimely End at Burning Man

Burning Man is so many different things to so many people, that it defies neat description. For those who attend, it always seems to be a life-changing experience, for good or for ill. The story of one man’s Burning Man exhibition is a lesson in true craftsmanship and mind-boggling engineering, as well as how some events can bring out the worst in people.

For [Malcolm Tibbets], aka [the tahoeturner], Burning Man 2017 was a new experience. Having visited last year’s desert saturnalia to see his son [Andy]’s exhibition, the studio artist decided to undertake a massive display in his medium of choice — segmented woodturning. Not content to display a bamboo Death Star, [Malcolm] went big– really big. He cut and glued 31,000 pieces of redwood into rings of various shapes and sizes and built sculptures of amazing complexity, including endless tubes that knot and loop around and back into each other. Many of the sculpture were suspended from a huge steel tripod fabricated by [Andy], forming an interactive mobile and kinetic sculpture.

Alas, Burning Man isn’t all mellowness in the desert. People tried to climb the tripod, and overnight someone destroyed some of the bigger elements of the installation. [Malcolm] made a follow-up video about the vandalism, but you’ll want to watch the build video below first to truly appreciate the scale of the piece and the loss. Here’s hoping that [Malcolm]’s next display is treated with a little more respect, like this interactive oasis from BM 2016 apparently was.

Thanks to [Keith Olson] for the tip.

2,000 LEDs on Fire

What’s 18 feet tall, 12 feet wide, has 2,000 LEDs and turbine-driven blast furnaces? Believe it or not, it is a piece of kinetic sculpture created by [Therm] (a collective, not a person) for Burning Man 2016. The project is about 60% salvage, has a Raspberry Pi 3 helping its three human operators, and took a team of 30 about 9 months to complete.

The Raspberry Pi drives LED using fadecandy. You can see a video of the sculpture (three giant moths, to be exact) and a video about fadecandy, below. (We’ve covered a subtler fadecandy project before if you want to see a different take on it.)

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Because Burning Man Needed More LEDs

There are a lot of blinky glowy things at Burning Man every year, and [Mark] decided he would literally throw his hat into the ring. He built a high visibility top hat studded with more RGB LEDs than common sense would dictate. It’s a flashy hat, and a very good example of the fashion statement a few hundred LEDs can make.

[Mark]’s top hat has 481 WS2812b addressable LEDs studded around the perimeter, a common LED choice for bright and blinky wearables. These LEDs are driven by a Teensy 3.1, with a Bluetooth transceiver, a GPS module, a compass, and gyro/accelerometer attached to the microcontroller. That’s a lot of hardware, but it gives [Mark] the capability of having the hat react to its own orientation, point itself North, and allow for control via a modified Nintendo NES controller.

The WS2812 LEDs draw a lot of power, and for any wearable project having portable power is a chief concern. [Mark]’s original plan was to use an 8x battery holder for the electronics enclosure, and use five AA batteries to power the hat. The total idle draw of the LEDs was 4.5 Watts, and with even a few LEDs blinking colors there was a significant voltage drop. The idea of powering the hat with AA batteries was discarded and the power source was changed to a 195 Watt-hour lithium ion battery bank that was topped off each day with a solar panel.

The hat is awesome, exceedingly bright, and something that gets a lot of attention everywhere  it goes. For indoor use, it might be too bright, but this could be fixed with the addition of a bit of black stretchy fabric, like what our own [Mike Szczys] did for his DEF CON hat. [Mark]’s hat is just version 1, and he plans on making a second LED hat for next year.

Sex and Blinky LEDs At Burning Man

[Bunnie] was at Burning Man this year, and to illuminate his camp members in the dark and dusty nights of the playa, he created a blinky badge. This isn’t just any badge stuffed with RGB LEDs; each of the badges were unique by the end of Burning Man. These badges were made unique not by twiddling dials or pressing buttons; all the color patterns were bred with badge sex.

This social experiment to replicate nature’s most popular means of creating more nature is built around a peer to peer radio. Each badge is equipped with a radio, a circle of RGB LEDs, and a bit of code that expresses the pattern of lights on the badge as a sequence of genes. When one badge gives consent to another badge, they ‘breed’, creating a new pattern of lights. If you’re wondering about the specifics of the act, each badge is a hermaphrodite, and each badge transmits a ‘sperm’ to fertilize the other plant’s ‘egg’. There’s even a rare trait included in the genome of the badge; each badge has a 3% chance of having a white pixel that moves around the circle of LEDs. [Bunnie] found this trait was more common after a few days, suggesting that people were selectively breeding their badges.

Of course, finding potential mates is a paramount concern for any sexual organism, and the sex badge has this covered, too. The 900MHz radio listens for other badges in close proximity, and when any are found their owners are displayed on an OLED display. This came in handy for [Bunnie] more than a few times – there’s no phones out there, and simply knowing your friends are within a hundred meters or so is a big help.

The entire badge platform is documented online, along with the code and spec for badge genes. Badges with some sort of wireless communication have been around for a while, but this is the first time that communication has been used for something more than sharing contact information or implementing a chat room. It’s a great idea, and something we hope to see more of in future con badges.

Hacklet 72 – Burning Man Projects

Burning Man is almost here! In just a few days, artists, hackers, makers, and engineers will converge on the Black Rock Desert in northern Nevada. They’ll endure the heat, the dust, and possibly a few bugs to create one of the largest outdoor art festivals in the world. Every year, the playa is covered with art cars, giant rolling barges, and fire-breathing animals covered in RGB LEDs. With so many projects to work on, it’s no surprise that quite a few members (and Hackaday staffers) are burners. This week’s Hacklet is about some of the best Burning Man projects on!

thedeepWe start with [David Nghiem] and “The Deep” – DC’s Sonic Jellyfish Art Cart. There’s just something calming about a watching a luminescent jellyfish floating serenely through the dark ocean. [David] and his team are recreating that effect in the desert with The Deep. They’re hanging a giant jellyfish in front of a golf cart. The medusa will be festooned with yards of silk and other types of fabric to create a flowing effect. Lighting will come from 8 RGB LED strips, controlled by 15 Teensy LCs. The Teensys will keep the lights flashing to the beat of the music. Burners can dance inside the sculpture, because this jellyfish thankfully has no sting.

anglerfishBicycles are the preferred mode of personal transportation at Burning Man. As you might imagine, it can be pretty hard to find your bike among all the other parked cycles. [Bob Baddeley] has made this a bit easier with Anglerfish for Bikes. Real anglerfish have an illicium, which is a stalk with a lighted tip that hangs just in front of their mouth. The bioluminescent light lures prey to the fish. [Bob] is using an RGB LED illuminated ball to lure him to his bike. This anglerfish started life as a blinky globe from Amazon. [Bob] removed the original electronics and replaced them with a Bluetooth radio on his own custom PCB. A simple press of a button gets the ball shimmering and blinking, leading [Bob] to his ride.

danceNext up is [Jeremy] with Interactive Disco Dance Floor. Inspired by Saturday Night Fever and the music video for Billy Jean, [Jeremy] is creating a dance floor that responds to those dancing on it. The floor is lit by 80 meters of 5050 RGB LEDs, controlled by ATmega168s. The ATmega168’s are connected to a capacitive sensor made up of a chicken wire grid. The system is sensitive enough to pick up feet even when wearing thick motorcycle boots. All the processors connect to a central computer via an RS-485 network. This allows the computer to take over and drive pre-programmed patterns to the floor. The PC side code is written in JavaScript, so it’s easy to modify.

jacketFinally, we have’s own [Jasmine] with Glow Jacket. Walking around at night in Black Rock City can be dangerous. People running from party to party, high cyclists flying across the playa, you never know who might run into you! Having something to make sure you’re visible is a great start of a project. Keeping warm through the cold nights in the desert would be an added bonus. [Jasmine] sewed 32 feet of electroluminescent (EL) wire onto the back of a black parka. The wire ran to two AA battery-powered inverters hidden in the jacket. The hardest part turned out to be sewing all that EL wire to a jacket. Once all the stitching was done though, her husband [Ben] glows like a beacon in the night.


Burners unite! [Jasmine] has set the Hacker Burners project page as a meeting place for all burners and fans of Burning Man. If you’re interested, join up! If you’d like to see more Burning Man projects, I’ve got you covered with our new Burning Man project list. If I missed your project, don’t hesitate to drop me a message on That’s it for this week’s Hacklet. As always, see you next week. Same hack time, same hack channel, bringing you the best of!

A Very Bright LED Jacket

Last year, [Ytai] went to Burning Man for the first time. He was a bit inexperienced, and lacked the lumens to make him visible on the Playa. This year, he made up for it by building an extra bright LED Jacket.

The jacket consists of 48 LEDs, at 150 lumens each. Each RGB LED module was placed on its own PCB, and controlled by the tiny PIC12F1571 microcontroller. This microcontroller was a great fit since it has three PWM channels (one for each color) and costs 50 cents. Firmware on the PIC allows the boards to be daisy-chained together to reduce wiring. This was done by using a protocol similar to the popular WS2811 LEDs.

Assembling 50 of the boards presented a challenge. This was addressed by using surface mount components, a solder stencil from OSH Stencils, an electric skillet, and a good amount of patience. The final cost of each module was about $3.

With 50 of the boards assembled, a two layer jacket was sewn up. The electronics were sandwiched between these two fabric layers, which gave the jacket a clean look. A wrist mounted controller allows the wearer to select different patterns.

For a full rundown of the jacket, check out the video after the break.

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Biofeedback Flowers at Burning Man

Burning man, the premier desert-based convention, is a vacation for some. [Sam], on the other hand, points out that he is there to get his hands dirty. This year, he (with a team of six) built a set of 20 interactive lotus flowers that light up in sync with a heartbeat.

[Sam]’s biofeedback circuit is able to sense up to two heartbeats per flower. When a person’s heartbeat is detected, a set of high-power LEDs light up from the base of the stem upwards towards the petals for an incredible illuminated display of biofeedback.

The lotus flowers themselves aren’t anything to scoff at, either. They range from 8 to 18 feet high and are made out of steel and rowlux plastic. The circuit boards are all custom-made as well, with every part chosen to be as affordable as possible. The whole installation is powered by a deep-cycle marine battery and a set of 6V batteries, which can run all of the electronics in the flowers for the entire night before needing a recharge.

Burning man is a great example of art meeting technology. For other examples, check out this 2010 pyrotechnic ball, or head there yourself next August! Be sure to check out the videos and the project’s code on the project site as well.