Useless Machine For An Existential Quandary

There’s no project that dives into existential quandaries more than a useless machine, as they can truly illustrate the futility of existence by turning themselves off once they have been powered on. Typically this is done with a simple switch, but for something that can truly put the lights out, and then re-illuminate them, [James]’s latest project is a useless machine that performs this exercise with a candle.

The project consists of two arms mounted on a set of gears. One arm has a lighter on it, and the other has a snuffer mounted to a servo motor. As the gears rotate, the lighter gets closer to the candle wick and lights it, then the entire assembly rotates back so the snuffer can extinguish the flame. Everything is built around an Arduino Nano, a motor driver powering a Pitman gear motor, and a set of Hall effect sensors which provide position data back to the microcontroller.

If you’re in the mood for a little existential angst in your own home, [James] has made the project files available on his GitHub page. We always appreciate a useless machine around here, especially a unique design like this one, and one which could easily make one recognize the futility of lighting a candle at all.

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Slippy Slapper Uselessly Uses All The Arduinos

Want to take that annoyingly productive coworker down a notch? Yeah, us too. How dare they get so much done and be so happy about it? How is it possible that they can bang on that keyboard all day when you struggle to string together an email?

The Slippy Slapper is a useless machine that turns people into useless machines using tactics like endless distraction and mild physical violence. It presses your buttons by asking them to press buttons for no reason other than killing their productivity. When they try to walk away, guess what? That’s another slappin’. Slippy Slapper would enrage us by proxy if he weren’t so dang cute.

You’re right, you don’t need an Arduino for this. For peak inefficiency and power consumption, you actually need four of them. One acts as the master, and bases its commands to the other three on the feedback it gets from Slippy’s ultrasonic nostrils. The other three control the slappin’ servos, the speakers, and reading WAV files off of the SD card. Slap your way past the break to see Slippy Slapper’s slapstick demo.

Need to annoy a group of coworkers all at once? Slip a big bank of useless machines into the conference room while it’s being set up.

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A Useless Tomb Of Eternal Doom

It’s officially October, and that means we can start unleashing the Halloween hacks. Take for example this restless skeleton that master automaton maker [Greg Zumwalt] has doomed to spend eternity inside of a useless box. If that wasn’t enough to wake the dead, every time some joker pushes the button, these blinky lights come on. Hey, at least there’s no opera music.

The ironic thing about useless machines is that there are a ton of ways to make them. This spooktacular Halloween-themed do-nothing box doesn’t use a microcontroller, or even a 555 — it’s purely electromechanical. When the button is pressed, two AAAs power a small gear motor that simultaneously lifts the lid, raises the dead, and twists him a quarter turn so he can close the lid and put himself back to eternal rest.

The intricately-printed skeleton doesn’t really push the button — he’s far too dead and frail for that. The gear motor also turns a dual-lobe cam that activates a pair of roller switches that handle the candles and lower Mr. Bones back into his crypt. Clear as blood? Skitter past the break for a closer look at the mechanism.

Halloween or not, we love a good useless machine around these parts. Here’s one that incorporates a real candle and who could forget this octo-switched beast?

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New Useless Machine Does The Twist

Useless machines might not do any work or produce anything of value on their own, but they can be a great learning tool, and are often beautifully crafted as an expression of the builder’s artistic talents. By and large, they consist of a switch to turn the machine on, and an arm that switches the machine back off in response to this. Vladimir had a different take, and built this twisting vase useless machine instead.

The build references the twisting vases we saw recently – [Vladimir] loved the way they so elegantly opened and closed, and decided to base the build around that. The useless part of the machine is the lifting mechanism – a servo turns a pulley, which uses a magnet on a rope to lift the vase. Upon reaching a certain point, the vase drops, and the magnet is once again lowered to lift it back up again.

The first prototype used a simple delay-based timing loop to determine when to drop the magnet again, however over time this would fall out of sync with the vase’s position and the magnet would fail to attach to the vase. For the second version, [Vladimir] improved things by using a limit switch to determine the position of the vase instead of running on timing alone. The machine’s frame was also rebuilt using copper pipe, which allowed the wires and servo to be hidden from sight. The second revision of the project shows the difference polish can make – differences like these make the machine more suitable for display as a curio in a stylish home setting, rather then a messy project that lives on the workbench only.

Be sure to check out the video of the project below the break. For a simpler useless machine, check out this build. 
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Simple Marble Machine Captivates The Eyes

Marble machines are the kind of useless mechanisms that everybody loves. Their sole purpose is to route marbles through different paths for your viewing pleasure. They can be extremely complicated contraptions, and sometimes that is the precisely the point. However, even a simple mechanism can be delightful to watch. [Denha] just uploaded his latest creation, using a spring as elevator and a simple zig-zag path.

The construction is relatively simple, a spring with the appropriate pitch for the steel balls size is used as an elevator. The spring is driven by a small electric motor via a couple of gears, and a wooden zig-zag path for the marbles lies next to the spring. The marbles go up with the spring and return in the wooden path in an endless journey.

We believe that a serious hacker should build a marble machine at least once in their life. We have posted several of them, from simple ones to other more complicated designs that require careful craftsmanship. [Denha]’s Youtube channel is full of good ideas to inspire your first project. In any case, watching a marble machine at work is quite a nice, relaxing experience.

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World’s Biggest, Most Useless AI Machine

In a time when we’re inundated with talk of an impending AI apocalypse it’s nice to see an AI that’s intentionally useless. That AI is HAL 9000. No, not the conflicted HAL from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey but the World’s Biggest AI Useless Machine HAL built by [Rafael], [Mickey] and [Eyal] for GeekCon 2016 in Israel.

Standing tall, shiny and black, the box it’s housed in reminds us a bit of the monolith from the movie. But, in a watchful position near the top is HAL’s red eye. As we approach, HAL’s voice from the movie speaks to us asking “Just what do you think you’re doing, Dave?” as the eye changes diameter in keeping with the speech’s amplitude. And at the bottom is a bright, yellow lever marked ON, which of course we just have to turn off. When we do, a panel opens up below it and a rod extends upward to turn the lever back to the ON position.

Behind the scenes are two Arduinos. One Arduino manages servos for the panel and rod as well as playing random clips of HAL from the movie. The other Arduino uses the Arduino TVout library to output to a projector that sits behind the red diffuser that is the eye. That Arduino also takes input from a microphone and based on the amplitude, has the projector project a white circle of corresponding diameter, making the eye’s appearance change. You can see all this in action in the video after the break.

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The Most Useless Book Scanner

How do artificial intelligences get so intelligent? The same way we do, they get a library card and head on over to read up on their favorite topics. Or at least that’s the joke that [Jakob Werner] is playing with in his automaton art piece, “A Machine Learning” (Google translated here).

Simulating a reading machine, a pair of eyeballs on stalks scan left-right and slowly work their way down the page as another arm swings around and flips to the next one. It’s all done with hand-crafted wooden gears, in contrast to the high-tech subject matter. It’s an art piece, and you can tell that [Jakob] has paid attention to how it looks. (The all-wooden rollers are sweet.) But it’s also a “useless machine” with a punch-line.

Is it a Turing test? How can we tell that the machine isn’t reading? What about “real” AIs? Are they learning or do they just seem to be? OK, Google’s DeepMind is made of silicon and electricity instead of wood, but does that actually change anything? It’s art, so you get license to think crazy thoughts like this.

We’ve covered a few, less conceptual, useless machines here. Here is one of our favorite. Don’t hesitate to peruse them all.