June 3, 2010
Think Carnegie Mellon's Spring Carnival is just kids' stuff? Not so. Any ECE students involved in their organizations' booth design and building will tell you that they put their education to work right in the Morewood Gardens Parking Lot.
Juniors Robert Waaser and Sam Russell are just two of many ECE students who think booth is serious stuff. In fact, their adventures in "Real Life Booth ECE," as they call it, helped fraternity Phi Kappa Theta nab both top prize in the Fraternities category and the Chairman's Choice Award for their Robo Rome booth at this year's festivities.
It took plenty of engineering behind the scenes to make Robo Rome's futuristic coliseum filled with flashing lights and robots possible. And Waaser and Russell - the two main ECE students in their house - were the ones who did it. Waaser designed the game, and Russell took care of the booth's wiring and elaborate lighting scheme.
In the game, players revived a broken robot whose open chest cavity was filled with wires and switches. Players manipulated those switches to create a path of glowing wires between green and blue arrows on opposite sides of the robot's chest. When a player completed a path from one triangle to the other, music played and the robot's arms lit up as if it had come alive.
Waaser said he enjoyed designing the game because it called on both his ECE and computer science skills. "It was actually computer-controlled. There was a PC sitting behind the scenes, and I wrote a program for that. It sent outputs to actual electrical circuitry that converted the information to lights and sound."
While Waaser worked on the game, Russell designed the booth's lighting system. All told, there were more than 100 light fixtures in the entire booth - and wiring it was no small feat.
"Each pillar of three windows was wired on a separate circuit through a relay," Russell said, "And we ran control lines through from relays down to a common control room." To add an element of cool to the lighting, Russell rigged them up to flash in patterns. "I made two shift registers, just to have kind of a walking pattern in opposite directions," he said. "Then I made combinational logic to do the set and reset lines to get them to go in a couple different patterns." They also placed buttons on the side of the booth that passersby could press to change the lighting pattern.
Not too far away from the Phi Kap booth, ECE freshman Alex Klarfeld and junior Joel Feinstein were up to their elbows in LEDs in Alpha Epsilon Pi's booth, AEPirates. AEPi's homage to the Pittsburgh Pirates looked like a miniature PNC Park from the outside and featured replicas of historical memorabilia, but to Feinstein and Klarfeld, it was all game, all the time.
That game was baseball, but in an old-school pinball kind of way. Players stepped up to a miniature PNC Park, filled with ramps and holes that represented outs, singles, doubles, etc. When the player pulled a string, a ball erupted from a chute and the player hit it with a bat that pivoted on an axle. Depending on where the ball went, the scoreboard recorded the strike, ball, hit or out.
To make everything work, Feinstein and Klarfeld installed a grid of infrared detectors wired to the microprocessor. When a ball rolled past the infrared sensor, it blocked the interference to the sensor and sent the microprocessor a message that a light had been blocked on a certain gate, giving the player an out, single, double, etc., depending on the value of the hole the ball entered. They also used nearly a thousand LEDs to create a scoreboard.
"The whole scoreboard depicted the playing field, so all the LEDs were lit up green for the field and white for the bases. Once that was done, we had entire LEDs that were shaped like baseballs that would turn on for balls and strikes. The score was lit up by LEDs. Everything was LEDs," Klarfeld said.
Both teams of ECErs drew on their coursework as they worked on their booths. But they also felt that building booth helped them extend their ECE knowledge beyond what they learned in class.
"There's definitely real-world engineering that comes with the kind of design and project implementation that booth mimics on a smaller scale," Waaser said. "That's why I love booth. It lets us supplement our education in the classroom with hands-on experience."
And that's not kid's stuff.