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.   hunkin





 This collecting box had a particularly slow birth. Within a few months of installing my previous Guy’s hospital collecting box in 2003, I was approached by the Friends of St Thomas’. I was busy at the time and said I would get some designs to them in a few months. I mentioned this in is passing to Karen Sarkissian, the director of art and heritage for both hospitals, and she was horrified, and said it had to wait until she had sorted out the politics - where it could be placed etc. A year went by. When the contract finally arrived I had embarked on my Nesta fellowship, so it got delayed by another year. I finally started work in October 2005. Four months later, it was finished, but the National Health Service was in a funding crisis. It finally got installed on June 21st 2006.

 My initial idea was to make another game using coins. I tried hospital cleaners sweeping coins off a moving belt….but it didn’t quite work out. Then Karen suggested trying something related to lifts as the box was going to be placed by the hospital’s main lifts (the hospital is a tower block). At Guy’s I’d had to wait for the lifts to get down to the basement to go to the toilet and been entertained by people stabbing the lift call buttons constantly and the gamble of guessing which of the eight lifts would arrive first. So the basic idea of combining a fruit machine with a bank of lifts came almost immediately – though puzzling out the details took ages. 


One of the most useful things about experience, having made things all my life, is the sense of which decisions need to be made before starting construction, and those that are best left until its half built. Although the drawing I did before signing the contract looks fairly set, in my mind I still hadn’t decided the mechanism, or quite how much like the fruit machine reels the floor numbers should look. I also had little idea what style the figures would be as my only experience of making figures this scale was the collection box I’d made for the Pitt Rivers museum, 12 years ago, and they were in the style of primitive carvings which wouldn’t really be suitable. I was also straying into the relm of proper ‘automata’, which I’d avoided in the past as it can so easily be twee.

 I started by fixing the scale for the figures. My first thought was for the lift cars to move sideways together, so different scenes could be revealed behind each door. This limited the size of the figures to 250mm and allowed only 5 scenes. Moving the lifts vertically seemed more like real lifts, and allowed 9 scenes and 300mm tall figures. This immediately made my life simpler, as I had been wondering about having the fruit machine mechanism visible, above the lifts – but now the space was fully occupied. 

 Fed up with thinking, I bought a large lump of Jelutong, the wood traditionally used for engineering pattern making (for sand casts) because of its straight grain and ease of carving. I drew the front view and the side view of a matron and cut them out on my bandsaw. (After cutting the first section, I stuck the bits back together with masking tape to provide a flat surface to cut the second section).


I made matron in less than a day, and she had a certain presence, so I felt I was off to a good start. I then spent some time drawing people at the hospital. Everyone was just walking past so I tried to memorise details and then draw them, or just write down elements that caught my eye. The drawings were ghastly, but they were full of useful ideas that could be distilled into the various characters I carved. One thing I decided was important about my matron was that she did not have obvious joints to break up the shapes of her head or body. This meant, for instance, that her head could move from side to side, but not up and down. Disjointed figures I realised was an aspect of automata – and puppets - I definitely disliked.

 The look of the figures obviously depended on the lighting inside the lift cars, so I built a model car to place my matron inside. I convinced myself it was best to keep light off the back wall of the lift so she needed intense side and top lighting, from compact fluorescent lamps. Positioning the lamps, the door mechanism and the floor indicators together was a squash so the model was useful.

 The model also got me thinking about how to make the lift surrounds. The style of the matron figure I’d made gave me the idea that everything should be simplified and stylised.  This idea, combined with enthusiasm for my latest favourite tool, my deluxe Fronius tig welder, made me try fabricating the surround from stainless steel plate, bent and welded together. Very satisfying.

With the model set, Graham made the frame for the whole machine in a less than a week.

 Deciding how to do the floor indicators developed into another whole saga. I toyed with the idea of programming my own scrolling LED display – I courted companies that made real lift displays – but no product seemed quite right. As I’d recently been playing with stepper motors for another job, I eventually decided to have stepper motors powering disks with the floor numbers round the circumference, backlit by LEDs. No option was easy and I did spend several weeks getting my idea to work. What I liked about the finished effect was that it didn’t look completely real, just some weird approximation to reality. Of course the downside will be that stepper motors, working all day, will never last as long as LEDs. I’m lucky I only have to make one of anything – if I was making lots I would have gone in a more conservative direction.


I also had to program the lift indicators. I wanted to have some sort of pattern so people could predict which lift would arrive if they had the patience. People who play real fruit machines often search for patterns in the outcomes of the reels.  

When I sent Karen my initial drawing, I’d thought that only the figures that appeared when you’d won (when you’d guessed the right lift to arrive) would  move. But as I was drawing people in the hospital, I kept thinking of them moving, and decided it would only take an extra week or two to motorise them all. As they neared completion, I still wasn’t sure how to finish them – matron was getting very dirty from my hands, dirty from all the metalwork. I eventually felt I wanted a change from my previous natural wood figures and painted matron with thin, pastel, acrylic paint. Still not really sure, I painted all the others. I now like the effect – more like cartoons, less like fine art.   

Nearing completion, I started fretting about the caterer. If you guess right, a nurse comes out of the left lift to sooth you, and a cleaner comes out of the central lift to clean you up. The caterer appears with food. The problem was he almost immediately has to snatch the food away again so the lift doors can close. 


When I finally started trying the game out with everyone who happened to visit, the caterer didn’t bother anyone but there were more serious problems. The idea of the game didn’t seem quite intuitive enough – people often started by pressing buttons at random, not even looking at the lift floor indicators. They also didn’t really distinguish between losing and winning. I changed the program so it made a satisfying winning noise and improved the wording of the instructions but was still nervous. However, it wasn’t all bad. After a few goes they got the hang of it and then seemed really hooked. Several children played with it for over half an hour. I found that if you played it constantly, it got in a sort of loop so you could never see all nine scenes. So I spend two days reprogramming it to get round this problem, but it made the program less logical and harder to follow, so I now rather regret it.

 Just when the box was ready to be delivered, I was told the hospital trust needed to ‘sign off’ the project and that there would be a delay. Though no one actually admitted it, I’m sure the delay was because the NHS was in a funding crisis which was making headlines in the tabloid papers every day. If something so elaborate and inessential as my box had appeared at that moment it could easily have been attacked as both a shameful waste of cash and as the NHS resorting to collecting pennies from patients. The money for the box actually comes not from the NHS but from the hospitals’ charitable foundation, which has a brief to improve the hospital environment, but there was the worry that the papers wouldn’t make the distinction. Personally, I’m sure the box is worth every penny, making people laugh improves the whole atmosphere of the waiting areas, and provides some small thing that kids can look forward to when visiting, let alone the cash it raises.  

It was a sensible decision to delay its delivery though frustrating for me at the time. After a couple of months, thinking it might be a year or more before they relented, I changed the graphics and put it in my arcade on Southwold Pier.  More humiliation as most people just ignored it – much more fun to have an ‘instant weightloss’ or to ‘rentadog’ than to see the workings of the NHS! I tweaked the program again, finding a way of forcing people to wait until the floor indicators were static before making their choice. A definite improvement but overall, still disappointing.


It had only been on the pier for about 6 weeks when the hospital finally accepted delivery. Graham and I drove it to London on June 21st, midsummers day. It was an awkward heavy lump to move. While loading it to move it to the pier the ramp had collapsed and while taking it to London the straps broke on the sharp edges of the hire van’s bars, sending the whole box careering around. Miraculously it wasn’t harmed by either of these incidents, but we arrived at the hospital completely exhausted. We switched it on and could quickly see it was a lot more effective than it had been in my arcade. There were no other more alluring machines to distract them and people seemed to recognise all the characters. 


My main reaction was simply relief that I could finally move on to future projects without it hanging over me. As I write, only a week after delivery, it’s still too soon to have any objective view of how well it serves its function. I fear that the game will never be as intuitive than the Guy’s nurse game but I’m still quite proud of it. It is just as addictive once people have got the idea and the lifts look a lot more decorative than the nurse!   

June 2007
Its not going well. Predictably there have been teething problems, mostly caused by the warm dry atmosphere and my rash use of 10mm ply instead of 12mm. The ply is warping and even the steel frame has moved a bit. The lifts have been grinding against the frame as they move and one set of doors has started intermittently missing its position sensors. This has finally just caused a door drive belt to snap. At the moment I'm still hopeful I'll be able to get everything adjusted for the climate and make it more reliable. 

Worse than the technical problems though is that its still not engaging enough. I changed the graphics a few months ago to liven it up, but that made little difference. Children are drawn to it but not adults, even though once a child tries it, the adults get involved too. I fear it maybe just too complicated for its own good.    

June 2009
Its been moved to a new location. Its now further from the real hospital lifts, in a main corridor. Lots of people walk past though not many stop to use it. However, it is a better place. By the cafe, people were too keen to get their food, here its more relaxed. People now quite often stop to talk to me when I'm there and it now has quite a lot of fans. So it feels like a happy ending.  




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