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Making i-Zombie


I’m not a phone zombie myself. I don’t do social media and only check my emails a couple of times a day. But my 12 year old grandson is one. It was sad seeing him gradually retreat from the physical world into his phone. When I’m on the train I often wonder exactly what people are doing on their phones, particularly in London’s tube tunnels where there’s no internet. From years peering over commuters shoulders Candy Crush (a game) comes top. Next are the many people who stare at their home screen, going in and out of apps but not sticking with anything.  My friend Louis is so bothered by being a phone zombie himself that he’s built apps to remind him how long he’s been on snapchat etc.  His latest, 11 reasons to delete your Facebook newsfeed with an app is here Louis's app to delete your Facebook newsfeed

            Phone obsession image by Antoine Geiger                                                                                                    

But actually the idea for I-Zombie didn’t start with phone addiction. A few years ago I was lucky enough to try a 1970s arcade game called Road Runner. Just pre video games, it used a semi-silvered mirror to superimpose the image of a road with the image of the car you’re driving (a pepper’s ghost effect). It was a pre computer version of augmented reality. I loved the machine and immediately decided I wanted to make a spooky version using the effect. 

I then forgot about it for several years but last summer connected it to Zombies. I’m a fan of both ‘Night of the living dead’, its sequel ‘Dawn of the Dead’ and several zero rated Zombie movies. My first thought was that the Zombies should be old people. Walking to work in San Fransisco one day I was confronted with a sea of old people filling the street - all walking slowly in the same direction - they had just been disgorged from a cruise ship. The machine would then have been a comment about how the old have all the money and block change. But then I thought of people on their phones as zombies and this had more visual potential. The wonderful light smartphones cast on people’s faces at night – and the whole machine could be a giant phone.


I started by sticking reflective window film to a bit of glass to make a semi silvered mirror. Mirrors are magic, but not easy to use well. I wanted the zombies to look a bit transparent and the figure who dodges them to look solid. At first I couldn’t work out why I always had solid zombies and transparent figures. 


It’s actually the same looking through a window. During daytime the outside world is much brighter than anything indoors so, from the indoors windows seem transparent. From outside, you often see a mix of the inside and light reflected from outside. Our brains are so good at making sense of contradictory information that we often filter out the ‘double image’. Its only in a photograph that you see the strength of the effect.


The Peppers ghost illusion was used in Victorian theatre to superimpose a ghost on a scene. More recently its been used in Disneyworld’s haunted houses. 


 Reflective film obviously increases the percentage of light reflected, so office buildings with this film look like mirrors in daylight, you can't see anything inside. Reflective film is also used for 'one way mirrors'. This is used in interrogation rooms so interrogators can watch the suspect with him being able to see them. It relies on the interrogation room being much brighter than the viewing room.   


Combining two images so both look reasonably solid is not easy. There has to be a big contrast between the lit parts and the backgrounds. So brighter lights and blacker backgrounds. My figure looked transparent because the light wasn’t bright enough. I eventually found a 7.5w, 10 degree LED that works perfectly. 

Matt black paint wasn’t black enough to remove the background. Googling the problem initially results in a lot of nonsense about scientific research on a material called ‘vanta black’ but eventually I found that people who make their own telescopes just use black flock self adhesive vinyl to absorb unwanted light. It works like velvet but is much cheaper and easier to use. With a narrow beam super bright LED I finally had a ‘solid’ figure to face the zombies.


Another problem with the mirror was the narrow viewing angle. Disney's peppers ghosts are always quite a long way away to reduce the viewing angle. But to keep everything as compact as possible it was a problem for me. Too high or too low and you can’t see the zombies. There was no way round that. I ended up with a foot stool for kids to use the machine.    


  Prototype video

I was making these prototypes in August and had lots of visitors. It was fun to have guinea pigs to try things out and discuss ideas with, but their often conflicting opinions got me quite confused. Eventually I plumped for a scale and format and started work on the final machine. It was a bit scary because I still had no idea if dodging the zombies would be a good game. It took a couple of months before I had a belt full of moving zombies and a computer to control them all. Fortunately the game worked out fine, my grandson got completely engrossed playing it at half term.   

Sam Playing video

Near the beginning I bought two parts that seemed extravagant at the time. The first (£200) was custom made ‘attachment chain’ to fix the zombie track to. In the past I’ve just welded onto ordinary chain but its hard to do precisely. In retrospect the money was well worth it. Getting the track to run smoothly was hard enough, even with the precise chain mountings – I don’t think it would have worked at all with my usual bodge. The other extravagance (£350) were the slide rails for the foot plates. These obviously had to take the weight of a heavy person, but they also needed to be as low profile as possible to reduce the trip hazard. They ended up about 20mm above the floor which may seem a lot, but the cheaper solutions I thought of would have been around 50mm.    

Home made attachment chain

Bought attachment chain

Quite late on I met up with Louis and Liam to work on the apps on the front of the phone. Louis suggested the machine should involve people’s actual phones. This got me thinking and within a couple of days I’d made a prototype of the phone holder that makes your phone disappear. At the time I still had no idea how to integrate it with the rest of the machine but felt confident it could somehow be part of it.   

Generally the construction was rather efficient. I’ve made so many machines now it’s easier to see the problems ahead and avoid them. This means I often spend a bit longer making individual parts, but even I was amazed this time how perfectly they all fitted together and worked first time.

The finished machine inside

A few days before it went on the pier I decided the game still wasn’t good enough. The zombies moved towards you at a constant speed, while you gradually slows down, making it increasingly hard to avoid bumping into them. But this made the whole game get slower and slower, which didn’t feel right. With considerable re-wiring I changed it so the figure moves at a constant speed while the zombies get faster and faster. It was well worth it, its now a much more satisfying game to play. 

On the pier the good things are that people understand the instructions, aren't too reluctant to part with their phones,  and the machine is quite popular. Less good is that most people are recovering their phone too quickly - usually a friend standing to the side sees the phone inside the holder. I think I will rebuild it without the side holes.  





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