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Now its finished, its clear that the idea of ‘Travel by Tube’ came from the recent adverts on London’s tube trains with large text saying ‘STARING’ and more recently also ‘PRESSING’ or ‘TOUCHING’. While the intention is to avoid distressing sexual advances the ads are also scarily ‘big brother’. Apart from the impossibility of proving this sort of thing, I found it personally disturbing because I really enjoy looking at other people on the tube. Such a rich variety, its always fascinating. When I was a cartoonist and needed inspiration for new characters, I would often travel by tube to find an interesting character to study closely – trying not to stare too obviously. I would then get off and draw them from memory on the platform when they were fresh in my mind. They weren’t exactly portraits, just details that captured something of what had interested me in their character.

However, though I’d been thinking about these new ads, which mainly made me feel old and out of touch, it never occurred to me that they could be the subject of the next arcade machine. Travel by Tube actually had a completely different starting point. For a while I’ve been bothered how complicated my arcade machines have become. I can’t seem to resist adding ‘bells and whistles’ – even though people enjoy my earlier simpler machines just as much. So this year I set myself the task of making something simple. As a kid I loved a series of books called the ‘Wonderbooks’. In particular I loved the flyleaves. The front flyleaf depicts some idyllic scene and the rear one shows every element of the same scene descended into chaos. Revisiting the originals I found they weren’t nearly as good as I remembered them, but I still thought 3d versions of a scene flipping into chaos had potential, particularly with audio to build up the suspense before the flip. I tried a building site with Health and Safety inspectors who all met with disasters but wasn’t happy with it. Then I thought maybe different elements of a scene could flip independently. Or that the initial scene should have two alternative outcomes. The basic problem though was that I just couldn’t find a suitable subject that really gripped me.

Wonderbook front flyleaf

Wonderbook back flyleaf

So I was stuck. I’d spent the winter making videos (more Secret Lives of Components). Though delighted by their enthusiastic reception, I’m not a natural film maker. After making five hour long episodes I really needed to stop and make something physical – anything really. Fortunately desperation is the mother of invention so I soon found a starting point. While worrying how to fit three scenes for alternative outcomes in a small box, I’d made a mock-up which had the shape of a tube train.

This was the moment I realised the weird new ads in an animated Tube train could be good territory. Travelling by tube is a part of everyday life most people take for granted but I find it rich, fascinating and often weird. If I lived in London I guess it would lose its novelty, but I only come about about once a fortnight, enough of a gap for the experience to remain fresh. One of weird things about the new ads is that they ignore much more common uncomfortable situations.

The most common embarrassing moment on the tube is when a beggar gets on. Like almost everyone else I avert my eyes and ignore them. I wish I didn’t, but have found it really hard not to. I think its the fear of being picked on even though its very unlikely. Anyway its certainly an awkward and people don’t talk about it much. The opposite happens when dogs or particularly puppies get on. Passengers turn to look and often even start talking to each other.



For my automata passengers, the challenge was to find body movements that could express both attraction and repulsion by them moving in opposite directions. I made a rough prototype in a couple of days and then tried filming it as stop motion animation. I didn’t really like the result and almost abandoned the whole idea until I added the sounds of a real tube train. Somehow this transformed it and this gave me the confidence to spend three months making the final thing.

Prototype video 

The final characters on the train aren’t portraits of any particular individuals. Each one is a mix of many people I’ve observed, selecting elements that fit carvings on this small scale. I carved the first ones out of Jellutong, a wood with wonderfully straight grain but not much harder than Balsa wood. I then switched to Lime wood, which is harder and actually much more suitable for this scale. The carved people looked nice unpainted but too much like fine art. Painting them was nerve wracking but transformed them into the cartoon characters I wanted.

Technically, I found making the machine both frustratingly fiddly but also fascinating in that such different solutions are needed when everything drops down a scale. So lots of satisfying problem solving was involved. Simple mechanical elements like bearings, cranks and linkages all had to be re-thought. I won’t know whether I got it right until the machine has been used many thousand times. I also had to use smaller motors than I’m used to. On this scale there’s a choice between beautiful very expensive German ones and very cheap Chinese ones. I so love the German ones (Maxon and Faulhauber) that I spent a long time on Ebay searching for second hand ones – I’m still sad I never found any with the right speed range for the train doors – they still move too fast, but I don’t think anyone else will notice too much!

I also had to reduce the scale of the PLC, control panel, electronics and sound system. Fortunately I’d been playing with bluetooth speaker systems last year, working out how they get such good quality loud sound from tiny boxes - basically speaker drivers with longer travel to shift more air, combined with passive diaphragms. These diaphragms look like speaker cones but are just rubber rings with metal disks in the centre. They make better use of the changing air pressures inside the speaker enclosure to move more air outside the enclosure (making the sound louder).

Once I added the electrics it all got quite complex inside - it was no longer my original idea for a simple machine. I had to use a smaller lower spec PLC controller than I’ve used recently. Though time consuming, iIt was actually a good lesson in efficient programming. I’ve always so admired the tiny 48k size of the memory in the Apollo moon landing missions’ computer.


When I wrote this, the machine was about to go on the pier to find out to see how people react. At the time I had mixed feelings about it all (I often do at this point). The positive was realising it was a return to my childhood fascination for the ‘working models’ that were in all amusement arcades at the time. Subjects like ‘The Miser’s Dream’ and ‘The drunk in the Graveyard’. Like my Wonderbook flyleaves, these aren’t as good as my childhood memories of them, but today’s technology makes so much more possible. The negative is that I’m not sure how much my months of work added to the initial stop motion animation. In the 1980s advertising companies would sometimes would show me ‘animatics’ of a TV commercial they were pitching for. At the time I remember vividly thinking the rough and ready animatics were so much more lively than the finished ads.

Once on the pier it had a small teething problem, but fixing it was depressing. Overhearing the laughter and energy of people using the other machines made the tube train seem just too mild in comparison. I did see a few people enjoying it but still brought it home again after a couple of weeks on the pier. Tessa (my sister and often muse) suggested returning to a previous idea of choosing the outcome. Together we came up with the idea of renaming it ‘EYE CONTACT’. And getting the user to simply chose ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Technically this was all very fiddly. In the very small space I had to swap the PLC for a newer one that had more programming steps. Then I had to re-assign the outputs to create new ones to switch the audio tracks and the ‘YES’ ‘NO’ push button lights. I also had to radically change the PLC program – which became a lot more complicated. And it now needed more than one audio track – again a problem with the limited outputs of any PLC I could retrofit in the space. But when I finally finished, it did feel a big improvement. Rather than the previous passive experience it was now more like my ‘Pet or Meat’ machine where the user is implicated in the decision making. It was also clear that it would fit better in London at Novelty Automation, where most visitors arrive by tube.

I finally installed it in late November and it immediately fitted in perfectly. It had finally found its home - so satisfying after all the earlier struggles.





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