Final Project

C'thuLulu: A Four and a Half Minute ARG.

In my application for this Fall's How To Make (Almost) Anything class, I talked about exploring digital fabrication and rapid prototyping to help expedite the creation of narrative objects – physical, tangible "things that tell stories." I rejected a number of Final Project Ideas (See: week01) before discovering the hello_radio. The design constraints inherent in the hello_radio allowed me to "play to my strengths," rather than trying to compete with people who have advanced degrees in things I’m only just beginning to understand. I knew my final project and presentation must fit squarely into what I do best. Tell lies for fun and profit. (Apologies to Lawrence Block. Please go buy his book.)

Once I'd committed to the storytelling aspect, the project achieved proper flow. I now knew what objects I needed to create, and how to develop a back story to support them. As a standard part of the class we'd been tasked with updating our weekly assignments on our personal journal pages. Several of us had taken to perusing the journal pages before assignments were due, to see who had finished early enough to write their updates already, find out how they'd done what, and perhaps even glean a clue to solving our own particular problems if we were stuck. The personal journal pages were a class resource and I knew several people would be checking them out the night before. So I used mine to plant the seeds of a mystery.

Whereas the normal content of each page would contain build documents – i.e. I made this, it used this or that tool or technique, it worked well or didn't, etc. – visitors to my Final Project page were met only with the cryptic message:




The page also displayed the official seal of MIT, The Miskatonic Institute of Technology, an agency obviously set up to examine and explore artifacts of supernatural and highly experimental origin. Any inquires the following morning were met with, "Just wait for the mission briefing, Agent," and nothing more. Calling someone "agent" without of any context is guaranteed to arouse curiosity. I also knew that we progressed through final demonstrations in alphabetical order. My name, beginning with "N," would fall nicely into the middle of the three hour period, just as people's focus and attention were beginning to wain. Each student had four and a half minutes to present his or her final project.

The time arrived. In contrast to the normal sequence of a tech demo – "Here is a thing I made. This is what it does. This is how I built it.” – I launched into full-on, Guillermo del Toro, "Senior Officer Debriefing the Agents" mode:

"At 16:00 hundred hours yesterday an American missile cruiser was lost near the city of Rabat-Sale, off the coast of Morocco. A NATO search and rescue operation failed to turn up any sign of the missing vessel. Twelve hours later a lone survivor washed up on shore clutching THIS BOX.

The survivor was unable to communicate what had happened and would only repeat the words, "The singing...the singing." He'd obviously been driven mad by his experience and exposure to the elements. However, upon seeing the seal on this box, the Moroccan government immediately contacted us.

The seal on this box is the Elder Sign of John Dee (link), court sorcerer to Queen Elizabeth I, and was, or is, used to contain only the mightiest of demons. Whatever is in this box was powerful enough to warrant the highest level of magickal security. Our records indicate this artifact is colloquially know as ‘The Box of Unspeakable Evil’ and its last known location was Venice, Italy. In 1784, Agent Thomas Jefferson botched an attempt to remove the artifact from the control of dark mages who were using its unholy abilities to wreak havoc in the region. A cover story about Jefferson smuggling rice and other botanical samples out of Italy, as well as making a ‘treaty’ with ‘Barbary’ pirates, is still taught to schoolchildren today.

The city of Rabat-Sale in 1784 was a preeminent Pirate Republic, far more sprawling and powerful than other Pirate Republics you may have heard of, like Port-au-Prince, Haiti, perhaps. In this environment of extreme liberty, dark magicks were practiced, and this artifact was one of the most powerful among them. But do not fear, the ward on this box will protect us.

We are unsure if the demon within has been awakened and it's our job to find out."

I followed this introduction with a demonstration of how to use reliquaries to control the demon in the box. After I awakened the demon (by accident, of course! How clumsy of me. As an agent of MIT, I should know better.), a small, plaintive, disturbing but oddly familiar voice emerged from the box, saying something in a strange, arcane language. I immediately grabbed the first reliquary.

"This reliquary contains the bones of St. Negroponte, the only individual ever canonized by the Vatican before he was dead. Don't ask which bones or how we got them." I placed the object at a key location on the seal marking the top of the box and commanded, "Demon! Tell me your name so that I may have power over you!" It repeated a phrase ending in "me C'thulLulu." I shifted the Reliquary of St. Negroponte to a new location on the box, turned to the players, and continued. "This talisman has only one weakness and will protect us unless the demon begins to sing...." As if on cue, because it WAS on cue, the voice from the box began to sing, serenading us with confused and twisted snatches of familiar children's songs.

"This leaves us no choice. We must force the demon to sleep using the Sands of Morpheus." I produced a brass box and shook it for the players so they could hear it rattle. "This talisman contains the distilled sleep lost by all the agents who have ever completed final projects for this class.” With a magician's flourish, I swept the Reliquary of St. Negroponte away and placed the Sands of Morpheus on The Box of Unspeakable Evil. “Sleep, Demon!” I commanded. Three snoring sounds emanated from the box and then silence. "I think we're safe, " I said. "The demon sleeps."

Throughout the rest of the Open House period, players could awaken the demon, command its different behaviors, and banish it to sleep, as often as they liked. As new players entered the game, I retold the story of how the box was discovered and delivered to MIT. Everyone seemed to enjoy listening to the tale and playing with the demon. We continued to address each other as "agents" throughout the day.

How was it all done? Would you like a peek behind the curtain? Alright, just this once.

The box itself was made on the laser cutter, using a standard "sake-cup" notching system. The Elder Sign was laser etched on the cover using raster mode. It took about 30 seconds to cut the box out of a .25" piece of plywood and about TWO HOURS to etch the Elder Sign. I was only slightly worried about using a powerful laser and computer numeric control to inscribe symbols of potent magickal power. At least the laser cutter will be safe from demons for awhile.

The Reliquary of St. Negroponte was an incense box I've had forever, but in place of the incense it normally holds, it contained a completely custom- and hand-built radio transmitter based on the design of the previous week’s homework assignment. I'd altered each of the radios I’d built to access the RSSI, or Received Signal Strength Indicator (or Index, depending on whom you ask). This is a direct measure of the energy the radio is receiving from its paired transmitter. I jumpered the RSSI strength into an available ADC, Analog to Digital Converter, which gives me a 10-bit reading, dividing the signal into 1024 discrete steps. Real-world considerations like multipath reflection, near field effect, and other noise-creating conditions meant I had to limit the range to four or five areas used to calculate the distance from one transmitter to the other.

Inside The Box of Unspeakable Evil was a second radio, programmed to receive. If it received the proper "2 bit preamble," it would run the RSSI to Distance calculation on each packet that followed. Depending on the distance it calculated, it would send a different command over an custom built Infrared Transmitter driven by the ATMega168 micro controller that also ran the radio over SPI. Since the radio takes up most of the functionality of the micro controller, I was left with a single pin capable of Pulse Width Modulation (PWM). I'd originally intended to make a set of "Heisenberg Boxes" containing a message that you could only see part of at one time, depending on which box you looked at. If you looked at one, the other would close. Everyone loves Quantum boxes, right? After two days of struggling with the controllers, though, I determined that I would never be able to run a servo via PWM over that one pin because the Timer used by that output was 8bit and my 20MHz clock rate would require massive reprogramming and endanger the radio functions. Basically, I had digital "high" signals and 3.3v to play with. About all I could do with that, I thought, was light an LED. That's when Madness struck. I realized we had Infrared LED Emitters in the Fab Lab Inventory. I could use the “high” signal to tell the LED to emit Infrared communication. If only I had something that could respond to Infrared signals...

Perhaps now would be a good time to introduce the demon that lives in the box.

Yes. It's a Furby. Now you know why it's called The Box of Unspeakable Evil. Think how many parents were driven subtly insane by the endless, saccharine chatter of these small consumer devices over the years. In fact, if you Google “Furbies,” the first suggestion is “Furbies are evil”! (Don't ask why I had three functional Furbies under my desk exactly when I needed one. I just did. Let's leave it at that.)

I trapped the Furby in a box and by reverse engineering the Furby IR protocol (with a little help from this guy), I was able to pump Infrared commands directly into its brain. I could make it do exactly what I wanted, when I wanted. I am a great and powerful magician indeed.

Each of the commands issued to the Furby was determined by the RSSI to Distance calculation, which was precise enough that I could use different parts of the Elder Sign to trigger different functions. By placing the transmitter just so, I could issue a specific IR command to the Furby’s brain. And by moving the transmitter outside of the predetermined range, I could put the Furby to sleep. (The Sands of Morpheus? A bit of misdirection, I’m afraid. That brass box contained the incense I’d dumped out of the Reliquary of St. Negroponte. By itself, it did nothing to control the demon. However, it did serve to distract the audience while I moved the Reliquary out of range.)

It helped the storytelling immensely that the first Furby I grabbed just happened to have a name that sounded eerily like C'thuLulu and know more songs than any other Furby I've ever encountered. As St. Negroponte says, sometimes we have to turn up the Serendipity knob all the way.

This project was received very well and enjoyed by all. I've been talking about ARGs and other forms of transmedia storytelling all semester and several classmates said they were thrilled to finally see even a small example of one, even if it was only a set up and four and a half minutes long. For several hours afterward, the original players and new "agents" practiced awakening, commanding, and banishing the demon. They could as easily have been students in Hogwart's, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter wizarding school, or Terry Pratchett's Unseen University on the Discworld. It was merely my love of the C'thulhu Mythos and the fact that Miskatonic Institute of Technology still spells "MIT," that influenced my decision to set the story there. So, combining elements of web design, live theater, LARP, toy design, radio fabrication, and custom micro controller programming led to the first mini-ARG ever used in the presentation of a final project for the annual How To Make Almost Anything class.