Fellow geeks will remember the British TV show The Prisoner, which aired in the late 1960s. [ed. It was also remade in 2009, with questionable results]. The show was part 1984 and part Lost and revolves around secret agent Number Six. After quitting his job, he is gassed unconscious and wakes up to find himself in a coastal community he can’t escape. One of the most memorable aspects of the show is the Rover, a big white balloon that floats around and captures or kills anyone who tries to leave. Even though this sphere, designed by students at the Royal College of Art, is black, it has a similarly creepy presence. It also records and replays sounds, which gives it a dimension that not even the Rover had.
The project is aptly named Space Replay. It floats around and “explores and manipulates transitional public spaces with particular acoustic properties.” Ah, so it’s like a drone, except shaped like a circle. Oh, and it doesn’t bomb people, at least not yet. As it lurks around, it records and plays back ambient sound, producing a “delayed echo of human activity.” There’s no getting around the creep factor here. I wonder if its designers have thought about putting it in a haunted house or something.
The sphere uses an Arduino, an open-source platform designed to promote interaction via its ability to receive sensory input. The Space Replay designers use it in conjunction with the Adafruit Wave Shield, a kit designed to add audio to electronic projects. The wave shield plays a slew of different audio files and has a DAC, filter, and om-amp. The creator hacked the wave shield to record and replay audio with only a short delay, and they added a speaker. They then vacuum-sealed these electronics into cone-shaped plastic and put it all into a latex balloon. All told, the device weighs just over 4 ounces. They filled the balloon with helium to the point where it was just buoyant enough to hover around and let it do its thing.
Watching the video results in some cognitive dissonance. It’s easier to think that the sounds are coming from the people around the sphere, but once you realize the sphere itself is emitting the human sounds, it becomes particularly weird. I love the looks it gets from mystified passersby. Notably, the video doesn’t show anyone trying to escape from the balloon, I think we all know why.