Choreographed iron dust dances to the beat

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On the second floor of the World Maker Faire main room, the Technotronic hit “Pump up the Jam” could be heard over and over again. We expected breakdancing robots, but on investigation we found something even better. [David Durlach] showed his choreographed Iron Dust, a grid of 9×9 magnets covered in iron filings. The filings swayed and danced to the beat of the music, sometimes appearing more like ferrofluid than dry material. Two LED lights illuminated the filings at an oblique angle. This added even more drama to the effect as the light played across the spikes and dancing ridges.

By chatting with [David] he told us it wasn’t a new hack. The choreography Iron Dust made its debut at the Boston Museum of Science in 1989. Suddenly, the music of the 80s took on more meaning! The basic dust control system has not changed much since the 1980s. Magnets are actually a stack of permanent magnets and electromagnets. The permanent magnet provides enough force to hold the filings in place. The electromagnets are lit to make the filings dance.

Since its conception in 1989, no Arduino was available. This project is powered by the most user-friendly interface of the time for hackers: the parallel port of the PC. As one can imagine, [David] has struggled to find PCs with parallel ports in recent years.

[David] didn’t just show iron dust. After spending so much time painstakingly animating the iron filings for various clients, he knew there had to be a better way. He developed ChoreoV, a system that can record video, live performance, or even capture part of a user’s screen. The captured data can then be translated directly into light or movement on a work of art.


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