Alt.GDC: Rocksmith FTW

I don’t recall seeing many video game reviews here, before. And I’m sure that this is my first. But in the spirit of our ongoing alt.GDC coverage, I thought I’d take just a second to talk about what looks, from my humble vantage, to be The Next Big Thing in video games.

MAKE readers, meet Rocksmith. Rocksmith, MAKE readers.

Image courtesy Flickr user csullens.

It makes me feel better to point out that Rocksmith is not just a video game.  Sure, it has all the trappings of one:  It comes on an optical disc that you pop into your console or PC.  It has levels, objectives, a point system, unlockable rewards, and a connection to a cloud service that provides downloadable content, multiplayer options, and worldwide competition on various leaderboards.  You can play alone or with friends.

The revolutionary part, really, is what comes in the box besides the game disc itself.  It’s a cable. It’s kind of magic. Here’s a picture of it:

On one end is a male USB A connector that goes in your Xbox (or your PC or PS3). The other end is a 1/4″ phono plug, that goes into any electric guitar. Even that old Frankenstrat you’ve had gathering dust in the corner since college.

And Rocksmith will teach you to play it. Like, well.

Of course—and I now I’m hearing my EE Dad’s voice chiding me, in my head—the cable is not really “magic.” It’s just a couple of wires. You could make one yourself in a few minutes. I’d say the “magic,” if you’ll continue to forgive the term, is really in the software. Rocksmith includes an analog-to-digital converter and a spectrum analyzer that can untangle accurate information about what strings you’re fretting, and where, from the wall of sound coming off your guitar pickups. Even if you’re playing chords or performing special techniques like palm mutes, Rocksmith can tell, pretty reliably, if you’re doing it right. In real time.

And that, in my opinion, changes the whole ball game as far as music education goes. Rocksmith is nothing less than a private instrument instructor that’s there, all the time, whenever you (or your child) wants to play or practice. It provides instantaneous, entirely positive, entirely supportive feedback to train the psychomotor skills the instrument demands. I’ve been dabbling with guitar for a decade, and though I’m still no Clapton, two weeks with Rocksmith have made me much better than I ever was before. Kids who are starting on Rocksmith now will be doing unbelievable things with guitars in a few years. And they’ll be having a great time getting there.

Rocksmith gameplay will be familiar to anyone who knows Rock Band, for instance. Notes advance down the screen in time with the music, and are to be sounded just when they fall off the “cliff” at the bottom. The width of the screen is divided as the fretboard, and the particular string to be fretted is indicated by the note’s color. The shape of the note sprite and other markings indicate special techniques like sustain, palm muting, hammer-ons, pull-offs, bends, and harmonics. Progressing through “journey” mode, you rehearse sets of three to five songs until you can play them well enough to perform them back-to-back in an “event.” Do well enough in the “event,” and you unlock additional tracks to play as “encores.” It’s a pretty effective gimmick.

Besides “journey” mode, Rocksmith includes a shamelessly-named “Guitarcade” full of various delightfully cheesy minigames that train mechanical techniques like moving up and down the fretboard, moving between strings, fretting chords, harmonics, and so forth. These are quite effective. “Ducks,” the most basic minigame, is essentially space invaders across the length of the fretboard. Bad guys appear over random frets, and you shoot them by sounding the low E-string at the right fret. The action gradually speeds up until you can bounce quickly and accurately from one position on the neck to another. “Super Ducks” works on the same principle, but across all six strings. I haven’t unlocked all the minigames yet, but another favorite is “Harmonically Challenged,” which is kind of like Simon, but with sequences of harmonic tones instead of buttons.

There’s also an “amp” mode, which allows you to use your game console like a digital effects box. The various tracks licensed with the game each includes a custom guitar tone, and playing that song well enough unlocks the tone as a preset you can use in amp mode. You can also make up your own tones by mixing and matching filters that correspond to various guitars, pedals, amps, and cabinets. These effects modules are used as unlockable rewards throughout the game, so the further you advance, the more options you have when designing custom tones.

As in Rock Band, the makers of Rocksmith have licensed a pretty sweet collection of popular tunes for you to jam along with, with more being released as downloadable content all the time. Each song is available as a series of “arrangements” of increasing complexity and difficulty, and within each song, particular phrases become more or less difficult, on repetition, depending on how well you play them. Besides the technology, Rocksmith gets the educational psychology just right, too.

Ubisoft sells a bundle that includes an Epiphone-branded Les Paul copy for $370. But if you’ve already got a guitar sitting around, like I did, you can get just the game and the cable for $60. And though I’m admittedly still honeymooning, right now that seems like the best $60 I ever spent.


The Violin Maker

My granddad was the kind of guy who always had a pocket knife with him. Whenever there was a break, he would be working on a neckerchief slide or something else with his hands and wood. I am reminded of him watching this beautiful video about Sam Zygmuntowicz, a violin maker in Brooklyn. Whenever I see something like this, I want to break out the hand tools and start doing something immediately. Seeing a true artisan at work is always inspiring. Make sure to check out the robot for testing around 2:15 in…


The Violin Maker.


Maker Faire Town Hall at The Crucible

Maker Faire Town Hall at The Crucible

Last night we hosted a Maker Faire Town Hall meeting at The Crucible in Oakland to meet with the community and field questions about the upcoming 7th annual Maker Faire Bay Area, taking place in San Mateo on May 19 and 20. It was so much fun to meet friends old and new and share the stoke. The Crucible folks were wonderful hosts (thanks!) and it was really great to feel the wheels turning once again. Needless to say, there was tons of lively conversation going on, which is what naturally happens when you get interesting people together, and folks at The Crucible were busy blowing glass, welding, and woodworking in the background — perfect! We even had some down-home Frito Chili Pie. The Call for Makers is open now until March 20, and now’s the time to get your application in, especially if you have a large-scale piece you want to bring!

Maker Faire Town Hall at The Crucible

Maker Faire Town Hall at The Crucible

Maker Faire Town Hall at The Crucible


Challenge: Name This Hack from Wayne & Layne

We love these two tiny LED display kits from Wayne & Layne LLC, also known as Adam Wolf and Matthew Beckler. But it’s driving us crazy that the brilliant hack they came up with for reprogramming the displays doesn’t have a snappy name yet. Please, tell us, what should we call it?

Here’s the technology: The Blinky Grid is a programmable LED matrix, 7×8, that displays any message or pixel art, and the Blinky POV is a tiny programmable persistence-of-vision LED display that you wave with your hand, creating the illusion of letters floating in air. So far, pretty normal. But when you want to reprogram the message, you don’t have to plug the Blinky into a computer — you just hold it up to your monitor or smartphone. Navigate your web browser to the Blinky Programmer website and type in your new message. The screen flashes the new message in binary and the Blinky’s onboard photosensors read the flashes — boom, you’re reprogrammed. Read more about it here.

MAKE Executive Editor Paul Spinrad and I were talking about how novel and smart (and fun) this hack is, and we think makers will love using it to program small devices. It’s open source, so anyone can build their own version. “If Adam and Matt had developed this at a big company,” Paul says, “it would probably be protected by a dozen patents.” We sell both kits in the Maker Shed, and we featured them in our MAKE Ultimate Kit Guide and our Make: Kit Reviews website. We want to keep spreading the word about this cool trick, but it needs a name. Smart Eye? Screenwashing? BlinkyVision? (Hey, that’s not so bad.)

Tell us what you think in the comments below, to be entered in a random drawing for a year’s subscription to MAKE and a brand-new MAKE T-shirt.


Drinking In The Future at Barbot SF 2012

Barbot last Saturday was a blast. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t love this event, which showcases the latest in maker-made cocktail-mixing robots. Barbot is produced by the same organization that puts on Robogames.

Most of the Barbots and their teams are returnees from previous years, but as with the DARPA Grand Challenges, the…ah… bar raises very quickly from one event to the next as the innovations pour forth. This year’s bots were all beautiful, with gracious interfaces. On the back end, they took different approaches to the problem of how to dispense precise quantities of source liquids consistently.

The hot young newcomer was the Santa Barbot, built by a team of recent engineering grads from UC Santa Barbara (Zachary Rubin, Andrew Ballinger, Paul Filitchkin, and Ethan Zakai). They decided to participate in the event just 11 days before it opened, embarking on a massive, sleepless design and coding binge to make it in time. The last pieces of code were written in the car ride up from Santa Barbara to San Francisco. The system has a host computer with webserver that enables drink selection via mobile devices. Once the user makes the selection, an Arduino controls a semicircular array of nozzle/pump assemblies lifted from Nerf Super Soaker battery-powered squirt guns, along with matching colorful LEDs. One by one, the liquids shoot through the air into a cup placed in the center of the semicircle as the LEDs highlight the source bottle, and when the drink is done, all the LEDs flash in sequence. Meantime, the bartender character Lloyd from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining looks on from a flat-screen TV. As Andrew explains, “He stares deep into your soul and then gets you drunk with robotic uncaring and precision.”


The Santa-Barbot team

The Party Robotics team (Pierre Michael and Robert Kaye), whose work is veering dangerously close to commercial viability, showed off Bartendro. Above a gleaming metal panel, it uses peristaltic pumps to precisely dispense from inverted bottles up top. Vent tubes stick up above the liquid level inside the bottles to equalize the air pressure inside, running to small holes in the sided of the rubber plugs. Each bottle has its own controller board, with centralized control coming from a BeagleBoard and a touchscreen interface in front.

Bartendro - clamps from McMaster Carr hold bottles inverted

Bartendro - panels removed in back to show LED-lit interior

Bartendro - cluster of liquid tubes lead down to dispensing location

The fascinating and elegant Drink Making Unit 2.0 from Evil Mad Science Laboratories (aka Evil Mad Science, Lenore Edman and Windell Oskay) has a laboratory glassware aesthetic. Liquids are pushed from their flasks into flexible tubes by battery-powered backup aquarium air pumps — which enabled the DMU 2.0 to continue operating through a brief power outage at about 11pm. The liquids then dispense into angled graduated cylinders that swivel and tip sideways into the cocktail glass once they’re full and top-heavy. As they tip, reflective tape on the side interrupts an IR emitter and sensor pair, which triggers the flow to stop and tells the controller to fill the next cylinder. Users specify their desired drinks via a control panel, by assigning their six allotted mix units to each ingredient, and then hitting the Launch button.

Drink Making Unit 2.0

Drink Making Unit 2.0 - tip sensor

Anthony Fudd built and programmed his super cute TipsyBot entirely out of Lego and Lego Mindstorms components. The bot mixes Screwdrivers because, as Anthony explains, the screwdriver is an important tool for many creative pursuits. The TipsyBot’s small car carries your cocktail glass along a tabletop railway from the serving station to the mixing station, where two servomotor platforms tip and pour the vodka and OJ from bottles for precisely programmed amounts of time. When the mixing is done, the car delivers the cocktail back to you.

TipsyBot - cocktail glass car

With an ever-changing LED glow, fountain interior, and classic chemistry graphics, the ThinBot (by Kevin Roche and Andrew Trembley) serves the drinks and celebrates the elegance of the 1930′s Thin Man movies, during which all characters imbibe cocktails constantly. Thinbot’s electronics are housed on top, above the liquid line, where they can never get inadvertently dripped or poured on. Of course, ThinBot’s drinks are served with cocktail napkins– emblazoned with a blueprint for a proper martini.


The rocketship-shaped CosmoBot (by Samuel M Coniglio IV, Ken Mochel, Joe Phillips, and Katherine Becvar) quenches all of our thirst for space travel. Set the dial to your preferred drink, hit the Launch button, and watch the bot pressurize the cabin, spew dry-ice clouds, and dispense professional bartender calibrated proportions into your glass. Like the Drink Making Unit 2.0, the CosmoBot uses aquarium pumps to dispense the goods.

Other barbots at the event included the Elixerator (Bill, Becky, and Amanda Sherman), the pedal-powered Skinner Box (Matthew Dockrey), the neatly countertop-integrated DrinkSys (Ryan Nevell), and El Espanol Borracho, by Barbot and Robot Wars impresario David Calkins.

The Elixerator

The Elixerator - interior

More: Photos From BarBot 2012—One More Night (Tonight) in San Francisco


ReMaking History – Bag Press

Travel back in time with Bill Gurstelle as he teaches how to make a bit of ancient technology, the Egyptian bag press. Make your own bag press and enjoy fresh squeezed juice, the really old school way!

Subscribe to the Make: Podcast in iTunes, download the M4V version directly, or watch it on YouTube.



Announcing the Road to Maker Faire Challenge

Maker Faire is already the Greatest “Show & Tell” on Earth! And for one lucky maker, it’s about to get even greater. We’re thrilled to announce the Road to Maker Faire Challenge, presented by esurance, which will send one maker and a friend to Bay Area Maker Faire 2012 in May. A stipend of $2,000 will be awarded, which can be used for travel and accommodation. Or, if you’d like, you can use the money to fund the fabrication of your project. You read that right, $2,000 to MAKE your project!

So if you were looking for that push to complete an awesome project the world must see, or you could use the money to fund your trip to the Faire, we hope you’ll apply. Of course, as this is a “challenge,” our judges will be specifically looking for projects that challenge you, the maker, to new heights. Think big!

Additional rules and guidelines can be found here. This challenge is only open to US residents over the age of 18. Deadline is April 5th, so you have one month accept the Road to Maker Faire Challenge. I look forward to seeing your project at Maker Faire!


Spray Paint Can, Deconstructed in Lego

Lego builder Cole Blaq, whose exploding paint can model wowed us last year, continues his (apparent) obsession with spray paint cans with Decode, in which a robotic arm apparently tinkers with the guts of a spraycan, the inside of which inexplicably looks like DNA!

Be sure to check out the rest of Cole’s Inside the Spraycan Series series, which shows off his extensive set of spraycan models.


Tool Review: Syringe Applicators for Plastic Solvent Cements


If you’ve worked with acrylic or certain other plastics before, you might be aware that they bond best with solvent-based adhesives. Solvent-based cements provide the least mess and cleanest bonds if applied with care, helping your projects and enclosures look even better.

Solvent cements are best applied via a capillary action, where you assemble the to-be-bonded plastic pieces and let small amounts of the liquid flow into the joint. There are two main types of applicators you can use – squeeze-bottles and syringes.

Going back more than a decade, I used to purchase my plastic materials and supplies over at Canal Street, in NYC. There were specialty plastics shops that had everything I needed, and Pearl Paint carried a few plastic-working tools and accessories as well. But a couple of years ago when I went back, I found higher prices and almost no selection.

Looking online, almost all online plastics suppliers do carry several sizes of syringes and applicator bottles, but their prices seem a bit steep, even with quantity discounts. Because of this I started ordering my applicator syringes from industrial suppliers. Syringes are quite easy to find, but blunted applicator needles can be a little harder to come by.

Unless you already have a preference, I would recommend 10cc syringes. This size is easy to find, and reasonably economical. Plus this is a handy size for other uses, such as topping-off small water-cooling reservoirs. Packs of 10 are available via McMaster Carr (7510A653) and other suppliers, and make sure to get the kind with Luer Lock tips. You’ll usually save a few bucks if you don’t need graduated barrels.

There are many options for blunted dispensing needles, allowing you to choose from different materials, diameters, and lengths to suit your needs. Stainless steel needles, even of the disposable type, are quite durable and should last some time if you make sure to flush them after each use.

For my own projects, I have two reusable Luer Lock needles, 24 gauge x 1/4-inch long and 22 gauge x 2-inches long, and a pack of 26 gauge x 1-1/2-inch long. McMaster part numbers are 6710A296710A74, and 75165A762 respectively. Thinner needles are more fragile, which is why I opted for disposable ones rather than the reusable kind. Plus, I am far less hesitant to bend them to improve access to hard-to-reach joints or repairs.

Whatever you do, avoid using pointed hypodermic needles. Safety hazards aside, they are messy and imprecise to use for dispensing solvent cement and other liquids.

Stuart Deutsch is a tool enthusiast, critic, and collector, and writes his passion at ToolGuyd.


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