Playa Queen: Burning Man 2013

The Playa Queen (PQ) was one of 24 projects that were part of the regional CORE effigies at Burning Man 2013. Designed as a tribute to the many working-river boats that made Sacramento what it is today, it was my pleasure to be included in this project. Originally I asked if they needed any help with the lighting or any other technical issues and ended up jumping in where I could to help finish construction. After the technical lead had a last minute gig come up that would take him out of town for two months, I was more than happy to step up to fill the position. The former technical lead and I went over his plans as I scribed down his suggestions in my notebook. I created a bill of material (BOM) from his recommendations and calculated its power requirements. Each of the regional CORE effigies will be supplied with 400 Watts of 120V AC power. This first drafts power requirements were 770 Watts, mainly due to inefficient power supplies. After a few tweaks that included changing LEDs to electro-luminescent wire and finding better power supplies I was able to get the total power required to 390 Watts. To go an even further step I then sourced all of the parts from China and was able to reduce the bill by $300.

I showed my new proposal to the team and they were great at providing me with feedback and support. I explained the power issue and we discussed the possibility of using some deep cycle batteries to provided more power, as it was postulated that we would be able to pull more than 400 Watts during the day from the solar grid. Taking these new power specs I made a final revision to the BOM that included blue LEDs that fade on opposing sides to emulate the look of water and adding some white LED strip lighting to the awnings to provide downward lights. All of the parts were ordered and half way slapped together before leaving for the Playa, but definitely could have been more.

I arrived in the desert on the Wednesday before the event to install the lighting on the Playa Queen. The first full day on site was absolutely beautiful due to the rain the previous day. I felt quite privileged having the honor of camping so close to the man, which supremely amplified the feeling of being part of something larger. Once we got the entire structure erected I began running wires to support the 5V and 12V lighting. With a little more than a back of the napkin sketch and a vision I was able to help the Playa Queen obtain a classy lighting system.

The LED strips literally out shined the EL wire. From afar on the horizon the Playa Queen was easy to identify due to the blue LEDs around the base. It became readily apparent that other team members did not have the same level appreciation of the delicate nature of LED strips. Within one minute of attaching a white LED strip to one of the awnings I was notified of an accident; which was remedied by cutting out the damaged section and bridging the connection with a two-wire jumper. Most of the strips were soldered on site, which amounted to me sitting in my RV with a fan and music blaring. With the wire runs in place the strips were fasted using a staple gun and delicate touch. The EL wire was laid into grooves that were cut using the width of a saw blades cut, which fit the 2.5mm EL wire perfect. The grooves served to positing the wire perfectly straight and protect it from accidental damage. As amazing as the EL wire looked, it was destined to fail as that is the way that EL wire rolls. I am guessing somewhere around the wiring harness for the lower portion of the Playa Queen became grounded within two days. I chalked it up to another reason why I hate EL wire and accepted the reality of the situation.

The sign was my first attempt at using a laser cutter. The wood I was using was 5.0mm underlayment, which due to the compositions being different between the multiple sheets of wood I ran into some issues. Firstly, to gain access to the laser cutter I had agree to write documentation and help with training plans. This agreement essentially doubled my already limited time commitment, which I am glad to do as it is for the community of the Sacramento Hacker Lab. The headache for the sign came from my own design issues, mainly the fact that in order to get the enough material to mount LEDs to I need at least 7.0mm of vertical height. To obtain this extra depth I decided to cut the sign out in 3 layers, one for the rear and two for the letters with an offset to increase strength between layers. After getting the laser cutter all dialed in we were off and obliterating! The rear was cut first followed by the smaller halves of the offset front layers. The front layers that were the longer offset pieces required new wood, as the originally purchased piece of underlayment was cut into 2’x3′ sections. The new piece of underlayment was more dense than the original 5.0mm underlayment, which caused all sorts of issues with the laser cutter. I tried to dial in the machine better, but it produced marginal improvement. When I left the Hacker Lab that day I was quite upset that I did not have a full sign. Upon getting home I promptly had a drink and began staring at my pile of wood trying to come up with a salvage plan through the tears. The solution I came up with was to use a 3/4″ piece of plywood to cut out a centerpiece that would allow LED strips to be mounted and illuminate through the gaps of the front layers of the sign. With a sigh of relief I loaded the wood into my RV and decided to deal with it on the playa when I had more time and laborers. Once on the playa I was accosted by volunteer workers who would stroll past our project. Using these un-suspecting nice people I was able to source the finishing of the sign out to them. Breaking down the tasks in small and seminly unrelated tasks I have never seen such a piece of beauty created in the rear of a box truck before.

The paddle wheels had an issue in regards to the last 10 LED pixels were not receiving data. At first I thought it might have been a power issue, so I added some additional connectors every 50 LEDs. This had no effect on the affected pixels. When the wheels were wired in parallel the data on one wheel was not coming through clear due to a difference in the length of wire used to connect the starboard wheel. When the wheels were wired in series the second wheel was not receiving any data. These symptoms allowed me to surmise that the last 10 LED pixels (or their connectors) were responsible for the fault. After a valiant effort at making a field repair I finally opted to have the bottom two openings of the paddle wheels unlit. After removing the last 10 on both sides (crazy coincidence or design-related issue?) the wheels looked amazing.

The interior lighting was so cool to do. After getting the exterior all lit, a few of us were hanging out in the bar below and I decided we did not have adequate lighting for a vessel of the Playa Queens epicness. I managed to find a few left over warm white LED strips that already had wires soldered to them. Three LED strips were placed over the bar in front of the hand painted portrait, which provided plenty of light while enhancing the atmosphere of the bar.

When the Playa Queen finally burned it was not as satisfying as I had hoped. I had no problem with the 100 hours of work I had put towards the project, that was non-redeemable time that was well spent. The best part of this project was the team; being able to find a group of people who all have different skills and interests yet we share the love (and mindset) that makes us “burners.” So while watching the Playa Queen burn the feeling of never having to see these people again was not as satisfying as other projects I have worked on to completion. The feeling of wanting to work on something bigger and better was what I was left with. The desire to take what we did as a team this year and to craft something that is more permanent and has a level of community interaction to it. And lasers cause you know, they are lasers (think 1W laser and a 30,000 point 15 degree scanning system).

Overall this project was an amazing experience that helped me become a better and more well rounded human being. The chance to camp so close to the Man while working on the Playa Queen (we had to move by Sunday at Sunrise or the DPW was going to tear the Playa Queen down with a forklift, per an unknown DPW representative) made working in the field a truly unique experience. As for what I learned, (1) communicating a vision is harder that I thought, (2) working in the desert is a challenge, and (3) having a team with the right people at the right time is how you take your skills to the next level. Overall I am highly satisfied with how this project turned out; I was able to come on to the project with 8 weeks left and I was able to accomplish the groups original lighting plan in addition to my own vision (albeit limited by the bureaucracy of Burning Man). I was looking for a sense of community and I found it with this group, therefore I suppose I accomplished my most important goal, and for that I am truly grateful.

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