It’s been called a next-level spirograph, an autonomous Etch a Sketch, a colorless sand kaleidoscope, a tech Zen garden, a mechanical mandala.
In reality, it’s a sand plotter with a glass top on it, says Minneapolis artist and maker Bruce Shapiro. “I did invent sand plotters,” said Shapiro, 59. “There are many people working with sand plotters. My goal is to make the best one, the highest-quality one.”
A sand plotter is a kinetic sculpture with a computer-driven motor attached to a strong magnet. The magnet, in turn, controls a metal ball bearing that sits in a shallow layer of sand. Shapiro first began toying with sand plotters in the late 1990s, eventually winning commissions to build installation-sized plotters for science museums. His work is permanently installed at the Phaeno Science Center in Wolfsburg, Germany; the Swiss Science Center in Winterthur, Switzerland; and the National Science and Technology Centre in Canberra, Australia.
He’s been working on sand plotters for the home for nearly 20 years, but it wasn’t until this year that he felt the table was quiet enough to tolerate. “Sound was a big hurdle. For noisy places like science museums, the motor wasn’t an issue,” Shapiro said. “But to live with a working motor, in your house, that’s another issue.”
After running months of experiments, all carefully logged by hand in ruler-lined notebooks, Shapiro launched a monthlong Kickstarter fundraising campaign. He hoped to raise $50,000 for a run of end and coffee tables.
When backers started signing on in early October, “we thought, ‘okay, we might actually make our goal,’” said Beverly Trombley, Shapiro’s wife and chief product tester. But then came the flood. In less than 24 hours, Shapiro blew past his initial $50,000 goal. A few days later, two design aggregator sites, BoredPanda and thisiscolossal posted videos of a Sisyphus coffee table in action and that drove another flurry of backings.
At the end of the Kickstarter campaign last month, Shapiro raised more than $1.9 million from 1,992 people. Backers from as far away as Blue Mountains, Australia, and Ramat HaSharon, Israel, shelled out more than $300 just in shipping costs for an end table that’s not expected to arrive until October 2017. Each table comes preloaded with a set of design paths programmed by Shapiro, but people who are comfortable with computer fractals could make their own paths.
Eventually, says Shapiro, he would like to introduce a user-friendly software platform and supporting app that would allow people to design their own patterns, or even write out custom messages. “Imagine that your partner is out of town, but when you come downstairs in the morning, they have written out a note for you in the sand,” said Shapiro.
After such a blockbuster fundraising campaign, those plans may be closer than he expected. The cash windfall allowed his longtime collaborator, Micah Roth, to quit his job as an ICU nurse at United Hospital. They now work together full-time at Nordeast Makers, the member-supported makerspace they co-founded in 2014.
It’s a moment of sweet success for Shapiro, who trained to be a physician at UCLA and worked as an internist for several years before abandoning medicine to pursue his tech-centric art.
“I have a very supportive and understanding wife,” Shapiro said. After so many years of planning and programming, it's easy to see why Shapiro named his plotter design “Sisyphus,” after the cursed god who must eternally roll a stone up a hill. “When you’re a maker and tinkerer, it’s just something you are compelled to do,” he said.
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