Building An Engine With An A/C Compressor

Air conditioning compressors aren’t exactly a mainstay of the average hacker’s junk box. Typically, they’re either fitted to a car to do their original job, or they’re on the bench getting refurbished. However, with the right mods, it’s possible to turn one into a functioning internal combustion engine.

The build starts by disassembling the compressor, which contains three double-sided pistons. The housing is drilled with ports to allow gas to flow into and out of the cylinders, as well as to transfer from one side of the piston to the other. Acrylic end plates are fitted to the assembly. One end acts as an intake manifold, delivering air and fuel to the cylinders. The other side acts as the cylinder head, mounting the sparkplugs. Everything is then connected with acrylic tubing and a small square section of acrylic is turned into a carburetor to supply the air-fuel mix. Ignition is handled by coils triggered by the movement of the flywheel.

After an initial failure due to the acrylic manifold cracking, a stronger part is fabricated, and the engine bursts into life. The acrylic end caps give a great view of the combustion process in action. We’d love to see the a dyno graph on how much power and torque the unit puts out, or to see it hooked up to a bicycle or cart.

We’ve seen others attempt their own engine builds, too. If you’ve got an unconventional engine build of your own, be sure to let us know. Video after the break.

Posted in compressor, engine, misc hacks, piston | Leave a comment

Start Your Day With The Mountain That Rises

Like many of us, [Zach Archer] enjoys the comfort of his darkened room so much that he has trouble getting up and facing the day. To make things a little easier for himself, he decided to put together a custom alarm clock that would fill his mornings with the glorious glow of LEDs; and since he finds the mountains an inspirational sight he decided to wrap the whole thing up in a 3D printed enclosure that resembles snow capped peaks.

But even Bob Ross himself couldn’t have imagined a snowy mountain range that featured an integrated e-ink screen. The big 4.2″ panel is connected to a custom designed PCB by [romkey], which was graciously donated for this project. An ESP32 runs the show, providing a convenient web interface to control not only the clock, but various aspects of the mountain’s internal LEDs such as fade in time and total duration.

[Zach] says he originally printed the mountains in PLA, but the heat generated by the LEDs eventually started to cause things to warp. Switching over to translucent PETG not only solved the heat problem, but made for a very effective LED diffuser. Rather than complex animation patterns, he’s found that smoothly transitioning between different shades of blue and green seems to work best for him in the mornings.

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen somebody use LEDs to get them out of bed in the morning, but we do appreciate the aesthetic that [Zach] has achieved here between the design of the mountains and the impressive artwork on the e-ink display. Then again, we’re also quite partial to this version that looks like a warp core, so our tastes do run the gamut.

Posted in 3D printed enclosure, clock, clock hacks, e-ink, ESP32, led hacks, web interface | Leave a comment

Sara Adkins is Jamming Out with Machines

Asking machines to make music by themselves is kind of a strange notion. They’re machines, after all. They don’t feel happy or hurt, and as far as we know, they don’t long for the affections of other machines. Humans like to think of music as being a strictly human thing, a passionate undertaking so nuanced and emotion-based that a machine could never begin to understand the feeling that goes into the process of making music, or even the simple enjoyment of it.

The idea of humans and machines having a jam session together is even stranger. But oddly enough, the principles of the jam session may be exactly what machines need to begin to understand musical expression. As Sara Adkins explains in her enlightening 2019 Hackaday Superconference talk, Creating with the Machine, humans and machines have a lot to learn from each other.

To a human musician, a machine’s speed and accuracy are enviable. So is its ability to make instant transitions between notes and chords. Humans are slow to learn these transitions and have to practice going back and forth repeatedly to build muscle memory. If the machine were capable, it would likely envy the human in terms of passionate performance and musical expression.

The jam session is an ideal venue for two (or more) humans to play around in the same musical sandbox. Once they agree on a key, the door to improvisation is unlocked. They can play back and forth, riffing on each other’s ideas. Machines may not feel, but they can definitely learn aspects of musical composition by algorithmically interpreting the musical data from a performer and regurgitating it back through different methods. Sara’s talk takes us through a few of the ways that humans and machines can jam out together.

The Jamming Algorithm

Sara wrote a series of compositions that are meant to be played by humans and machines together through interactive algorithms. She starts with a composition called “Breathe” that uses a rule-based algorithm to interpret solo electric guitar input and feed it through a granular synthesizer. The guitar player uses a foot pedal to take FFT snapshots of their performance, which gives the machine information about the pitch and duration of the notes they played.

Once the algorithm determines the prevailing harmonics, it plays them back as ethereal, droning sine waves that sound like an ocean. The algorithm also takes input from a lapel mic taped under the player’s nose to create an amplitude envelope that affects the rate of granular synthesis. This adds a nice staccato counterpoint to the lapping sine waves.

Bach Has Entered the Session

For another composition using recurrent neural networks, Sara used TensorFlow to train a 3-layer long short-term memory (LSTM) on a diet of 405 Bach chorales. A chorale is a short hymn-like piece that’s usually written for four-voice harmony — a soprano, an alto, a tenor, and a bass. The algorithm for this piece is a two-part process.  Once the content is there and the network has been trained, the performer uses a MIDI interface to control movement through the neural network checkpoints, sustain or skip selected notes, and adjust the tempo. Sara trained the neural network for three days, and the difference between day one and day two is amazing.

The last composition Sara shares in her talk is called Machine Cycle, which she composed for an ensemble with a MIDI keyboard soloist, a guitarist, and some harmonic sine wave drones. As the keyboardist plays, the machine snatches phrases at random and creates a Markov chain of possible embellishments like grace notes and slight changes in rhythm, before the algorithm plays back the result. While this is happening, another human acting as conductor can control parameters like the output tempo, and whether any notes are skipped.

The idea of humans and machines jamming together is an interesting one for sure. We’d like to feed the sounds of industrial machinery into these algorithms just to see what kind of new metal comes back.

Posted in 2019 Hackaday Superconference, algorithm, cons, fft, machine learning, markov chains, midi, music, musical hacks, neural networks, Supercon | Leave a comment

The Story of A Secret Underground Parisian Society

Deep in the heart of Paris, a series of underground tunnels snakes across the city. They cross into unkept public spaces from centuries ago that have since vanished from collective memory – abandoned basements, catacombs, and subways hundreds of miles apart.

Only a few groups still traverse these subterranean streets. One that came into public view a few years ago, Les UX (Urban eXperiment), has since claimed several refurbished developments, including restoring the long neglected Pantheon clock and building an underground cinema, complete with a bar and restaurant.

While the streets of Paris are tame during the day, at night is when Les UX really comes alive. A typical night might involve hiding in the shadows away from potential authorities roaming the streets, descending into the tunnels through a grate in the road, and carrying materials to an agreed upon drop off location. Other nights might involve wedging and climbing over pipes and ladders, following the routes into the basements of buildings left unguarded.

[via Will Cowan]

Members have claimed to be able to access every last government building and telecom tunnel in the city. Even members of the Parisian police force can’t help but admire the knowledge and skills of the underground hackers. One of the members, [Lazar Kunstmann], was able to describe the process of stealing a Picasso – apparently an easy enough task for anyone who has the time to observe the lax security within the Museum of Modern Art of the City of Paris.

Granted, sneaking around the tunnels and under secured buildings isn’t as easy as some members may make it sound. Accessing the tunnels – an illegal but rarely enforced act – is already quite difficult. Finding an unlocked entrance can be an exceptionally long trek from the nearest subway, and knowing the secret entrances can require connections with other urban explorers. Even crawling around in the tunnels is a filthy and exhausting activity for the uninitiated.

Shadowy Beginnings, Professional Present

The organization had its start some time in 1981, beginning with the stolen plans for many of Paris’s underground tunnels and passageways. They have since grown into an enclave of anonymous artists and concerned citizens who have come together to restore medieval crypts and celebrate the forgotten sites of Parisian past. Few have ever come forward about their existence apart from [Kunstmann], who has since spoken to magazines and published a book based on his experiences.

According to his account, the organization is divided into several subunits – one that specializes in infiltration (an all-female team known as the Mouse House), one that couriers internal messages and communicates over a coded radio network, one that keeps a database of organization activities, one that organizes the staged shows and readings, one that specializes in photography, and one that works on restorations (known as Untergunther).

[via UX]The latter team is made up of more experienced professionals – architects and historians, often with a personal interest in the object of restoration, as in the case of the Pantheon clock. Professional clockmakers such as [Jean-Baptiste Viot] assisted in the multiyear project, painstakingly recreating gears that were too rusted or worn to be restored and refurbishing other parts of the clock that had been corroded or weathered from years of neglect. When the newly restored clock was revealed in October 2007, however, they were met with attention from the Paris police force.

While the group may have begun as a clan of rebellious teenagers, it eventually grew into something far more sophisticated. The entire operation for the Pantheon required special care taken to understand the mechanisms behind the clock tower and the techniques used by its original architects. [Viot] especially wanted to undergo the project since oxidation had so ruined the original works that they would soon be impossible to repair without replacing every part. As a professional horologist, he had the skills required for the job, and Les UX had been looking to undergo the restoration for years. The team built a workshop outfitted with armchairs, a table, bookshelves, a minibar, and red velvet drapes concealed into wooden crates to blend into the paraphernalia stored within the monument. Only at the dead of night was the clock repair equipment brought out. The group did everything from updating the workshop’s electrical wiring to growing their own vegetable garden on the terrace. Even if members were caught at night, a fake badge was enough to get past the security guards.

The autopsy of the clock revealed that someone appeared to have sabotaged the clock, possibly a Pantheon employee tired of winding the monument once a week. They cleaned the parts in a hot bath of soap, ammonia, and oxalic acid, scrubbing and polishing every surface. Then they replaced or recreated pulleys, cables, the broken escape wheel, and missing parts like the pendulum bob. By the time the project had finished, the team felt that it would be a good idea to notify the authorities about their work in order to ensure proper future maintenance of the public monument. They offered to meet the director of the monument in person, but were startled to find that the authorities refused to believe their story, instead suing UX at 48,300 euros and up to a year of jail time. The then-deputy of the monument even hired a clockmaker to re-sabotage the work.  (The clockmaker refused other than disengaging the escape wheel, the same part that had been sabotaged the first time.)

Authorities Barge In

The Pantheon wasn’t the first time the police were brought face-to-face with a Les UX project. Back in 2004, a widely covered story emerged of a police force discovering an underground movie theater run by the group, containing a movie screen, bar, and kitchen. The space was equipped with telephones and electricity, with movies ranging from 1950s classics to modern thrillers. The police were less than happy with their discovery, but when they returned for a formal investigation, the space had been entirely vacated.

[via UX]In fact, the authorities so opposed the group’s activities that they began a new unit to track the group through the city’s sewers and catacombs in an effort to identify members of the group and charge them for their actions. The Centre of National Monuments similarly replaced their administrator after their embarrassment over not noticing how the group had entered the Pantheon building so easily. Over the course of the scheme, large planks were even carried up the clock tower in order to construct a small workshop inside the space.

As for the trial against the restorers, the judge ruled in favor of the Untergunther members. It may have been seen as a relief, but it was definitely not the expected culmination of the project – the main reason the project was revealed in the first place was to provide authorities with the information they needed to wind up the clock so that it would work again.

[via UX]Some members of Les UX certainly felt that they had to do something to help save the lost public works of Paris, especially if the local government wasn’t going to take action. Others were simply excited to continue celebrating the Parisian underground world. Many had been students in the Latin Quarter in the 80s and 90s, when secret parties were common to find in the tunnels.

While the Pantheon remains the group’s proudest feat, there are still active events going on and restorations in the works. Past exploits have included rock concerts for up to 4000 people in the quarries, projections off a locked film theater (showing subtly subversive programming by international filmmakers), and an art exhibition in a supposedly seal-off underground gallery. Members were even known to travel through a series of interconnected caves beneath the Palais de Chaillot, across the Seine from the Eiffel tower, every Bastille day to watch the fireworks from the roof of the building.

While it’s not affiliated with Les UX, there are a number of videos online that show some parts of the Paris underground scene and the artists affiliated with the tunnels.

Posted in clock hacks, Hackaday Columns, horology, Paris, urban exploration | Leave a comment

[Ben Krasnow] Builds a Mass Spectrometer

One of the features that made Scientific American magazine great was a column called “The Amateur Scientist.” Every month, readers were treated to experiments that could be done at home, or some scientific apparatus that could be built on the cheap. Luckily, [Ben Krasnow]’s fans remember the series and urged him to tackle a build from it: a DIY mass spectrometer. (Video, embedded below the break.)

[Ben] just released the video below showing early experiments with a copper tube contraption that was five months in the making; it turns out that analytical particle physics isn’t as easy as it sounds. The idea behind mas spectrometry is to ionize a sample, accelerate the ions as they pass through a magnetic field, and measure the deflection of the particles as a function of their mass-to-charge ratio. But as [Ben] discovered, the details of turning a simple principle into a working instrument are extremely non-trivial.

His rig uses filaments extracted from carefully crushed incandescent lamps to ionize samples of potassium iodide chloride; applied to the filament and dried, the salt solution is ionized when the filament is heated. The stream of ions is accelerated by a high-voltage field and streamed through a narrow slit formed by two razor blades. A detector sits orthogonal to the emitter across a powerful magnetic field, with a high-gain trans-impedance amplifier connected. With old analog meters and big variacs, the whole thing has a great mad scientist vibe to it that reminds us a bit of his one-component interferometer setup.

[Ben]’s data from the potassium sample agreed with expected results, and the instrument is almost sensitive enough to discern the difference between two different isotopes of potassium. He promises upgrades to the mass spec in the future, including perhaps laser ionization of the samples. We’re looking forward to that.

Thanks to the mysterious [M] for the tip.

Posted in ionization, isotope, magnetic, mass spectrometer, misc hacks, potassium, transimpedance, tungsten, vacuum | Leave a comment

Build Your Own Tools For More Power

Building something on your own usually carries with it certain benefits, such as being in full control over what it is you are building and what it will accomplish, as well as a sense of pride when you create something that finally works just the way you want it. If you continue down that path, you may eventually start making your own tools to help build your other creations, and if you also have some CAD software you can make some very high quality tools like this belt grinder.

This build comes to us from [Emiel] aka [The Practical Engineer] who is known for his high quality solenoid engines. His metal work is above and beyond, and one thing he needed was a belt grinder. He decided to make a 3D model of one in CAD and then build it from scratch. The build video goes through his design process in Fusion 360 and then the actual build of this beast of a machine. The motor is 3.5 horsepower which, when paired with a variable frequency drive, can provide all of his belt grinding needs.

[Emiel]’s videos are always high quality, and his design process is easy to follow as well. We’re always envious of his shop as well, and it reminds us a lot of [Eric Strebel] and his famous designs.

Posted in belt grinder, cad, design, Fusion 360, metal working, tool hacks, tools | Leave a comment

A Mini Vending Machine To Ramp Up Your Sales

A common sight in the world of hackerspaces is an old vending machine repurposed from hawking soda cans into a one-stop shop for Arduinos or other useful components. [Gabriel D’Espindula]’s mini vending machine may have been originally designed as an exercise for his students and may not be full sized, but we can see it or machines like it taking away some of the demand for those surplus models.

Its construction mimics that of some older 3D printers in using laser-cut ply to form the components of a box. Behind a clear lockable door are the shelves containing the products, at the back of which are continuous rotation servos that will drive the spiral Archimedes screws that eject the products. To the side is a membrane keypad and display, and the whole is drawn together with an STM32 board and an Arduino. It supports both RFID card login and keyboard login, and though it’s not finished we can see it forming the basis of a very useful system.

He’s posted the most recent progress in the form of a video that we’ve placed below the break. All the various files are available for download, so should you fancy one yourself then you have a good chance of success.

Posted in 2019 Hackaday Prize, stm32, The Hackaday Prize, vending machine | Leave a comment

Jonas Salk, Virologist and Vaccination Vanguard

In the early 1950s, the only thing scarier than the threat of nuclear war was the annual return of polio — an easily-spread, incurable disease that causes nerve damage, paralysis, and sometimes death. At the first sign of an outbreak, public hot spots like theaters and swimming pools would close up immediately.

One of the worst polio epidemics in the United States struck in 1952, a few years into the postwar baby boom. Polio is more likely to infect children than adults, so the race to create a vaccine reached a fever pitch.

Most researchers were looking into live-virus vaccines, which had worked nicely for smallpox and rabies and become the standard approach. But Jonas Salk, a medical researcher and budding virologist, was keen on the idea of safer, killed-virus vaccines. He believed the same principle would work for polio, and he was right. Within a few years of developing his vaccine, the number of polio cases in the United States dropped from ~29,000 in 1955 to less than 6,000 in 1957. By 1979, polio had been eradicated in the US.

Jonas Salk is one of science’s folk heroes. The polio vaccine was actually his sophomore effort — he and Thomas Francis developed the first influenza vaccine in the 1940s. And he didn’t stop with polio, either. Toward the end of his life, Salk was working on an AIDS vaccine.

The Salk family L-R: Jonas, Dora, Lee, Daniel, and Herman. Image via San Diego Union-Tribune

A Doctor in the House

Jonas Salk was born in 1914 and raised in New York City. He was the oldest son of Russian-Jewish immigrants who didn’t have much money or education, but wanted the best for their children.

Salk has said in interviews that he was not interested in science as a child — he was “merely interested in things human”. The NYC polio epidemic of 1916 would have likely given Jonas an eyeful of humanity in the form of afflicted classmates with crutches and leg braces.

Jonas was a curious kid who read everything he could get his hands on. He had dreams of becoming a lawyer, but his mother wanted a doctor in the house. When Jonas was 13, he entered Townsend Harris High School, a public school for gifted students. Two years later at age 15, Jonas entered City College of New York (CCNY), where he would earn a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry. A fifteen-year-old college freshman at this competitive college was not particularly noteworthy, because many of the students there had skipped more than one grade.

After CCNY, Salk went to study medicine at NYU. It was here that he decided that although he liked medicine, he didn’t want to practice it. Salk was more interested in research. He believed he was meant to help humankind rather than treat the individual.

Thomas Francis, left, and Jonas Salk in 1955. Image via the University of Michigan

The Flu Fighters

For thousands of years, people believed influenza, or the flu, was caused by bacteria. The influenza virus was first discovered in the early 1930s, around the time Salk entered med school. In his senior year, he had a chance to spend time in a lab that was researching influenza, and he jumped on it. Salk believed that the virus strains could be effectively destroyed and still immunize, and he was eager to test this theory. As it turns out, he was right.

Salk did postgraduate work in virology, and spent some elective time in the laboratory of his mentor, Thomas Francis. It was here that he and Francis developed the first influenza vaccine by incubating a strain of the virus in a chicken embryo, then rendering it inactive.

Polio microbes on the loose. Image via JPMS

Paralyzing Polio

Salk started his residency in Francis’ lab at Mount Sinai Hospital. Within a few years, he was eager to study infectious diseases in his own lab. He wouldn’t have to wait long. A man named Harry Weaver contacted him about researching polio. Weaver was director of research at the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, and was in a position to offer Salk his own lab and researchers. Soon, Salk started to get grants, which he used to build up his virology laboratory.

In 1947, Salk began working on a polio vaccine. First he had to sort out all 125 known strains of the virus. As he did, he noticed they all fell into one of three basic types. A successful vaccine would have to cover all three groups to give full protection from polio. Having figured this out, his next problem was making enough vaccine to experiment with. Luckily, in 1948, a group of scientists discovered that the polio virus would multiply just fine on scraps of non-nerve tissue from human embryos, meaning that a full-blown organism like a chicken embryo was not necessary. Thanks to this discovery, Salk could iterate much more quickly.

At the same time, another researcher named Albert Sabin was working on a live-virus vaccine to be taken orally. Sabin believed that only a live, weakened virus could make the human body produce antibodies, and believed that Salk was wasting his time trying to make an effective vaccine with dead strains.

Dr. Salk injects a child with his polio vaccine. Image via The New Atlantis

The Polio Pioneers

In July 1952, Salk was ready to try out his killed-virus vaccine. His first patients were children who had already contracted polio and recovered. After vaccination, they all showed an increase in antibodies.

Then he tried the vaccine on himself, his wife, and his own children. When everyone in his family showed increased antibodies and no signs of illness, Salk knew it was time to share it with the world.

In 1953, Salk reported his results to the American Medical Association, and a massive trial was conducted the following year. One million children, known as the polio pioneers, were injected with Salk’s vaccine, and the results were incredible, with 60-70% prevention. The US wasted no time rolling out mass inoculations for children.

Unfortunately, there was an incident at one of the labs producing the vaccine. Some of the lots contained a live virus, and this mistake generated 40,000 new polio cases from the 120,000 poorly-controlled vaccines. The labs adopted higher standards and resumed production, but the incident would have a lasting impact on the pharmaceutical world. The news must have been bittersweet for Albert Sabin, who was still working on his live-virus version. Sabin completed human trials of his oral vaccine in 1957, and it was approved in 1962.

Jonas holds up bottles of the culture he used to grow the polio virus. Image via Forbes

Could You Patent the Sun?

Once his vaccine was proven effective, Salk instantly shot to rock star status, much to his dismay. All the attention took time and energy away from his research, and he regretted losing his privacy and anonymity, especially where his research was concerned. Salk received a load of honors for his vaccine, including four honorary degrees and Presidential Medal of Freedom.

In an interview with Edward R. Murrow, he was asked who owned the patent on the vaccine. Salk famously replied, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

Though it’s easy to believe that Salk had completely altruistic intentions and never thought to patent it himself, it has since been discovered that the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis’ lawyers had inquired about it at some point, and were told that the vaccine wasn’t novel enough to warrant a patent. Some would argue that the public had paid for it already through programs like the March of Dimes.

The Salk Institute in La Jolla, CA. Image via Salk Institute

Giving Back: The Salk Institute

Salk was never in it for the money, and he never forgot where he came from. In 1963, he established the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, CA to provide a research space for scientists working toward the elimination of diseases like multiple sclerosis and cancer. The Salk Institute was the kind of place he could only dream of as a student.

Salk died of heart failure in 1995. Toward the end of his life, he had been working on vaccines for cancer, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS.

Jonas Salk had a huge impact on virology, on the United States, and on the longevity of thousands of baby boomers. The world could certainly use more scientists who follow his philosophy of helping humankind as a whole.

Posted in Biography, history, influenza, Original Art, polio, polio vaccine, science, Thomas Francis, vaccine, virology | Leave a comment

Testing Carbon Fibre Reinforced Filament By Building An Over-Engineered Skateboard

Advances in filaments for FDM 3D printers have come in leaps and bounds over the past few years, and carbon fibre (CF) reinforced filament is becoming a common sight. Robotics extraordinaire [James Bruton] got his hands on some CF reinforced PLA, and ended up building a completely over-engineered 3D printed skateboard. (Video, embedded below.)

[James] started by printing some test pieces with a 0.5 mm and a big 1.2 mm nozzle with and without the CF, which he subjected to cantilever deflection tests. The piece with CF was 20% stiffer than without.

[James] then built an extremely strong and cool looking skateboard deck with alternating section of the CF PLA and toughened PLA, totalling 2.7 kg of filament. It was extremely strong, so after bolting on a set of trucks and wheels, he did some mild riding at a local skate park, where it survived without any problems. He admits it was completely over-engineered, but points out in that the internal cavities in the deck is the perfect place for batteries on an electric long board.

Designing something from the ground up with the strength and weaknesses 3D printing in mind, leads to some very interesting and innovative designs, of which this is a perfect example, and we hope to see many more like it. We’ve featured a number of [James]’ project, including the remote controlled bowling ball he built for [Mark Rober] and his impressive OpenDog and Start Wars robots.

Posted in 3D printed longboard, 3d printer filament, 3d Printer hacks, 3d printing, exotic 3D printing filaments, skateboard, transportation hacks | Leave a comment

Electric Dreams Help Cows Survive The Desert Of The Real

Pictures of a cow wearing a pair of comically oversized virtual reality goggles recently spread like wildfire over social media, and even the major news outlets eventually picked it up. Why not? Nobody wants to read about geopolitical turmoil over the holidays, and this story was precisely the sort of lighthearted “news” people would, if you can forgive the pun, gobble up.

But since you’re reading Hackaday, these images probably left you with more questions than answers. Who made the hardware, what software is it running, and of course, why does a cow need VR? Unfortunately, the answers to the more technical questions aren’t exactly forthcoming. Even tracking the story back to the official press release from the Ministry of Agriculture and Food of the Moscow Region doesn’t tell us much more than we can gather from the image itself.

But it does at least explain why somebody went through the trouble of making a custom bovine VR rig: calm cows produce more milk. These VR goggles, should they pass their testing and actually be adopted by the Russian dairy industry, will be the newest addition to a list of cow-calming hardware devices that farmers have been using for decades to get the most out of their herds.

Presented in Cattle-Vision

The press release claims that the VR goggles were modified from commercially available hardware to take into account the shape and size of a cow’s head, but there’s no word of which product served as the basis for the experiment. Given the massive size of the goggles in relation to the cow’s human handler though, it’s safe to assume that whatever headset was used is being completely obscured by the obviously custom enclosure.

That said, because we can see no obvious cables coming from the headset, it’s possible researchers using some variant of the phone-based VR goggles that were all the rage after the release of Google Cardboard. We’ve noticed that excitement over these simple gadgets has waned significantly in the last year or so, but here the idea makes perfect sense. If you’re looking to outfit whole herds of animals with this technology, a basic plastic enclosure that holds a cheap Android device makes perfect sense.

One also has to wonder what sort of optics are required to fool a cow into thinking they’re looking at a real pasture. Like many prey animals, a cow’s binocular vision is minimal when compared to human vision. In other words, they have limited depth perception when looking directly ahead. In fact, it’s said that cows have trouble discerning shadows from actual holes in the ground, and will avoid walking over them. On the other hand, they have excellent panoramic vision which allows them to see nearly 360 degrees without having to move their heads.

Accordingly, it seems there would be little need for the sort of stereoscopic optics used in even low-cost VR headsets. A more likely arrangement would perhaps be a large-format phone (or small tablet) behind a Fresnel lens that would expand the image to fill the cow’s field of view. Since the goggles don’t appear to wrap around the cow’s head it seems unlikely it could provide much more than a 180 degree view for the animal, but that may still be enough to achieve the desired effect.

Adding a New Dimension

It might seem like this technology is a stretch, but one could argue that it’s simply the logical evolution of what dairy farmers have already been doing for decades. For nearly as long as humans have been keeping cows domestically, it’s been known that they seem to enjoy listening to music. In the early days farmers would actually play instruments for their herds, but as technology improved, they installed loudspeakers and piped in recorded audio.

In an oft-referenced 2001 study, psychologists from the University of Leicester observed a 3% increase in milk production in cows that were exposed to slow, relaxing music during the day. That might not seem like a lot on a small scale, but when multiplied by thousands of cows, it’s certainly worth the cost of a few speakers. The science behind this is still not fully understood, and the psychologists explained the experiment was designed primarily to fact-check the anecdotal claims of farmers who were already serenading their animals.

A band performs live music for dairy cows, circa 1930. Image credit: Wisconsin Historical Society

The general consensus is that nervous and agitated cows produce less milk, so anything that can calm them down should result in a noticeable increase in yield. Some even claim the taste of the milk is improved when the animal is more relaxed, but there’s even less science to back up that idea.

Given this, the idea that providing the cows with visual stimulation to go along with the music that many farmers are already playing for them doesn’t seem completely unreasonable. The press release claims that researchers have already found wearing the VR headset seems to improve the cow’s general mood. In the future, a more comprehensive study will be performed to see how much it actually increases milk production over existing techniques.

Life Imitates Art

Even so, it’s hard to look at this experiment and not see it as needlessly complex. After all, humans have been managing to coax milk out of cows for all of recorded history without any video game trickery. But of course, the demands of modern farming are quite a bit different than the idyllic mental images most of us have. If you’re picturing something that looks like what they put on the carton: a handful of cows meandering around a wide-open pasture, complete with grain silos and a windmill in the background; the reality of a high-yield dairy farm might come as something of a shock.

Dairymaster Rotary Milking Parlour

It could be that providing the cows with a vision of a somewhat less dystopian environment might make life in captivity easier for them. If this sounds a bit like the plot of The Matrix, that’s because it literally is. As depressing a realization as it may be, putting cows into a virtual environment where they can forget they’re being mechanically drained of their bodily fluids in service of a technologically superior species might be the nicest thing we can do for them.

From a purely practical standpoint it seems like lining their pens with high-definition displays showing scenes from a spring meadow would make more sense than equipping each cow with an individual video system, but perhaps the simulation wouldn’t be accurate enough. Like Morpheus said, “No one can be told what the Matrix is. You have to see it for yourself.”

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