Thursday, December 15, 2016

Last-Minute Stocking Contest Entry Takes the Cake!

The place I work at during the day tries to foster a whole lot of creativity as we tackle tough problems from many different angles, starting with carefully designed user experiences and including the best performance and functionality in order to delight our customers.  We have incredibly talented people working as leaders and contributors on our tech and design teams, and it takes lots of incentives in order to keep a team such as this together without suffering from attrition.  Many of my coworkers came from the startup world and, for all we know, are only trying to pay off some bills while chasing their great big hit on the side.

One particular perk I've had a big hand in lately hasn't quite been mentioned on the Internet yet that I could tell, other than hinted at within various event invitations that you could probably dig up if you tried hard or maybe within social media interactions originating from the attendees, thus I'll refrain from talking about that particular perk in great detail just yet.  However, I'll say that out of this particular resource, we held a Christmas stocking decorating contest.

This contest kicked off on Nov. 30 during one of the monthly parties in our workspace, and I saw many people from the design team crank out very creative stocking ideas within just a short period of time.  While I was standing there awed by this raw talent being flaunted, two directors came up to me and said "I expect that yours will have LEDs on it."  The challenge was on!

Early entries in the contest.

I still didn't know what exactly the theme should be, and as someone who has spent more than the last three years writing incredibly geeky posts on this blog regarding various aspects of game shows, options, software, and hardware, I know that my right brain has a very hard time actually executing on its vision, if it can even come up with something that looks good in the first place.  I think I used up all my artistic energy being the Vice President of Public Relations for the Residential College Board at Northwestern University from 2006-08, so it would require a lot of meditation, hopes, and prayers to see it through.

Enter Stacy, who can certainly execute well on the good ideas that come out of her brain.  She definitely has her own style, and while it might not be quite as polished as people who do this for a living, it's amazing that someone can have such a strong left brain and right brain.  She fulfills that artistic side which at one time I thought I had for myself, but now that I have her for myself, I won one in the end anyway.  (We keep trying to figure out who got the better end of the deal in our relationship. :-P)

Anyway, my initial thoughts on the matter revolved around using my secret "charlieplex110" project (well mostly kept secret from the Internet; folks at work have seen it and maybe you've seen it on Google+ if you were watching closely) on the stocking in order to display messages, but thought that wouldn't be very Christmas-y and not really be easily integrated into a Christmas theme.  Using a BriteBlox display would be silly because the dot pitch on those things would be too large to display a coherent Christmas-related message without spanning several stockings.

The weekend before the contest, I intended to bring a blank stocking home and meditate on it in order to come up with a vision for what I wanted -- except I forgot it somewhere and ended up getting distracted with other things over the weekend.  Then I had a holiday party to attend on Monday night, which left me with strictly Tuesday in order to finish the stocking for the Wednesday afternoon contest.  I was hoping to bounce things off Stacy that night, but she spent most of the night fixing her mother's computer and didn't get home until very late.  As such, in my soporific and possibly somewhat depressed state of mind, I had a flash of inspiration to make Santa's sleigh being pulled by reindeer.  Also, the reindeer needed to have moving legs.  But, in fact, doing all that would be really tedious, so I settled on just having one reindeer with legs affixed to the servo motor.  I finally managed to churn out some code that would light a string of WS2812 LEDs (which I had just had a lot of first-hand experience with) with alternating & switching red & green colors, and then also spin a servo motor 90 degrees in order to move the legs, using the Sparkfun Pro Micro development board.  Most of this was, in fact, code that was easily leveraged from other projects, but still seemed to take me more time to finish for some reason than I'm willing to admit.

Some of the hurdles I faced included:

  • Not being able to find felt anywhere -- I wanted to use felt in the construction of Rudolph on the stocking
  • One of my servos didn't want to work with the Pro Micro, and the other servo had a smaller Grove-style interface that couldn't hook up directly with the headers on the Pro Micro
  • I wanted to include a PIR sensor to make these effects motion-activated, but didn't know where it was off-hand and wasted too much time locating other things
Once I got the LED strip and the servo all working in harmony, it was time to draw the artwork.  We have a large collection of colored Sharpie markers at home, and despite being the normal size, the lines actually came out quite thin on the stocking due to the type of material it was made out of.  I'll just say again that people who have the capability to draw fascinate me.  I used to think I had a knack for drawing too, but now I'll say I've pretty much been reduced to just tracing patterns onto the paper and then doing coloring on top.  That's fine, though my stocking came out way more hand-drawn than many of the other offerings that took advantage of the physical accent pieces available to add.

My goal was to keep it hidden until adding the final feature to it right before the contest; that would be a blinking nose for Rudolph.  It took me way longer than it should have just to blink a stupid LED, thanks in part to having to improvise on some of the cabling, said cabling being difficult to put together (and having to cope with long leads liable to touch each other), and then a goofy firmware glitch I caused when I tried to write the servo data and toggle the LED from the same output pin.  Unfortunately this problem was compounded when Windows stopped acknowledging my Pro Micro on the USB port.  Of course, when Windows screws up, you have to reboot, and it's not quite as smart as Mac OS is about re-spawning all your applications.  However, even a reboot didn't fix it right away; it took somehow even more monkeying with the Arduino IDE (sigh) before I could re-upload the firmware with the bug fix.  By this time, the party had already started, but not a lot of folks had voted yet.

Electioneering Efforts Near the Polling Place

The vice-president over me, who is mostly in charge of the Tech side of things (i.e. not Design), quizzed my teammates on who made a stocking.  It became apparent that I was probably the only person in Tech who attempted it, but was out of pocket trying to get that blasted LED for Rudolph's nose working.  When I went back to my desk, I affirmed that I did in fact have an entry, and I was told to show it to the others in Tech and have them vote for it just to support their own kind, since basically the designers came up with every last other stocking.

Getting it hung up on the judging board was met with a bit of resistance, as the admins were jokingly jealous of the level of awesomeness of the final product.  "No, I'm not putting it up..." "Ok, I'll put it up, but I'm putting my name by it!"  Then, as one of our executives began explaining the rules and procedure of voting, I realized there'd be a problem.  Votes were to be cast by stuffing the stockings with jingle bells that would be counted later, but as mine was stuffed with "electronic crap," there was very little room to put jingle bells inside it and it could even pose a safety hazard (shorting a lithium ion battery) if anyone attempted it.  The crowd gasped and laughed once I basically revealed which one my stocking was.  Some jokingly said "Too bad!" since it was pretty clear (or pretty well-illuminated perhaps) who would win, and others feared it would turn into a popularity contest for me versus the others.  Luckily someone offered a good suggestion to actually hang a blank stocking next to mine, and people could put their jingle bells inside that one so they all would fit without messing up my electronics.  Nevertheless, while I was awkwardly standing nearby someone we are all extremely fortunate to have with us in our group and in life in general, I happened to see the counting committee dump out approximately four jingle bells from inside my actual decorated stocking.  Sigh... At least no one broke anything during either the jingle bell insertion or removal phase!

As the time came, for some reason, it was about as nerve-racking as a contestant awaiting the results of the Super Match on Match Game.  They start by revealing the third place, then move onto the second place, and then finally show the first place winner.  The stakes were high, since the winners would take home Amazon gift cards of up to $100 in value.  Pretty good just for some stocking-making!  Anyway, I can't even remember the other two due to the sheer level of excitement and anticipation (had that feeling before), but I probably wouldn't have written up a close to 2000-word article unless I didn't personally take that $100 prize home.

Afterward, one of the product managers told me to watch my back, as next year, he would be bringing some serious hardware & IoT know-how to the table to make yet another technologically awesome stocking.  Fine with me; after my director told me that mine really exuded the values of our particular workspace and our maker culture, let's hope even the designers take some time to put in hardware features next year!

My lil' ol' contest entry.  Unfortunately, by this time, Rudolph's nose LED wiring fell apart somehow (surprise surprise) and the chenille pipe cleaners being rotated by the servo motor (for "Spider Legs Rudolph") also fell off.  The good news this is already two nights after my contest, so none of my coworkers saw it in such disarray.

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