A group of four Twin Citians-two mechanical engineers, a Web and media specialist, and an artist and contractor-recently took home the grand prize at a national inventor competition for creating, well, a giant hamster wheel that receives texts messages and prints them on the ground.
Dillon Hodapp, David Heisserer, Nathan Knutson, and Cory Huseby traveled to Brooklyn, New York, to show off their talents at the annual Red Bull Creation event.
They were selected to compete with 15 other teams and had 72 hours to create something that would wow a crowd of spectators and a panel of judges.
The rules were pretty flexible: Teams had to adhere to the theme of "energy in motion" and were required to build something that could move the weight of a person (without using fossil fuels). The projects were then graded on their functionality and how complicated they were.
The team from Minneapolis, called "1.21 Jigawatts"-paying homage to Back to the Future-won by a unanimous vote.
Their project, dubbed "Paper Trail," is bizarre to say the least, but its complexity and the audience participation that the team garnered won the favor of the judges.
The inventors built an eight-foot-tall "hamster wheel" out of two sheets of plywood-large enough for a human to walk in, according to 1.21 Jigawatts member and electrical engineer Dillon Hodapp.
The giant wheel was then connected to a wireless network using Arduino, an open source-based microcomputer; a cellular module; and a phone SIM card, which assigned the system its own phone number.
Audience members were asked to send text messages to the system, which pulled a small trailer holding a "printer" with a row of seven paint cans. The text messages sent a signal to the printer, which in turn fired the proper paint cans to spell out the words from the text message.
A large piece of paper was wrapped around the hamster wheel so that the printed messages could be torn off and taken home by audience members as souvenirs, Hodapp said. (See additional photos of the product at CoolThings.com.)
Hodapp acknowledges that the project isn't the easiest to describe, but he says it may actually have some practical applications. For example, the contraption's "awe factor" could make it an interesting marketing tool for companies.
The $5,000 in prize money that the four inventors received will serve as seed money as they launch a business on the heels of their success in Brooklyn.
Heisserer runs Minneapolis-based design firm White on White Design Build, and Hodapp said the group of inventors will "piggyback" off that existing company to market their engineering and design services. "We've proven we have the chops now" and can do sophisticated projects with a fast turnaround, he said. "We're keeping the momentum going-we've got to strike while the iron's hot."
The Washington Post took a crack at describing several of the competition's off-the-wall creations, including a "clay-powered mobile pod with suspended electricity-generating swing set" and "an electric hybrid tricycle fitted with a dryer that also works as a humongous blender." Read more here.