CellularRecombomat: patch-bay circuit bent cellular automata video synth

This one was very complex. It took me a year to build (with a couple of months in-between having to take a break from it). It turned out an amazing device and well worth the time spent.

It is based on Critter & Guitari's cellular automata video synthesizer board. I bought one of their 1.0 versions with the intent to bend the hell out of it. And that's just what I did. Then it began to fail to send video. I emailed C&G to get a new board (which they had a re-design of) and Owen Osborn graciously offered to take the old non-working board to check out and see why it wasn't working. Thanks, Owen.
I was a bit worried that the new board wouldn't be the same, but Owen assured me it essentially was. And that turned out to pretty much be true. The board had been re-designed to be more modular with socketed ICs instead of tiny board-mount ones, and some of the traces were moved about. Easier to manufacture and swap out ICs as needed. Most of my bends that I had mapped on the previous board worked just fine, although a few didn't quite.

My main idea with this gadget was to have optical control over the three main basic cellular automata (CA) controls (which are controlled by the pots on the right side, from the top): algorithm (the algorithm used to generate the type of cell which also controls what tone is generated based on the object created), width across the grid, and speed of cellular generation, each line generated one at a time from top to bottom. I replaced the LEDs in the snake lites reaching in from behind with optical resistors and each equate to the three pot-based control parameters. Ultimately I wanted to have the optical resistors control the output to the video screen, thus creating a recombinant feedback control loop. I couldn't wait to see what that would look like! But, after casing up, only the algorithm optical control worked. Something inside must have gotten squished or shorted, which is not surprising considering the pile of spaghetti and circuit boards I had to shove into the tiny case (which, by the way, started its life as a VTECH LessonOne, a boring in itself educational toy but the perfect case for this gadget! And, a perfect fit for a 7" LCD monitor ripped from a "broken" portable DVD player.)

See the obligatory construction page for circuit bending pr0n.

As I began to find more and more interesting bends, I decided to add a mini-banana-plug patch bay, more optical controls, and human contact resistance control (the silver spheres).

The patchbay has 3 common and 6 color mods with momentary switches for the most interesting, and 6 video sync mods with 3 momentaries. I added 2 more optical controls, one (the left side of the "control panel") is hooked up to a 6 position rotary switch, 5 positions of optical video sync effects control (great with blinkyblinky LEDs—see the video), the 6th being null (optical off), the other optical is on the right side of the "control panel" with a big switch to turn it on/off and makes some really amazing video sync freakouts, but ended up not working correctly after casing up (and now acts as a human contact resistor when touching it). I'll fix it sometime. This one I'm considering a prototype for a series...


The red button on the side is the reset button. Very important— when caressing the silver spheres, the gadget tends to crash a lot.

The back. Switches turn on/off the 3 main optical controls. Here also are the video and audio outputs.

The two silver spheres on each side are human contact resistance controls which freak out the video sync and audio in wondrous ways. The one on the left (from the front) is hooked thru a 5Meg pot to adjust sensitivity (it was very very sensitive) and as an added by-product, in certain situations the pot acts as an antennae, changing certain graphic characteristics by my hand's proximity without touch. Neat! The right side (from the front) silver ball acts as a secondary HCR point in conjunction with the first and with the 5Meg pot allows some really nice noise output control (unfortunately the video goes black during the noisy audio output bits).

A nice shot showing a good example of the basic cellular automata generator. A "neighborhood" of inverted triangles is a classic CA artifact.

One thing that I discovered while getting it ready to perform at BentFest LA 2008 was that the really excellent video glitch effects were sync manipulation bends. Modern monitors and projectors can't handle a non-amplified/non-Time Base Corrected analog signal with sync issues.
Whenever I initiated a sync bend (via patch, human contact, or momentary) each monitor I tested it on behaved differently. A small older LCD monitor did really great blackwhite flashy flash and a 19" modern Dell LCD kinda kept sync but still flipped and flashed differently than the gadget's internal 7" Zenith LCD (portable DVD: casing and guts stripped to base level support of LCD display then installed into the gadget) that lost sync in an interesting and aesthetic way (ie: not going to bluescreen and/or "Looking for Input").
Since I didn't have handy a TBC, I ended up kludging the problem by sending video out simultaneously to the internal LCD and to a matching external Zenith Portable DVD player (similar to the one I stripped for the internal), a Canon DV cam pointed at its display and continuing the optical signal out to the video projector—a wonka-sized macro optical isolator to stabilize the video and defeat sync loss and accompanying annoying "Searching for Sync" messages.
I packed the secondary display and the video camera into an innocuous brown box with a lid that sat on the stage next to me, cables streaming out of the handle-holes. It worked. Although the degradation of the output due to shooting off a video screen (blooming and color de-saturation) didn't match the quality of the internal display, it too became an interesting downstream filter for the projected video. In addition, the show was outdoor and the screen was blowing back and forth, adding a whole layer of narrow dimensionality.
See here for a sample of what the camera saw. Crazy.

One more full frontal shot.

Check out those knobs! Yowza!

And another last back shot. Pretty dots!

The metallic spheres also act as holders for the patch cables during performance.


Completed: 4/13/08
Dimensions: 11.5" wide x 6.5" high x 7.5" deep
Current Status:

In its pretty little case.

Audio Bits:

Go here for a whole dang 16 minute video, shot at the LA Bent2008, 4/17/08, where I performed the CellularRecombomat for the first time after just finishing it 4 days before. Whew!