Halloween: A Holiday For Gadgets

For gadget lovers, Halloween is more geeky than spooky. Mark Frauenfelder, editor-in-chief of Make Magazine, talks about the geekiest do-it-yourself Halloween costumes and decorations, from spray foam guts and singing pumpkins to a fortune-teller costume built on a Segway.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about Halloween science, and this is the time of the year for geeks gone wild - tinkering with tiny motors, you have your LED lights, fake blood, fog machines, time, money, creativity all going into making each Halloween geekier and techier than the last one, and that's what we're here to celebrate. We're going to talk about how to geek-up your Halloween.

Maybe you do that already. Do you have a great geek project for Halloween you could suggest to us? We'd like to hear about it. We're looking at the most innovative ways to geek-up Halloween 2009 from, you know, simple things. I guess it is pretty simple to reinvent the jack-o'-lantern using LEDs, or you can create holograms with some home videos.

So perhaps, as I say, you have a geeky costume you've created. Have you seen those pair of iPhones that those two geeks on YouTube are wearing, those giant iPhones, and they work? Well, maybe you've got something to go along with that.

My guest is Mark Frauenfelder. He is editor-in-chief of Make Magazine. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mark.

Mr. MARK FRAUENFELDER (Editor-In-Chief, Make Magazine): Thanks, Ira.

FLATOW: Is it - does it get geekier every year, every Halloween?

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah, I think it absolutely gets geekier every year and that's because, thanks to the Internet, people can build on their past creations and learn from each other and expand on that. So there's this kind of rapid evolution taking place. And you know, before - in the earlier days before the Internet, there were kind of the standard tricks that people knew. But now, it's just an explosion of stuff out there.

FLATOW: Well, let's see what's out there. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. Also, we're taking tweets @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I, and also in Second Life.

So let's talk about - what's your favorite thing this year?

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Well, there are a lot of them that I really like, but I think my favorite is one of the most gruesome ones, and it's this electric chair simulator, where the guy has set up a dummy that looks like a human body with a black blanket over his head and these big electrodes going into his body. He's sitting in a chair and next to it, it looks like a voltage generator, and it tells kind of a whole story.

All of a sudden, these sirens start blasting and this light starts flashing, warning people to stand away. And then you hear this tremendous noise of like a dynamo revving up, and then the guy gets hit with this huge jolt of electricity. And he starts screaming and his body's shaking, and smoke is pouring out of his body and the sparks are flying. And then it winds down. You hear the generator wind down, and the guy just kind of goes limp. And the whole thing takes about 45 seconds, and it's just riveting. You can watch a video of it on YouTube.

FLATOW: And is this something you're greeted at when you get to -go trick-or-treating at their door?

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah, yeah, sure - you know, these kind of garage and front-yard haunted houses.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: This is a chance for geeks to show their stuff.

FLATOW: Is there anything a little simpler that you could do if you want to geek something out? I talked about LEDs. I guess you could do that if you want to decorate your pumpkin, right?

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yes, sure. There's a lot of easy little projects you can do. A popular one is to make a Cylon pumpkin. So you have that little kind of row of LED lights zipping back and forth across the eyes of the pumpkin, simple little things like that. Or remote controls, from little remote-control cars to, you know, turn a motor that bangs a pie tin inside the jack-o'-lantern, things like that. There's all levels. It's open to everyone.

FLATOW: Yeah. And what about costume making? Are there any geeky things? I was mentioning these two guys on YouTube with that iPhone - those iPhone costumes that really work.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Oh, yeah. That's incredible. Well, you know, the year before they made these iPhone costumes with 37-inch, flat-screen television monitors to simulate the screen, but they were non-operational. This year, they're using 42-inch, flat-screen TVs powered by car batteries that are dangling between their legs - this whole get-up weighs 85 pounds. And they are actually projecting the image from their iPhone, a real iPhone, onto that 42-inch screen. So it's really working. You're seeing an actual iPhone in operation - a tremendous amount of work to do this.

FLATOW: I'll bet. Is there something simpler, like a home gadget that lots of people are using?

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Well, I think one of the most popular gadgets is actually an old windshield-wiper motor. Because of the way that the levers work and the back-and-forth motion, you can make ghosts and you can make things try jumping out of cages or boxes or things like that. That's a really popular thing.

FLATOW: Yeah, I guess you could do that right on your front stoop. You could put that up there, and you could rock a skeleton back and forth with that motor.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Articulated ghosts, that's really popular - all those kinds of things.

FLATOW: And there were some very simple things on your Web site. You show something as simple as making tombstones out of poured concrete -that are pretty easy to do.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah, sure. You can do that or, you know, making tombstones out of carved blocks of Styrofoam and then painting them works well, and then also using that kind of - that spray that people use to kind of close up cracks in their outer walls to prevent draft, just like an expanding kind of insulating foam.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: You can use that to spray out, and it expands, and then you can add wires and strings and then paint it red, and it looks a lot like guts and gore. And so that's a really popular thing, and then you spray it with clear acrylic to make it shiny and even grosser.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's go to Gus, Gus in Indiana. Hi, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

GUS (Caller): Hi, thanks for taking my call.

FLATOW: Go ahead.

GUS: This is a phenomenal industry to be involved in, the haunted house industry, the professional end of things.

FLATOW: Is that right?

GUS: I've been at it for 10 years and over the years, I've seen - and the Internet is a big portion of the cause of it, but I've seen just a huge rise in the level of animatronics, pneumatics, sensors, controllers. It's - every year at the trade shows that we go to, the national trade shows, there is new ideas, new people, new companies starting up and doing well. It's an awesome industry. There was actually over $7 billion spent on the haunted industry last year.

FLATOW: Seven billion bucks on haunting.

GUS: Yeah.

FLATOW: That's haunting.

GUS: Correct.

FLATOW: So every year, they're trying to outdo the products they had the year before.

GUS: Absolutely. And this industry is very free, free-sharing. You get a product, you go buy someone's product and then make it do something it never was meant to do or, you know, enhance it in a style that fits your attraction. And so there's a lot of that going on. There are some real creative people in the industry.

FLATOW: All right. Good luck, Gus, and have a happy Halloween.

GUS: Hey, thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Laura in Brooklyn, New York. Hi, Laura.

LAURA (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

LAURA: I have an animatronic rat.

FLATOW: An animatronic rat.

LAURA: Yeah. It's big. I got one of those big, plastic rats from a Halloween store and then a remote control Jeep, a toy Jeep, and you take the chassis off the Jeep and then mount the rat on the body, or on the guts, and it's very scary. We painted the wheels black, so you can't see them, and put LED eyes on the rat. Very creepy.

FLATOW: Anybody try to hit it with a baseball bat or something?

LAURA: Well, (unintelligible). This is the first year we've done it. So we're concerned because I love my rat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I think that's a first on SCIENCE FRIDAY, Laura.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But it's a great - because you can go to Radio Shack or any of these stores and buy a lot of these remote control things.

LAURA: Yeah, I mean, it was really - well, I have to say my husband did the work, but it was my idea.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And I guess depending on your neighborhood, the rat will look real, a big or small rat, depending on where you live.

LAURA: Well, you know, when it's dark, you really can't tell it's a toy. It's - we tried it out last night, and it's very scary.

FLATOW: You could give somebody a heart attack with that.

LAURA: Well, I hope not, but yeah. I have a feeling we might not give away a lot of candy because if they get past the rat, you know, they do, but - and then we have more creepy stuff going on past the rat. There's - well, never mind. But�

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's for another show, Laura.

LAURA: Sorry?

FLATOW: That's for another show, I think.

LAURA: Yeah, yeah.

FLATOW: All right, have a happy Halloween.

LAURA: All right. You, too. Bye.

FLATOW: And that's a really easy thing to do. I mean, Mark, I mean, you just get a body of remote control stuff and put whatever you want on there.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah, sure. I mean, that's the fun thing about this - is that you just kind of remix and reuse technology that people have spent millions of dollars to develop, and then you can buy, you know, a remote control car for five to 20 bucks, and you've got a zombified baby's head on it or something, and you've got yourself a pretty cool Halloween prop.

FLATOW: Wow. Let's go to Stefan(ph) in Anchorage, Alaska. Hi, there.

STEFAN (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi.

STEFAN: Happy Halloween.

FLATOW: Happy Halloween to you.

STEFAN: One suggestion I have is - I've been home-haunting for years now, is what they call a flying crank ghost. It is an electric motor on an aluminum frame, and it basically has a crank that you attach three strings to and you make a marionette puppet out of a ghost. And then you hang it in your window, and it moves up and down. The kids absolutely love it. You light it up with a black light and, I mean, the kids absolutely love it. You can Google it: flying crank ghost. It's one of the easiest home-haunt props to make, and it's a lot of fun.

FLATOW: Mark, are you familiar with this?

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah, I am. In fact, in our - we have a special issue of Make that's completely devoted to Halloween props, and we talk quite a bit about the flying crank ghosts and explain how to make one. That's an old classic that is very versatile and is a great effect, and it uses the windshield wiper motor. But that's kind of a must-have if you're going to have�

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: �a good home haunted house.

FLATOW: All right, Stefan�

STEFAN: It's a great prop to start with and get the tombstone, foam tombstones, and you're good to go. And I think a home haunt in your front yard is a great thing that kind of brings the whole neighborhood aspect. The kids all come out and enjoy it. So Happy Halloween.

FLATOW: You work your way up from there. Happy Halloween to you.

STEFAN: All right. Bye.

FLATOW: Bye-bye. Mark, you get the idea that, you know, home haunting is starting to rival Christmas decorations on some of these people's homes?

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah, I think so. I think there's more opportunities to have fun with Halloween.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Christmas is fun too, and people do great stuff with it. But really, you're completely unlimited when it comes to Halloween to doing things, you know?

FLATOW: What's a good way to trick trick-or-treaters, as they're coming up to your door there?

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Well, I think it's always fun to startle them, you know, as opposed to scare them, because it's an instant reaction.

One of our editors at Make made this funny little jack-o'-lantern that has a big red button for a nose. And if you see a big red button on Halloween, of course you're going to push it. I mean, you can't not push a big red button. And so when you push it, nothing happens for three to five seconds because it has a built-in delay.

And then this really loud car horn inside the pumpkin goes off. It's really loud, and people will literally jump out of their skins when it happens. Even the guy who made it, Marc de Vinck, every time he does it to himself, it scares himself.

FLATOW: Wow, that's pretty easy to make.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Very easy to make, yeah. And a lot of these projects use microcontrollers, which are little, electronic components that are getting very inexpensive now. And they basically can be programmed to control a variety of devices like fog machines, lighting, sound effects, motors. And that kind of thing has really taken Halloween to a new level, using these microcontrollers.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Brad in Wichita. Hi, Brad.

BRAD (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi there.

BRAD: Hello.

FLATOW: You're on.

BRAD: (Unintelligible)

FLATOW: Go ahead.

BRAD: Really, the one thing that we have is, up in Topeka we've got a live action gaming society, it's called Heroic. And effectively, we do Halloween once a month every year.

FLATOW: Wow.

BRAD: Mm-hmm. And we've got all sorts of little - little - an ax and props that go on. And one of the fun things that I've seen is somebody used water and a denatured alcohol to set his hands on fire without actually hurting himself. And he could just put out real quick�

(Soundbite of laughter)

BRAD: �but it was kind of a nice effect. And it's just, not only using motors and props but it's also using chemistry to help with all the different things you can have for Halloween.

FLATOW: Well, we're not advocating that on Try This At Home Section.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That's - we'll leave that to the professionals. That's kind of dangerous to set yourself on fire, so�

BRAD: Oh, absolutely, absolutely. It takes a lot of safety.

FLATOW: All right, Brad. Thanks for calling.

What about creating moods, Mark? I'm talking with Mark Fraudenfelder, who is editor-in-chief of Make magazine. And you guys develop whole sections to making stuff by yourself. What about mood? You know, there's a lot of, I'm thinking of fog-generating machines and lights that create effects that you think you see something but it's not there.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah. Well, fog is an essential component to Halloween. It gives an eerie feeling, and it also does things like hides cables and wires and, you know, removes some of the details so it that just gives an overall eerie appearance. It's really important to chill the fog, you know? If you have a standard fog machine, the fog will dissipate pretty quickly.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: But if you chill it first, it really helps. And so they have at these haunt cons, this big annual Halloween convention, they have a thing called a chill-off contest, where people bring in their homemade fog-chilling machines. And the best one turns out to be a big, plastic trash can with a whole bunch of dryer duct, that kind of aluminum�

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: �plastic tubing.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: And then you pack the trash can filled with ice and you run the fog through that tube, and it gets really cold when it comes out. And then it just hangs out there, really�

FLATOW: Hugs the ground.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah. So, we show you how to make that award-winning fog chiller. And that's something that's inexpensive and really will, you know, double the effectiveness of your haunted house.

FLATOW: We're talking about haunting things this hour on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow with Mark Fraunfelder, editor-in-chief of Make magazine. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Alex in Kalamazoo. Hi, Alex.

ALEX (Caller): Hey, how's it going?

FLATOW: Hey.

ALEX: I love the show. We enjoy it every day after school.

FLATOW: Thank you.

ALEX: I was calling - the last year - I've actually got two Halloween ideas -last year what I did was, I took a webcam and an LCD screen from like, an old monitor that I wasn't using anymore. And I used the microcontrollers, just like he was saying, with the (unintelligible) chip, to create a little pouch on my waist that had a battery there, and I powered the webcam through that as well as the LCD screen. So then I cut a bunch of holes in my clothes, and the webcam was basically just showing exactly what was behind me.

So it looked like I had holes in my shirt and like, holes all the way through my body there, so...

FLATOW: So you had the screen on your stomach pointing behind you with a webcam.

ALEX: Yep. And then the webcam would show exactly what was behind me. So people would look at me from the front and they, you know, it was all kind of gored up on my shirt and like - things like that, people would look at me from the front, and they would see exactly what was behind me. So it was like they were looking through me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Really cool.

FLATOW: Yes.

ALEX: Yeah. I mean, I can't take credit for that 100 percent. You know, I got the idea - I love Make magazine. I just got - my subscription ended. I need to renew it, but college is expensive. But I love Make magazine, and I like instructables.com. That's another cool like, do-it-yourself Web site that I kind of got a couple of ideas there. And you know, I love the big community of the do-it-yourselfers. You know, it's a big thing now and it's great. So�

FLATOW: Well - that's a great suggestion, Alex. Thanks for sharing it with us. Good luck.

ALEX: Have a Happy Halloween.

FLATOW: You too. Interesting, but you got to be a little - you got to be a little experienced with the sautering iron on that one.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah. There are certain ones that are very sophisticated, for sure.

FLATOW: And the people, you know, they - when you think of all the planning that must go into some of these costumes, it could take, you know, a year to do them�

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah, definitely. It's a year. Some people ramp up - as soon as Halloween's over, they're getting started on next season, you know, what they learned and - from their experience and - because it's just a great opportunity to show off what you know, and share your technical prowess with other people.

FLATOW: Let's go to Mike in Colorado. Hi, Mike.

MIKE (Caller): Hello there. What a great show�

FLATOW: Thank you.

MIKE: �for Halloween. I was going to go as the swine flu, but everyone is doing that. And here in Colorado, the Balloon Boy is big. So I'm going as Balloon Boy's dad, with a convict outfit - but I got this inflatable helium UFO at the hobby store - 80 bucks. And it has even the remote control servers and the transmitter. And it's going to be, you know, great with, you know, the helium UFO and dad, who's not going to jail - probably.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: That is topical, if nothing else. What do you think, Mike - Mark? Are you getting requests for balloon boy things this year at all?

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: I haven't gotten any specific requests, but I have seen a few examples of jack-o'-lanterns that are just pumpkins flipped upside down and painted silver to pay homage to balloon boy.

FLATOW: All right. We're going to take a short break. We'll come back and talk a little more with Mark Frauenfelder, editor in chief of Make magazine. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us because we'll also talk about the mind of a zombie after that. So we'll be right back after this short break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

Let's see if we can go to the phones. Get a caller - to want to hear more - Randy from Cincinnati. Hi, Randy. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY. Hi there.

RANDY (Caller): Hi. How are you? You know, you're talking about something that I really love to do and haven't done it for the last couple of years. But one of the first things I did is I work in the automation industry, and I deal with servo motors a lot. And I actually put about a 3-foot spider on a clothes line, essentially, and ran the clothes line on the ground and then (unintelligible) to the clothes line, and it would move about 20 feet per second, which was really fast, so it would actually burn the rope after a few moves. And one of the most memorable things as a little boy, I was walking up in a dinosaur costume and I let the spider go, and he actually fell over. So it was a really cool, little front yard haunt.

FLATOW: Wow. Got a lot of attention, I'll bet.

RANDY: Yeah, yeah. Kids still talk about it to this day, and I keep thinking about making it again, but don't have access to the equipment anymore. It was quite expensive stuff that I would borrow.

FLATOW: Oh yeah, you needed special parts from the motor pool.

RANDY: Yup, yup. But�

FLATOW: All right. Randy, thanks. Yeah, Mark, it's - if you can get the parts, you can make the stuff.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: That's right. And the good thing is that we're living in a time when people, well, I guess, good and bad - people discard perfectly good stuff - and makers and DIYers can grab that stuff and repurpose it.

FLATOW: And not only that, we're living on a time we're the Internet allows you to find any part you'd want for just about anything.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah. It's like an indexable scrap yard that you can zero in on things right away.

FLATOW: Yeah. And you can go to your Web site at makezine.com and all kinds of stuff about making these Halloween items.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: I want to thank you for taking time to be with us, Mark. And have a good Halloween.

Mr. FRAUENFELDER: Yeah. Happy Halloween to you, too, Ira. Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. That was Mark Frauenfelder, editor-in-chief of Make magazine and - talking about our geekiest Halloween ever this year.

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