Geek Out To Freak Out On Halloween

Halloween may be the biggest do-it-yourself holiday in America, where creative types turn their cars into Batmobiles and their jack-o'-lanterns into computerized Silly String squirters. Instructables founder and CEO Eric Wilhelm talks about these and other crafty projects for Halloween.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

The spookiest holiday of the year is just around the corner. I'm talking about Halloween. And while do-it-yourselfers might get their kicks at Christmas by stringing up elaborate Santa displays or, at Thanksgiving, building that deep fryer in the yard for the turkey - stand back -Halloween is the biggest do-it-yourself holiday of the year. When people turn their houses into haunted mansions, their cars into Batmobiles or they transform innocent, little jack-o'-lanterns into computerized, silly string scooters that tweet about their victims - you don't have one of those? No? Well, we're going to tell you how to get one. I'm not joking. You can build one of these yourself right here. We'll tell you how to do it.

And the person to do it is Eric Wilhelm. He's founder and CEO of Instructables in San Francisco, California. And if you'd like to talk with us about that, our number is 1-800-989-8255. If you've got some hints on how to geek up your own Halloween, your backyard, your whatever, how to make that Chilean miner costume complete with, you know, that little device around you that can pick you up or put you down, well, maybe we can figure out how to do that. 1-800-989-8255.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And also, you can tweet us @scifri, @-S-C-I-F-R-I.

Eric Wilhelm, founder and CEO of Instructables, welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. ERIC WILHELM (Founder and CEO, Instructables): Hi. How are you doing?

FLATOW: Every year, you guys have a Halloween contest for the best do-it-yourself projects. Who won last year?

Mr. WILHELM: So my favorite project from last year was a life-size Batmobile Tumbler and Batman-themed haunted house. So one of our users built a full-scale Batmobile, had a Batman sitting at his window, a bunch of bats flying around, and really turned his neighborhood into an almost-theme park.

FLATOW: Wow. What kind of do-it-yourself costume ideas are you seeing for this year?

Mr. WILHELM: Well, we've got there's a lot of fun ones, particularly the kids' costumes. There's a great Popeye costume that just came in. And there are there's flying dragons, Lego Indiana Jones, how to put bats on your spokes of your bike. And then one of the ones I did last year was a three-armed baby costume.

FLATOW: Three-armed baby costume. You have a lot of Lady Gaga costumes.

Mr. WILHELM: We yeah, we - some of the editors here at Instructables chose Lady Gaga's costumes as something that we wanted to do. You know, she has some really distinctive and fun outfits, and so we made a bunch of those for Halloween.

FLATOW: Our Spanish editor, Alicia Biac(ph), who comes from South America, was saying, you know, he's going to get as a Chilean miner. And I said, how do you how could you build the capsule? You could put the capsule, the rescue capsule, around you. You have any ideas how you might build that?

Mr. WILHELM: So there's actually one just came in that was similar, which is somebody built a sushi restaurant. And so he's walking around with a full sushi bar and signage and serving up sashimi.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Where can we get that tube? If you want to make that - you know, you want to make the rescue capsule, what kind of tube? Where could you find that?

Mr. WILHELM: Well, you know, most people built their big costumes out of cardboard and they paint it.

FLATOW: Ah.

Mr. WILHELM: That's the trick. The costumes that are just that are big and look gorgeous tend to be painted cardboard.

FLATOW: Wow. Tell me about this - I mentioned this at the introduction. Tell me about this jack-'o-lantern that that squirts string, silly string and tweets about their victims. Did you actually build one of those?

Mr. WILHELM: I have not built this one. But this is a popular project from Instructables. And it's a jack-'o-lantern. And inside, there is a microcontroller, and it's got a little motion sensor. So when you walk close to it, it realizes that you're there, and then it sprays you with silly string. It has a servo, a little motor that presses down on the nozzle of the silly string and then sprays it out. And then to and you finalize the trick. It sends a wireless signal over to a computer that then tweets about it on the Web.

FLATOW: Wow. So everybody gets to know.

Mr. WILHELM: That's exactly right. And the full instructions are on this project.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones - Elaine(ph) in Buffalo, New York. Hi, Elaine.

ELAINE (Caller): Hi.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Welcome.

ELAINE: Thank you. I love this show.

FLATOW: Thank you.

ELAINE: We take mozzarella cheese balls, the fresh mozzarella, and hollow them out. And then you stuff in an olive that has a pimento in them, so they look like eyeballs.

FLATOW: Ooh.

ELAINE: And we put them all over the place. And they're kind of gross, but they're fun.

FLATOW: And you pop it out and eat it.

ELAINE: Absolutely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILHELM: One of my favorite food Halloween projects is melon brains, where you take two melons...

FLATOW: Yes.

Mr. WILHELM: ...remove their rind. And then you actually cut the melon so it has, like, the folds of the human brain. And you serve it out so it's look like you're eating this big, human brain.

ELAINE: Yummy.

FLATOW: There you go. That's that could be this year's, Elaine.

ELAINE: Happy Halloween.

FLATOW: You, too.

ELAINE: Bye.

FLATOW: Thanks for the tip. You're not going to hear that on Martha Stewart. 1-800-989-8255. A lot of these projects are at instructables.com. And you're using little computer microcontrollers called Arduino. Right? A lot of people haven't hard about these. Tell us about it.

Mr. WILHELM: Yes. So an Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform, and it's really for designers and hobbyists who want to make interactive objects. And I'll say that another way, which is if you want to make something that interacts with someone and maybe turns on some lights or controls the motors or makes some sound, this is a little computer that makes it easy to do that. So you can hook up sensors like temperature sensors or buttons or air quality sensors, and then have them do something like turn on lights or control motors.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And if somebody wants to get started with this stuff, you - do you offer kits for them to help...

Mr. WILHELM: We have a bunch of instructions on our site...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. WILHELM: ...but the place that I actually go for kits is a site called adafruit. So it's A-D-A-fruit.com.

FLATOW: Adafruit. And you can build these geeky things.

1-800-989-8255. Daryl in Hollywood. Hi, Daryl. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

DARYL (Caller): Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

DARYL: We - I'm a member of the Association of Special Effects Artists in Hollywood. And every year at Halloween, the special effects folks and the make up folks have a contest. And the - all the studios make submissions and tell what they're going to do. And the - the two that are in the four finalists this year, one is they're going to recreate a plane crash will all the associated blood, guts and gore.

And the other group is going to simulate a morgue where they're actually doing autopsies, but the bodies are live people. And it looks so real, like an open chest cavity, and that at some point in time, one of these people will - the cadaver, per se, will look over at the audience and shout at them. And it makes for a great effect.

FLATOW: Wow. Daryl, I got to ask you. What did you do as a kid?

(Soundbite of laughter)

DARYL: I've always been interested in special effects. From the time I was about 12 or 13, I was putting together robots first, and then I've been doing Halloween stuff, literally, since I was teenager. And with all the advancements at technology, it makes so much easier now.

FLATOW: Yeah.

DARYL: We can make some stuff that really, really looks realistic.

FLATOW: Are you familiar with this Arduino computer servo?

DARYL: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

FLATOW: Do you use them?

DARYL: Yes.

FLATOW: Wow. Let me bring Eric Wilhelm. Eric, tell us about this - what - I describe it as a mirror that's out of "Snow White." You know, mirror, mirror on the wall, who's the fairest of it all? There's actually a mirror than you can make that will talk back to you.

Mr. WILHELM: Yeah, this is what we call the DIY Magic Mirror. And so what it is, is it's a mirror that is - that has a screen behind it from an old laptop, and then it's hooked up such that when you get close, it plays some videos to tell you how fair you are, to tell you, you know, the weather or to, you know, give you a spook. And it looks very much like a magic mirror from the movies.

FLATOW: Wow. And you can build that yourself?

Mr. WILHELM: All the instructions are on Instructables.

FLATOW: So Daryl, you're going to be pretty busy this Halloween.

DARYL: Yeah. We always are. But we have a lot of fun.

FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to call.

DARYL: Pleasure.

Mr. WILHELM: Yeah, Daryl, I hope you consider putting the projects up on Instructables. We're running a great contest.

DARYL: Okay. Thanks.

FLATOW: All right, thanks. 1-800-989-8255. Any pumpkin carving tips for us, Eric?

Mr. WILHELM: So one of the fun ones is to actually etch the pumpkin. So you carve some areas, but then you etch others so the light can go through and you can make grayscale.

FLATOW: You - say that again. You - tell us how to do that?

Mr. WILHELM: You can print out a picture.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. WILHELM: And you can trace it onto the pumpkin.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. WILHELM: And then you can cut some of the areas all the way through to do the white areas of the picture.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILHELM: And then the black areas are where it's uncut. But the gray areas of the picture are where you scrape the skin of the pumpkin down. You etch it down, so that the light can actually come through a little bit.

FLATOW: Ah.

Mr. WILHELM: You can get some control over that, and you can do some really fantastic pumpkin carving using that technique.

FLATOW: You know, a lot of...

Mr. WILHELM: You don't just have on and off.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. WILHELM: You can actually - you can vary the light that comes through.

FLATOW: A lot of people, you know, either put candles or lights inside. Can you put a laser beam inside of it?

Mr. WILHELM: We have a couple of Halloween jack-o'-lanterns with lasers in them, and the laser kind of like shoot out the mouth. And if you have a fog machine, it looks really fantastic.

FLATOW: Wow. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Jerry in Saginaw. Hi, Jerry.

JERRY (Caller): Hey, how you guys doing?

FLATOW: Hi, there.

JERRY: Hey. I got an idea for a contaminated radiation suit as a Halloween costume.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WILHELM: Basically, I take one of those paper painter's outfits.

FLATOW: Right.

Mr. WILHELM: I throw in a respirator. I throw the hoodie up on it, and I put on a clear mask like you'd, you know, like if you're grinding some equipment, you use one of those clear masks. And then I take the glow sticks, pin them to my underclothing, and it glows through the radiation suit, so it looks like you're contaminated.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILHELM: That's pretty good. We have an oil spill clean-up costume that's really similar. You take the same outfit, but just cover it with black paint. And, you know, you can put, like, various seabirds on your shoulder covered in black paint.

FLATOW: Wow.

JERRY: Excellent. I...

FLATOW: Good luck, Jerry.

JERRY: Thank you.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Where do you get your ideas from, Eric?

Mr. WILHELM: So all of the projects on the site are submitted by people that read it. So we consider them enthusiasts, but for Halloween, they're really Halloween experts.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And one last question: Food is part of this, too, isn't it?

Mr. WILHELM: Absolutely.

FLATOW: You talked about the brain idea. You use a lot of different foods?

Mr. WILHELM: We do, yeah. And there's a couple of fun ones. There's a doll-serving dish, where you actually hollow out the chest cavity of a doll and serve guacamole or something, you know, equally creepy out of it. And then we've got some good ones like, hey, what do you with the leftover candy? Making five-minute Halloween candy bark.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right, well, thank you very much for taking time to be with us, Eric.

Mr. WILHELM: You're welcome. Thank you for inviting me.

FLATOW: Eric Wilhelm is founder and CEO of Instructables in San Francisco. And you go to his website and see all kinds of instructable things that you can do to this - for this Halloween.

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