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A 2.7 mile long straightedge that shows you the curvature of the Earth.
A 2.7 mile long straightedge that shows you the curvature of the Earth.
239 backers pledged $13,271 to help bring this project to life.

About this project

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$13,271

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YOU DID IT! We are so grateful to all our amazing backers. Thank you for backing us, spreading the word about our project, and believing in us. We will do our level best to show you something incredible out there in the desert.

STRETCH GOALS! If we can raise a little more, it'll help us make Straightedge even more awesome!

$13,800: Signposts! A pair of signposts at each end of Straightedge, showing the direction and distance to various major cities. But, these are no ordinary signposts, which indicate overland distance and azimuth. Rather, the arrows point *directly* at the cities, down through the planet, and show the straight-line distance as if you were to tunnel through the Earth's crust.

$15,800: Viewing platform! A beautiful wooden platform placed in what we believe to be the optimal position for viewing the sculpture. It will include a seating area, and informational signage explaining the project. We'll detail the facts about the Earth that Straightedge demonstrates, including the size of the Earth, the way the geoid is modeled and sea level calculated, the way earthquakes are measured and modeled, and the role of seismology in building our understanding of the planet's composition.

So, wait, what are you making anyway?

We're building a 2.7 mile (4.3km) straightedge, which you can use to see the curvature of the Earth. We're bringing it to Burning Man, since the Black Rock Playa is one of the few places in the world that's flat enough for this to work.  To make it a reality, we need your help.

When working with curves or angles, human perception isn't naturally very precise. To fix that, we sometimes use a visual reference: like a framing square, a ruler, or a plumb bob. These tools allow us to see subtle changes that would otherwise be invisible.

On a clear day at the ocean, or on a flat desert plain, the Earth's curve is visible to the naked eye. But, it's hard to perceive it because there is no reference. We're building that reference. You'll be able to stand alongside the straightedge and see how the Earth curves. From one end to the other, the total elevation change is about 5 feet (1.5m).

But… why?

The Earth is big: 24,900 miles (40,000 km) around. But, what does that really mean? If there were no oceans and you tried to walk around it, it would take you two years if all you did is walk and sleep. That number is really hard to comprehend, though. Imagine the size of a golf ball. Easy, right? Now, try a basketball. That's pretty easy too. But the whole Earth? It's really hard!

When astronauts see the planet from space, it changes them. They talk about a feeling of awe, or a realization of how trivial human conflicts actually are. This experience is so common and profound, it even has a name: The Overview Effect. Astronaut Sally Ride, when speaking of the emotional impact of seeing the Earth from orbit, said it, "makes theory come alive."

Astronauts talk about many different aspects of the Overview Effect, but a key part is seeing the planet as a single object, floating in the vast emptiness of space. On viewing the Earth from the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong later recounted, "I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small."

It sounds useful to be able to think of the Earth this way, but the experience is very rare. Only about 23 people each year go to space. Fewer than 600 humans have ever had the opportunity to look at our planet in its entirety.

But, we can all see Earth every day. You're probably looking at it right now. It's just hard to imagine the whole thing. It could be flat. It could be a cube. It could be ten times its actual size, or a tenth, and it would look about the same from where we're sitting. Straightedge is designed to connect the abstract notion of that lonely blue dot in the pictures with the reality of the dusty ground we're standing on. Our goal is to understand not just what the astronauts are saying, but what they feel.

And yet, we don't really know what we'll feel when we see it. Does the Earth seem impossibly large? Does it seem really small? Will we be overwhelmed by how wholly and completely Actual Size it is? There's only one way to find out.

Join us, and together we can Rule the Earth!

What's special about 2.7 miles?

It is the longest uninterrupted straight-line dimension that will fit inside the Black Rock City perimeter.

But how are you building a ruler that’s 2.7 miles long?!

We're making it out of light. We will draw two long dotted lines using synchronized flashing lights, precisely placed on steel stakes at 50-foot intervals. One line follows the surface of the earth, maintaining a constant elevation of 1190.2 meters above sea level. The other line extends in a straight line, tangent to the surface of the planet.

How we'll build Straightedge (not to scale)
How we'll build Straightedge (not to scale)

At one end, the lines meet near the ground. At the other end, they are separated by 5 feet (1.5m). From either end, you’ll see a long, unbroken line of lights, an actual straight line placed in contrast to the ground that you’ve always experienced as a flat plane. They blink once a second, in a synchronized fashion that identifies them as a single object. Once per minute, a pulse of light moves along the line at the speed of the seismic wave of an earthquake, pulling your gaze with it.

Won't it be hard to see against the backdrop of Black Rock City?

Synchronized flashing lights are special. When you see a lot of lights blink together, you perceive them as representing a single object. This effect is so pronounced, the FAA requires that wind farms be marked with synchronized lights to prevent pilots from accidentally crashing into the windmills at night. The human brain is very good at seeing patterns, and 285 lights blinking simultaneously should be unmistakable.

Who are we?

Ardent Heavy Industries is a Bay Area industrial arts collective, made up of over 200 artists, designers, engineers, fabricators, programmers, and scientists. Our aim is to destroy the distinction between unexpected and beautiful. We use light, fire, sound, metal, and code to create complex pieces that interact with people in bold ways. In our work to push the boundaries of interactive art, we've installed large-scale pieces worldwide.

Formed as Interpretive Arson in 2004, we began as a small group that came together with a shared goal: provide people the opportunity to experience being shot with a flamethrower while trying to dance. And with that goal, Ardent's first project Dance Dance Immolation, was born -- and reached the Guinness Book of World Records as "World's Hottest Videogame.” Ardent has grown into a large art collective with a diverse body of work, including Syzygryd (a 2.5 ton collaborative musical instrument that breathes fire), 2πr (a blisteringly interactive large-scale fire toy), and the Ardent Mobile Cloud Platform (a glowing pixelated cloud that will rain on your parade).

Where does the money go?

This project combines precision electronics and hard, dusty labor. Much of our cost is the components to make our lights blink in a perfect synchronized line: custom circuits with a tiny GPS for clock sync and position fixing. Then there are the tools to install this as precisely as possible -- a combination of traditional surveying tools plus custom alignment guides. 285 steel stakes weigh a lot, so we’ll need to rent a truck to move the whole pile of materials and tools up to the Black Rock desert. Your money goes entirely toward these hard costs. Here’s a snapshot of our current budget:

  • $270: Microcontrollers
  • $1200: Custom circuit board fabrication
  • $3050: GPS modules and antennas
  • $900: Other electronic components
  • $1205: Batteries & power system components
  • $240: LEDs
  • $1150: T-stakes
  • $600: LED holders, wiring, electronics enclosures
  • $390: Informational signage (coroplast & screenprinting ink)
  • $350: Rough survey tools
  • $413: Custom alignment laser mounting tools
  • $490: Custom stake alignment guides, driver, puller
  • $1311: Truck rental for transport to the desert
  • $1157: Kickstarter processing fees

Total: $12726

Do you love open-source?

We believe in open-source and open-hardware.

Synchronized flashing lights are a useful artistic tool. For example, they could be used to mark the spires of a group of huge towers, visually link a number of geographically-separated installations, or help identify the locations of mobile art pieces. But an inexpensive, low-power, GPS-synchronized flasher circuit is not currently available.

Once we've refined the custom electronics for Straightedge, we plan to release the board designs and microcontroller firmware so that anyone can fabricate them. We're using LEDs for this project because they fit our power budget, but xenon strobes are a much more common marker technology. So, we'll design a board that supports both!

If you want to get some circuits to experiment with, we're offering a package of them as a Kickstarter reward! Note that these boards are available significantly above cost, as a fundraiser for Straightedge. If you need a lot of them and you're on a tight budget, get in touch and we can talk about where and how we got them fabricated.

It goes without saying, but: these boards are experimental and come with no warranty. We feel comfortable using them to mark a fence post so someone doesn't ride their bicycle into it, but don't use them to prevent airplanes from crashing into your radio tower.

Special Thanks

The following organizations and individuals make our work possible, and we would like to give them a big thank you!

  • Burning Man, for building a place to put our art, and for all the help with placement.
  • Plethora, because machining is awesome!
  • American Steel Studios, Ardent's home for the past four years.
  • Stéphanie Walter and Martin Vanco for the icons used to make the logo above.
  • The broader Ardent community, including our friends and family members, for putting up with our crazy ideas.
  • All of our supporters, backers, and participants. We couldn't do the things we do without you.

Risks and challenges

Ardent Heavy Industries has years of experience successfully bringing complex electronic art projects to Burning Man. The Straightedge team has a diverse set of skilled people, including hardware designers, a professional geologist, a number of software engineers, and many experienced fabricators. We know what we're getting into, and are confident that we can implement our vision.

But, big art has big challenges. The Black Rock Desert is an inhospitable environment for art, so our project could be disrupted by weather, damage to delicate electronics, or other forces beyond our control.

This will be the longest piece of art ever installed at Burning Man (aside from the trash fence), and the project with the largest number of distinct installation sites. This poses some challenges for Burning Man's Placement Team, and we will have to work closely with them for Straightedge to succeed. We are in ongoing communication with people at the Burning Man organization already, and have made plans for how we will work together to fit Straightedge into the city. They're excited about what we're building and want to help us make it happen.

The curvature of the Earth is hard to see, and Straightedge involves distances that place objects near the resolution limit of human vision. We've read the literature on the capabilities of the human eye, and have done extensive calculations to determine exactly how far away you'll be able to stand and still see the Earth's curve. Our research tells us that it will work well. However, theory and practice differ. We've also run carefully controlled experiments using the lighting system components at actual project distances, with a variety of human test subjects. These tests have shown favorable results.

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    CORE—Thank you for your support! We will list your name on our site as a supporter.

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    MANTLE—This reward includes 2 digital patterns. One moon card, which can be used to visualize the curvature of the moon, and one fancy ruler. Patterns are available in both printer and laser cutter friendly formats.

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    LITHOSPHERE—Draw non-curved lines in style with an artisanal laser-cut straightedge, also known as a ruler. Graduated in miles and kilometers.

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    TROPOSPHERE—Find out the curvature of the moon! When you hold up this laser-cut card to the moon, it will show you how much the the moon bends in kilometers.

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    STRATOSPHERE—Your name will be immortalized within Straightedge. We will laser-etch a sign and affix it to a numbered t-post, which will be pounded into the playa during the construction of the Straightedge project.

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    MESOSPHERE—A bare printed circuit board used to implement the light flashing circuit. Just the PCB, no components.

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    THERMOSPHERE—A stylish and limited Straightedge t-shirt, discharge printed on high quality garments by the artisans over at Forward Printing. The super-soft American Apparel shirt will be printed using the highest-quality process, discharge printing. This process lifts dye from the shirt, showing the shirt's natural fiber instead of laying a thick layer of ink on top of the fabric.

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    EXOSPHERE—Elegantly designed sign illustrating and explaining the Straightedge project. The sign measures 14.5" by 9", and will come to you replete with authentic weathering from the playa.

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    LOW EARTH ORBIT—Your name plus a message will be laser-etched on a sign and affixed to a numbered t-post, which will be pounded into the playa during the construction of the Straightedge project. Limit 140 characters.

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    MEDIUM EARTH ORBIT—Three bare printed circuit boards used to implement the synchronized light flashing circuit. Just the PCB, no components.

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    GEOSYNCHRONOUS ORBIT—Colin Carey, Ardent team member and Plethora machinist is offering $250 of machining.

    Details: 2-op antipodal parts CNC-milled in 6061 aluminum. Requires Solidworks or Inventor to use, see full capabilities here: https://www.plethora.com/capabilities

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    MOON ORBIT—Ian teaches you anything he knows for 90 minutes

    From welding to flame effects to test-driven development, Ian Baker is a veritable fount of knowledge. Spend 90 minutes with Ian picking his brain about a subject of your choosing.

    This will take place in San Francisco or Oakland.

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    HELIOCENTRIC ORBIT—Rock Climbing with Colin Carey

    Skilled machinist, circus performer and all-around adult film star Colin Carey teaches you how to rock climb.

    Want to improve your technique?
    Learn to lead climb?
    Build anchors?

    Colin's got you covered.

    Takes place in a rock climbing gym in San Francisco.

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    HIGH EARTH ORBIT—Three boards to run synchronized flashing lights, that pulse precisely once per second. Use them to make your own light art, or just make the edges of your coffee table more visible at night so you stop bumping your knees. These boards come fully assembled.

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    LISSAJOUS ORBIT—Tilde Magical Experience

    Share a magical, consciousness-expanding, one-on-one experience with Tilde Ann Thurium. Dependent on your interests, this could go in many directions: you could practice collaborative storytelling, or take an epic urban hike, or sip tea and play surrealist party games. This will last around 6 hours and take place in San Francisco.

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    GALACTOCENTRIC ORBIT—A studio portrait photography session with Nadya Lev.

    As Kim Boekbinder puts it, "Nadya’s photography sits at the border between portrait and high fashion, highly stylized and stylish, with an emphasis on the model as storyteller rather than empty object."

    The shoot lasts 3 hours, and takes place at her studio in San Francisco. Hair and make-up not included.

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    T-POST SUPPORTER—As a connoisseur of fine used fence posts, we've got just the reward for one lucky backer. 285 entirely dusty, entirely used, solid t-posts. Guaranteed to maybe be straight for decades. Makes a fine corral.

    Local pick-up in Gerlach, NV only.

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Funding period

- (30 days)