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How an In-Vehicle Computer System Powered a Mobile Dance Party at Burning Man

By ·Categories: Tech Explained·Published On: February 16th, 2023·6.9 min read·

We talk a lot about computing in challenging environments, particularly when it comes to an in-vehicle computer system, but it can be hard to visualize exactly what that means without examples. How about this – picture the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where constant buffeting by winds makes simply standing a challenge. 

Even breathing is hard because the 110 degree, bone dry air is filled with dust from the cracked, sun-baked, sandy ground. There’s no relief from the heat (or facilities to speak of) for miles. Now add 70,000 party-goers looking to escape their everyday reality for one week near the end of each summer.

That’s Burning Man.

And that’s where you’ll find Fluffy, a heavily modified, 40-foot long, 2008 Bluebird school bus adorned with man-made clouds and covered in 14,000 multi-colored programmable LEDs. Fluffy’s trek to the desert began at Earthkeep Farmcommon in Charlotte, Vermont, where more than 100 volunteers worked diligently to bring it to life.

One of those volunteers was IBM Fellow Emeritus, tech evangelist, and passionate supporter of STEM education, John Cohn. In addition to helping design, install, and program Fluffy’s impressive 3500 watt light show, John was also responsible for the bus’ centrally mounted, two story tall “flame poofer”, which periodically bathes revelers in hot, pyrotechnic light.

Suffice to say there’s a lot happening onboard Fluffy, and it all requires careful coordination and programming. That’s where OnLogic hardware came in. We’ll let John take it from here.

OnLogic: How did Fluffy come into your life?

John Cohn: I’ve been involved with Burning Man in some capacity since 2008. I helped build an art project back in 2009 called the Time Cycle, which was sort of a roving ferris wheel. I’ve always been interested in finding ways to bring science and technology to people in fun and interesting ways. Doing things that are a little bit beyond belief is a great way to do that, and Burning Man is a wonderful place for that as well because the people there tend to be excited and engaged.

Some of the same folks who worked on the Time Cycle are part of Duane’s Whirld, who organize a camp at Burning Man every year. We had been talking about doing a new art car project over the last few years and just before COVID hit, they decided to really tackle it. However, the pandemic put a hold on the idea. Fast forward a couple of years to 2022 and things took back off in earnest to try and create something special for the desert that summer. 

We wanted something that could be used over multiple years. Something that people could enjoy and experience with music, lights, and spectacle. That idea evolved into Fluffy, which kicked off with the purchase of the bus itself in April of 2022. 

Initially I thought I might be able to help here and there with the lights, but as time went by, I found myself responsible for a two story flamethrower and the intricate programming of the interactive light show that would be woven through Fluffy’s cloud-like exterior. Taking a concept like a floating dream cloud dance party and turning it into a reality takes a village. We worked with volunteers with a huge range of skills from artists and carpenters to technologists and engineers.

How did an OnLogic vehicle PC find its way onboard Fluffy and what is it responsible for?

The goal from the start with Fluffy was to create something that didn’t look like a bus at night. We wanted something that would catch people’s attention and bring them joy. What’s fascinating about Burning Man is that it’s a great place to see what’s coming in terms of technology, but also what’s on its way out. We knew right away that we didn’t just want to string the bus with LED rope lights, which were revolutionary for their time, but you see everywhere at this point. 

We were trying to figure out how we could actually make the lights seem like part of the clouds. We also knew we wanted something that was programmable and could be synced with the music to make the clouds themselves feel like they were dancing. We ended up settling on a pixel-mapping process that essentially treats 3 adjacent LEDs as one “pixel” in a corresponding image or video. That meant that with 14,400 LEDs, we had 4800 individually addressable “pixels” we could work with.

We went through several iterations of how the lights would be mounted and operated. Because the environment is so harsh, everything had to be super durable, reliable, and resistant to the elements. You couldn’t ask for a more challenging environment. You’ve got alkaline sand and temperatures exceeding 110 degrees fahrenheit. We actually ended up having record storms over the course of three days while we were there with Fluffy.

The DJ booth inside the Fluffy party bus at Burning Man

A view from the DJ booth of Fluffy, a converted school bus that uses an OnLogic vehicle PC to power an advanced lighting system used at Burning Man.

I knew we’d need an in-vehicle computer system at the center of things, and OnLogic hardware was front of mind. It’s a lot of inputs to coordinate, and not the kind of environment where an average computer is going to survive. We also needed something that could pump out commands quickly since the music sync required fast, simultaneous changes to the colors. We wanted to be able to maintain a sixty frames per second refresh rate so there wouldn’t be any perceivable flicker in the lights.

I’ve been familiar with OnLogic for years and knew their systems would meet any challenges we could throw at them. They’d just released the Karbon 800 Series at the time and it had everything I needed including a modern, powerful processor and onboard graphics capabilities we could leverage. You’d expect to need a discrete GPU for this type of application, but the Karbon 801 system I purchased could do everything we needed without one.

And the best part is that the Karbon 801 is specifically built to resist damage from dust, extreme temperatures, vibration, and even fluctuations in power delivery, all things we were going to face in the desert. The fanless design of the system was imperative to ensure it didn’t get filled up with dust, which would quickly cause your average computer to short or overheat. 

Passive cooling meant the system could still provide the computing power we needed, without having the big openings in the enclosure that are required to accommodate active airflow. Safe to say we couldn’t have done this with an actively cooled system, it just wouldn’t have been practical in the desert.

Fluffy had to get across the country, then be set up in the middle of the desert, and then survive people dancing on it for days on end. That vibration resistance was one element that I hadn’t given much thought to, but fortunately OnLogic had when they created the Karbon 801. The g-forces that Fluffy is subjected  to when you’ve got a couple dozen people dancing on it would shake a lot of systems to death. The Karbon 801 performed fantastically, even caked in desert sand.

OnLogic Karbon 801 computer covered in dust at Burning Man

The OnLogic Karbon 801 Rugged computer covered in dust onboard Fluffy during Burning Man 2022.

What’s next for Fluffy?

We built Fluffy with the idea that it would be a reusable mobile experience, so I’m excited to iterate on it. As we look ahead to next year, we’re looking to make the whole thing more robust and resilient. The lights work so well now that we’re looking at ways to make them removable from the bus so they could be used for other events. 

That may mean simplifying or changing the way they run, and it’s great that we have a computing platform we know we can rely on, even if things need to change drastically. I’d like to refine the image and music response of the lights even more.

Your OnLogic Solution

OnLogic vehicle PCs are built to withstand the challenges associated with transportation applications such as impact force, vibration, extreme temperatures, and power fluctuations. Our in-vehicle computer systems also come with programmable ignition sensing capabilities to help conserve battery when the vehicle is turned off. To learn more about OnLogic computers, contact us today.

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About the Author: Darek Fanton

Darek is the Communications Manager at OnLogic. His passion for both journalism and technology has led him from the newsrooms of local papers to the manufacturing floor of IBM. His background in news gathering has him always on the lookout for the latest in emerging tech and the best ways to share that information with readers. In addition to his affinity for words, Darek is a music lover, juggler and huge fan of terrible jokes.