(Editor’s note: Christine, a venture capitalist at Omidyar Network, caught our attention with her blog post about Mashup Camp in July, which showed she has a good eye for cool tech stuff. Her blog is at Christine.net. So when we heard she was going to Burning Man — she’s a regular “Burner” — we asked whether she could write up something about what she saw.)

Some of the best art at this year’s Burning Man came from extremely cool, creative applications of basic engineering. Circuit boards, hydraulic motors, solar panels, and motion sensors powered my three favorite pieces of non-fiery art:

The Big Round Cubatron. Mark Lottor created a light sculpture of over 18,000 lights, arranged in a 8′ high by 40′ wide cylinder. Each light consists of an RGB LED that can be set to a 24-bit color value and changed 50 times per second. The control electronics consist of 4 main controller circuit boards (one for each quadrant of the circle) along with 32 driver circuit boards that can each control 8 strings of lights. Controllers read preprogrammed patterns from SD memory cards and send them to the lights. To see video of the Cubatron in action, go to TV Free Burning Man and click on the pod marked  9.01. (Note: the Cubatron segment is the first of three segments in this episode.) Lottor’s creativity of implementation, using both 2D and 3D images across changing planes in 3D space, kept crowds mesmerized.
Flickr photo uploaded by x180.

The Mondo Spider. This mechanical contraption designed by Charlie Brinson and Jonathan Tippett was a fantasy-come-true for Erector Set lovers. And yes, it was totally mobile for roaming the playa – a 20hp engine powered four hydraulic motors. I’m not sure what its top speed was, since the Black Rock Rangers limit all ‘vehicles’ to 5 mph, but you can see their CAD schematics.
Flickr photo uploaded by ed’s point of view.

Sunflower Robots.
This installation conceived by cleantech advocate Stefano Corazza was made up of solar voltaic panels, photodiodes, translucent polycarbonate panels, and neon lights with motion sensors. During the day, the photodiodes send messages to control circuitry that gracefully turns these devices to face the sun, much as natural sunflowers do. At night, however, they had an unnerving ability to rapidly turn and face mobile light sources. If you slowly rode by with a bike lamp, their steady marking of your progress felt like the prelude to a horror film. If you danced amidst them waving a flashlight, they would twist and spin in a frenzy. Photo by Gabe K.

Whether technology is mature or emergent, creative people can adopt it to make something fresh and compelling. For example, this sneak preview video of Philips Lumalive – light-emitting textiles with flexible arrays of color-changing LEDs – just started making the rounds, and dedicated Burners are already working on what it empowers them to create.