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Hacking Mac OS X Panther
Pages: 1, 2, 3

Moderate Hack #60


Get in enough face time with your fans by means of an iSight, an oscillating fan, a little ingenuity, and a well-developed sense of play.

If you've ever actually tried to do any video-conferencing using iChat and an iSight (or equivalent camera [Hack #34] ), you've no doubt found that it works surprisingly well. Sure, there are sound hiccups and video burps, but most of these can be ameliorated. Add a tad more bandwidth (e.g., DSL instead of 56K modem dialup). Don't download large MP3 files during the call. Shutting off email stems the tide of those large attachments washing in from the office. Or simply use an actual telephone (gasp!) for audio.

But try it with a roomful of people spread unevenly around a conference table and you're sure to find yourself staring at a stray notepad, box of tissues, hopelessly out-of-date organizational chart, or the one person in the room not saying a thing or moving a muscle. Now, you'd think some kind-hearted soul would move the camera every so often, pointing it at least at another unmoving, unblinking participant or different notepad; they probably won't. You'd hope someone would be nominated to or just take charge of pointing the camera at whoever is speaking; it doesn't usually happen. Even when talking directly to the poor schlub on the far end of the call, people will actually stare at the side of the camera, as if doing so somehow provided more presence.

So, what's a telecommuter with poor iSight to do? Why, oscillate, of course.

An iSight mounted to the top of debladed oscillating fan, as shown in Figure 5-50, sweeps out up to a 180-degree field of view. While this doesn't mean you're necessarily going to be looking at the person speaking for more than a split second or so, it does provide more of a sense of actually being there—albeit in an admittedly nauseating fashion.

Figure 5-50. iSight + oscillating fan = iOscillate

Intrigued? I was too when the idea first struck, so I set about building one.

Building an iOscillate

Throwing together an iOscillate of your very own is trivial, eating up a scant 15 minutes or so. It requires little in the way of parts, and no tools are necessary.

Prepare the fan

Appropriate a disused or otherwise available oscillating fan—probably not best done on the hottest day of the summer.

Strip it of its blade and metal or plastic cage. Your average Walmart unit ships with these parts preremoved for your convenience. If it's already assembled, disassembly usually entails only two or three steps and requires no tools. Unclip the cage edges to separate the front portion. Unscrew the nose (usually clockwise in the U.S.) that holds the blade in place and remove the blade. Unscrew the washer that holds the back portion of the cage in place and remove it. If possible, replace the nose so that the spinning metal shaft doesn't hurt anyone.

Mount the camera

Attach one of the various plastic connectoids that came with your iSight or other webcam to the top of the fan. I found that the flat, sticky-based iMac mount worked nicely with my iSight.

You can even just use Scotch or duct tape if all else fails. This, however, does mean that it'll be difficult to impossible to point the camera up or down as needed to catch the faces rather than ties or toupees of the participants.

Try to keep the camera itself away from the fan, to avoid vibration and cut down on the noise of the motor (if your webcam has a built-in microphone).

Do make sure that the camera is upright. And whatever you do, don't even think of strapping it to the soon-to-be-spinning metal shaft.

Run the USB or FireWire cable

Drape or stick down the webcam's USB or FireWire cable in such a way that it has more than enough play yet is well clear of the metal shaft that is used to turn the blade, the mechanics involved in oscillation of the fan head, and anything else electro-mechanical on the fan.

That's all there is to building this wondrous Rube Goldberg device ( Let's give it a whirl, shall we?


Place this contraption on a conference table, such that it is most likely to provide a sweeping view of all participants—not to mention the occasional glimpse of that gorgeous oak tree outside the window. This generally works best with all participants arranged in an arc slightly shorter than 180 degrees, close enough together so that the camera doesn't try to focus on the wall behind when there's a wide enough gap between two people.

Hook the iOscillate up to a Mac (or PC if compatible), orienting the screen so that most of the participants can see the person on the other end of the line.

Start your engines!—or sufficiently quiet, steady, and well-geared motor. While the speed setting you choose should have no bearing on oscillation, I did find that my fan's High setting made for a smoother ride.

Fire up iChat or the equivalent and ring your remote peer.

You might suggest he pop some Dramamine or wear those oddly effective seasickness wristbands. These things do whiz along at quite a clip and the camera can sometimes get confused while trying to maintain focus.

Hacking the Hack

Picking your oscillating fan is key. While any old fan will do, if you're going to go out and buy one—really you shouldn't, not unless you're hot, that is—you might see if you can find one with an adjustable oscillation speed. Also, pay attention to the vibration-to-dollar ratio of some of the cheapest models.

A friend suggested actually leaving the fan blade and cage assembly intact, so as to actually cool the participants and make for a nice, wind-blown supermodel effect. If you mount the webcam behind the cage, know that the blades will confuse the iSight's autofocus to no end. If you mount it to the top, you'll find it vibrates considerably and there's a risk of catching some part of the USB or FireWire cable in the blade.

For a decidedly manual version of this hack, try placing your webcam on a lazy Susan: that revolving tray one finds in the center of large round dining tables. You'll still have to remember to aim the camera at whoever is talking, but it then becomes a group endeavor (and makes for a smoother ride than the usual jiggly reorientation). Place the laptop that's hosting the session next to the camera so that participants can see to whom they are speaking. Put the speakerphone on the tray too for greater sound quality on the listener's end. Or, if it's a lunch meeting, use it as intended: to pass the Kung Pao and rice.

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