By John D. Sutter, CNN
(CNN) — Rube Goldberg machines – those contraptions that, like the board game Mouse Trap, aim to accomplish a simple task in a needlessly complex way – don’t really fit in an age obsessed with efficiency and perfection.
Yet, online, these fun-to-watch systems do seem to have incredible currency. Think OK Go music videos, for starters.
The machine below, called Mini-Melvin, caught my eye this week. Housed inside two suitcases, Mini-Melvin employs an alarm clock, a smartphone, a child’s xylophone, a toy train and many other trinkets – all to stamp a short message on a postcard.
Check out the video below:
As I watched, I started wondering what makes these kind of machines so compelling – both to viewers and makers. So I sent an e-mail to HEYHEYHEY, the design group behind this machine, to find out.
The following is an edited version of that interview:
CNN: How long did it take to build these machines?
Erik Sjouerman: Building and designing usually go hand in hand with projects like these and there’s a lot of trial and error involved.
At first, both Elske (van der Putten) and I started out designing parts and setting the boundaries in terms of functions and styling and after that Elske pretty much built the whole thing by herself in about three weeks. Talk about girlpower.
I took care of the online part of Mini Melvin: the website and all online functions.
CNN: Is there a company associated with the project, or was it just for fun? Do you make any money on it?
Sjouerman: HEYHEYHEY is a design studio based in Eindhoven, in the south of the Netherlands with a soft spot for (what we call) hopeless projects. Melvin is one of them. Basically, this is what we do for a living - coming up with identities, campaigns and remarkable projects for clients (like the first Melvin). We also work on self-initiated projects if we have the time (like we did now) to hone our skills. In the case of Mini Melvin we wanted to see if we could build a machine as small as this, and get better at telling stories with film.
CNN: What’s the point of a Rube Goldberg machine in 2012?
Sjouerman: Good question. We’re simply really into physical stuff, I guess. It’s also really cool to see people’s reactions to the machine. It really inspires them - both adults and kids. I think what we like about Rubes is that it’s absolutely real, honest and far from flawless in an age of Photoshop and perfect 3-D rendering.
CNN: There’s something nostalgic and charming about the device. Can you explain your inspiration?
Sjouerman: That’s a big compliment. We’re admirers of both Peter Sellers and Jacques Tati and we love the look and feel of their ’60s movies. We tried to make something that resembles that kind of non-verbal story telling with this video.
CNN: Can you briefly describe how the machine works?
Sjouerman: Haha! I can try. Here goes nothing: an alarm clock goes off, setting a bunch of parts in motion in the first suitcase. Then, a catapult flings a ball over to the second suitcase which opens all by itself. After going through another 10 steps (the first step being set off by the opening of the suitcase) the second suitcase then passes a ball back to the first suitcase setting off the fully automatic postcard-signer-dispenser. In the end a bell goes off (much like a microwave oven) letting you know your postcard is ready and it completed the run.
Luckily, there’s a step-by-step explanation of each part of the machine on the website.
CNN: What does the phone do exactly, as part of the machine?
Sjouerman: An important aspect of both Melvins is the online identity: the first Melvin had a couple of webcams, buttons and computers built into it so it could take pictures of its audience and upload it to its website, Twitter account and Facebook page. We really liked the idea of an object talking about its fabulous life (it made and sold its own merchandise too).
Mini Melvin is meant to travel the world, so, much like a modern day tourist, it needs to be able to take pictures and post them online.
The bottom line is that we tried to create a machine that’s – in a very non-human way – as human as possible by copying human behaviour.
CNN: Why did you decide to put the machine inside suitcases?
Sjouerman: We built a pretty big chain-reaction machine in the end of 2010 for artspace MU’s (Eindhoven) Dutch Design Week show. In about three weeks we built it on location with a team of 8 designers, amateur-engineers and crazy people. A couple of months later we decided to completely rebuild and redesign it for a video.
Beginning of this year we had some time to spare and we decided to build a new Melvin (once you start it’s hard to stop thinking along those lines), but make it as small as possible. Since the first Melvin was way to big to transport (even though we built it kind of modular) we set out to build something that would be extremely portable. It made perfect sense at the time.
CNN: Can the message on the card change?
Sjouerman: Of course - as long as it fits on our small rubber stamp. We’ve got two messages now. One says “Wish you were here, XOX, Melvin,” and the other one simply says, “XOX Melvin.” It’s all very contemporary.
We considered adding a ticket printer and let Melvin decide what to put on the card, but we decided to scrap the idea because we’d need a power supply outside the suitcase and that’s not very mobile. Melvin composes its own messages online though, without us interfering. That’s good enough for now.