This is the latest installment of In the Details, our weekly deep-dive into the making of a new product or project. Last week, we examined a smarter jump rope.
Brendan Keim was walking through the National Portrait Gallery in London last September when he stumbled upon a painting of a man with a long thin scepter. Intrigued, he snapped a photo and quickly sketched the object in his sketchbook, along with a note that it could make a pretty interesting light. “I didn’t think about it for a long time afterward, because I wasn’t sure how it would all work,” Keim says. It wasn’t until the New York–based designer revisited his sketchbook in January that he thought of a way to actually build the device. “I was like, ‘Oh—I can make this. I know how to make this.’”
The eventual result of that expedition and sketchbook documentation is the Volta Torch, named after Alessandro Volta, an Italian physicist and the inventor of the battery. The long, slender brass flashlight is an exercise in aesthetics and function—as well as a challenge in feasibility, with its impossibly thin casing, curiously powered by eight 1.5-volt hearing-aid batteries wired in series. “For me, it was really just an experiment in, ‘Can this physically work? Can I make a flashlight?’” Keim says. “And, ??How simple can I do it?’”
Keim is a lighting designer by trade, working for Lindsey Adelman by day. In his own time, he experiments with a range of personal work that focuses on interactive experiences, often involving some element of programming or code. “I really enjoy tactile, analog inputs and I think a lot of my work has to do with controlling a digital world through those analog inputs,” he says. “For me, I see it as the era in which I grew up. I’m a child of the eighties, this crossover period in between analog toys and digital toys.” Looking around Keim’s home studio, his love of that era is evident, seen in large stereo knobs and boxes of every type of LEGO imaginable. His approach to the Volta Torch is no different.
The "elevated flashlight"
To begin the project, Keim started by creating parts in SolidWorks, loosely constructing possible ways the object could go together. He worked between SolidWorks and a few rough initial prototypes, revising his drawings each time to reduce the number of parts. The biggest challenge, however, was figuring out how an object with such a small diameter could be powered. It wasn’t until the designer was standing in the aisle of Rite Aid that he had his eureka moment.
“Originally, I was trying to figure out how to use AA or AAA batteries—trying to decide what size tube I could purchase to fit that,” Keim says. “But then you have to take a step back and think, ‘Am I limited to just AA and AAA? What standards are out there?’” Standing in line, Keim spotted hearing-aid batteries, alluring for their small diameter and substantial power. “I was like, ‘Whoa. Those power some pretty sophisticated technologies. How could I stack these up?’”
With 1.5 volts per battery, Keim was able to stack 8 together to create 12 volts, enough to power his replaceable LED bulb. After stacking the batteries, he shrink-wrapped them inside a tiny tube of plastic for easy placement. The battery stack sits between a long threaded piece of brass rod and the head of the device, a section of which consists of an LED, a socket, a pre-fabricated nylon connector and a small screw that holds those pieces together.
For Keim, making the Volta Torch has been a process of reduction, trying to use the least number of parts possible. And for his next iteration, the designer plans to reduce things further by machining the head from one piece of solid stock, rather than hacking existing lamp hardware (the nylon piece). That change will make manufacturing easier for the designer, as well as improve the overall aesthetic of the object, which shows slight variations in the gradation of the brass as it transitions from piece to piece. “When you’re dealing with different pieces of brass from different manufacturers, the quality is different as well,” Keim says. “It makes it look like a cigarette or a magic wand, which I don’t particularly care for. To me, this is a fairly refined but still very rough prototype.”
Although Keim did his undergraduate degree in industrial design at Pratt, and a graduate degree in furniture design at RISD, he has also managed to amass a vast amount of knowledge in electronics—from piecemeal courses in robotics and a residency at SparkFun. “I’m definitely approaching this from a totally different way than a lot of people with an engineering background might approach it,” Keim says. “What’s nice about coming from an open-source electronics world with my projects is knowing that all of this information is out there for you, and a lot of people are there to hold your hand.” In addition to SparkFun, Keim cites Adafruit, O’Reilly Media and Make: magazine as key resources for this work. And to keep the knowledge flowing, he publishes the blueprints to each of his interactive projects on his website, allowing anyone with a beginner’s knowledge of electronics (and access to a machine lathe) to build the designs themselves.
While Keim already has new ideas for improving the piece, the designer views this object as just one step closer to the next prototype. “One of the best pieces of advice I got from the people I work with is that a project never has to be finished,” Keim says. “It can continually improve; you can always step back and look at it. You can take that to a point of insanity, sure, but you don’t ever have to think that your object is done. You can always make it better if you want to.”
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