Electricity surged through 18,000 individually soldered components as the first illuminated dance floor in years debuted at Vertigo on Saturday night.
This floor, the pride of Washington University’s chapter of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) culminated over a year of dedicated labor. Student Life met with Dave Pilla, the project coordinator and vice chair of IEEE, to discuss the story behind the dance floor’s creation.
“We started in September of 2009, a year and a half ago, and we did it because of the old IEEE dance floor. The old one had fallen apart, and we wanted to make one based on our own design,” Pilla said. “The other one was derived from a design by MIT students, but the new generation is a unique creation of Wash. U.”
Unfortunately, there wasn’t a book of instructions on how to make dance floors; IEEE had to innovate. “When we began, we actually had no idea how to do it. No one had done anything related to dance floors,” Pilla said. “We started out writing the high-level features we wanted, a sort of wish list. Some, like the wireless control, pressure sensors and beat sensitivity made it into the final product. We originally wanted to waterproof the floor as well, so that we could put it in a pool, but that would have been far too expensive.”
After compiling a list of desirable features and learning about their respective functions and applications, the team built prototypes and test modules. A team of seven engineers designed the floor; the team included mechanical, electrical and computer engineers, and computer scientists.
The most grueling work required soldering the diodes, wires, sensors and chips. Soldering and testing all 18,000 parts was impossible without running into some hurdles.
“Frequently, many small problems arose…. Nothing was catastrophic, but we had a lot of emergency fire drills and runs to Home Depot,” Pilla said.
Even the mundane, unnoticed aspects of the floor required creative design. Pilla mentioned that there were concerns early in the project about the floor’s ability to support the weight of the dancers. “We had to consider two scenarios. First, we thought about a really heavy person standing on a module. In the other case, we thought about someone with stilettos who focuses force on a much smaller area,” Pilla said. “As a sort of worst-case scenario, we considered a really heavy guy wearing those stilettos. Would the floor collapse at that point? So we talked about this test in which the heaviest member of the group put on stilettos and jumped up and down. We never actually got to that point once we realized the strength of the polycarbonate that forms the surface. If it were a little thicker, it would be bullet resistant.”
Despite frequent tests, setbacks and headaches, IEEE persevered and completed a product with both form and function. “As a dance floor, this thing has nearly limitless potential,” Pilla said. “For one thing, consider all the colors the floor can produce. Your standard computer has something like 16 million colors because it uses red, green and blue. We added white, which gives us all those pastel colors and dramatically increases the amount of colors the floor can produce.”
How many, exactly? “Billions.”
The previous floor was the same size, 8 feet by 16 feet, but the new generation is far more portable. “The design centers around the use of 32 modules, which are each 2-by-2 feet. The modules weigh about 25 pounds each, so it’s much easier to transport than a solid 800-pound floor. Plus, the modules can be arranged however you like. We’re no longer limited by the rectangular dance floor.”
The floor has great market potential as well. “We took the business plan through the Hatchery, which is a program through the business school to evaluate entrepreneurial ideas. With all the market research, competitive analysis and financial forecasting, we found out that this was a practical idea. A floor like this could sell for $25,000-30,000,” Pilla said.
IEEE’s current plans for the floor, though, will keep it available for future Wash. U. parties.
“We plan on fundraising with it. We can rent it out to local clubs and easily make a good deal of money in one night. Plus, it will be ready for future Vertigos,” Pilla said.
When asked to summarize the experience in a single word, Pilla looked pensive. Most of the core team members were running on little sleep. Yet, a project that had excited and motivated them for more than a year was ending. After some consideration, Pilla replied, “We had so much fun, despite the ups and downs. It was a rollercoaster.”
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