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Playing With Fire
Burning Man-bound Toronto engineers are building huge mechanical arcade games that shoot giant flames into the air

Super Street Fire (Photo by Tom Anderson)

Sara Vinten laid out 32 small plastic Tupperware containers filled with circuit boards protruding with wires. In a few weeks, these will be shipped to the middle of the desert for Burning Man 2013, and will function as integral components of Super Street Fire, a live-action adaptation of Street Fighter 2.

“Two players get up on podiums and they wear wireless, motion-sensing gloves,” explained Vinten. “When they throw a punch, the gesture recognition system deciphers the action of their hand and translates it into fire!”

Vinten is part of Site 3 coLaboratory, a not-for-profit, member-run art & technology workshop that has been in operation for just over three years. The group has been producing Burning Man flame art installations out of their Bloor and Ossington-area workspace for several years. Charcadea massive collaboration with other flame artists across North America, is their most ambitious fire project to date.

Lead by artist and maker Christopher Guard, Charcade consists of re-imagined arcade games, including Riskee Ball in which 10 Skee Ball machines erupt with fire, and a version of Dance Dance Revolution called Dance Dance Immolation. “You wear a fire proximity suit and an oxygen tank,” explained Vinten. “So when you screw up, they blast a flame-thrower in your face.”

The project requires the steady work of ten to fifteen core members and about fifty to sixty volunteers. Seth Hardy had the idea to adapt Street Fighter 2 into a flame expelling game. “Players wear gloves affixed with a mechanism similar to a Wii remote,” he said. “You use them on the back of your hand and they stream positional data back to a computer. That data is then turned into recognizing gestures.” The game interprets the gestures into blasts of flame out of the 32 solenoids.

Hardy assembling controllers. (Photo by John Peck)

Callum Hay is the lead software engineer for the project: “The solenoids are electromagnetic valves that control the expulsion of propane – they open and close. The whole system is pressurized around 40 psi and the solenoids are holding in that pressure. You send an electrical signal that opens up, propane comes out, it hits a glo-fly (a tiny hot element) and it ignites and creates flame.” The process is similar to lighting a gas stove.

At Burning Man, anyone can try the game. The whole area of play is about 60 feet wide. Players are up on elevated platforms, about a metre and a half away from flames that can get up to 10 feet tall. There are three rounds lasting 45 seconds, and best out of three, wins. “We start around 10 o’clock every night and go until we run out of fuel, which depends on how big we make the flames,” said Hardy. “It’s usually about four hours. We use about 500 pounds of propane every night.” The fuel is driven in by tanker trucks, and the group receives most of their funding through Burning Man arts grants, in addition to money they raise through parties, events and a Kickstarter campaign.

Your chances of playing Super Street Fire here in Toronto is, unfortunately, slim. “Ontario has some of the strictest fire art laws in North America,” said Hardy. “Remember when Sunrise Propane blew up? That kind of put a damper on a lot of things involving fire. It’s legal and its possible, its just incredibly expensive between insurance and TSSA inspection. They inspect things like HVAC, amusement park rides and elevators. They’re $190 an hour, for however many hours they feel is necessary. And this is kind of unusual. They don’t usually have a lot of experience with inspecting a lot of things.”

Riskee Ball Assembly

Several of the group members have had an opportunity to try their hand at the game. “It’s hot,” said Hay. “For me it was almost overwhelming. You’re really close to the flames. The wind can pick up and they can almost lick you at times. There were moments when we were starting up the system, going at full PSI, and Seth burned off all of his arm hair.”

Those working on the Charcade are dedicated, working every day in the weeks leading up to Burning Man. Carrie Smith is the Volunteer Coordinator. She also did a lot of work on the propane plumbing of the project. “I have a degree in engineering. Now I do stats as my day job. Starting this project, I didn’t know how to work tools or how plumbing worked, so I just learned it as I went. This provides a piece for me that I didn’t realize was missing: the act of building something large and crazy.” All of the components of the games will be packed in a shipping container and sent to the desert prior to the team’s arrival. They will be operating the game every night for two weeks. “The party comes to you a lot of the time,” said Smith. “We have one of the biggest fire installations on playa. And this year we’ve made it even crazier. I do this for fun. It’s a hobby. It’s a life.”


Tiffy Thompson is a writer and illustrator for the Toronto Standard.  Follow her on Twitter at @tiffyjthompson. 

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