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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Modern-Day Rube Goldberg Gets the Ball(s) Rolling With Hypnotic Mecahanical Art Puzzle

Posted By on Tue, Apr 28, 2009 at 5:30 AM

Aaron Geman tried to wheel his "Mechanical Puzzle Prototype" into the San Francisco alley surreptitiously, but it was too late. He was spotted and, before he could utter a word in protest, a dozen guests at a wedding being held across the street bounded over the blacktop like shoppers at a Black Friday Wal-Mart.

They may not know art, but they know what they like.

At first glance, Geman's fish tank-sized amalgamation of wooden tracks, metal culverts, and ceramic plumbing switches looks like an elaborate toy. But despite the child-like wonder grown men and women exhibit when gaping at the pinball swirling through the device, this trick's not for kids. It's actually a beastly difficult puzzle in which users have to manipulate switches, valves, and dials to direct three balls to three different berths. But it's even harder than that.

"It's specifically designed so one of the solution tracks requires the cooperation of all three balls, and another requires two balls cooperating," he says. In other words, it's not enough to just roll the balls around the track. You've got to plan out your attack and ricochet them into each other to win this puzzle. Yeah, this stuff is hard: After a month-long installation at Google headquarters in Mountain View, Geman didn't notice anyone solving the puzzle in less time than 30 minutes (and that was some Google savant).At his recent display at the California Modern Art Gallery on Market Street, folks did solve the puzzle -- but took an hour or more to do so. Kind of brings a whole new meaning to "struggling for your art." 

Aaron Geman lets gawping onlookers attempt to solve his mechanical puzzle piece in a San Francisco backstreet. None came close to making a dent; it often takes 60 to 90 minutes of concerted effort. - JOE ESKENAZI
  • Joe Eskenazi
  • Aaron Geman lets gawping onlookers attempt to solve his mechanical puzzle piece in a San Francisco backstreet. None came close to making a dent; it often takes 60 to 90 minutes of concerted effort.

Geman, 26, hails from Providence, RI -- and has wanted to build a device like this ever since he first saw the moving-ball installations at Boston's Logan Airport built by George Rhodes 15 years ago. Yet while Rhodes' work is a continuous loop of mesmerizing balls rolling about, Geman's is a beastly difficult interactive puzzle with many "wrong" answers and precious few "right" ones. Geman's background as an electrical engineering student at Brown University allowed him to start "flow-charting" out his intricate puzzle -- but, he admits, after diagramming half of it out he just began building the thing and working on it as he went along. Assembling the puzzle took more than seven months.

The artists' work is next scheduled to show in June at San Jose's Tech Museum and he promised to drop SF Weekly a line next time he'll be displaying the puzzle in San Francisco.In the meantime, you can check out our YouTube video -- or visit the artist's Web site here.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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