Why are you building such a device? It’s naive… no, cynical! It’s useless! It’s ridiculous!

By day, solar cells are hard at work, converting sunshine to energy that heats our homes and powers our stuff. But as night falls, their hearts and wires turn to flights of fancy. Why should a solar cell’s endeavors always be… solar? Like many of us, at sundown some solar cells are just getting warmed up…

Nowadays, “green energy” – solar power, for example – is all the rage. At the same time, it’s sneered at for promising a utopian future we have thus far not seen. It’s a familiar scenario for a budding technology: critics rush to be the first to declare it “dead” – or at least useless. It starts when supporters of the technology get carried away and over inflate its impact or potential. Its critics then get equally carried away in their opposition. The result: taking a positive view toward technology’s potential gets characterized as a naive point of view, and cynicism seems “smart.” That’s an easy trap to fall into, but it’s not very useful.

And here we are in the midst of it all, building a ridiculous alternative energy device. Where do we stand? Discotrope is useless when it comes to energy production: using two bright projectors to move a disco ball is like swatting a fly with an anvil. It might seem like a cynical thing to do. But we take a broader view of “usefulness.” For instance, the Discotrope system is useful aesthetically. Multitasking the solar cells as reflectors provides an unusual fragmentation of the moving image. And in particular, working with light and inertia to cause speed fluctuations of the movement of images around a space presents a unique set of opportunities and challenges for developing performance and visual movement. (More about that here.)

We also think play and absurdity are important in finding creative technical solutions. Scientific research is often thought of in terms of serious utilitarian approaches to serious utilitarian problems. That’s undoubtedly important, but fantasy and absurdity can inspire thinking outside the box. Science fiction has long inspired science fact. We may not be solving the energy crisis with Discotrope, and we admire those who are working directly to find solutions. But we hope our left-field – and ridiculous – approach can nevertheless be a useful contribution to the effort. As the ridiculous failed attempts at early flight helped move people’s thinking toward real solutions, so, we think, can ridiculous energy technologies.