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“Roseabelle” – The Smart Ouija Board

A Ouija board that singles out cheaters and makes it possible to identify when a ghostly hand is guiding the planchette.


Introduction to Physical Computing (Wed PM)

The Ouija board is supposed to enable participants to communicate with spirits that guide a planchette to write out their messages. But as so many of us discover when we're young, more often than not, the interaction becomes an opportunity to be deceived by others pushing the planchette, writing out messages of their own. “Roseabelle - The Smart Ouija Board" is an attempt to restore some objectivity to the interaction by singling out cheaters and in the process isolating those messages that might be written by an unseen ghostly hand. It is a setup that engages both the skeptic and the believer, taking a cue from Harry Houdini's famous attempts to make genuine contact with the afterlife. It takes its name, "Roseabelle," from the secret word he and his wife agreed they would use if one of them were ever to attempt to communicate with the other from beyond the grave.

Placed upon a printed board framed beneath a sheet of plexiglass, the velvet lined planchette makes use of force sensors to detect when each participant is exerting too much force, and through a combination of visual and haptic feedback, keeps each participant in check. Blue LED’s are mounted to illuminate the text read through the planchette, and as long as everyone follows the traditional rules, they slowly pulse indicating the desired interaction. If anyone chooses to push the planchette in a desired direction, passing the planchette’s tolerance level, other particpants are alerted by a rapidly pulsing red LED corresponding to that player, while the cheater is alerted by a vibrating pager motor underneath his/her fingers.

“Roseabelle” is both an augmented version of the original interaction, as well as a spirit-tester of sorts that was a big hit at the Haunted House and we hope will make a great addition to the Winter Show.

Planchette writing has existed for thousands of years, and the exact date of the original Ouija board is uncertain, yet they exploded in popularity in Victorian England where they served a gothic sensibility fascinated by the occult and the possibility of communicating with the dead.

Harry Houdini had a great interest in the occult and the afterlife, his skills as an illusionist made him the worst possible audience for those practicing the art of deception. He could distinguish a trick from a supernatural event quite easily, and after he revealed countless frauds, quickly became the enemy of any would-be spirit-talker. The most interesting part of the story for me, however, was that in spite of all the frauds, he maintained a genuine desire to continue searching for real evidence of the afterlife until his death, and even agreed upon a specific message he would try to communicate to his wife Bess from beyond the grave if such a thing was, in fact, possible : “Rosabelle - answer - tell- pray - answer look tell answer answer tell” (which in itself was a code for “Rosabelle Believe” - a reference to the song his wife was singing in her act when they first met).

It was a pity that Bess revealed the message to reporters in 1928 and effectively transformed the effort into another hoax that psychics across the country would use to provide evidence of having made contact - but the idea of looking for a better way to test whether such contact is possible seemed like a far more interesting pursuit than yet another hoax. Thus "Roseabelle" - The Smart Ouija Board was born.

Skeptics, believers and agnostics - namely those who might have a stake in a device that might either substantiate or disprove an attempt to communicate with a spirit or a ghost, as well as just about anyone looking for a spooky form of entertainment.

User Scenario
At least three participants place fingers upon the planchette which activates the steady blue pulse of LED's which illuminate the letter revealed through the central hole in the planchette. The three agree upon a question they'd like to ask a spirit (often simply "Is there a spirit present?") and wait to see if unconscious impulses from their hands, or an invisible force will guide the planchette to spell out a coherent message. Should the force on the planchette from a participant's hands break a designated threshold, the planchette's force sensors register that player as a potential cheater, and a red LED beside that player's blue LED pulses rapidly, alerting others that foul play may be at hand. Should that force be even greater, the planchette identifies the cheater and releases a vibrating pulse underneath that participant's fingers indicating that they need to either stop cheating or find a way to fool the planchette.

Some participants may find cheating more fun than playing genuinely, but the key is simply that the planchette keeps each participant informed so that they can monitor the ritual/game and adjust their behaviors accordingly.

The planchette is a box of sorts that consists of six force sensors mounted on a wooden surface with a hole in the middle, and covered in black velvet. On the interior are three bright blue LED's mounted to illuminate text through the hole, and three bright red LED's that alert other players to cheating. On the inside, underneath the force sensors are three pager motors mounted so that they vibrate underneath a cheater's fingers, yet dampened just enough so that other players might not be able to tell who is the one vibrating. The motors, sensors and LED's are all connected to a mini arduino and breadboard and powered off a nine volt battery. The velvet on the exterior lends the planchette a funereal quality, while the application of 6 iron-on decals to the fabric designates where each player is place his/her fingers, resulting in both a visual marker, as a well as a tactile one that can be found easily in the dark.

The board itself was designed in Adobe Illustrator and printed at Kinko's. The paper was placed beneath a sheet of plexy which we then framed.

We learned a great deal about rich interactivity, and why the best ideas do not necessarily require the most ambitious applications of technology. In the process there were plenty of snapped wires and setbacks to convince us that one buys time later by not taking shortcuts in the building process. In addition we also had an incredible time working together, discovering an unexpectedly strong team where each one of our strengths complemented the other's.