Three years ago I wrote a blog about a cymatics R&D project I worked on that ultimately didn't work. This week we launch a new film ...

Revisiting cymatics - A case study of failure


Three years ago I wrote a blog about a cymatics R&D project I worked on that ultimately didn't work.

This week we launch a new film for Glenfiddich with cymatics at the heart of the idea. The ability to deliver such as high profile project with untested technology at its heart is in part a result of having tried, failed and learnt in the past.

So, here is that blog post in its entirety.

The new film for Glenfiddich 21 can be viewed here:


20th August 2012, London.

In the truest sense of R&D, failing forms the majority of a project’s lifespan. It’s the 99% that leads to the 1% that finally works.

That said, it’s rare to see a case study about the failed work - at least one that doesn’t end in a success with large numbers of measurement against it.

So, with this in mind we’d like to share some of the things that simply didn’t work out for our R&D teams. We’re big enough to admit things don’t always work out the way we expected.

In fact, we’d even be so bold as to open up a dialogue around some of our projects in the spirit of sharing and learning as a wider community. Commercial objectives dictate that much of our R&D remains behind closed doors - but those we can share, we will. And if you are inspired to come work with us on anything we post, please get in touch.

This first one is a story of highly poisonous fluids and non-newtonian physics; lofty ambitions and suspect packages.

We were looking to develop a stand-out installation for one of our car brands. Where the everyday bumps in the road are given an elegant, luxury twist appropriate to the level of craft featured on the vehicle itself.

It was an art installation to subtly portray a piece of technology that smooths the ride of the vehicle. We wanted a pool of water under the car with ripples to show the terrain of the road surface, from which the technology keeps you comfortable.

It was envisioned to be a beautiful, moving sculpture that was affected by a sound system plugged directly into the pool. This was to be driven by a field of science known as ‘cymatics’, first pioneered by Dr Hans Jenny which visibility displays different soundwaves by passing them through fluidic materials.

For the most part the water pool approach worked. But as with most things created for live shows it needed an element of theatricality and staging. We tried various lighting systems but it was really underwhelming. We also felt that it was a bit derivative, nothing more than a common fountain to be really critical of the initial idea.

Looking around for a new approach, things got interesting when we started playing with cornstarch.

Cornstarch, aside from being a useful baking ingredient, is a ‘Non-Newtonian’ fluid. That is to say its viscosity is dependent on the force applied to it. Quicksand also falls under this category which is why it’s responsible for so many deaths in bad movies.

It also means it behaves in a really fascinating way when you run vibrations through it. We planned to create a large pool and have it happily vibrate to a soundtrack under the vehicle. The issue, however, was that it happily vibrated itself into lots of small bits which then danced off the table.

It also looked like baby sick, which even with the most creative use of dyes and lighting was going to be a tough sell as a luxury installation.

Like with all R&D, a failure forced us to take a step back and try something else. And as is usually the case, the initial disappointment led to something better.

Our explorations for a new approach led us to ferrofluid, another amazing substance comprised in very layman's terms of magnetic particles suspended in fluid.

It’s a beautiful and unique material. It has a very luxurious look and bounces light in really interesting ways. Like the cornstarch, it can be made to thicken on demand, but with magnetism not vibrations.

We played around a lot with moving magnets near the ferrofluid and got some very photogenic results. The plan was to build an electromagnet underneath the pool and control the flow of magnetism by moving it around on rails.
The problems that eventually defeated us were that ferrofluid is a quite harmful material and needs to be handled with protective gloves and glasses on. Not good for a family show.

As a result, it got caught up in customs due to the harmful nature of it and arrived following a thorough inspection from the authorities looking like a student returning from a year backpacking around Borneo.

It was also prohibitively expensive given the quantities we were looking to use. Typically it is only supplied in small amounts of about 100ml and we needed gallons of it.

In conclusion we could have had some successes with a smaller form-factor and in a more controlled environment. But nothing that would be useful in a show environment for a large audience.

We had fun in a mad science, Mythbusters sort of way. Learnt a lot but ultimately failed.


You can see how we (successfully) worked with cymatics in this behind the scenes film for the Glenfiddich 21 film:

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