A brief history of the Turtlcam

C Sven Johnson @ 29-10-2008

The latest instalment of Sven Johnson’s Future Imperfect is another part of the Superstruct project.

Future Imperfect - Sven Johnson

A misplaced shipment of military fire control chips, a counterfeit toy company, an opportunist dock worker and a plastic-moulding factory fallen on hard times… a strange set of ingredients, sure, but they combined to make the black-market toy sensation of the moment.

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Since uploading a child’s Turtlcam footage of a curious “stealth” airship, I’ve been fielding questions regarding the camera’s origins. Some people read the “more info” remarks and were curious; other people didn’t bother to read and were asking where they could purchase a Turtlcam of their own. So in an effort to simplify matters, I’ve decided to provide a brief history of the Turtlcam here to which I can point future inquiries.

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The Turtlcam originated in Eastern Europe and was one of the more interesting “Frankenproducts” to arrive on the scene a few years ago.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, Frankenproduct owes its origins not to “frankenfood” but to traditional product development. The term “Frankenstein prototype” is used in development circles to describe a working prototype cobbled together from whatever scrap parts are readily available; kind of like the actual Frankenstein story.

Once a functioning proof-of-concept Frankenstein has been built, concept renderings representing a more finished product are usually generated. Then marketing representatives present both the frighteningly ugly model and the stylishly compensating visuals to a retail buyer in hopes of receiving an advance order.

A Frankenproduct is simply a less offensive Frankenstein prototype capable of being sold as-is; usually in very small quantities, direct to consumers via online channels, by some highly questionable, opportunistic individuals.

The Turtlcam is such a product; notorious for being conceived and built around a misplaced shipment of classified, military-custom IC chips. The story behind its development goes something like this:

Happybutt Enterprises Inc, a front for selling counterfeits of popular electronic toys, was reportedly put in contact with a dock worker claiming to have received an unlisted shipment of computer chips. Unable (or unwilling) to locate the proper owner, the dock worker sold the chips to Happybutt representatives.

Believing they had a relatively standard military-grade object recognition system, Happybutt Enterprises quickly assembled, marketed and sold the “Turtlcam” as an English language learning tool for youngsters. With off-the-shelf wireless components connecting the device to online image search engines, the device’s performance so impressed consumers that the entire supply was sold out in a matter of weeks. However, once government officials belatedly traced the missing shipment to Happybutt and word spread of the sophisticated fire control code hardwired into the toy video camera’s electronic brain, the device became an instant black market sensation.

For embarrassed government officials, recovering the units proved to be an impossible task. This is because the Turtlcam not only looks like a mass-market video camera, but is, in fact, housed in the very same design as a popular, mass-produced unit.

With the internal component layouts complete, Happybutt had surveyed the local tool shops for camcorder housing molds collecting dust (corporations routinely leave their steel tools sitting for long periods of time; eventually either putting them to use in a new market where the style is fresh, or simply scrapping the tool and selling the metal). In this case, the plastic housing was molded from an old Sony tool sitting in a soon-to-be-shuttered mold facility. It likely took very little persuasive talent to convince the bankrupt facility owner to run a few thousand parts using someone else’s mold.

With housings in hand, Happybutt had only to locate an actual unit and determine which parts were standard and readily available in the market, and which pieces needed to be scanned and fabbed.

In fact, and of great interest to people like myself, companies like Happybutt – as ethically challenged as they may be – are pointing the way for traditional manufacturers. Until recently, mixing old production methods (injection molding, extruding, aso) with new fabrication techniques (multi-material printing, electron beam melting, etc) has been resisted by old school companies determined to extract as much return from their capital investment as possible before investing in relatively new technology. Sound familiar?

However, the flexibility afforded by mixing processes is extraordinarily compelling in ever more competitive and fragmented global markets. And at least some manufacturers recall the disaster that befell the recording industry due to its hesitance to embrace change. So Turtlcam, like its software counterparts, has become known as one of the products that introduced mash-up to tangible, manufactured goods.

And before I forget: No, unless you have a few million dollars and underworld connections, you cannot buy a Turtlcam any more. Get your kid a book.

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Sven JohnsonSven Johnson is an unrooted freelance designer increasingly working at the intersection of tangible and virtual goods. His background is varied and includes a fair amount of travel, a pair of undergraduate degrees and a stint with the U.S. military. He’s a passionate wannabe filmmaker, a once-upon-a-time underground comix creator, and – when facilities are available – an enthusiastic ceramicist who is currently attempting to assemble a transmedia, transreality open-source narrative in what remains of his lifetime.

[Future Imperfect header based on an image by Kaunokainen.]

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