Ever wonder what happens to a package between the time you drop it off at the post office and it arrives, safely, at its final destination? What kind of Rube Goldbergian system it goes through before it’s delivered to your abode? Ruben van der Vleuten, designer of Tasty Tweets and Blind Maps, was curious--so he decided to find out with From A to B, a self-initiated project. “Fun, but at the same time a good way to develop my skills,” he tells Co.Design.
He was inspired, in part, by Blu Dot’s Real Good Experiment a few years back, when the company left 25 of its signature chairs scattered around New York; each was secretly GPS-tagged so they could be traced back to their happy new homes and owners for a pretty clever video. “It got me wondering if I could implement the same idea to find more about processes normally hidden from me,” he says.
He set out to rig a standard cardboard box--sent from himself, to himself--to record the journey. Perfecting the technical aspects of the interior was a challenge: After testing out a few keychain cams that weren’t quite up to the task, he chose a cheapie $5 digital camera that could last the length of the trek. He programmed an arduino to “sleep” between frames to save battery power, and a second, external timer circuit to make it “wake-up” every minute to take a three-second video.
Next he needed to figure out a way to take extra footage when the package was moving. “I assumed those moments were going to be the most interesting and not-to-miss,” van der Vleuten says. Installing some simple tilt switches, which acted as movement sensors inside the box, did the trick, and the camera was able to capture 30 seconds of video during the periods of action. Light sensors prevented the system from wearing down the battery when it wasn’t bright enough to record anything.
It took multiple trips--via parcel, regular, and even international shipping--to string together footage for the entire door-to-door, which lasted between one and three days: dead batteries and loose connections were consistent setbacks. Plus, “they don’t always handle the packages with care,” van der Vleuten says. “At one point you can see the parcel being sorted, and in the background you can see letters flying through the air.”
And what of the actual film? Was it all that van der Vleuten anticipated? “Though there wasn’t a big surprise, I was extremely excited to see the footage for the first time,” he says. “Especially when you see the conveyer belt system. It was amazing to see it work--the complexity and efficacy of it is stunning. Another thing was the amount of people involved was way less than I thought; most of it is automated.”
As fascinating as it is to watch, I was struck by two things. The first was this had to break some kinds of laws. Right? “I’m actually pretty sure that what I was doing wasn’t 100% legal,” he says. “But I didn’t have any bad intentions. I even can imagine that the post company would be proud if they see the footage--it shows how the system works. It’s efficient and pretty high-tech.”
The second was based on the pics that showed the open box; that thing really, really looks like a homemade bomb (if homemade bombs look like they do in the movies). “To be honest this was my biggest concern as well,” van der Vleuten admits. He included a note explaining that this was part of a student project with no criminal intent, but regardless: “Every time, I was bringing it to the post office with sweaty hands.”