A New Rack for the Gravesend Inn Animatronic Control System

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Summer is the time when I put all the new technology into the Gravesend Inn, so that we can test it and debug it all before the craziness starts (earlier I wrote about our new queue line displays) Last year we rolled out our new animatronic character; this summer, before reprogramming it, we moved, upgraded and consolidated the character’s control rack and wiring. I’ve had this in the works for several years, and this year a student Phoenix Neil took on some of the work for his senior culmination project.

The old system was just housed in a standard 19” rack; this lived out in the audience area in the old set up and was hidden onstage in the new setup.

To mount on the wall, we bought a Middle Atlantic swing frame rack. Our new location over the entry door meant that we had to extend the character control lines and this made for a lot of rewiring. This was a good thing because we were able to clean up a lot of the documentation and also the wiring itself.

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It came out great and of course we hope you don’t notice it when you go through the Gravesend Inn!

Controlling a Microframe Ethernet Visual-Pager® LED Display from Medialon Manager for the Gravesend Inn Queue Line

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Our Gravesend Inn haunted hotel has been getting about 6,000 visitors per year for the last few years, and the queue line has been becoming unmanageable. To alleviate this, our house management staff started taking names and sending people up to out second floor cafeteria area; this too became unwieldy. So I suggested a “take a number” system, and found the Microframe 3-Digit Ethernet Visual-Pager® Display. We got two model D4500 displays; here they are in action.

I spec’d out the units over the winter, and then one of my senior students, BaiLin He, did the original work on getting the unit to respond over ethernet from Medialon. I’ve found that every time I add something like this, it takes many hours of figuring out and inevitably contacting the manufacturer to straighten something out. In this case, the design engineer at Microframe was extremely helpful and very responsive; their protocol document is here.

Here’s our notes.

Initial Configuration

Set the IP address

  • The IP functionality of the displays is provided to the Microframe units by an add-on board made by WIZnet. So to set the IP address, use the java “WIZnet Configuration Tool”, which is labelled “D4600 Ethernet Software” on the microframe website here: https://www.microframecorp.com/download-software

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To use:

  • Click “Search” to find the device on the network

  • To save the setting click “Setting” then type the password 

  • Default Password: WIZnet

Set the Device Parameters

There are several parameters in the unit that you might want to set. These settings are stored in EEPROM in the unit.  To configure, use the “WIFI_Display” software which is listed on the Microframe website as “”WiFi Visual Display Desktop Paging Software”

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“Rollover”, which is how many numbers will loop on the display. We only want to show a single number at a time so we set this to zero. “Auto Delete” sets how many minutes the display will wait when displaying a number before blanking out. Chime volume is of course sets the loudness of the chime and the pull down list allows you to set for single or double chime, or turn the chime off.

NOTE: I discovered that this software is very erratic for parameter setting—it only works some times and then other times not at all with no indication.  It seems that it is most likely to work if you remove any existing units, and then search for new units and click on the unit you want to configure (but this doesn’t work 100% of the time).  In order to see when it’s working, I ran Wireshark with this filter to verify that commands were actually being sent. tcp.payload and ! (tcp.payload contains “GLA”)   This filters out the get lists commands (GLA) that the software constantly sends out and the other TCP housekeeping.

Controlling the Unit 

The unit defaults to TCP Server, port 9107.  The unit is designed to store a list of numbers so to display a number you send an “add number” command.  All commands have a 2 byte validation pin (we use the default of !00 !00 and end with a terminator of !00   (! = hex byte indicator in Medialon)

  • To add number “88”: !00!00!0c"S+ 88!00 

  • To clear the list and blank the display: !00!00OCA!00 

Note: Even with the rollover set to zero, I had a lot of seemingly erratic problems with both units where the units would freeze or blank out and stop responding when running overnight (I always do extensive durability testing on any system we add to the Gravesend Inn).  It turns out that the internal list (20 entries if I remember right) needs to be cleared. So now I add a Clear All command each time I send a number out and this seems to be very solid.

Test Program 

Adding these kinds of systems to a large piece of working code for the Gravesend Inn, I always start with a small test program, then import that into the main system. You can download the test program here, and the Low Level Communicator driver file here.

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A New Animatronic Character for the Gravesend Inn

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Our original animatronic character, eventually named “O’Skully”, first appeared in The Gravesend Inn in either 2001 or 2002; I had originally gotten the character back in 2000 or 2001 as a teaching tool. He was made by KX International (no longer in the animatronic business, apparently) and had been a demo unit. He got damaged in shipping and I had to get a friend in to do machine a part for neck surgery, and after that he lived in our light lab, and even graced the cover of a 2001 Stage Directions magazine in an issue for which I wrote an article about our program’s approach.

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At some point, probably in 2002 (our records are a bit fuzzy from back then), we started incorporating him in the haunted house. As the attraction grew to the point of being unmanageable for students, the faculty started taking on the design roles, and Chip Scott and Norma Lee Chartoff, our production designers, eventually made him a new home in the Gravesend Inn, (Lighting by John Robinson; you can see the back of his head in the Stage Directions cover above).

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We started with a Gilderfluke control system, which I can see from my early cue sheets was only connected to the main show control system via a simple “running” contact closure. In 2004 I started moving things onto the network, and by 2008 we moved to A/V Stumpfl, and at that point he was running a stand-alone system but integrated over the network with (now Barco) Medialon Manager running the main show. In 2013 we moved to Weigl animatronic control hardware (writeup here), with which we happily remain today, using Weigl’s excellent Conductor software..

O’Skully was used when we got him, and over the years his joints started wearing out. We replaced the seals on his valves and so on, but eventually his fingers stopped working (broken cable inside his arm bone) and his torso got so shaky that I started programming more and more axes out each year. And then, a few years ago our attendance started increasingly dramatically (along with a reduction in downtime) poor O’Skully was running about every 90 seconds during the shows and it became apparent that he was due for retirement. Thankfully, the increase in audience numbers meant that we were able to afford a replacement.

I got in touch with Mike Blasko at Weigl, and he connected me with Bret Woodbury at animatronics maker Life Formations at IAAPA a couple years ago. Brett said he had a used character on the shelf that he could refurbish for us. On my way way back from storm chasing in 2016, I stopped in to visit her in Ohio.

She is very well built but was a bit rusty and needed a bit of TLC. Our General Manager Sue Brandt got the payment worked out, and she arrived, shiny and updated early in 2018. Knowing this was coming, I had already expanded our Weigl system, and included a full backup, seen here during testing:

The new character, who Norma eventually named “Oshkiloni” has many more axes of control, and different wiring, so we had to create a new interface box. Dominique Hunter, a graduating student, took the construction of the box on as her senior project:

And this led to a test of all the movements in the shop:

With all the pieces in place, and a new scenic design by Cory Einbinder, the old O’Skully’s wharf was disassembled under the direction of our scenic supervisor (and Department Chair) John McCullough.

And our new character moved into her new home.

We brought in the dark creative genius Todd Robbins to direct the new animatronic show, and he even did the makeup himself:

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Todd brought in Courtney Hansen for costume design:

Norma had written a new script, and Todd oversaw the creation of a new voiceover. Sound designer Sam Kusnetz integrated all that and then I spent a bunch of time last summer programming her movements. John Robinson did a new lighting design, and she rolled out for Halloween 2018. We got a very good response, and the whole system worked flawlessly for over 6000 attendees. There are videos online, but to really experience the show you have to see it in person! And, there will be a few new surprises for 2019…