Saturday night fever runs high all week long at MIT's East Campus dormitory, thanks to the 128-square-foot dance floor students built in the lounge.
Made of wood planks covered by a sheet of quarter-inch clear plastic, the raised 50-person disco floor features more than 500 computer-controlled light-up tiles.
Inspired by the annual East Campus-sponsored Bad Ideas Competition, students came up with the idea for the floor at the beginning of the school year. The competition culminates in a Bad Ideas Ball, held in January, which this year featured a disco theme.
"What is a worse idea than disco?" asked junior physics major Grant Elliott, one of the floor's creators.
Elliott, Schuyler Senft-Grupp, Scott Torborg and Mike Anderson began discussing the idea of engineering a disco floor for the party that could be controlled by computer, offering more variety of color mixes than a standard disco floor made using light bulbs and colored gels.
Constructing the floor from scratch proved no small feat. All of the wiring and coding had to be done both inexpensively and efficiently. Anderson spent countless hours hand-soldering thousands of tiny connections to secure the wiring. And the wooden frame needed to be built. Many in the dorm pitched in to see the project through.
But, several sleepless nights and $2,500 later, the core group, affectionately known as "the disco guys," had created a high-tech dance floor even Tony Manero would envy. Total construction time? About three weeks.
With the lights out, the floor looks alive, swirling and pulsating to the beat of the music. Dancers can enjoy a psychedelic 4,100 color possibilities. The floor is USB controlled and operated through a plug-in for the music player XMMS, Elliott said. "In the near future, we hope to have it run through parties by itself. For now, one of us sits next to the floor with a laptop. We have a large set of animations we can play back, as well as a few music-generated patterns," he said.
And the floor can be used for more than dancing, Torborg said. With touch-sensor capability, the floor can also act as a giant playing board for games like Dance Dance Revolution (an interactive video game in which lighted floor tiles indicate dance moves to the players), Twister and Tetris.
"The floor can pretty much do anything we want," said Elliott.
There is no current plan to move the floor from East Campus, but the group has received calls from a few people who want help constructing their own. The floor is such an attraction, it has its own web site: http://web.mit.edu/storborg/ddf/.
The floor may be popular, but none of the "disco guys" are in any hurry to bring the '70s dance craze back. "We would all feel pretty guilty if we were responsible for a disco revival," Torborg said.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 18, 2005 (download PDF).