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Homemade motion-control camera rig works almost like the real thing

While there is certainly no shortage of DIY photography projects out there, this has got to be one of the most impressive ones we’ve seen yet. Inspired by the robotic cameras that filmed the Death Star trench run in the original Star Wars, ingenious hardware hacker Howard Matthews spent over a year cobbling together spare parts into the ultimate motion-control Franken-rig. The machine may look a bit ungainly, but the results are surprisingly professional.

As interesting as the rig is by itself, the way it got built is a worthwhile story on its own. Matthews detailed the process on his blog and documented the different stages of progress in a series of short videos. Work began with the motors from an inkjet printer and an old disco ball, and he eventually added components from various other devices, including a telescope.

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Matthews even taught himself Swift code in order to write a MacOS app that would serve as the brains for the rig. Using a combination of sliders, the software grants full control over camera movement, including pan, tilt, and tracking. It even has the ability to keep a subject centered, a feature which he says is “super funky.” The funk seems to work quite well, though, at least compared to the disco ball, which nobody liked anyway.

The goal of the project was twofold for Matthews. It offered a much less expensive alternative to ready-made motion control units, and it also provided a learning experience. “It all seems a bit pointless, but the aim was to see if I could learn enough electronics and coding to get a computer to ‘play’ a motion sequence back on a set of motorized things,” he wrote in his blog. “And it worked.”

Intrepid inventors and curious photographers who are interested in pursuing their own motion-control devices can skip a few steps by downloading Matthews’ source code. He warns, however, that while “has worked, and may still work … it’s offered more for entertainment than anything else.” Although we’ll hold off on calling him a modern day Nikola Tesla, it would seem Matthews has joined the ranks of modest inventors who don’t mind giving their work away for free.

For more sample footage from the rig, head over to Matthews’ YouTube channel.