A Look at the Art of Motorization

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Donny Hackett stands below his Eiffel Tower replica used as a room divider. Credit: Joseph Hilliard

We talked to theater design wiz Donny Hackett about slick ways he adds motorization to his theater projects, and we look back at four of his coolest theaters.


Sep. 01, 2010 — by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

Donny Hackett calls what he does “adaptation-automation.” He likes motorizing things by using leftover motors and other parts. The results are slick and clever, and almost always have an underlying steampunk mentality.

Hackett’s home theater designs include wow factors like revolving floors that use electric hoists and automatic doors powered by Shiatsu massage motors. “The Shiatsu motors are from those handheld units you find at every yard sale,” he explains. “You can pick one up for under five bucks, and the reversible AC motors are thermally fused, safe, quiet and strong. I use them for small projector lifts, moving pocket doors, masking panels, opening secret hideaway doors, even pushing speakers on drawer slides to silently pop out of cabinets.”

Hackett has been involved in the home theater field for about 20 years, coming from his father’s drapery business. “Motorized curtains are where it all began for me,” he says. “I seriously believe I started designing home theaters just to feed my need for gadgets. It seemed like the one room in the home where anything goes.”

Hackett is still designing home theaters under Donny Hackett Design (www.donnyhackettdesign.com) in Hendersonville, Tenn., and is working on a reality TV show called Motorize This (www.motorizethis.com).

We caught up with him recently and quizzed him about motorization today, do-it-yourself versus commercially available products, and what keeps his own motor running. And click here for a refresher slideshow on four of Hackett’s most memorable home theater projects—a rotating floor theater, a Paris themed theater, a Titanic themed theater and a drummer’s delight theater. They don’t all showcase his motorization skills, but they do show his prolific innovation.

WHAT’S THE CRAZIEST MOTORIZATION PROJECT YOU’VE EVER DONE? That would be the revolving theater room. It was toured by thousands as part of the “Parade of Homes” competition in Nashville. The builder gave me $20,000 and said I could do whatever I wanted. I always wanted to make a floor spin. I wanted to create a seating arrangement that would morph from a round conversation pit into two rows of theater seats when a movie started. Commercially made automotive rotating display stands start at $20,000, so making one from scratch was my only option.

WHAT KINDS OF MOTORS DO YOU USE IN YOUR PROJECTS? I use all kinds of motors in my projects. AC or DC, with gears, pulleys, chains and belts, sprockets and aircraft cable, car power window or antennas, whatever I can find. Before the Internet, I would pull a nice gearhead motor out of a trashed photocopier and think, “what can I build with this today?” There are great products out there from all of the different companies offering lift units for TVs and projectors, as well as automatic doors and draperies. I’ve installed many of them. But they were always priced above my pay scale.

WHAT REQUESTS FOR MOTORIZATION HAVE YOU GOTTEN? A builder wanted a 65-inch plasma to drop through a hardwood floor in a living room and be viewable in the game room below. I employed Razor scooter wheels, counter weights and a recycled outdoor awning tube motor. It’s being enjoyed today by country music artist Kix Brooks and his family.

HAVE YOU EVER REFUSED TO MOTORIZE SOMETHING? I tend to say sure, without thinking things through. One customer wanted a weatherproof LCD TV to drop out of a beam in the ceiling of his back deck, rotate around, depending upon where he was sitting or grilling, and then pop back up and disappear. The inside height of the beam was 23 inches and the display was 21 inches. I should have refused, but we got it done, and I’m quite proud of it.

CAN MOTORIZATION ACTUALLY BE ENERGY-EFFICIENT AND GREEN? I don’t think we can add motorization to anything and save electricity. We can, however, be energy-efficient. The sun burns all day. It’s free. I have a 60-volt electric lawn mower that could charge itself for free if I just add a few solar panels to the top cover. I guess I could do the same to my two Robomowers that automatically cut my grass. If you’re going to automate something yourself, start with something that might otherwise be thrown out. Used building supply houses, thrift stores and yards sales are full of unwanted things that could be reborn. Reduce, re-use, recycle …

SHOULD WE BE MOTORIZING WINDOWS MORE? Draperies and blinds should all be motorized. Keeping the sun out of unoccupied rooms can save tons on air conditioning costs during the summer. Likewise, letting the sun in during the winter saves on heating and makes it look like someone’s home. It could save you money and add security. They are not as expensive as they used to be. Of course you could rig them up yourself; those little cordless screwdrivers are quite handy for that. And borrow the remote and innards of that unused remote-controlled car.

MOTORIZATION IS EXPENSIVE, BUT CAN IT ACTUALLY SAVE SOMEONE MONEY? I guess it can be expensive, but if you control the sunlight coming through your windows that’s got to save you something. My neighbor pays $40 a week to have some bare-chested stranger cut his grass. My robots do it for pennies and keep their shirts on while they’re at it. I personally own a MartinLogan Theater center-channel speaker in my home cinema. It now shares the carpeted floor with my 4-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son. I’m finishing a lift unit for the window seat bench, which will protect the speaker from them while not in use. Saving this gorgeous electrostatic from abuse could save me money—and save my hair from falling out.

WHAT CAN MOTORIZATION MANUFACTURERS DO BETTER IN CREATING THEIR PRODUCTS? Honestly, safety. None of the lifts I installed over the years had any sort of safety stop switches. Ten years ago these units were lifting and dropping 200-pound CRTs and if your child’s finger got under that lid, “oops.” As far as I know, they are still that way. The TVs may have gotten thinner but the lifts are still dangerous. That’s just my opinion. These AC motors are extremely strong. If they could add adjustable torque sensors, making the units just strong enough to do the job and smart enough to stop if an obstruction is detected …

WHAT DO YOU THINK OF MOTORIZATION USED TO HIDE VIDEO DISPLAYS OR SCROLL ARTWORK? Hide them all, including those ugly computer monitors. If it’s not turned on, I don’t want to see it. Make them all pop up or pop down, whatever it takes. I have a few clients who have purchased beautiful artwork frames with the scrolling limited edition prints concealing flat-panel TVs over their fireplaces. But every time that I have visited these people, I walk by and see the plasma turned off and uncovered. I don’t personally sell them, but I could build you one, and it would sense that the display is off and activate.

WHAT DO WE NEED TO MOTORIZE MORE? Doors! I saw a TV ad for a minivan, in which the homeowner approaches her home, her hands full of groceries and presses the keychain remote to unlock and open the front door. Where is that? What in the name of George Jetson is taking so long? We’ve walked through them at the mall for decades, now we even have them on our vehicles. Why not in our house? I have engineered automatic doors in almost all of my home theater designs. They are safe and quiet, and the homeowners and their guests love them. If someone gets up in the middle of a movie and forgets to close the door, no problem. The answer’s right there on your touchscreen remote. How cool is that?

HOW CAN MOTORIZATION HELP THE ELDERLY, OR ASSIST WITH HOME HEALTH CARE? It is exciting to see what Japan and China are working on in terms of robotic assistance for the elderly and in hospitals. Their older citizens are living longer, and the demand for nurses and help around the home is growing quickly. We’ve all seen the medical assist scooters moving seniors around the mall and grocery stores here, but there they are working on robots that will actually lift them in and out of bed, get their food or medicine, and even keep them company.

WHAT ARE YOUR PERSONAL MOTORIZATION PROJECTS? We are currently in production with my reality TV show, called Motorize This, and the next project will feature my Trash Trolley. I always forget to take the garbage out the night before pickup, so I have devised a contraption to ferry the trash to the curb, via electric wheelchair motors, triggered by a sprinkler timer, guided by stud sensors over a buried wire, and recharged by the sunshine. Wish me luck.

YOU’RE NOT MOTORIZED, ARE YOU? Not yet … stay tuned.



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