Tweets Twirl Steelers' Terrible Towel

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If you’ve watched a Pittsburgh Steelers game in the last few decades, you’ve probably noticed the yellow towels that the team’s fans wave during crucial moments of the game. 

Dubbed ‘Terrible Towels,” they were created in the mid-70s by a local broadcaster to help the fans rally the team. Now a group of tech-savvy Steelers fans have created a 21st century version that twirls not with your shoulders and arms… but with your tweets.

Their version — called the Twerrible Towel — twirls every time someone tweets #steelersnation and #twerribletowel (or some variation of those words). As of this writing, the towel’s spun 26,774 times. Er, 26,795.

To find out just how it works, I called the designers at North Carolina-based advertising firm McKinney.

"It's kind of like Doctor Emmett Brown at this point," said interactive producer Ben Eckerson, referencing Christopher Lloyd's character from Back to the Future, who had a penchant for creating automated household gadgets.

For the towel to twirl, programmer Brett Buddin, "wrote a Ruby [open source programming language] program to tap into Twitter’s streaming API [application programming interface]."

Another script sends signals to a relay, or electronic switch, that turns on and off. That relay is connected to an old, re-purposed ceiling fan motor.

“And what ends up happening is every tweet that comes through, based on the search terms we’ve specified, we turn on the fan, let the program sleep for four seconds, and then we turn it off,” he said.

Basically, your #steelersnation tweet is turned into a command that is sent to a tiny computer connected to an electric switch, which powers the motor, which twirls the towel.

While this might seem like a limited use for this very cool technology, it’s the kind of thing that unleashes the potential for more tweets to be turned into real world actions.

Imagine tweeting #brewcoffee and #startshower as you’re waking up in the morning; or #turnonlights as you’re arriving home from work; or maybe even #cookdinner or #walkdog. Finally, Twitter is making itself useful in the house!

Go twirl the towel yourself at twerribletowel.com. But don't blame me if you end up wasting WAY too much time staring at it (like I did).

Photos: McKinney. Pictured (left to right): Stevie Archer, Brett Buddin, Ben Eckerson, Scott Gaston and Jenny Nicholson

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