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Huge mechanical snake brings Burning Man vibe to CES

CES may be TVs, laptops, and mobile phones galore, but this week, the giant Consumer Electronics Show is also home to Titanoboa, a wonderful art and science project.

LAS VEGAS--When you come to CES here, you expect to see computers and TVs galore. Mobile phones, sure. Printer and speakers? Check. But a 50-foot-long mechanical snake?

Though we're in an arid, desert-like Nevada environment (never mind all the cement and golf courses), this isn't Burning Man. But sure enough, just behind the CNET trailer here, Titanoboa is strutting its stuff. And indeed, Titanoboa is a 50-foot mechanical snake.

Created by EatArt, the Vancouver arts collective, Titanoboa seeks to invoke the promise -- or the threat -- of global climate change, and the kinds of things we might start to see happen on this wonderful planet of ours. According to the Titanoboa project page:

Sixty million years ago in the sweltering heat of a climate 6 to 8 degrees (Celsius) warmer than today lived a monstrous snake called Titanoboa. It was only at these warmer temperatures which are at the upper end of climate change predictions that the cold-blooded beast was able to reach these sizes. Today, as fossilized life is exhumed and burned relentlessly to fuel modern progress, primordial spirits have been stirring. This fossil beast has been brought back to life as a provocative omen on the eve of catastrophe.

Titanoboa is an independent art project that seeks to reincarnate this 50-foot, 1-ton beast as an electromechanical serpent machine meant to provoke discussions of our changing climate and energy use in a historical context. This giant electromechanical reincarnation roams the earth terrifying and enlightening those who dare to ride the snake along the razor's edge between hope and fear and contemplate the future of our planet.

According to Charlie Brinson, one of the project's founders, Titanoboa has a wide variety of possible motions, including standard horizontal "slithering" and "in a pinch, it can life up and go in a diagonal" direction.

Brinson explained that the snake features a series of custom-welded aluminum vertebrae, and between each is a universal joint. The structure is much like a spinal cord, he said. A series of hydraulic cylinders give it motion, and it all works thanks to communication between six "brains," or Arduino micro-controllers.

Titanoboa, a 50-foot-long electromechanical snake built for Burning Man 2011, is prowling around CES this week, thanks to sponsorship by Lenovo. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Thanks to a variable battery setup, Titanoboa can run for anything from 15 minutes (with four lithium polymer RC batteries) to 6 hours (with 40 of the batteries). And throughout it all, the team can check in on the snake's diagnostics via a mobile app that delivers a set of data wirelessly in real-time.