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The Walkman and Unlearning

Sometimes our expectations of what a thing is, or rather, what it should be blind us to the possibilities of what it could become. These expectations can prevent us from understanding the true potential of an object, and lead us to miss out on opportunities for development. This is where the idea of unlearning — of tossing aside old biases and preconceived notions — fits into the design process.

A good illustration of this point comes from Personal Stereo, a book in the Objects Lessons series about the development of the Sony Walkman and other portable sound devices:

Whatever its genesis, there is consensus that most of Sony’s employees were distinctly unenthusiastic about the idea. The reasons for this are worth dwelling on for a moment. The main reason was that Sony employees doubted that anyone would want a tape player with no recording function.

It may seem patently obvious to us now that a portable listening device would not need a recording function (though obviously, all smart phones have both), but imagine living in a time where the past five decades of market demands indicated otherwise. Personal stereos emerged out of the development of the portable recording device that was used by the military and for corporate needs. Adapting it for mass consumption did not change, in an engineer’s mind, the device’s primary role in our lives.

We all have these kinds of biases about how a thing ought to be used and ought to function. This can be incredibly useful for purposes of expediency and understanding the world around us, but it can also be to the detriment of our creative potential. It’s important to remember this, and consider the process of unlearning essential to our creative work.

The Electrical Outlet and Musings on the Design of Things

Hacakday posted a piece recently about the creation of the electrical outlet and how it came to the form factor that we know today. What’s most interesting about this piece is how the mixture of market forces and arbitrary aesthetic opinions come to shape an object that, today, we take for granted. More than that, it got me thinking about how infrequently we ask ourselves why a thing is designed the way it is, and question whether or not that design is still relevant.

For instance, here’s an excerpt that explains why the pins on a plug are flat:

The device worked well, but the manufacturer and businessman in Harvey saw problems. Foremost was the costs behind those round pins, which would have required machining to achieve the tip and detent. Harvey would have known that parts stamped from sheet metal would be cheaper and easier to manufacture, and so he scrapped the round pins in favor of flat metal blades in 1904.

What struck me as interesting about this is that designed objects like the outlet have the ability to subsequently influence the design of other objects. Seemingly small decisions about the design of things have the ability to influence how others design with, or on top of those things in ways that the original creator could never anticipate. An inability to generate round pins (a lot less difficult now than at the turn of the 20th century) has lasting implications.

Also interesting:

For reasons unknown, though, Hubbell altered his design in 1912. The two blades were no longer in a line; each blade was twisted 90° to form the familiar parallel arrangement we see to this day.

In other words, perhaps sometimes there is no divine inspiration behind the design of a thing, and that decisions are made arbitrarily (or seemingly so). These decisions can still have a lasting impact, however, as numerous forum posts on how to rotate an outlet 90 degrees suggests.

Human designed objects are often made to solve an immediate problem, but with little ability to predict the impact or implications of the decisions we’re making on the future. We do the best we can now, taking into account our knowledge of market forces and aesthetics, but there’s no telling how a future generation might look back on these limitations as quaint and arbitrary. And yet, it’s more important than ever to understand why these decisions were made so that we can go back and re-evaluate their validity, and assess whether they’re still necessary, or no longer relevant.

Expanding on Making Custom Game Platforms and Badges

Last week I gave a talk at CrowdSupply’s Teardown Conference that expanded on the Thotcon 0x9 and 0x8 game platform work that my creative partner, Rudy Ristich, and I have been working on together for the last couple years. As a design talk, it focused on the affordances of developing interconnected, embedded game systems. It also expanded on my ideas of where I hope some games (particularly, computer games), and game developers, move toward in the near future with developing custom platform hardware. I wanted to expand on a few of the ideas briefly here:

As I stated in my talk, custom platform hardware has the potential to change how game designers make games, and how players experience games, by giving both groups newfound ways to interact and communicate with each other. By no longer having game experiences mediated through consoles under tight control of large corporations, game developers could have the ability to express themselves in ways that have been, up until now, limited by things like market demands, terms of service, and guidelines on allowed speech.

While we currently see some of this in showcases like GDC’s alt-ctrl, the games represented here are kitschy at best: one-off experiences tenuously wired together with prototyping platforms that are not meant for broader consumption. This brings me to my second point, which is that in order to represent a true change in the gaming landscape, custom game platforms must have the ability to be more accessible and affordable. This is, in essence, an issue of scale.

Up until recently, scale challenges have plagued the development of game platforms (and other hardware platforms) due to the cost of expertise (engineering time) and rapid advances in technology. For anyone breaking into the hardware market, a substantial amount of capital is necessary to prototype, test, and ultimately manufacture a mass-quantity of product.

Yet hardware continues to become more accessible through prototyping platforms like the Arduino, ESP8266, and other microcontroller devices. This makes engineering expertise less necessary and costly. Furthermore, as Moore’s Law slows and the cost of components continues to drive downward, more advanced, inexpensive technology is being made accessible to developers.

The Thotcon 0x8 and 0x9 badges are a great example of this. Badges for both conferences cost under $30/unit to fabricate, and were manufactured at a scale of 1,500 and up — fairly inexpensive and large scale for a custom game platform. The games were initially prototyped on an Arduino and ESP8266, respectively, and subsequent test units were created at a minimal cost. Conceivably, this kind of operation could be scaled up with additional units, and cost (per unit) could be driven down as a result, creating a template one could follow for mass-manufacturing custom game platforms.

Additionally, the game on the 0x8 badge in particular represented a dramatic shift from traditional game consoles. Instead of using a screen, it used four RGB LEDs, and instead of using a traditional game input (a d-pad and buttons), it used three potentiometers to control directionality. Conference-goers have commented on the playful, toy-like experience that the interactions driven by these simple inputs and outputs created. As an aside, I think this has a lot to do with the fact that the badge didn’t have an LCD screen on it, therefore didn’t resemble a game experience they’d seen before, and therefore eliminated the baggage of expectations set by prior experiences.

The shift in accessibility for developing custom game platforms, as well as doing so at cost, portends a possible shift where more people will not only have the ability to create, but to distribute, large quantities of their own devices. What that possibly looks like could take many forms, but my own personal preference would be a device dramatically divergent from what’s currently on the market. Perhaps something that requires less of our senses and breaks down the walls that video games have erected to shut us off from the external world while we retreat into our screens. Computer game platforms can be devices that exist more harmoniously in an integrated environment.

Anyway, a future in games where we have the control to make and edit not only the software, but the hardware, that our work is mediated through is interesting. If you’d like to watch what else I have to say about this, check out my Teardown talk.

Sierra Club Trip Proposal

Some of you may know that I have been training to become a Sierra Club trip leader over the past ~6 months. A Sierra Club trip leader role is exactly what it sounds like: someone who volunteers with the non-profit to take people into the wilderness. I have to plan the multi-day backpacking trip, the food, the safety plan… the whole thing. It’s really a fun process; something I’ve been doing for a long time informally with friends, but am happy to do for such a good cause and non-profit like the Sierra Club.

Anyway, part of the leadership training process is putting together a trip proposal. Most of these proposals (like the trips I traditionally go on) are backpacking trips. After all, John Muir himself (the founder of the Sierra Club) was an avid hiker and camper. Some of my best memories are being on backpacking trips, and yet…

I’ve always enjoyed water. I was a competitive swimmer for over a decade. Have been a kayaker for longer than that. Sleeping by the water, hiking along it, fly fishing in it, relaxing beside it… all of these things hold special places in my memories. It brings me peace that I have difficulty finding in other places.

And so, for my first Sierra Club trip proposal, I decided to buck convention. I’m not planning a backpacking trip, but a canoeing trip along the only undammed river off the Lake Michigan watershed: the Perre Marquette.

The trip should run in 2019 (if I complete my training to satisfaction, and if everything goes well). I’ll be taking around 10 folks along with me during the river’s salmon run for almost a week of fishing, canoeing, and day hikes. The trip really promises to be something pretty special, I hope, and will show people the dramatic negative effects that dams have on our wildlife.

In preparation for the trip, however, I need to do some scouting. To that end, I plan on taking a small group of friends on an exploratory expedition this Summer. This will be a good opportunity to become familiar with the waters, fishing holes, and beaches. It’ll also be a good opportunity to take some friends of mine who’ve never been on this kind of trip along and learn with and from them. A few people have already committed themselves to joining me, but if you’re up for a fun expedition in June of this Summer, and can afford to take about a week off meandering the rivers of Michigan (or if  you’re interested in staying informed about the 2019 trip) drop  me a line.

Progress

File this under: demand generating more demand. Our consumption of things only necessitates further consumption. The system requires it:

Twenty years later, and electricity suppliers faced a problem: there were pronounced peaks and valleys in the demand for their electricity. Electrical consumption rose slightly in the early morning, fell to almost nothing during the day, and then peaked again as it got dark in the evening.

However, to meet morning and evening demand, suppliers had to continue generating at peak level output throughout the day. Big power stations can’t be adjusted up or down from hour to hour, and storing the quantities of energy they generate wasn’t (and generally still isn’t) practical or economical. Thus, a way to increase demand outside of peak hours was needed, and electrical appliances proved successful at doing just that. If you can’t, or don’t wish to, cut back production, then try to manufacture demand—the story of the twentieth century?

In the early 1900s, AEG (now known as the house-hold appliances manufacturer AEG-Electrolux) was primarily a generator of electricity. In 1907 Peter Behrens, perhaps the first industrial designer, was hired as a consultant to find ways to increase demand for electricity during the day. His solution? The first electric kettle, developed for AEG and produced in 1909. That year is also considered by those in the know to be when the first commercially successful electric toaster was launched by the Edison General Electric Company, the model D-12.

from Thwaites, Thomas. The Toaster Project: Or A Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch

The implications for this can be seen all around. Accumulate too much stuff? Get a bigger house. Can’t afford the bigger house you want? Work more to generate more widgets to accumulate wealth to buy a bigger house. Bigger… more! Progress. At some point, we’ll have to understand that the progress we perceive is not progress at all; that consumption is not progress. Progress comes from within. It comes from leading an examined life.

The Toaster Project really is an excellent read. I’d highly recommend it to anyone interested in the current state of manufactured things.

DePaul Consulting Group

The DePaul Consulting Group is working on their first project! I’m happy to say that I’ll be advising the group along with DePaul professors Terry Steinbach and Nate Matteson, and that the Idea Realization Lab will be the new home for the group, where they’ll have an office in our former “breakout room.” Yesterday, Jake Juracka from the group came down to Spacelab to work with Rudy Ristich (Workshop 88) and I on getting the ESP8266 boards we’re using for the project. Jake learned to solder and breadboard circuits, and we also got a dogs102 screen working with the ESP8266 using the u8glib2 library for Arduino.

If you’re looking for a group of very talented students to help you on your next corporate project, please reach out!

 

 

Buy STEM Learning Kits by Margalus, LLC

Margalus, LLC’s first electronics learning kits are being released today both online and at the first ever Naperville School District maker event! Sarah and I have done a lot of work and research on these over the past year, and are happy to present the first batch of STEM Standards kits: “DIY Electromagnets.”

Each kit includes a set of NGSS Learning Standards aligned with maker centered concepts (copyrighted!), instructions, and tools for educators to incorporate learning into their classroom. If you’re interested in checking one out, you can get them on our store.

And if you’re interested in hiring out our company for consulting and development work, visit our website.

Instead of declaring victory, leaders of successful efforts use the credibility afforded by short-term wins to tackle even bigger problems. They go after systems and structures that are not consistent with the transformation vision and have not been confronted before. They pay great attention to who is promoted, who is hired, and how people are developed. They include new reengineering projects that are even bigger in scope than the initial ones. They understand that renewal efforts take not months but years.

Making Makerspaces: Culture, Traditions, and Community. Introduction (1/8 in Series)

I started my first makerspace when I was 23-years-old. At the time, I’d just quit my job clerking at a law firm that I’d joined out of college, and was working freelance making websites for institutions like McGraw-Hill and Johns Hopkins. In my down time, I’d post on a web forum called “Manrus” (our mascot was a walrus in a suit) that some old friends from my alma mater, North Central College, had started where we chatted about technology, art, video games… just about anything you can think of.

This was in 2008, and hackerspaces (as makerspaces were then known) had just become a thing some people in various corners of the Internet were talking about. I became aware of publications like Make Magazine and started poking around to figure out what this was all about. It was around that time that I wrote a post to Manrus with a subject line that read something like “Hey, have you all heard of these things called hackerspaces?” The contents of the post linked to a few things I’d read, and concluded with a call that, maybe, we start exploring starting our own hackerspace.

I had no idea what that meant, but in relatively short order there was a small group of us meeting in a coffee house at North Central College talking about starting our own hackerspace and getting projects off the ground. We began to call ourselves Workshop 88, after the I-88 corridor that we were located in near Naperville, IL. Bylaws were written, we incorporated, and I became the Vice President of a hackerspace that didn’t even have a home yet.

To raise money to buy a space while we were still meeting in the coffee house, people began paying paying dues ($50/member) just to be around each other and talk shop. We’d meet at the coffee house in Naperville, hold hackathons in my dining room in Mokena, IL, or go out on group outings at local breweries. We started a small international event that got some attention in its day called “Hackerspaces in Space,” where hackerspaces competed against each other by sending high-altitude balloons into near space. This was right around the time that the “Power Wheels Racing Series” got its start, and there was some talk early on of making a hackerspace olympics. The energy behind this movement was palpable. It was a very creative and productive time in my life.

Many of the first people who were coming to those early Workshop 88 meetings went on to become some of my best friends and collaborators. Others went on to launch products like the “Shapeoko” (Ed Ford), films about the maker movement, and their own maker companies. In fact, I discovered the people who I’d eventually join and co-own my first company with, Lunar Giant, while I was talking with some co-founders of Workshop 88 who were about to launch their first video game.

Notice that everything I’ve talked about up until now has nothing to do with the tools we had at Workshop 88 (none at the time), the space that we had (also none), or the cool projects that were coming out of the space (you get the picture, none). People were literally paying money to hang out with each other in a coffee house on a college campus, and there’s a powerful lesson in there about what these spaces are actually about.

Makerspaces to me have always been about the community first. Yes, the first question you get when someone walks into your space is “do you have a laser cutter,” but, in my experience, the laser cutter is broken half the time and may have been for quite some time. Makerspaces are about the common spirit that we all have to reject consumer culture, take learning into our own hands, and figure out solutions to problems that we didn’t even know existed.

Since starting Workshop 88 a decade ago, I’ve gone on to found another non-profit makerspace called Spacelab, and an academic makerspace at DePaul University where I teach called the Idea Realization Lab. And while the spaces may have many differences, both in culture and membership, they also share many of the same traits with each other. Makerspaces are a playground for a tinkerer, and as with all play, they help us learn something about ourselves, other people, or the world around us.

Much critical work has been written about these spaces since they first started. In academic literature especially, there has been a focus on the so-called frivolousness of tinkering, the idea that people at makerspaces rarely graduate beyond tinkering and into professional practice, and that makerspaces are just another form of consumer culture. My experience has been the opposite, as evidenced by the litany of companies that I’ve seen grow out of all of my spaces. But my main problem with this point of view is that it’s focused on the end result that emerges from the acts of making, and not the thinking process itself that happens when one engages with the physical world through the act of tinkering. As Tim Ingold says, thinking is making. This, I suspect, is a much more radical idea than some of us realize.

Making, then, is about the way of thinking that emerges from our engagement with physical material. More than that, makerspaces give us the forum to share the work that we create with one another, and learn from each other. This is precisely what Seymour Papert wrote about over three decades ago when he wrote on constructionism, and what others like Vygotsky touched on when he forwarded the idea of the “zone of proximal development.” Makerspaces are, in some ways, the culmination of educational theories that we’ve been discussing for quite some time.

This series is the culmination of a decade’s worth of experience in developing makerspaces. It does, indeed, dive into many of the technical aspects that you need to be aware of when starting a space, including what machines you need to buy, how to incorporate, who you need to talk with, and so on. It also talks about makerspaces in different contexts: schools (K-12), libraries, academic institutions, and plain old DIY makerspaces.

But more than that, this is a series that will show you the importance of setting up the correct political structures and cultures at a space in order to help its members thrive. It’s about how to engage with your community to help spread these still-radical ideas of making and tinkering that are so direly needed in many corners of education and professional practice. And it’s about how to keep a space like that alive and running day, after week, after month, after year. It’s not always easy.
You’ll hear from people in the maker community who have started their own makerspaces and maker events, their own companies, or use the things that they learn at these spaces to inform their professional practice. We’ll touch on the educational philosophy behind makerspaces, and “systems tinkering,” which is an idea I coined that changes how we think about the systems around us and how we engage with them.

Two years ago I stood in front of the Obama White House to take a picture after being invited to a national summit of makerspace organizers. After spending a few days meeting and talking with other organizers, I finally realized that the work we’d been doing was starting to get noticed by other well-respected institutions. The year prior, I’d been told by some of my colleagues that in order to develop my career in academia, I’d need to shift out of tinkering and develop a persona that had purpose.

Making, and makerspaces, are still to many crazy ideas that are anathema to the way we go about doing things. Let’s change that together.

Idea Realization Lab – Faculty Director’s Note – Fall Term

I’ve been reflecting on our work at DePaul’s Idea Realization Lab as the Fall Term closes. Since opening in September, we’ve had over 1,300 unique people come through our space. The students have built the IRL from the ground up: from the furniture, to the decorations on the wall, and everything in between. Most importantly, we have created a home for students, faculty, and staff alike to feel comfortable, commune with one another, and learn by making.

This could not have been done without the hard work from our professional, student, and faculty and staff advisory boards. It especially couldn’t have been done without our student workers. And, in a very meaningful way, it also couldn’t have been done without the over 1,000 enthusiastic people who came through to make and tinker with things.

Running a maker lab is about putting the people first, and I attribute much of our success to doing just that. Students run the workshops, teach others how to use the machines, Make without worrying about permission, and work together across disciplines. The growth I’ve seen in them as a result is astounding. The IRL is truly a community of learning.

A comment from a frequent student visitor sums things up better than I can put it: “I don’t know who I am without the IRL anymore.”

Here’s to a great Fall term, and an excellent upcoming Winter.

Idea Realization Lab - Fall 2017