SPIME (I’m now assembling PCBs)

Astute Thotcon badge observers may have noticed a “Made with SPIME” imprint on the back of this year’s badge. This wasn’t just a hint to a puzzle, but to a new project that my creative partner Rudy Ristich and I have been working on. The name SPIME is inspired by Bruce Sterling’s moniker for objects that contain more than their material qualities through attachments to information in “the cloud.”

For Rudy and I, SPIME is an endeavor that leads us into some exciting territory. While we’ve been developing conference badges for a while now, we’ve never actually gotten as close to the production of them as we’d like. After the board is initially designed and we’ve worked with the fabrication and assembly folks to get them built, the work is handed off and presto, a few weeks later, our objects are complete.

So last year, in the never-ending quest to get closer to the point of creation, we decided to buy an SMT (surface-mount technology) line so that we could begin assembling small batch runs of boards for our work and the work of our friends. Thus, SPIME was born.

Our goal is to help folks relatively new to the PCB development process get their boards into production as painlessly as possible. This ranges from people who also create their own conference badges to companies and individuals prototyping or putting together small runs of product.

At the very least, this will be an interesting experiment that allows us to help a few friends out and to scratch an itch that we both have. But who knows? If you’ve got a project that could use some help and fits the bill, check out our website and send us an assembly request.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

New Episode of TSW* with Jeff Solin of Lane Tech!

Jeff Solin is an educator, makerspace administrator, and all around good-guy at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago. This is the third part in This Should Work’s* series on educational makerspaces, and I’m really grateful that Jeff joined the podcast to talk about the way he thinks about educating students in makerspaces and fostering a supportive educational makerspace environment.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

IRL2 Building Up, pt. 3 (and Forge Network)

One of the problems I identified early on in the process of developing IRL2 is the abundance of siloed “making spaces” around the DePaul campus. Now that we have the IRL (in our Loop campus) and IRL2 (in our Lincoln Park campus), why not use those two spaces as hubs to network these additional spaces together and open access to all students?

Thus, the idea of the Forge Network at DePaul was developed. Still in its early planning phases, and quite far from gaining widespread approval, the Forge Network aims to connect “students, faculty, and staff with fabrication and making resources across the University through a networked system to increase accessibility, improve return on investment, and to facilitate cross-disciplinary collaboration.”

The ultimate goal is that, as an incoming DePaul student, one will receive their student ID and, thus, a passport to multiple spaces on campus where you can make things and gain exposure to multi-disciplinary learning. From greenhouses, to physics labs, to printing facilities, students from across Depaul will have the opportunity to share and learn from each other, and work on ideas together. This may seem like a no-brainer, but in a world where both learning and professions have become highly specialized, it is a rather novel concept to work across disciplines (I have seen this in much of my professional practice work outside of DePaul as well).

Not to mention we’re doing this at a liberal arts institution!

Right now the Forge Network is in its infancy, and we’re still unsure what direction it will take. In the coming months, I hope to provide a fourth update to this series where we go more in-depth to what that plan looks like, and how we came up with a framework to develop this at DePaul. In the meantime (and if you’re looking for what a network like this could look like once implemented), I’d check out MIT’s Project Manus, one of the inspirations for our project at DePaul.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Quark and the Jaguar

On the importance of both fundamentally understanding how a thing works, and also taking a “top-down” approach to thinking:

In addition to favoring, as a general rule, the bottom-up method of building staircases between disciplines — from the more fundamental and explanatory toward the less fundamental — I would, in many cases (not just that of psychology), encourage a top-down approach as well. Such an approach begins with the identification of important regularities at the less fundamental level and defers until later understanding of the underlying, more fundamental mechanisms.

Murray Gell-Mann, Quark and the Jaguar

Reading this was a revelation. It’s the first time I’ve clearly understood the differences in practice that I have with some of my colleagues — that is, a difference in the approach toward thinking. I am a top-down thinker: define the problem space, then whittle things downward. As Gell-Mann enumerates here, there is another, more reductionist approach that looks at the fundamentals, then works its way up. The former is more mechanistic, and the latter more explanatory in nature.

Both are valid ways of thinking, and it’s important to note that they can complement each other. Yet many times, we come to loggerheads not because of a disagreement in substance, but instead a disagreement in approach.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

ID 101, Metaphysics of Objects

I’m pleased to announce that I’ll be teaching DePaul’s first Industrial Design course, ID 101, Metaphysics of Objects beginning Fall term. A description of the course:

This course introduces the theory of the perception of objects, and how objects perceive each other, through the lens of object oriented ontology. Through lectures and projects, students will create objects and evaluate the influences of tools, materials, and thought on the development of things. Students will learn how to choose the appropriate tools and materials for specific design contexts, and be introduced to the theories behind speculative realism and object oriented ontology.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Against Smart Cities and Toasters

“That is, the enterprises enumerated here are to a surprisingly great degree responsible for producing both the technical systems on which the smart city is founded and the rhetoric that binds them together in a conceptual whole.”

Adam Greenfield, Against the Smart City

Greenfield makes an important point here. Who’s driving smart city applications and, more broadly speaking, IOT ones? Are things being built based on customer demand, or based on trying to create demand where none exists.

This reminds me of the story of the toaster’s creation, as told in Thwaites’ The Toaster Project, where he outlines its development as a problem driven by power companies who could not, at the turn of the 20th century, fluctuate their power output based on demand. As told by Thwaites:

“… to meet morning and evening demand, suppliers had to continue generating at peak level output throughout the day [..] thus a way to increase demand outside of peak hours was needed.” He goes on to say, “If you can’t, or don’t wish to, cut back on production, then try to manufacture demand — the story of the twentieth century?”

And, thus, the humble toaster was born. Not to fill a consumer need, but to generate demand where none existed. Next up: smart cities.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

On Panic’s Playdate, Alternative Game Platforms, and an Upcoming Platform Release

Panic unveiled their new game platform, Playdate, yesterday — a custom game system running on its own OS that includes a handful of buttons, black and white screen, and curiously, a crank. Suffice to say, having built custom game platforms and controllers for the past six or seven years, I received quite a few emails from friends asking for my thoughts on the platform and what it could mean for gaming.

Here’s a compilation of some of my initial thoughts that I sent around:

  1. Hardware at scale is hard. Kudos to Panic for building a piece of hardware at scale. Scaling in hardware is dramatically different than software, and dramatically more difficult. The real world — and the manufacturing process — have a way of pushing back much more forcefully on the way we want things to work than software does. Consequently, many people getting into game hardware build one-off platforms that can only be experienced by the fairly privileged: those who have the time and money to attend a conference where an “alternative platform” is shown as an exhibit. Alternatively, very few approach the problem at scale, and while the cost ($150) of Panic’s new device may be prohibitive to some, it’s notable that a) with that comes a 1-year subscription that gives you access to 12 games, and b) they are selling an entirely home-rolled platform including OS, hardware, etc which adds to development costs.
  2. Alternative game platforms are the future. As I have noted here, here, and talked about at events like this one, custom game platforms are one piece of the future of computer games, which have largely been stagnant in scope, scale, and kind for the last decade or more. If we take the design of hardware into our own hands, we have the ability to control the entire experience at a much more granular and intentional level. John Gruber touches on this over on Daring Fireball in his post about Playdate, and I can only assume that the excellent designers at Panic also intuitively feel this. In game design terms, you are giving yourself much broader control over mechanics (through interface), dynamics (through outputs), and aesthetics (by having stronger control over the former two things).
  3. Screens are not the future. I have also written (quite extensively) about how screens are the death of everything. This is the one point that I think Panic didn’t take a chance on: they stuck with the traditional form of communication that we’re all used to with computer games, and it’s a shame. Screens have a lot of historical baggage and limitations that convey expectations of affordances while also constraining the way designers are capable of expressing themselves through the dynamics of a game. There are many other ways to communicate the dynamics of a game than through screen displays (you can see early forms of this in the badge work that we’ve been working on, but also through things like the Meggy Jr. RGB or work by the Toymakers), and I don’t see enough people experimenting with that.
  4. Inputs drive mechanics. The crank. An interesting choice of interface, and I’m sure it will spawn some novel mechanics. I wonder, though, how much of Nielson’s Heuristics (or any of the handful of other design heuristic standards) Panic paid attention to when they added a crank as an interface. Were considerations taken into account for consistency and standards, for instance? In other words, the semiotics of a crank convey specific meaning: will users have to learn different verbs associated with cranking? This is an interesting problem one would have to solve when adding an otherwise common interface into an uncommon context. I’ve had my own experiences with this issue with both successes and failures.

The promise of alternative platforms is also the promise of doing it better than it was done before, not simply being different for the sake of being different. I’m interested in seeing which way this platform goes.

On another note, this gets me really excited for the platform that my creative partner, Rudy Ristich, and I are about to launch based off the Thotcon 0xA badge. I’ve been fascinated lately by the idea of wireless radio itself as an input and an output. As a means to tie a game platform into other forms of media. As a way to create an interconnected object that transcends the game platform, and stretches itself out into other physical things.

More missives from the fringes of alternative computing development soon.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus


#1 Yet Another Zombie Defense HD. We are the champions.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Sierra Club Outings

For the last year and a half I’ve been training to become a Sierra Club Outings leader. This coming September I’ll be putting in my assistant training time at Isle Royale with one of my mentors/leaders Robin Green. And this past weekend I went to our bi-yearly leadership meeting with my wife Sarah, who’s also training to become a leader.

What a great group of folks and a great organization to be a part of. If you’re interested in attending one of the trips we’ve got in the works, you know where to reach out to me.

In the meantime, here are a few pictures from our training trip in Estes Park.

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

IRL2 Building Up, pt. 2

This is a continuation of my blog post from a few weeks ago about the original planning that went into the IRL 2 development. Plans change, and so after the original planning for IRL 2 went out, we set out to iterate. Major changes included wall moves, furniture changes (as a result of wall moves), electrical considerations, and more. At each step in the process, these changes were precipitated by factors outside of our control (building codes, etc), but important factors to discuss nonetheless.

For instance, Chicago has some very tight restrictions when it comes to the use of extension cables (not allowed) and power strips (also not allowed). This limitation forced us to add additional quad outlets, and to think about where those outlets were located in relation to where power would be used. Imagine having to determine, then, where students are going to linger in a space that doesn’t even exist yet. Where will they want to plug in their laptops? Phones? Etc.

Even further, imagine having to map out where every machine in a dynamic space will go and then determining electrical load based on the sum total of machines plugged into an outlet. How those machines would then facilitate traffic flow in a space. Would they be noisy? Dirty? Would students want some to be adjacent to others for ease of between-use?

That’s something I did!

Additionally, we had to worry about things like emergency exits, noise (there are classrooms adjacent to the space, lighting (the area is quite dark, so we built in some lighter furniture/flooring options to adjust), breakout space flexibility, and more.

I think the reason why I enjoy these projects so much is that they are an extreme challenge in systems thinking. Holistically anticipating how an environment and the objects within it will interact with each other is a test on one’s forethought. The constraints, whether they be building code, electrical, community, or otherwise all interact and contribute to some end product. In part, you can’t anticipate what that will be.

But you can try.

Updated and revised plans for the IIRL:

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus