Pete and Jim's Trip to the MIT Media Lab


Not too long ago (well, a little while now), myself and fellow engineer extraordinaire Jim Lindblom made our annual pilgrimage to the MIT Media Lab. Why do we do this? Well, I've come to know the Media Lab folk as some people with some unusual perspectives on technology and how people work with it. We like going out there to hang out and pretend to be smart, see what everybody's working on, talk about potential collaborations and or product ideas, etc. This time, we had the added incentive of going to see the Festival of Art, Science and Technology, and specifically the LightBridge display created by Susanne Seitinger. We helped Susanne out with some gear, so we had a personal interest to go and check it out.

But the weekend was oh, so much more.

I'll run this down in chronological order, starting on Friday morning when we met up with Leah Buechley (of LilyPad fame) to discuss the doings of her students. We saw some interesting examples of displays using muscle wire and some experiments with various types of conductive paint and ink. Next, we met with... a young gentleman (or woman) who has asked me not to reveal his (or her) identity, who's working on a really cool Arduino based guitar effects shield (I personally have high hopes for that one).

Following our meeting with REDACTED, we met for a round table discussion over lunch (awesome pizza, guys, much thanks) to get feedback and brainstorm with the group as a whole. We learned that they very much dig our curation of parts, and a not-so-small list of wants from us. Hey... who's your buddy? Me? That's right. We're here for you guys. (BTW, I talked to Digi about that cross-platform config tool for XBees you asked for. They promised me that they're working on it, but it's still a year out.)

After lunch, we went out on the Cambridge-Boston bridge to find Susanne Seitinger, who was hard at work getting ready for the display on Saturday night.

What a massive undertaking this thing looks like to me. The whole bridge is wired with Arduino Pro Minis paired with RS-485 Breakouts, plus IR proximity sensors so that it's interactive with people walking across the bridge.


Lots of power...


Gobs of wire...


...for the length of the bridge. No small undertaking.

The rest of the afternoon is a bit of a blur, honestly. But among those we met with were Jay Silver and David Mellis (of Arduino fame). Jay is a very engaging character, both technically adept and playful. Talking to him for an hour is like eating 4 candy bars: you come out of the room all sugar-high and being jazzed by everything. Dude also went and got me a Netti pot when I told him that I forgot mine at home. Let me know when you're going to be in town Jay, beers are on me. David is a mega-brain, who seemingly lives and breathes technology. I've been trying to get him to let us sell his Fab Radio for about a year now, and we're making some progress on that front, but he also want's to do a bit of updating of the design and may not get to it until later this summer. No trouble, David. We'll wait for you.

Next we had dinner and beers at Think Tank, then on to visit Miters Hackerspace.


That's Josh Gordonson on the far right, our contact and tour guide.

What a crazy place this is. Tiny space, lots of people, many dangerous tools. Amongst other things, these guys have a penchant for taking otherwise only slightly dangerous pursuits, like rollerblades and push-scooters, and elevating them to danger levels of much more lethal passtimes, such as parachute-less skydiving. What am I talking about? Check these out.


Check those wheels. There's a hub motor in each one.


Throttle by pressure sensor in your palm, XBee'd to the skates. Clearly this takes some finesse to operate without going horizontal.

Then there's this guy...

There's a hub motor in the back wheel. It seems like a really good idea, but the regenerative braking makes this thing come to a dead stop if you let off the throttle. You guys are masters of the alcohol-soaked dare. You have my admiration.

The next day found us at the Cambridge Science Festival and a mini Maker Faire. This one was much smaller than what we typically see in San Mateo, yet many of the same people and much SparkFun love was shared. The Miters guys came out, as well as the guys from MakeIt Labs. Much geekery was to be had.

We ran into Jimmie Rodgers at the fair (LOL Shield and Open Heart fame), and he took us on a tour of local hackerspaces for the rest of the rainy afternoon after an awesome stop at Redbones BBQ (I highly recommend this place).

The first hackerspace Jimmie took us to is called Sprout (sorry, I can't find a link for this one). Built in a 2-story garage, the downstairs houses a small machine shop and the upstairs keeps most of the electronic paraphernalia, with spaces for holding classes.


Jimmie Rodgers on the left, engineer Jim Lindblom on the right, downstairs at Sprout.


Class time on a rainy Saturday afternoon. Notice the Inventor Kits. Oh, yeah!

Next, we all hitched a ride with Chris Connors and went to the Artisan's Asylum.

This place occupies the whole upstairs of a warehouse. It's HUGE, and it caters to many different skill sets, not just electronics (we wouldn't want to seem one-dimensional, would we?). In one corner there we a couple of guys building fabric-covered Kayaks...


In another corner I saw what looked like a motorcycle engine powered sprint car (sorry for the bad phone pic)...

Then there was this thing...

I hear it becomes unstable at around 50mph. You don't say! I'd still get in it. I wouldn't ride the Miter's rollerblades, but somehow I'd get in this. We all pick our own deathtrap, I guess.

We then settled down for an impromptu discussion about the state of hackerspaces in America. I gotta say that I'm pretty impressed with Jimmie. He's very much about spreading the "you can do this, too" word, and I think that's awesome. Thanks for touring us around, Jimmie.

Last on the agenda for the trip was to go out and see Susanne Seitinger's Light Bridge display. We made our way from the hotel to the river amidst throngs of other gawkers-in-the-dark to ultimately find Susanne basking in the glowing success of her project (see what I did there?). It was difficult to capture the full scope of what the display was capable of, further hampered by my Android video, but here's my small attempt:

The full display sequence lasts for several minutes. This is just a small taste.

And so ends another trip to the Media Lab. Thanks to all of our various hosts, we'll see you guys next year, and thanks for reading.
 


Comments 30 comments

  • what’s fab radio?

  • In case anyone else is interested in it here are the blogs of 2 of the people in miters.
    http://scolton.blogspot.com/
    He built this particular hub motor scooter (I think this one is his)
    http://www.etotheipiplusone.net/
    and this guy built the hub motor RazErBlades (the category that they are under on his site)

  • Very cool stuff. Some of the FSAE cars are really impressive- Racecar Engineering magazine usually does an article on them every now and then.
    And Redbones is awesome!

  • Where did the “awesome” pizza come from? As a Massachusetts resident, I might check it out.

  • Wow candy barzzz. I’m honored. Candy bars are such high praise. I’m buying a ticket to visit since beers are expensive here.

  • Out of curiosity, do you know how much power they need to do the whole bridge? A diesel gen-set sounds like overkill. (although very reliable)
    I’d love to do something like this, I just can’t afford to!

  • w0rd.
    (I built the skates and the scooter… any questions?)

    • Yes :)
      * Have you gone down hill with them yet?
      * What’s their max speed?
      * Torque?
      * Have you tried grabbing onto the back of a car like in bttf and using the power generated from the motors to charge a battery?

  • the kayak looks like a baidarka kayak. I can tell by the shape of the steen. I built one many moons ago. It was wickedly fast.

  • Any word on what kind of LEDs they were using on the bridge? I assume it was some kind of custom setup?

    • I believe the LEDs were donated by Phillips, if I remember correctly. There was a guy from Phillips hanging out with Susanne by the display that night, too.

  • “…but he also want’s do do…” perhaps this needs a fix?

  • I thought the bridge was going to light up around each car that drove by, but a “simple” light show is cool, too.

  • Awesome stuff, I would like to see the roller blades and scooter in action. I love the bridge concept, must have cost a small fortune.

  • What bridge is that? I don’t think there is a bridge called the Cambridge-Boston bridge (ALL of the Charles river bridges connect Boston with Cambridge) I know of the BU bridge, Harvard and Longfellow bridges. I don’t think the bridge pictured is the Harvard bridge since the ‘Smoot marks’ were missing from the sidewalk, and IIRC the EL train goes over the Longfellow.
    Also I would think that they had to get the project cleared with the dept of homeland defense. Some spook over there might have thought terrorists were setting up to blow up the bridge.

    • Harvard Bridge. Sorry about that. Somebody called it “Cambridge-Boston” in front of me and I ran with it. Doh!

    • Yeah, there is also the North Harvard St. bridge, which gets called the “cambridge bridge”, which connects Harvard University in Cambridge to the campus in Allston (the stadium and business school). That’s what I was thinking of when he called it the boston cambridge bridge, but the picture is clearly the Harvard Bridge.

    • That’s definitely the Harvard bridge.

      • Known locally as the “Mass Ave bridge” - the road is Massachusetts Avenue. Smoot marks are on the western sidewalk. The bridge was overhauled/rebuilt during the mid eighties, and the construction contract called for preserving Smoot marks. :-)

      • Guess the smoot marks must be on the other sidewalk (not on both directions), which makes sense according to the story.
        The smoot marks are on the east sidewalk, it looks like the photo only shows the west sidewalk.
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harvard_Bridge#Bridge_length_measurement
        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smoot

  • I’m the owner of the “sprint car”. WarDamnEagle is correct. It’s a Formula SAE car (FSAE). Completely designed and built by engineering students. This particular example is MIT’s 2005 car, which I’m attempting to put back together in my spare time. I intend to add much “electronic goodness” which the car lacked when it was originally designed.
    http://richajames.blogspot.com/
    (I haven’t been keeping the site updated, but I’m continuing to work on the car)

    • That’s awesome. I was coming down here to say that that is a FSAE vehicle (pre template rule also). I’ve been a part of University of Central Florida’s FSAE program (Knights Racing) for the past 3 years and highly recommend it to anyone in any of the engineering fields.

    • Your blog just made it to my bookmarks list.

    • Well, it was jaw-dropping cool when I was there. Thanks for chiming in.

  • Sprout website: http://thesprouts.org/
    If I had known you were in my neighborhood, I would have invited you to my cookout this weekend ;). I used to live down the street from that very same bridge, I had no idea that they were doing this. So cool.

  • The “sprint car in the corner” actually appears to be a Formula SAE car (http://students.sae.org/competitions/formulaseries/). I am on Auburn University’s team and can tell you that anyone interested in race cars or building things should definitely join an FSAE team at their college. I used parts from sparkfun to build a gear position indicator for our car.


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