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Eric Rosenbaum: Computation is part of the design process and so it gives you this infinite flexibility to design, to copy, to remix, to invent and share what you make with other people.
Anita Walker: Hello, I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. With us is Eric Rosenbaum who is a creative technologist and Eric, as I was looking at a little of your background, the thing that leapt off the page to me is you got to go to Lifelong Kindergarten, and I want to go there too. What is that?
Eric Rosenbaum: Oh, it’s an incredible place. The Lifelong Kindergarten research group is one of the labs that’s part of the MIT Media Lab, which is a wonderful place, full of amazing people and toys and adventures. It’s a research lab where a wide range of work happens from robotic prosthetic limbs to the future of synthetic biology to new ways of thinking about using technology to help people learn, and that’s what the Lifelong Kindergarten is about. I did my PhD research there with Professor Mitchell Resnick, who is– oh, I forget the exact title, but he’s a Lego professor technically. He can actually call himself that, which is super cool. And so we find ways to help people learn through play, to learn through making. It’s inspired by Kindergarten and saying, “Why can’t the rest of life be like that where you get to learn by expressing yourself and using your imagination?”
Anita Walker: So one of the outgrowths of this, and really MIT was ground zero for something that’s now being called the Maker Movement and as we look around Massachusetts, we see old mill buildings and warehouses being turned into maker spaces where people can kind of Airbnb into a welding machine or into a clay– a kiln or a photo lab or something. Give us a little insight into what’s happening in maker spaces, what it is now and what do you see around the world?
Eric Rosenbaum: My introduction to the world of maker spaces was when I arrived at the media lab as a student, I took a course there called How to Make Almost Anything. It’s taught by an amazing visionary professor named Neil Gershenfeld and he launched into the world, this idea of the fab lab. What he had were incredible tools, they’re called digital fabrication tools. So unlike those things that you mentioned, like saws and kilns, these are machines that use computation to control either making things either by cutting away material or adding material, and so you can design something on a computer and then open the box up and there it is, ding, incredible. So the recent rise of 3D printing and even 3D printing in schools is a part of that world, but what I learned in How to Make Almost Anything was that there’s a whole bunch of other tools. They had a wonderful laser cutter when I was there. Those are starting to spread a little bit as well. It’s a real fast machine, you can cut– you just draw something on the computer and you can cut it out of paper or cardboard or acrylic or even wood and very quickly make complex physical objects. Often, we would just make a box or a puzzle or a table even as a gift.
Anita Walker: So is the idea that the fab lab would actually go out into other maker spaces?
Eric Rosenbaum: Neil Gershenfeld, the professor who launched the fab lab movement, I think had a kind of epiphany. When he first taught a class using all these amazing digital fabrication tools, people showed up who he didn’t necessarily expect to be interested. So you had mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, people who wanted to make stuff in that way, the typical MIT students. But there’s other typical MIT students who are artists, designers, musical hackers, dramatists, and those people made things that he never would have imagined, collaborated in ways that created whole new possibilities and began to teach each other and invent things that took the possibilities of just the tools themselves much further. So it’s really about the collaboration of a group of people and so I think that’s what made the idea take off around the world, and there’s now a worldwide fab lab network. There was a big international conference here in Boston just recently this summer of people all over the planet using these tools in creative ways to solve their local problems, to help kids learn, and just to express themselves and play and make things for fun.
Anita Walker: So what I’m hearing you say, this is less about having a little time to borrow a piece of equipment for my own particular interest, the real power of it comes in the collection of people who go together in these labs or spaces or maker spaces, who then start talking to each other and getting better ideas and their contagious creativity explodes.
Eric Rosenbaum: Oh, it’s an incredible experience to find yourself, in the middle of the night, in the fab lab, in the maker space, working with people on your projects and finding that you have some complementary skillset and you can teach each other. In this course, How to Make Almost Anything, I was with an artist who had this deep skill in molding and casting and making a rubber mold and then casting some other material into it, like plaster, to make a final object. And that was all new to me, and so she taught me those things and I had done a little bit of programming, so I was able to help her get started with that and program her little electronic device. And those kinds of interactions that start out as casual and playful but end up becoming deep intellectual exercises then often times, turn into really lasting friendships and collaborations.
Anita Walker: So tell us what you’ve seen around the world. I know you’ve traveled extensively and you’re looking at all the new exciting things that a creative technologist would be interested in. What are some of the coolest, most cutting edge things you’ve seen that we maybe have never seen before here?
Eric Rosenbaum: One of the amazing things that’s happening right now is the rise of synthetic biology and the integration of the tools and techniques of the biosciences with the maker world, with digital tools and computation. People are starting to see the biological world as part of this pallet of material possibilities for making stuff. We’re in a very early phase with this and it sounds a little crazy probably because biology, what do I even mean? The field of synthetic biology, which MIT is a leader in this world, one way to describe it is engineering life by manipulating DNA to make organisms do new things, and I mean like bacteria, little organisms. I got an invitation recently to a workshop where you can grow your own ink, so it’s convincing bacteria to emit pigment that you can tune using their genetic code to look and act and work the way you want. So you can make– grow your own paint set, I suppose, and that’s just one example. But there’s this, I think, incredible potential that we’re going to see blossom in the next decades of using biology to create new technologies and new systems that we aren’t right now even really able to imagine. Maybe we’re at a place similar to where the personal computing revolution was, say, in the late seventies, where we couldn’t have imagined the internet or all of the amazing things that we do now and how it’s changed the world, and I think that’s going to keep happening and biology is going to be a big part of it. I love what the people at the San Francisco Exploratorium are doing. It’s the world’s greatest science museum in my opinion. They have a tinkering studio there and they’ve been doing this kind of making as education for many years and they’ve collaborated with the media lab. Right now, they’re doing a really fun project where they’ve taken the watercolor-bot, which is a robotic watercolor painting machine, designed by a teenage girl and her collaborators that did a Kickstarter, very cool project. So what you do is you design something on the computer and then you can use this watercolor-bot to– it actually is a little robot that dips the paintbrush in the paint and then will paint your picture for you. And they’re using that in combination with one of my projects, which is a graphical programming environment that lets you make 2D and 3D designs on the screen and they’re taking those and making the watercolor-bot paint them on paper. Really beautiful way to transition between the digital, the computational world and the physical world and have an artifact that you can take with you.
Anita Walker: Are you imagining that these fab labs or maker spaces with fab labs in them, are they destinations primarily for technology people, like yourself, people who’ve come out of coding and computer science or are they for people who maybe aren’t very good at that, who just can– have great imaginations and would like to make something?
Eric Rosenbaum: I think there’s a really powerful promise in unlocking the potential that we all have to be creative makers in the existence of these spaces around the world, but it can be really hard to bring people in. There’s a significant cultural barrier because we are talking about technology here and so people can certainly believe that that’s not for them, that they have never done math, science, engineering, that kind of thing, and to use it creatively seems intimidating. And so there’s an incredible task ahead of us in terms of the people power of people who can facilitate and mentor, create these maker spaces as friendly and accessible and welcoming communities, and then also my role as a designer is to support those environments with new tools. So the one that I mentioned that you can use to make these designs, it’s called Beetle Blocks. It’s a programming environment, but instead of text, you use graphical blocks. That’s one. When I was at MIT Media Lab, I was part of a project called Scratch, which is used all over the world by kids to make interactive media. You can connect to Arduino, which is an electronics platform, or to Lego robotics. So these kinds of things, as ways to make a really accessible, creative, playful entry into the technology of making are things that I think we have a lot of need for and can reach a lot of people.
Anita Walker: So what I’m hearing you say is that the lines between technology and creativity and design are erased or quite blurred in this world.
Eric Rosenbaum: I think we’re seeing a new synthesis. The current director of the MIT Media Lab, Joi Ito, loves to talk about this kind of intersection of art and design, along with science and engineering, and at the intersection of all of those things is this amazing power. But you can’t see them as being isolated disciplines and the media lab is a wonderful place where people can come together across those boundaries.
Anita Walker: So these fab labs and maker spaces, it’s happening there, but it’s sort of self-directed, self-initiated. It’s interested people who are finding their way to these places and finding each other and sort of blowing up the barriers between math, science, art and design on their own. It’s almost their own movement or revolution.
Eric Rosenbaum: Well, it’s true, the maker movement is a grassroots movement. I’ve had the wonderful experience of, along with my friend Jay Silver, creating this tool called the Makey Makey, which is an invention kit for everyone and we funded that on Kickstarter and this new movement of crowd funding is a big part of the maker movement as well. A lot of people participate by creating new products with a lower barrier and also by– as a way for lots of people to get their hands on them. And so with the Makey Makey, we’ve reached a pretty wide audience that even just a few years before would not have been possible for us.
Anita Walker: So what’s your next project? What’s your next big maker maker thing you’re going to do?
Eric Rosenbaum: Well, I’m in an experimentation phase right now. I finished my dissertation at the beginning of this year on musical tinkering, and so I’m working on a few things that are about new ways for people to make music, but especially to make musical artifact, musical stuff, like invent your own musical instrument out of everyday materials. And the Makey Makey is about that, but I’m working on new iterations of that idea.
Anita Walker: My goodness, I can’t wait to see what comes out next. Eric Rosenbaum, thank you for sharing a little bit of your creative mind out loud.
Eric Rosenbaum: Thanks for having me. It was a lot of fun.
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