Monday, April 21, 2008

Accessible Technology

A few weeks ago, Olin professor Brian Bingham spoke with us about Art and Engineering. He talked to us about his friend's art project, Ingram Clockworks, and some of the "whimsical engineering" projects he has worked on with his friends.

One of the points that he emphasized was the idea of "communication" and the different vocabularies used by artists and engineers. He pointed out that people don't go to art school to learn how to paint - they go to art school to learn about different frameworks and styles and this underlying language to communicate ideas with other artists. This isn't purely it - you get better at painting by painting, but learning the vernacular of your trade and how you fit into the world it encompasses is an important part of an education.

In the modern day and age, many artists are moving past traditional mediums and into spaces that formerly didn't exist. For instance, check out LED Throwies, which repurposes LEDs into temporary (guerrilla) art installations. Kinetic Sculptures are another genre of art that incorporate technologies like motors and microcontrollers to create a piece that can move on its own, turning a sculpture into something alive. There's one big barrier with these forms of art though - if you're not a technically inclined person, figuring out how to program a microcontroller or wire a circuit can be a tremendous roadblock.

It's rather daunting to stare down a 500 page PIC microcontroller manual, teach yourself how to use a circuit layout program, or learn how to program even a simple software application. These are skills engineers often take for granted, because we like them to start with and we're specifically taught how to do them in school. The 'curse of knowledge' prevents us from seeing things from the other perspective. Earlier today I was digging through Facebook's documentation of its application platform, and if I weren't comfortable with web application programming and markup languages, probably would have no idea what anything meant. This isn't conducive to convincing people to incorporate technology into their works.

So the question is, How can we make technology more accessible for whimsical, artistic applications?

There are some products being developed specifically for this purpose. The Arduino is an open source microcontroller designed to be easy to use for a variety of prototyping applications. Check out this cool light fixture powered by an Arduino. Additionally, sites like Instructables offer step-by-step tutorials to teach people how to put together their own projects. People from all over the Internets post their projects here for others to learn from, building a vibrant community of Makers.

I think it is important that product manufacturers keep their audience in mind. Even if you're making something that you expect to be used in one certain application, how can you keep things open so that other people can easily engage with and build on top of your product? There are many opportunities for visually stunning and beautiful mashups of traditional art and cutting edge technology - we just need to make things easy to use so that artist-engineers can turn their ideas for works into realities and not get caught up on technical snags along the way.

Let people play, and they will make amazing things.


Mel said...

Greg, you've just described what my life is dedicated towards. :)

Thought: I've spoken to artists - no formal engineering background whatsoever - that through their art, have learned to manipulate electronics, particularly microcontrollers, with such skill that they could probably beat the pants off the majority of fresh ECE grads in terms of making something in their heads become real. (But is this engineering, or just making stuff?)

Greg Marra said...


The point you raise between "engineering" and "making stuff" is extremely important to be cognizant of.

Next semester, Brad and I are working on building an autonomous helicopter. A number of hobbyists have built these on their own time. However, one of the things we're having a really hard time figuring out how to do is construct a simulation of our helicopter so we can test all our control loops in software before putting them on the Helicopter. We're finding much less about how to do this than about the other aspects.

The difference between engineering and "hacking" is large, and generally while hacking is faster and can get the job done, "engineering" implies a very different approach to problems. It's not acceptable to hack a bridge together, but it probably doesn't make sense to engineer a simple project in the same way.