1:1 Interview with Mel Li (Part 1)

In 2013 there were 100 Maker Faires held around the world with nearly 530,000 people in attendance. Among the events, there are players and exhibitors who showcase their creation to the spectators. Many young techies, savvy tinkers, and even academic researchers are turning to tinkering. According to Makezine, there are over 40 million people who are classified as being part of this broader creative class. Among this creative class, there lies a blend of creative professionals. They are estimated at nearly 40 million people, all who create for a living, and are involved in a variety of fields from engineering to biotech to education to small business. We are witnessing the rise of the creative class – the Maker Movement.

Among this creative class, there are also some Makers who love the blend of creativity, fantasy, and technology in fantasy role-play (also known as “cosplay”). They live and advocate artistry, practice creative fiction, or conduct game play by integrating experimental R&D into their lives. The integration of new technologies into the Maker movement allows people to bring their creative or artistic endeavors from fantasy into reality. Below we interview Mel Li, a Biomedical Engineer and Maker, whose work showcases an illuminating wearable technology. She participates in an entertainment technology fantasy role-play coupled with imagination and real-world integration, all made possible by the advent of embedded mediated digital technologies. Mel Li is a Biomedical Engineer by day and creative Maker by night. Today, this dual-role is adopted by many graduates and researchers who are technologists, passionately wielding technology for artistic expression, research and advancement.

TV: What is your opinion of the Maker Movement?

ML: For me, technology should not only be about practicality, but should also be creative and aspirational. It really exists in the mind and the imagination. Without creative visions from artists, writers, and engineers, we have goals to work towards. I think this is the root cause for a lot of transformative ideas and technologies. For example, Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic “Snowcrash” predicted a lot of the Internet and I think many sci fi aficionados can see that current technologies from Google Glass to Amazon quadcopters and self-driving cars owes a lot to creative influences. These advances are a motivation to learn more about the world around us… I think we’re living in a really exciting time. I want to be part of something important that makes a difference. “Making things” makes me feel resourceful; it makes me feel I can do things I did not know I could do.

Also, I am excited to be part of this super trend for wearables. There is a lot of “Maker Movement” in all of us. We have been making for countless centuries. Making is an attitude that isn’t the sole domain of the young, or the old. Today, the tools to build complex or innovative things are simply faster and more available to everyone. Using Arduino, I quickly realized I too could make creatively. It gives me a great feeling that I am a participant in this Maker Movement. A lot of modern technology is now simplified and easily broadcast. On Twitter, I can interact with famous and inventive people; I can tweet with Obama or communicate with the next contemporary cool inventor. 3D printing is not for small one time use or useless parts or useless created things. Technology in general is used to making things in a mass produced way. It’s all changing now. 3D printing is helping make highly personalized products. People make their wedding rings. Doctors and researchers make prosthetics and print unique designs for custom tailored patients. Even still, there are many more uses. Tech is becoming super personal and highly personal, it’s digitally produced, it can be tailored to fit your imagination.

Figure 2: Photo by Benny Lee

Photo by Benny Lee

Most importantly, you can express who you are to people by building their own things. These are the strong pillars, and can cause a resurgence of manufacturing. Prototyping phases are condensed. The risks have been removed with new instruments such as crowd-funding. You no longer have to think about high volume or highly invested factory models. It’s through crowd-funding where Kickstarter tied to R&D can make a lot of sense. Going to a hackerspaces and crowd-funded models to validate, get help, print out whatever is on your mind. Early phases can now be easily proofed and transparently evolved through open-source troubleshooting. The Maker Movement is important. It’s really the first time in digital technology where tools or ideas have become economically feasible and available.

Figure 3: Photo by Mike Vickers

Photo by Mike Vickers


TV: Can you talk a little about Arduino and AVR MCUs?

ML: Arduino is one of the best things that happened to Makers, artists and engineers. Arduino is such a great revolution. A lot of people close to me or in my lab research groups use it for personal or professional projects. For example, some have used it for persistence of vision (POV) bike wheel displays, others for piloting hobby drone helicopters for surveying hiking conditions. These machines are now our friends and part of the cast. Whether among friends or professional coworkers/collaborators, Arduino and Embedded design have become part of our discussion and rapport with one another.

This world had become much easier for entry and the barriers to learning are now far removed – allowing more and more people from other core disciplines to get more tightly involved with their ideas. It’s a deeply knitted thread into everything in our lives. In fact, this sort of technology is serving as an invaluable tool. It’s sort of an extension to our imaginations and thoughts.  We are now able to not only have a discussion on the topics or matter at hand, but we can actually work together to help demonstrate and move great ideas from concept to reality. For me, it would have been too taxing and exhausting if I had to program in basic using exotic and difficult learning languages which are really expensive to do without the helpfulness, openness and availability of open hardware, open source, Arduino IDE and Atmel. These things that use to be beyond our limits have now come closer to “easy.”  Now the more important question becomes what we are working towards.

Figure 4: Photo by Mike Vickers

Photo by Mike Vickers


TV:  How does imagination and creativity meet technology? 

ML: Imagination and creativity are important for seeing beyond what exists out there and instead looking forward to what could be. Technology is about obtaining the depth to make these dreams real. A lot of my spare time is in the depth of the research or personal build. Technical depth helps pull away the curtain of mystery and make things transparent. It unfolds the creativity with logic and fuses them together with others.

TV:  What is the pursuit?

ML: I like to blend fantasy with reality. I mean simply thinking about it, lots of the tech and smart electronics we use today were once unexplained or unimaginative a decade or so ago. The fantasy world helps unleash abstract concepts in my drawings and paintings. Now there is an availability of technology and lowered barriers for entry such as what you find with the ease of Arduino and forgiving Atmel AVR chips. It’s his ease-of-use which help provide a concrete bridge to formulating my day-to-day work. This technology provides a platform to someone like me, who is immersed into creative/research academia; a canvas to exhibit my work.

Figure 5: Photo by Mike Vickers

Photo by Mike Vickers

I have always been a big fan of the fantasy and game world. It’s a relief, pleasure, and balance, being also a research scientist trying to figure out and solve difficult problems. The electronic cosplay collection as a maker help stretch the imagination. The Maker work helps extend my parameters of creativity, lift any preconceived barriers and make thoughts elevate more open. With my graduate research work, the Arduino inspired fluorescent LED costume helps personify the notion of science and tech, where these two disciplines of study are typically not necessary known to be social. When you are in a gaming cosplay, it truly is really easy to share and quickly attract interest. Gaining interest in your project portfolio to present your maker work is not difficult.  When you are at an open convention, people will come up and talk to you… The best feeling is being able to share what you have created.

TV:  What is accelerating the Maker Movement?

ML: Arduino has been so fantastic, with cost and ease of use its primary valued traits. These platforms help me on the weekend. I really like to learn and use motor control and so I have used these controls in a bunch of projects. Time-wise, it’s practical and some of my projects usually took a weekend or week at most.  I used to play a lot of computer games. This led me to building my own computers then I tore things apart to break things and build them back again. It made me feel very knowledgeable and empowered. This whole Maker Movement which is being accelerated more by the Internet, Adafruit, Etsy, Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Sparkfun, Seeed Studio, crowd-sourcing, crowd-funding, etc…  To me, it’s really doing things in a more sharply defined or distinct ways and building hardware. Making is an attitude that isn’t the sole domain of just the hacker, young techie, or the old adapting to what’s new. Creativity with raw materials, the introduction of digital tools, social sharing, communities, and thriving or developing potential market for wearables or IoT apply to today’s Maker Movement.

Together with the social sharing and instant accessibility, the Movement has become more active. We can find this in academia or even in a social community gathering where people get together with a shared common belief.  For example, Makers and hackers are some of the friends I have at Georgia Tech. We find new platforms to constantly test and stretch our imaginations. Some are building robots together and finding similar pursuits in chasing their imagination. This helps in the exchange of creativity and innovation but also with fostering interesting new ideas. Of course, this all happens when you build something that has a personal expression and share something very meaningful or passionate towards …  Technology has become very personalized.

Figure 1: Inspirational work from Anouk Wipprecht's fashion designs

Inspirational work from Anouk Wipprecht’s fashion designs

TV: How would you characterize yourself?

ML: Well for me, I’m at heart two coalesced into one. I’m a Biomedical Engineer and a Maker. I’ve recently completed a PhD program at Georgia Tech and I’m currently a postdoc over at the University of Washington. At the same time, I really enjoy personal projects. I love to research and create – expand the creative envelope and engage in pursuit of the imagination. This makes me a true Maker at heart. I enjoy pursuing my projects with wearable electronics and I created DIY laboratory automation. Through my creative cosplay and imaginations, I am very passionate around wearable technology as an expression. I have created wearable electronics, which are powered by the Atmel microcontroller and Arduino boards. For example, during this year’s Maker Faire (Bay Area), I showcased some items from my DIY laboratory automation projects which demonstrates how the Atmel MCU and Arduino can be used for low-cost, multi-channel optics control and fluorescence visualization.

Part Two of the interview with Mel Li can be read here.

3 thoughts on “1:1 Interview with Mel Li (Part 1)

  1. Pingback: 1:1 Interview with Mel Li (Part 2) | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  2. Pingback: Preview: Maker Faire Rome | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

  3. Pingback: A look back at Maker Faire Rome 2014 | Bits & Pieces from the Embedded Design World

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