Category Archives: 1:1 Interviews

1:1 interview with Hackaday Prize finalist Chris Low


Did you know that 80% of the 2015 Hackaday Prize finalists are powered by Atmel? With only days left until we learn which project will walk away with this year’s crown, we recently sat down with each of the potential winners to get to know them better. 


Transportation is major issue in the developing world due to its lacking physical infrastructure, and unfortunately, off-road SUVs are outside the means of the average person. In an effort to make them more accessible to everyone, Maker Chris Low built a solar-powered utility vehicle capable of battling harsh environments and rugged terrain.

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Atmel: What is the Light Electric Utility Vehicle?

Chris Low: The Light Electric Utility Vehicle, which I am now calling the Solar Utility Vehicle (or SUV), is a solar-powered utility vehicle that has been made specifically for the conditions in the developing world. It is designed to be fully off grid, and charge itself from an array of four 95W solar panels that form a canopy over the vehicle. It has a portable power bank so that people can drive somewhere and have power available to them. It is also meant to be robust enough to handle the rough roads in a developing world context.

Atmel: How did you come to the idea for the SUV? Moreover, what inspired you to enter the contest with your project?

CL: This is an idea I have been thinking about for a few years now. I have been working in Africa primarily South Sudan since 2008 back when it was still part of Sudan. In that time, I have had to work on a lot of broken vehicles that just couldn’t cope with the conditions, and finding spare parts can be a nightmare. Few people realize that an all-electric drivetrain is actually much simpler mechanically than an ICE and has much fewer moving parts. I have been looking at making a small electric skid steer, but found that an articulating design is much more efficient and puts much less stress on components. I love small vehicles, and can see a huge potential market for something in this size throughout the developing world. There are some similarly sized three-wheel vehicles available here, but after owning one and always trying to fix it and not roll it, I knew there was a better solution for this environment.

I built this project because I had a use for a vehicle like this in the work that I do, and there was nothing available. I also spend a lot of time working with local welders in South Sudan, and I know if I could make kits and create easily understandable plans they could manufacture these vehicles locally; which would create jobs in a place that desperately needs them. I would have done this project anyways, but since I am an avid Hackaday reader I happily put this project in the competition, which I hope spreads the idea and inspires people to improve upon the idea.

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Atmel: In line with the Hackaday Prize theme, how are you hoping the Solar Utility Vehicle changes the world? What’s the mission?

CL: Like I said before the mission is to provide people in poor areas of the world with an affordable tool which can benefit there lives. A locally manufactured vehicle also has the advantage of benefiting the local economy. I think there is also a great opportunity now for the developing world to develop using much more sustainable energy sources. Not only doesn’t this vehicle need petroleum-based products, it also doesn’t require expensive grid infrastructure. It is ready to work no matter how remote the location.

Atmel: What’s different about it? What’s your vision for the next five years? Where do you see the vehicle going or what/who would you hope will pick up the project and use it?

CL: I think designing a practical solar vehicle is a bit different. Most of the examples I have seen of solar vehicles often don’t have a practical use in mind. Solar power for a utility vehicle makes a lot of sense, because they are often used for brief periods with lots of downtime in between to recharge. It is also incredible useful to have mobile power without the use of a generator. The body design with an articulating frame and differential motor control is also a bit different.

I already have a pretty extensive redesign in mind. Now that I have proved the concept, I would like to try a version using LiFePO4 batteries and hub motors with a more traditional steering design. I am always trying to improve things and make it simpler, but I would also like to push the efficiency boundaries as well on the next iteration.

I would love to see anyone make one of these, but I am a bit careful as well. While I believe this vehicle is about as inexpensive as it can be considering the technology involved, I also realize that at about USD $3,500 it is a huge investment for someone in a poor area. I have had a lot of offers to buy the vehicle here, but I really want to make sure everything is rock solid before people spend so much of their money on something.

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Atmel: As we know, the Maker Movement has opened the door for everyone from hobbyists to tech enthusiasts to hardcore engineers to tinker around. What’s your personal background?

CL: I am certainly a beneficiary of the Maker Movement. My degree is actually in construction management, but most of my skillset comes from growing up on a farm and loving to try new things. I grew up doing a lot of electrical wiring, but really didn’t get into electronics until later in life. I started by building solar panels that I was using in South Sudan, but that quickly opened up into a lot of other things. I have done quite a few different alternative energy projects in South Sudan, and really love making these technologies accessible to people without costing a fortune.

I love that we have such an amazing amount of information so readily available to us now through the Internet. Anything form in depth analysis and feedback from strangers on forums, to free courses from places like MIT. We are really blessed in a way that no other generation has been.

Atmel: What are some of the core pieces of hardware embedded?

CL: Most of the brain work on the vehicle come from a pair of Arduino Pro Minis (ATmega328). One does monitoring of different current and temperature sensors and display that to an LCD screen. The other reads a Wii Nunchuck and a potentiometer at the point of articulations, and runs a PID loop which outputs to a pair of Dimension Engineering Sabertooth 2X60 motor controllers which run four 24V 650W DC gear motors.

Atmel: What hardware products or projects are you also building at the moment?

CL: My current project is very hardware centered. I just took the SUV up to a very remote refugee camp on the border to Sudan in the back of a very old Russian cargo plane. I am using the power from the SUV to cut doors and windows into an old shipping container that I am turning into a house. We are hoping to move up here early next year. I’ll be installing solar power, and be welding up furniture and other things we will need. I am also working on a BMS system for the LiFePO4 batteries for cell balancing, which uses a relay board and boost converter to run certain loads only off of the cell with the highest voltage.

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Atmel: Why pick Atmel (and Arduino) chips?

CL: I think as a non-EE, Arduino has been a huge help to me. The community is great, and there is such a huge wealth of resources available. It is amazing how quick I can go from idea to finished. I always have a few Pro Minis around just in case.

Atmel: What advice would you offer other Makers when getting into hardware and embarking on a new project?

CL: I would say just do it. It is amazing what you learn by doing actual projects. You have to learn one thing so that you can do another to finally get where you needed to go, but you pick up lot of knowledge along the way. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, because that is also learning, and lessons you won’t forget.

Atmel: And… we have to ask. If you win, are you heading to space or taking the cash?!

CL: Honestly my wife and I raise support to do what we do, and I couldn’t look people in the eye if I took the trip to space (cool as it might be.) I also don’t know how I would explain it to the people I work with here in South Sudan. My wife and I are also about to have our first baby, so I would take the cash.

1:1 interview with Tristan Bel of NYDesigns


“There’s no better place for hardware prototyping and building in New York City.” 


We recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Executive Director Tristan Bel from Long Island-based NYDesigns to discuss how his company is helping Makers get from the MakerSpace to MarketPlace. In our 1:1 conversation, we also addressed how NYDesigns and Atmel can jointly help do-it-yourselfers get from the lab to the fab. You can find our entire interview below!

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Atmel: Tristan, can you tell us what NYDesigns does and how it fits into the MakerSpace to MarketPlace theme that we’ve been promoting for the last year?

Tristan Bel: NYDesigns is dedicated to the success of design and hardware tech startups in NYC. Companies in our incubator get three years of private studio space and access to a network of mentors and advisers. Makers can prototype their design ideas in our safe, secure 5,000-sq-ft fabrication lab. We also produce events and programs for a thriving community of creators and innovators.

Our purpose is help entrepreneurs turn an idea into a product and coach them through every growth stage; that clearly resonates with the MakerSpace to MarketPlace initiative. One never knows where the next good idea will come from, and more importantly, who will have the skills and stamina to lead it through to a viable company.

Atmel: What was the model behind opening NYDesigns in the middle of one of the most expensive areas in America?

TB: We opened in 2006 as an initiative of LaGuardia Community College to promote NYC’s economic development after 9/11, so we existed before incubators were cool and numerous. NYC is teaming up with people with ideas. The density of the city naturally favors connections and exchanges. It is also the home of many headquarters of large corporations that can become clients or partners. In my opinion, that mix is one of the main reasons why tech entrepreneurship here is catching up with Silicon Valley.

Software startups tend to congregate around Union Square. Hardware startups need more space, and still benefit significantly from our proximity to Manhattan — that’s why our large studios, which are located in Long Island City just 15 minutes away from Midtown and are more affordable than other spaces even in the neighborhood, are so attractive to cash-strapped young companies.

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Atmel: We understand you attended the World Maker Faire New York back in September? Are there any key findings you can share with us?

TB: It’s inspiring to see hobbyists of all ages gathered around making. I was impressed by the amount of resources available to anyone with an idea, and how inexpensive these are becoming. Prototypes that required a team a highly skilled engineers and specialized equipment can now be made by a couple of passionate techies on their time off. That opens up so many possibilities!

Atmel: With so many Makerspaces popping up around the United States, let alone the world, why would a Maker go to NYDesigns versus a local Makerspace?

TB: If you want to start a company in the design or hardware tech industry, it’ll be hard to find a beautiful space with amenities, close to Manhattan, and open 24/7 (the lab is open during regular business hours) as affordable as NYDesigns. You’ll have the 5,000-square-foot fabrication lab in the same building, and be part of a community that will help you grow and overcome the obstacles you’ll inevitably be encountering.

If you are a tinkerer or simply need good fabrication resources, the NYDesigns FabLab is equipped with an array of tools both analog and digital, including traditional hand and power tools, a vacuum former, an FDM rapid prototyper, and a large format industrial laser cutter.

Atmel: How can Atmel partner with NYDesigns to help Makers get from the lab to the fab?

TB: Actually, this is great timing! We are about to start a series of workshops around Arduino for tinkerers; we’d love for you to spread the word. Also, we are expanding our development tools for AVR and ARM development. For example, resident companies Vengo, which designs and manages high-tech vending machines, BotFactory, which makes a desktop electronics-circuit printer with conducting ink, and Boston Biomotion, which is developing an intelligent rehab and sports performance device straight out of the MIT lab, would all greatly benefit from such a partnership.

Lastly, we have large spaces within our walls in Long Island City in which we regularly host events related to entrepreneurship, hardware technology, and design. We’re happy to hold joint events or make that space available to the MakerSpace community.

Atmel: Is there anything else our Maker audience should know about NYDesigns?

TB: There’s no better place for hardware prototyping and building in NYC. Email info@nydesigns.org or call us at 718.663.8404 — we’d love to meet you and show you our space. Come build your side project or your company!

1:1 interview with Jean Anne Booth of UnaliWear


“What really makes the Kanega Watch different is that it goes where you go, both inside your home and away. It is discreetly styled, so there’s no stigma from wearing an assistive device, and it speaks to you in words.” 


In this interview, we feature Jean Anne Booth, a serial entrepreneur with a successful track record in hardware innovation, having previously launched and sold two large and notable companies. Her current project is UnaliWear, a wearable health technology startup that has recently made its Kickstarter debut. She comes with a wealth of experience, and her timing could’t be better as the wearable digital health market continues to unfold. What’s more, Kanega Watch — which we recently featured on Bits & Pieces — is looking to bring a much-needed vision for practical usage to that space.

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Tom Vu: What’s the main driver to going about this once again? Well, considering you did this before as the first person to launch the ARM Cortex-M3 at Luminary Micro?

Jean Anne Booth: Great question! I actually retired for a couple of years after I sold my last company to Texas Instruments. During this period, my mom turned 80, and she had a couple of incidents that made me start looking for a personal emergency response system for her. Many of the assistive devices available are flawed in one aspect of another. Most importantly, there are three reasons, which make them quite hard for seniors to desire to integrate into their lives. First, they are ugly. Secondly, if they have connectivity, the devices usually require some complicated installation of a tethered smart phone or access point. And one of the most overlooked objections, there is a big “HELP” button. This big button is quite visually disturbing. When you see the big “HELP” button made large for usability and functionality, it is so socially stigmatizing. I wanted my mom to live safely while being independent and not being socially stigmatized.

TV: How is the UnaliWear Kanega Watch different from other wearable tech?

JAB: Focus groups have called Kanega Watch a ‘wearable OnStar for seniors’ because we provide discreet support for falls, medication reminders, and a guard against wandering in a classically styled watch that uses an easy speech interface rather than buttons. What really makes the Kanega Watch different is that it goes where you go, both inside your home and away. It is discreetly styled, so there is no stigma from wearing an assistive device, and it speaks to you in words. The watch brand name “Kanega” is from Cherokee for “speak”.

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TV: Is what you’re creating really going to make our lives better?

JAB: Yes, it’s about being there when it counts. You can wear Kanega Watch on 24×7 basis, so you don’t forget to put it back on, and therefore you’re wearing when you need it. There is a very long battery life, unlike an Apple Watch, Android, or Samsung smartwatch. There is no need for an additional device, either an access point or a smartphone. For seniors, or those who are independent but vulnerable, it can help with issues at night like trips to the bathroom. It’s waterproof, not just water resistant, so you can wear it in the shower/bath (this is where a majority of falls happen), and also in your pool exercises. It works anywhere you go, and those who are vulnerable are not trapped at home. Importantly, there is a convenience to this as you’re wearing everything you need to stay safe.

For instance, here is one of the fundamental characteristics of how the watch works, and why our tagline is “Extending Independence with Dignity.” If the Kanega Watch wants to speak, it will ask permission first. It requests permission to speak by buzzing on the wearer’s wrist like a cellphone on silent, so there’s no visual or audible stigma of wearing an assistive device when socially inappropriate — like at church.

If it detects a potential fall, it will ask if you will need help, because two out of three falls do not require help. In fact, Kanega Watch will continuously monitor you – a kind of continuous welfare check. In a suspected fall, if you don’t respond to the request for permission to speak (for example, if you’re unconscious, unable to move, or unable to speak), then it will begin to escalate and then notify emergency and your contacts for help. There’s practical and smart logic built into the wearable.

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TV: How has your experience in this industry going to help in fulfilling the practical/adoptable use of moving wearable tech toward broader acceptance/use?

JAB: To me, it’s not about advancing a category of technology. It’s about harnessing technology to solve real problems, and in this case, about allowing people to live independently, safely, for as long as possible. It’s been an interesting experience transitioning from semiconductors to healthcare, and has proven to be very rewarding building products that directly make people’s lives better. It’s a fantastic feeling!

TV: What hardware startups do you think are actually doing some really interesting things right now?

JAB: That’s a hard question for me because I’m biased toward products that make a difference and are directly useful. Often what is the most cool and interesting is not at all useful! One thing that our Kickstarter campaign has taught us is that the average person buying things that are cool is not quite in the same category as the people who would buy our wearable for seniors.

TV: How would you describe your team?

JAB: Today, our team consists of a cadre of three founders. Our CTO Marc DeVinney does all the hardware. Brian Kircher, who I’ve worked with for 14 years, does all the software for the Kanega Watch. I do everything else.

TV: Who do you look up to as a mentor now?

JAB: Jimmy Treybig, founder of Tandem Computers, has been a close friend for years and has always been helpful. Jimmy has been a source of a lot of wisdom. For this particular company, another extremely important mentor is my mother, Joan, who is also our Senior User Experience Advisor. She’s put together a number of focus groups, and has also been a lot of help in detailing the use cases.

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TV: What improvements will your product provide society? Perhaps even help the movement of IoT, connected things and wearables?

JAB: The Internet of Things promises to transform daily life, making it easier to work, shop, merchandise, exercise, travel and stay healthy. Really, thanks to billions of connected devices — from smart toothbrushes and thermostats to commercial drones and robotic companions for the elderly. It also will end up gathering vast amounts of data that could provide insights about our habits, religious beliefs, political leanings, sentiments, consumer interest, sports, and even as far as go to other highly personal aspects of our lives. I think the maturation of IoT and wearables is intertwined together. In some respects, what we are building at UnaliWear is also helping cement together the more meaningful adoption of wearables. In our particular case with the Kanega Watch, we couldn’t solve our user problem unless we could provide a better wearable device that is constantly connected all the time. Ultra-low power is very challenging fundamental backstop for every wearable device, and for most IoT devices as well. Our wearable includes cellular, GPS, and Wi-Fi built into one seamlessly integrated non-obtrusive wearable.

Our design goal for the Kanega Watch is that it must be wearable 24×7. It cannot be in a pocket or have requirements of being tucked into a purse. It also must have enough communications capability so that a senior is not stuck in their home all the time. To meet this goal, we have a unique patent-pending quick swap battery system enabling a user to not have to take the watch off to charge. The wearable can last 2 days for most users, and it comes with four batteries. It’s designed to have two batteries available on the charger and two batteries on the watch at all times. The device eliminates the need to be near a base station or smartphone.

Today, simply using built-in smartphone or app presents a couple of problems. Most seniors today don’t have nor operate a smart phone. Less than 5% of seniors over 80 years in age have a smart phone today. For the few seniors who do have smart phones, there are still problems using a smart phone for falls and reminders, because today’s smart phones still have only about 10 hours of real usage time per day.

TV: By 2050, what are some of your predictions for consumers or users interacting with technology on a day-to-day basis?

JAB: I do think that speech will definitely play a larger part in our interaction paradigm. Remember that popular Star Trek movie scene where they come back in time to save the whales and Scotty goes with Checkov to analyze the strength of the materials being used to make a housing for the whales, and the computer he is given is the original Macintosh. Scotty speaks to the Mac, Checkov reminds him that’s not the interface, and then Scotty picks up the mouse and speaks to the mouse. This seems to show a natural interface into the future as Scotty mistakes the old computer for one he can easily and naturally talk to. Now looking at where we are today – the senior population is the fastest growing population segment in the US, and by 2030 will be 20% of our total population. Today, there are 17 million seniors above the age of 75 who are living independently, yet only 2.2 million of those independent seniors have any kind of monitoring system to get help. Today’s 17 million seniors will burgeon to 27 million seniors by 2030. Natural speech interfaces and connectivity will be control what we’re able to build in the future.

TV: What question might you pose to someone in the middle of making a choice to purchase or carry something that is connected and electronically enabling for a senior in their lives?

JAB: I think the message is simple. We show over and over again that if you want to extend the time and quality of someone’s life, then extend their independence. That means you need products that a senior is willing to wear, and that fits into their active lifestyle. At its core, the wearable is based on an Atmel | SMART SAM4L Cortex-M4 MCU running FreeRTOS as the real time operating system and also includes the ATWINC1500 SmartConnect device for Wi-Fi. The Kanega Watch includes both Wi-Fi and cellular communications; when you’re at home, it uses your Wi-Fi. When you’re away, it transitions seamlessly to cellular.

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TV: Does the Kanega Watch have initial roots from the Maker Movement?

JAB: Yes, the roots are definitely Maker Movement – and also a lot of rapid prototyping (hardware’s version of the Lean Startup). We built our first industrial design prototypes at the TechShop in Austin, and our very first alpha design used a 3D-printed “box” as the “watch”. We make a lot of prototypes with rapid turn 3D-printing and CNC-machined aluminum. Before we built our own first prototypes, we created a software prototype on the Omate TrueSmart smart watch, which has dual 1.3 GHz ARM Cortex-A8’s running Android 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich.” Our only challenge with this prototype is that the battery life was an unsatisfying 5 hours – which meant that I had a battery pocket in my pocket and kept the watch plugged in with a cord hidden under my shirt when I needed to demonstrate over a long period, such as at a conference like SxSW. I like our current prototypes better!


Interested in learning more or have an elderly family member who could benefit from the Kanega Watch? Head over to UnaliWear’s current Kickstarter campaign here.

1:1 interview with Mitch Altman, Co-Founder of Noisebridge, San Francisco (Part 2)

…Continued from Interview with Mitch Altman (Part 1)

Tom Vu: What is the Hackerspace in Residence Program? Why is this important?

Mitch Altman: Let me start by giving some background…

Over the past decade, thousands of designers, engineers, artists, programmers, crafters, scientists, cooks, musicians, tinkerers, and the otherwise curious, have gathered at hackerspaces (sometimes also called makerspaces) to explore and do what they love — often finding subjects and projects they find meaning in pursuing. This happens because of the supportive community, as well as the tools and other resources found at these unique spaces found all over the globe. People work and play individually and collaboratively. People come from varied and diverse backgrounds, with varied and diverse skills. This mix of people, skills, community, and tools creates synergistic magic.

Each hackerspace is unique, each with their own set of focuses. Yet they all share in this magic. Through the sharing of skills, information, and other resources within community, we can design the worlds we want. The steps in getting there are often challenging. In fact, this is why we need these collaborative spaces, where people of different backgrounds and diverse skills cooperate and help each other.

Researchers are now starting to study the hackerspace movement, asking what these spaces look like, in what ways their practices changes across these sites, what values connect them, in what ways they differ from each other, and how they connect with and influence and help the wider world.

Along these lines, somewhat related programs such as after-school and out-of-school programs, as well as home schooling and unschooling, have been growing steadily in recent years. Students and instructors are still searching for high-interest content combined with hands-on creating that keys into areas of interest without the rigidity and sterility of most current classroom structures. In essence, it’s really about creating and playing and trying things. It is about hands-on, experiential, play-based science, art and learning. We can break things. We can take things apart. We can fool around. We can put things together again in our own ways. This is useful regardless of the topics of interest. This facilitates tinkering and making things, but also helps in learning science, math, and other more conceptual or abstract fields of study.

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Hackers In Residence Program Kickoff event at Tsinghua University | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

We are approaching 2,000 hackerspaces on the planet, and growing fast. Again: each space is unique, each perfect for the people who started it and the people who keep it going. Yet, each space is part of the international hackerspace movement. And, to varying degrees, hackerspaces all help each other.

To facilitate this process of growth and mutual benefit amongst hackerspaces — helping each other and the world — I am putting a lot of energy into the Hackers in Residence Program. For a long time now there have been Artist in Residence programs to support individuals in their art. Artists benefit greatly from this. And since the visiting artists have shared their skills, their knowledge, and their enthusiasms and passions for their art, the hosting communities benefit as well. People in a hosting community can pick up on these priceless gifts and cruise with them in their own ways. The artists also take their experiences and what they learn with them when they leave, further sharing wherever they go.

This Hackers in Residence Program is similar to an artist in residence program, only broader in scope. Not only art, in its many and varied forms, but anything can be shared and supported when someone is a hacker in residence. Not only the visiting hacker and the hosting community benefit, but all hosting organizations (hackerspaces, libraries, museums, art organizations, corporations) — and the world — benefits, since the hacker moves on from their visit, taking their new experiences and/or projects along with them to share, cross-pollinating wherever they go. And the joy spreads.

I have been both an artist in residence and a hacker in residence. These were fantastic experiences for me! They helped me create new projects. I was able to teach people what I love. I shared my enthusiasm. And I was able to take what I learned from the unique spaces and communities that hosted me, and I’ve shared these experiences with other spaces wherever I travel.

Teaching people what I do — at home, and as I travel around the world — my intent is to encourage people to explore and do what they love. On the surface, I teach people the simple skill of soldering, with which anyone, any age, any skill level, can make cool things with electronics. I also teach electronics and microcontrollers (using AVR microcontrollers, since they are so easy to learn and teach, especially with all the cool free and open source tools available for all operating systems — and with the zillions of projects available online). I give talks on many subjects, with the intent of helping and inspiring others to explore and do what they may find meaning in doing.

Many organizations — such as hackerspaces, libraries, museums, art organizations, corporations — can offer people residency opportunities where they can share their skills, work on their projects, explore their subject, learn from others, with mutual benefits and contributions in so many ways.

Early next year we will launch the HackerInResidence.org website, a totally free website where any organization can list themselves, and create pages for Residency opportunities. It will also allow anyone in the world to easily search for Residency opportunities that they can apply for. (We can use another volunteer web-programmer — if you’re interested, please contact me! Mitch AT CornfieldElectronics DOT com)

For example, I have been an advocate in helping solidify Tsinghua University’s Hackers in Residence program. Tsinghua is considered one of the most prestigious universities in China. Their president is wanting education at Tsinghua to be all about learning to live a life each student loves living. Creating a hackerspace at the university is an experiment in education towards this end. By inviting creative hackers from all over the world, including China, to become residents, working on projects, sharing their skills and knowledge and interests and passions, leading events, such as hackathons and exhibitions — by doing these things, and whatever else the resident is moved to do, students will be exposed to a world of diverse creativity, learning in ways people learn at hackerspaces (and, unfortunately, not at most schools), learning in ways that have been proven to work, ways that lead and inspire a lifetime of learning, creativity, and innovation.

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Hackers In Residence Program Kickoff event at Tsinghua University | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

I have become involved in helping some of the budding hackerspaces in China such as Beijing Makerspace, Chaihuo Hackerspace in Shenzhen, and Xinchejian Hackerspace in Shanghai. Some interesting projects have grown out of these hackerspaces that make people a living — and, as with all projects created out of the shear love of doing it, these projects are good for the others in the local community, in this case, local Chinese culture.

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Chaihuo Hackerspace in Shenzhen, China

What if there were a lot more opportunities for people to take advantage of? This could be really good for the individual hackers, the individual students, people in the outlying community, and perhaps, if there are enough opportunities, for all of China. And if it works in China — and all indications show that it probably will — it can work everywhere, as they have at hackerspaces around the world over the last several years.

But we are just at the beginning now.

Hackerspaces are a global phenomena and changing the very fabric of how we can learn, share, interact, and create. Hackerspaces.org (which I helped form at its inception in 2008) is a good informational and networking nexus site that helps people starting and running hackerspaces around the world. This site allowed the early creation and spread of what is now the hackerspace movement.

Since then, the hackerspace movement has grown exponentially, providing opportunities for lots of people! But, we need more. To benefit the world’s 7 billion people, we need a million unique hackerspaces planet wide. I think that the Hackers in Residence program, with its HackerInResidence.org website, can help a lot.

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Kung Fu Hacking at Hackers In Residence Program Kickoff event at Tsinghua University | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

TV: Tell me more about how you started this Hacker in Residence program?

MA: For the past few years I’ve organized an annual Hacker Trip to China, where a bunch of hackers (note to reader, this implies the earlier stated original sentiment of a “hacker”: people who use any available resource to make their projects cooler, and share the results) from around the world to go to China to (amongst other cool things) help transform some portion of education there. After several years, all this organizing is paying off! At the end of last year’s China trip, Tsinghua University officially started a Hackers in Residence Program. The program is still nascent, but there will soon be a constant stream of diverse hackers from around the world staying at Tsinghua to mentor students!

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Hackers In Residence Program Kickoff event at Tsinghua University | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

The culmination of our trip last year was the Hackers in Residence Kickoff event at Tsinghua University. The event was mongo! Including a mongo LED display showing a hacked version of the “Kung Fu Fighting” music video. All of our talks were on top of a huge crane. It was lots of fun. And celebratory. And lots of education bigwigs were there. The Hackers in Residence is now an official, for-credit, ongoing program at Tsinghua. We’re expecting this to continue on, and grow, and eventually spread all over China, and hopefully everywhere. It’s pretty exciting.

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Maker Carnival | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

We also visited Shanghai for Maker Carnival, my manufacturer in Shanghai, XinCheJian hackerspace in Shanghai, HAXLR8R accelerator program in Shenzhen (where I’m a mentor), Chaihuo hackerspace in Shenzhen, and many other cool events and places. In this first half of the year, I have been busying organizing Hackers In Residence Program abroad.  Since my return from last year’s Hacker Trip to China I have been busy furthering the Hackers in Residence Program there, and everywhere. I’ll be leaving with this year’s Hacker Trip to China at the beginning of November, bringing another great group of diverse worldwide hackers who are wanting to share what they can, and learn from all of our experiences, and bring it all back to share at home. Our first stop will be Tsinghua University.

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Hackerspaces in China | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

TV: What does the Hacker In Residence Program provide to the learning participant?

MA: It can be different at different organizations, depending on what the organization has to offer, and what they require of the Resident. At Tsinghua, they want to provide their students a constant stream of diverse hackers from hackerspaces around the world, overlapping with other Residents staying there. As well as providing travel expenses, food, an apartment, access to way awesome tools, and space to work on their own projects, each Resident collaborates with students to come up with their own cool projects that they will show off at the end of the semester. They also make themselves available as mentors for the students. Most importantly, it’s all about the Residents and the students having an amazing experience of a lifetime.

The last point is very important. These hackers in residence can perform peer-to-peer interaction, providing encouragement and inspiration, as well as help with skills and knowledge. They can help guide students’ ideas, help bolster a student’s curiosity and interest, supplemented with pathways drawn from the student’s own hands on experience.

Since Tsinghua University is so well respected in China, the program will probably be spreading to universities and schools all over China. And hopefully, spreading throughout the world.

The Hackers in Residence program is needed. It is needed because education today is too far behind the curve, focusing on standardized tests rather than learning what a given person wants and needs to the life they want to live. It is needed because it will be so cool to have Residency opportunities for people everywhere to take advantage of, and to share of themselves, and help the hosting organizations and communities. Everybody wins.

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Hackerspace in Residence Program| Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

The Hackers in Residence program offers people a chance at real, live, actual learning opportunities (at universities, schools, hackerspaces, libraries, corporations, museums, art spaces and all of the places it will exist).  The resident will collaborate with students to choose projects they will work on in small groups. In turn, they will also be available as a mentor for students and help assist in local hack-a-thons. Most importantly, it’s all about having an amazing time and doing work in cool projects that can be shared so new opportunities and potential residents in the future can gain from these interactions just as well.

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Kung Fu Hacking Tsingchua Style with Hacker in Residence Program

TV: How does this dove tail into something larger? Such as in priming for the next industrial movement or even development of applications around the Wearable Tech, Internet of Things, or 3D Printing? Perhaps reinforcing the Maker Movement?

MA: The way I see it: community is very scarce at the moment in our modern world — and it is very much needed. At the same time, people are often too afraid to be creative. Yet, we need to express our creativity to thrive in our lives. The era of good little workers for factories and massive industry is past — the pendulum is swinging toward a new paradigm of meaningful and sustainable innovation. The old production paradigm does not make for a healthy human spirit; it does not provide a world full of people feeling their lives are way worthwhile. We can help transform workers and vocational and professional training to encourage people to take more vital roles in contributing to fulfillment in their lives — this is what can lead to a well-balanced global ecosystem, fueling innovation, creativity, opportunity, and community. With more people having the opportunity to experience community that supports our creativity, all areas of human endeavor can be enhanced.


TV:
Does “hacking” need to be part of DNA for the inception of great Product Ideas?

MA: Need? No. Desirable? Yes.

Many of the products available for purchase today are things we don’t necessarily want or need — they were created primarily to maximize profit. Of course, we need money to buy food, shelter, and many other necessities. We also need some money to buy resources we want so that we can live lives we find way worthwhile. But how much money do we need? The concept of enough is an important one to consider. The howling engines of Marketing manipulate us through our hopes and desires and fears with the goal of maximizing profit — we’re needed to buy things to feed this engine. Sadly, the choice to maximize profit is often chosen over making our lives and our world better. Sadly, some of us choose to maximize profits even when it is known that the consequences are likely to make the world a less safe or less good place… Does it really need to be this way?

Hackerspaces along with its core methodology helps foster things that people really love. Participants become passionate around their creations. This creates a higher chance that these ideas, woven with much imagination and passion, are good for those that create them, as well as for the surrounding community. If you create something you love, chances are that others will love it, too. And when people love what you do, they may even pay you to do it. If it is a product or service that others love, these may actually be helpful and relevant in their lives. If this is the case, then the world is actually becoming a better place. This is the result of more people working and playing with what they love, what they find meaning in doing. That, rather than maximizing profit, can be the primary factor in why we do what we do. The net result is that more people feel they are living lives that are way worthwhile. This is the way I see things.

Let me talk a bit about China again. One of the big economic games there now involves Western corporations manufacture their goods there. For a while now, it has been more profitable to take advantage of the differing economies, despite the costs to ship the products half way around the planet after production. This game is changing, however, for three reasons. First, the Chinese economy is improving, causing labor costs to go up (as they should). Secondly, the exchange rates for Chinese to Western currencies are going in the wrong direction to be advantageous to the West. And thirdly, shipping costs are continuing to go up. Sometime soon, it will be cheaper to manufacture elsewhere in the world. And China needs to adapt so that Chinese people are directing their creativity and innovation towards goods and services that are good for China.

If culture in China can change so that even a significant minority of people explore and do what they love doing, then chances are they are coming up with goods and services that are good for the local community in their part of China. This leads to vibrant local economy that works for their part of China. If enough people make enough money to live lives they want to live, this is good for China. Which means that it is good for one seventh of the world’s population. So this would be good for the world. And I can’t help but add that hackerspaces are great places for people to explore and do what they love — places that can help encourage peoples’ creativity and innovation.

This same process can also work in other parts of the world.

I have friends involved in setting up hackerspaces in Egypt where they help organize communities and witness people there making a living with small projects. The economy is such that not much money is needed to do a lot there. People create, grow, and sustain themselves and others in this way.

Things are somewhat similar in Detroit, which has been economically depressed for quite some time. There are many resources left behind from its heyday as an industrial center, including inexpensive space, and cheap materials, making it a wonderful place for creation. Creative people have been moving to Detroit to take advantage of this. There are a few hackerspaces there where people come together and support each other in making all sorts of way cool projects, some of which make a living for many people.

Let’s create more opportunities for people everywhere to be part of supportive community where people can create.

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Regional Hackerspaces provide opportunity to create and help local innovation in the culture

TV: What is hacking? Can we make this a positive orientation for our youth and innovation?

MA: The origin term for “hacking” has been warped by the mainstream media. Historically, the term was coined by the model railroaders at MIT in the early 1950s. They used all sorts of things as resources to make awesome model railroads — it didn’t matter what those resources were originally intended for. They made awesome model railroads. They saw what worked, and what didn’t work so well, and they shared it with each other, and with other model railroaders. This is the ethos of hacking that we still use today at hackerspaces. It is a way of life — do what you love, make it more awesome with whatever resources are available, and share it!

When computers started to become available, the model railroaders at MIT made use of them. Over time hacking become more about computers. But it was never limited to only computers.

In the 1980s, as computers were just beginning to become more of a household item, the mainstream media used the word to describe a small number of people who used their computer skills to do some questionable or outright illegal activities, often doing things merely for profit or power. Let’s not pay too much attention to that definition.

At hackespaces, people are doing things and making stuff because they really love it. The world is full of resources. We can make use of anything in the world as resources for our projects, to make our projects cooler. We can see what works well and what doesn’t work so well, and we can share the results. This is hacking. And anything can be hacked: electronics, art, food, science, craft, ourselves, our communities, society, the planet! Everything can be improved. Hacking in this way makes our lives better. It makes the world better. We can all benefit from the hacking ethos and mindset. People of all ages, youth on up. Innovation is an obvious result.

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Hacker in Residence Program Panel hosted by Patrick Schmidt

TV: Hack? Does this personify someone who is learning and growing? Sharing? Building?

MA: Yes! Next question. Really. These are elements of what the hackerspace movement is bringing forth. To be ideal and optimistic, we can potentially expand this hackerspace notion. More and more hackerspaces can potentially usher us into another Renaissance era similar to artist and painters sharing and meeting together back in that age. With my previously stated 1 million hackerspaces spread all over the globe, a huge number of people can simply walk to the closest one, like the parks we have today in some communities. All of us can push toward the positive and come together in our own domain, each playing our part.

If we are wanting to learn, then we will. What transpires in our lives is the result of the choices we make. We make choices, big and small. We have no control over the consequences of our choices. But we can learn from them. And then make new choices. If we choose to, we can make choices on what we believe will make our lives (and those around us) a little bit better, a little bit cooler. Then, it seems to me, there is good chance our lives (and the lives of those around us) will get better over time. And if enough of us are doing this, the world gets better. This is hacking. Hacking ourselves. Worth a try? If you think so, then why wait — make a new cool choice today! And if you’d like some support, visit a hackerspace.

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TV: How do people from different walks of life engage with Embedded designs?

MA: Phones and microwave ovens, cars, thermostats — all these devices and more use microcontrollers. They are all embedded devices. I think it is important to have at least some understanding of the devices we use all the time in our day-to-day lives. This is one reason why I teach how to make cool things with microcontrollers. Anyone can learn the basics. It isn’t really hard. I have led workshops teaching people ages 10 on up how to play with microcontrollers. They are simply small computers. They have electronic parts connected to their pins. They run a computer program running that controls those parts to do something cool. That’s all there is to it!

There are people all over the world teaching this stuff. It’s fun.

The more hackerspaces there are, the more people can learn this, and other things they want to learn.

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TV: How about people who don’t live near a hackerspace?

MA: Start one! This is the way all hackerspaces happen.

But, there is also the internet. It’s not a substitute for actual community, but it is a great resource. The internet provides us with so much information and choice at our fingertips. The UN now considers access to the internet a basic human right. A while back, more opportunities were available to those who had access to universities. It is the case now that people with internet access have more opportunities than people without. Just about anything you want to learn is available to some extent (probably quite a lot!) on the internet.

And if you can become part of (or create) a supportive community for learning (such as a hackerspace), then it is even more powerful. Anything is possible. The hackerspace movement itself is one result. The huge DIY 3D printer industry is another.


TV:
Does this mean that technology is a signature of who we are? Tech adds definition to what we build together?

MA: Technology is an outgrowth of who we are, sure. It can add to who we are. It can also get in the way. It is up to each of us what we choose to do, what technology we create, what technology we make use of, and how we make use of it. These choices, along with the other choices in our lives, define who we are. And since technology is such a powerful force in our lives, the choices we make regarding technology has a very large effect on who we are.


TV:
Where would you like to see the hackerspace movement lead?

MA: I would love to see more people living lives they feel are way worthwhile. My definition of success: living a life doing what you love, and in so doing what you love, make enough of what you need to keep doing what you love! What if you lived that life? What if a huge number of people in your neighborhood lived that life? What if a significant number of the 7 billion people on the planet lived that life?

Perhaps hackerspaces can lead towards that ideal. I think it’s worth going for.

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TV:
Why are AVR chips so pervasively used as the microcontrollers of choice in many hackerspaces?

MA: They are an easy-to-learn microcontroller. They have really good datasheets compared to many others — they are actually readable! Because of this they are easy to teach with. AVR chips are used in the super-popular Arduino platform (and Arduino clones), which make it even easier to learn and to teach microcontrollers. Atmel was very smart to support free and open source development tools for the AVR chips. There is a large online community of people helping and supporting each other. There are hundreds of thousands of projects online, many free and open source, that make use of these chips.

I’m seeing these chips used in numerous crowdfunded embedded projects, including solutions for wearables and connected devices. Because Arduino (with AVR chips) makes microcontrollers so accessible, developing microcontroller projects is open to lots of people who wouldn’t otherwise have made use of them. Even very complex projects are possible, such as 3D Printers. The early ones started by using Arduinos (with AVR microcontrollers).

I’m comfortable using lots of different microcontrollers. But I really like using AVR microcontrollers since they are so easy to learn and to teach with. I lead frequent workshops teaching how anyone can make cool things with embedded microcontrollers. These workshops can range from making a simple kit to learning the ins and outs of how embedded devices work. Certainly, Arduino makes it less intimidating, yet super powerful.

For beginners and the highly advanced, the AVR framework and devices are very accommodating. Atmel has done well in doing their part for the community, promoting free and open source dev tools. There are packages for Windows, Mac OS X, and tools for Linux, all using the C++ compiler, and GNU Compiler tool chains (GCC). (Me and my friend Jeff Keyzer created an easy-to-follow cookbook approach for anyone to follow for installing the AVR toolchain on Windows, Mac OS X, and Linux.) Again, this was a really good choice on Atmel’s part. Because of this, people in the early days of the Maker Movement adopted Atmel chips over others. Because of this, the Arduino people chose to use Atmel chips. Arduino boards are available all over the place (online, and even at Fry’s and Radio Shack), and there are probably hundreds of people making Arduino clones, with at least a hundred thousand projects available to download for free online. All of this is part of what helped the Maker Movement as we see it today.

AVR chips have been used even in emergency response disasters such as Japan for the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster. Many DIY/Maker radiation Giegier counters were quickly put together. SafeCast is an international hackerspace project that helped people collect data across the region.

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TV: How do hackerspaces relate to crowdsource funding?

MA: Hackerspaces make things inexpensive and accessible. When we pool our resources, we can do a lot with very little. At hackerspaces we can create things that people love. But if we want to turn our project into a product, and make a lot of them so that others can benefit from it, we may need some money for manufacturing it, or otherwise put it out into the world.

Until recently, it used to be that people would seek funding from banks or from Venture Capitalists. This is changing now with the advent and success of crowdsource funding. Now anyone with internet access can fund projects via Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and other crowdsource funding sites. And this can be done almost anywhere in the world.

You don’t need to give your project (or fledgling company) away to your funding sources! With crowdsource funding, you enlist the help of lots of people who invest in you and your project because they are truly enthusiastic about it! If it your funding campaign succeeds, you know that you have something that people want, that there is a market for what you have to offer.

Right now, we can see on many crowdsource funding sites, projects for home automation, gardening, water quality, energy production, and many other imaginable and unimaginable things. There are so many things are being explored and most of all, this is just the beginning. People are really exploring now. It is way too early now to see how this plays out. Some ideas and products will eventually become fads. On the other hand, some will likely take off and cause a disruption to how we’re used to doing things.

 

TV: Another option is to join a hardware accelerator.

MA: Yes. There are a several hardware accelerators starting now, helping to build out not only phone apps, but actual physical hardware products.

There’s Highway 1 here in San Francisco. I am a mentor at HAXLR8R, in Shenzhen, China. These are both places where someone with a cool hardware idea can go from having a proof-of-concept prototype to having a manufactured product, ready to sell, in as quickly as 3 months. It’s kind of amazing. This was unheard of even a few years ago.

At these hardware accelerators, financial support is available, typically about $50,000, in exchange for a few percent of equity in the startup company. The funding is packaged with mentors and training, and connections to contract manufacturers in China, where people can choose to manufacture their product.

I like making myself available as a mentor to those who are making hardware projects that they really love. I am a mentor at Noisebridge (a non-profit Hackerspace in San Francisco that I co-founded) and at HAXLR8R in Shenzhen, China. There are others, too. They all have a bunch of people really focused on creating the projects of their dreams, and turning them into products for others.

For the 3-month program at HAXLR8R, everyone starts out living in Shenzhen, where every day everyone is surrounded by the other groups working on their projects, supporting each other. Experts in their field are there to help, with mentors available to help as needed. There is also access to lots of great fab tools, such as laser cutters, CNC mills, 3D printers, pick & place machines, and other equipment for making high quality prototypes. The program ends with a Demo Day in San Francisco, where people show off their projects to media and potential funders (though many choose to use crowdsource funding only).

There have been several projects that have turned into successful products as a result of these hardware accelerators.

It is now possible for entrepreneurs to do a lot with very little. My TV-B-Gone universal remote control project, for instance (a keychain that turns off TVs in public places), cost only $2,000 in development costs to create the first prototype.

People with cool projects can raise enough money in a crowdsource funding campaign to complete hardware prototypes and do an initial run of manufacturing. Kickstarter has really taken off! Kickstarter has the advantage of being one of the biggest and most popular platform. Since its inception in 2009, the crowdfunding platform has raised more than $1.14 billion for 63,056 successfully funded projects. Pretty amazing.

On average, about 43 percent of campaigns are successful. Some of these get courted by Venture Capitalists, but after their successes, they do not need to give up much of their company. One of the famous popular successes was Pebble. Another is Oculus Rift, which raised $2.4 million in 2012 on Kickstarter for its virtual reality goggles. It went on to be acquired by Facebook for $2 billion. Crazy! Clearly, Kickstarter gave Oculus Rift the visibility it needed. But even for smaller scale projects, crowdsource funding can be a very good indicator of the market and demand for a product.

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TV: Are hackerspaces important for enterprise?

MA: They can be. Lots of cool projects have been created at hackerspaces, which later went on to become products launched by startup companies. Lots of 3D printer companies, for example, have grown from hackerspaces.

People at corporations, large and small, have started using hackerspaces’ websites and IRC channels, as well as peoples’ github, to find people to hire. They also recruit for hack-a-thons, which are also used for recruiting for hiring. There has even been many field trips to Noisebridge from well-known companies. Companies are also trying to learn from what works at hackerspaces, and wanting to re-create the creativity-spawning process that hackerspaces promote, and add that to their corporate culture. Some have even added hackerspaces in their companies. Ford, for instance, has a hackerspace. This allows everyone at Ford, even people who don’t normally design cars, to come together and play, sometimes coming up with ideas that are later incorporated into Ford’s cars’ designs.

Companies can benefit if their employees have opportunities toward growth and education. This can happen at hackerspace, and it can happen at companies, too. If companies become places where employees actually want to be, that helps the employees, and can only benefit the company. It’s great to have people in all sorts of realms creatively converged on a mission. They are very much missions with open ended curiosity, energy, and ingenuity.

I’ll add that many schools, universities, museums, and libraries are also starting to incorporate hackerspaces into their missions, making it a part of their cultures. (And if they also incorporate a Hacker in Residency program, even more will benefit.)

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TV: What does the future of embedded and hacker spaces have for the culture of tech.

MA: The future is entangled and threaded into the fabric of the choices we make — including what we choose to do with our time, and what we choose to make. In so many ways, that’s who we really are: how we use our creativity, what we make and what we do. People have always made tools in our attempts to make our lives better. Everything we make is Tech. Culture is Tech. Tech is Culture. Culture defines Innovation. Culture sets the context for how things we make are used. Hackerspaces, incubators, accelerators, startups are some examples of early adopters of this transfusion in making more of culture blend with technology and art. I hope we can make the results positive for more people to live fulfilling lives. I’ll be doing what I can towards this end.

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TV: Last question, well really not a question… Please consider us friends. 🙂

MA: Off course, let’s go out and do more cool stuff!

 

Haven’t checked out the first portion of this interview? You can find it here.

1:1 interview with Mitch Altman, Co-Founder of Noisebridge, San Francisco (Part 1)

In this feature of Bits & Pieces, I interview one of the original forefathers of hackerspaces. Mitch is one of the original co-founders of the infamous spaces named Noisebridge in San Francisco — which later became a exemplary model for others around the world. Mitch exemplifies the persona of a hardware hacker, who not only knows a great deal about embedded programming, but has even built powerful remotes capable of turning off every TV his general vicinity.

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Mitch Altman at Hackerspace Noisebridge

Crafty and creative beyond belief, he has made a name for himself through a series of innovations, like the Brain Machine, one of MAKE Magazine’s most popular DIY projects. Mitch has been leading workshops around the world, teaching people to turn “innovative” ideas into “cool” things with microcontrollers.

Aside from his revolutionary projects, one of his greatest contributions to the Maker Movement is the co-founding of Noisebridge. This is one of the original and renowned hackerspaces located in the Bay Area, which has also been voted best hacker hangout and best open source playpen, even with roots in Hackerspace Shanghai, Spacebridge.

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Mitch Altman at TedX Brussels

Noisebridge members have been involved with a number of major award-winning research projects, receiving accolades from top-tier academic conferences such as Usenix Security Conference and CRYTPO.

So, who are some of the names that have been in this place and aspired to some stem of their development and design pathway to Noisebridge? Puzzlebox’s Steve Castellotti and ootsidebox’s Jean Noel are among many others who have fused ideas and shared roots at the hackerspace.

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Mitch Altman and the Brain Machine

TV: Tell me about the uniqueness found in hackerspaces.

MA: Yes, in a constantly changing world of technology, there is always the demand for a place where one can go to learn. Develop hands-on experience with technology. Energize raw intent and unique thinking by doing. Members of hackerspaces can learn by simply being ones own self — unlocking creative opportunities to exercise ideas, just like we do today in gyms to run with the common thread in a desire to be fit and conform to health. Here, we all want to make something. Make a difference and answer the appetite for creativity and ingenuity.

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5MoF: Five minutes of Fame Guest Speaker at Noisebridge in San Francisco | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

Imagine an open space, a dominion where people get together, hang out, converse, and collaborate. It is filled with anxious or latent inventors and entrepreneurs of all types working on projects that they hope will change the world or even change their state of how they want technology to evolve. Many of them are on laptop or using 3D printers eagerly typing business plans, performing logical aerobic, collaborative acrobats with peers, or simply hacking out code. While others, simply chat on the best route to a problem, share their expertise, make assumptions and some decisions based on a number of others feedback. Like some of the chaos in quantum physics, within all multi directional movement and buzzing about, there is a collision of “out of the box” thinking and production. To speak of it’s core, one can see a reaction happening in this space [hackerspace] with a unique setting — compounded by human interaction that keeps the magic flowing with innovation.

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Noisebridge Class-a-Thon | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

It is the center foundation of what the area will turn into. While the outer linings are being fine-tuned and polished, the inner workings remain relatively unchanged. The concrete has been laid; the electrical wires have been strung throughout the wooden frames and the insulation and drywall is mostly there, all while a wireless network is hangs throughout the air. Projects can begin even if the air conditioning isn’t hooked up yet.

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Noisebridge Class-a-Thon | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

As long as there is a good foundation, people can get stuff done. The rest of the work on the outer edges will always be changing. Paint will cover the walls in different shades and dust will always need to be cleaned up. However as time goes on and unless a major change happens, all the people running the space will need to do is adjust the dials of the environment (when needed) and continue progressing the community. Once the foundation is done first, the rest will fall into place after that. What’s said is the gem of hackerspaces.

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Noisebridge Class-a-Thon | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

TV: What is your vision of education and hackerspace fusion into the working sector?

Tim Berners-Lee once said, “A hacker to me is someone creative who does wonderful things.” This is the true and original meaning of a hacker. Though, that’s changed over time with all the compromises in security and loosely used terminology of “hacker.” Education has gotten far worse in the past many years; right now we are seeing people pull this in the positive direction. More and more bureaucracies are turning up in all areas of education. Education should and could be something to parallel the goals to what we are living to strive toward, fulfill more worthy lives. In the current system, I think it doesn’t have to be that way. With so much progress in the Internet and access to information, we can learn to live the way we really want, conduct it more differently to sustain our lives. Our upbringing has a lot of influence around this idea. As for education, I had a few really good teachers that saved my life. When I was a lot younger, I remember being brutally abused in education settings, while some teachers stood by. Reflecting, it really was horrible. Most importantly, a very special teacher really took me under the wing and got me interested in all sorts of geeky things. It was quite timely and in this intervention, things set pace for something entirely different moving forward. This newfound interest got me through the day. It uncoiled hidden or latent talents, which were shielded by other complicated things of the emotion and growing up. It opened up possibilities for interest. It is in this deeper individual passion of what I loved that served as the fuel for what’s to come. By the time I got to the university, I eventually found things and embarked on a common thread — engaged in the true value of education. I found the searchlight.

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5MoF: Five minutes of Fame guest speaker at Noisebridge in San Francisco with Ken Haggerty | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

I really had access to this inner drive. While so many teachers do want to do good, it’s in the unintended bureaucracies that force stagnation or cloud the true arrow of education. Instead, many educational settings are forced into things where teachers are molded to increase standardized test scores for funding, etc.

We now know from many disadvantaged kids in these poor neighborhoods where education and know-how is certainly the best thing they are looking forward to in exiting their current situation. We arrived on this abundant planet, and there are infinite possibilities but then they are narrowed down to working at Burger King.

I love to see and help create more opportunities. Today, there are 7 billion on the planet. There are 1,500 hackerspaces, which are helping nourish and mature the creative thoughts to opportunities. We need more of these intellectual YMCAs where technology and creativity [access to development boards, broadband connectivity, open source code, 3D printers, etc.] can be the setting to help aspire and cultivate passion.

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5MoF: Five minutes of Fame guest speaker at Noisebridge in San Francisco with Ken Haggerty | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

But still, there are not enough hackerspaces… In fact when crunching the numbers, in an ideal provision, we would need somewhere between 1 million hackerspaces. Give workshops and motivate forces of people in supportive environments and communities, advocate and nurture the exploration to do what they love and learn.

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5MoF: Five minutes of Fame guest speaker at Noisebridge in San Francisco | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

The love and learning go hand in hand. People come to hackerspaces and commit lots of time here because they not only love teaching but love what they do in sharing and building… The stem to these roots are not rested on people standing in rolls and columns responding to bells or authorities at the front giving orders and instruction. Instead, the pendulum of learning is more weighted on sharing [more of the availability of hardware, resources and motivation] on learning what they want to learn and share what they want to do its through play, experience, the innate drive to go for it!

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5MoF: Five minutes of Fame guest speaker at Noisebridge in San Francisco with Lee Felsenstein | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

TV: What sort of workbench or set of dimensions of aptitude do hackerspaces bring forth to an individual?

MA: To describe them simply, hackerspaces are community centers with tools. Hackerspaces combine manufacturing equipment (e.g. 3D printers, CNC, etc.), community, and education for the purposes of enabling community members to design, prototype and create manufactured works from end to end that wouldn’t be possible to create with the resources available to individuals working alone. These spaces can take the form of loosely-organized individuals sharing space and tools, for-profit companies, non-profit corporations, organizations affiliated with or hosted within schools, universities or libraries, and more. All are united by a common thread and interest in the purpose of providing access to equipment, community, and education, and all are unique in exactly how they are arranged to fit the purposes of the community they serve.

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Noisebridge in San Francisco | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

Hackerspaces represent the democratization of ideas, sharing, giving, design, engineering, fabrication and education. These spaces are a fairly new phenomenon, but are beginning to produce projects with significant local, regional, and national impact across the globe.

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Noisebridge in San Francisco with Mitch Altman | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

TV: Do hackerspaces respond to the gifted individuals? Said individuals who are very eager to learn while also creative but technically starved. Are these the passionate community dwellers of hackerspaces?

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Hackerspaces in China | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

MA: I can certainly say this helps open up the reach into addressing some of the obstacles in education and building. There are number of more resources mentioned previously that can be overcome with the availability to a local hackerspace. Knowledge and information can be transparently shared at hackerspaces. There is really not much competitiveness; instead, it is overruled by a common thread of learning and grasping with the tools available here. The token to the hackerspaces is learning by making as opposed to a learning by information fed to be absorbed then provided on a test as a validation.

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Noisebridge in San Francisco | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

For the real world of today’s market and work force, this is more analogous to the markets today. More so today, “work” is now perceived and overshadowed by “make and talent.” At hackerspaces, there is not a lot of theory nor standardized constructs of how or why something should be a certain shape, form, or function. Hackerspaces can do without these preconceived notions. Personally, I found out earlier that playing at labs and universities had drawn stronger importance. The need to learn through this atmosphere was very important.

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Noisebridge in San Francisco with Mitch in soldering instruction | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

The ecosystem via interaction with classroom and teachers were an interruption. The peer-to-peer motivation of the lab or hackerspaces can remove this. Now there exist integral workflows which are not interrupted, each fused by desire, passion, and making. I started to learn pragmatically to pair the various realms of quantum physics, electrical, tooling, and coding fueled the continued interest. Keep going. What I used my degree from education was important, but more of an abstraction. The hackerspace labs today have an abstraction to so many way too cool out-of-the-box thinking people. People come together to genuinely share. 

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Hackerspaces in China | Photo Credit: Mitch Altman

 

View the part 2 in this interview series with Mitch Altman.

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.

1:1 Interview with Mel Li (Part 2)

(Continued from Part 1 …)

TV:  Tell me about the Lab on a Chip?

ML: The lab-on-a-chip (LOC) is a device that integrates one or several laboratory functions on a single chip of only millimeters to a few square centimeters in size. LOCs deal with the handling of extremely small fluid volumes down to less than pico liters. The notion of the “Lab-on-a-Chip” generally indicates the scaling of single or multiple lab processes down to chip-format, primarily dedicated to the integration of the total sequence of lab processes to perform chemical analysis.  My previous work examined the design and validation of a LOC for screening blood samples to determine optimal personalized drugs and their respective dosages for specific patients to prevent heart attacks. A lot of those techniques were first inspired by the fact that tools requiring the examination, characterization and integration of the sophisticated hardware controls are made available.

TV: Describe your post doctorate work and bio medical engineering?

ML: I worked on research projects that are helping us to better understand and detect early heart disease.  My current research work involves measurements for fluid migration over surfaces then discussing those applications for medical diagnostics. My works also involve motor control for fluorescence microscopy for applications in life sciences.  This work involves spectrum study of fluorescent DNA or proteins. This graduate work is related to the building and diagnostic device which can measure at microscale, pinpoint dosage of drugs to show visibility of early signs of heart disease. The medical application revolves around a low cost infectious disease as well as looking at tuberculosis and malaria. The idea is to provide a breakthrough in what typically required extensive cost, lots of lab work and long examination to be replaced with a low cost and easily administered solution. The application is very similar to taking a sample of mucous or saliva; this is sort of like a pregnancy test. We collaborate with large industrial partners such as GE Healthcare and hopefully we’ll be able to produce a commercially viable product in time.

TV:  How are AVR Microcontrollers being used with the Arduino in your cosplay costume

ML: I use the ATmega168 (via the development and application of the Arduino Duemilanove board) for this costume. The microcontroller is used to control the color, power and timing of the lights on the costume through shift registers. The cosplay costume using this controller chip is the one pictured here.

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I also use the ATmega328 (via the Arduino Uno/Uno R3 board) for the lab projects previously described.  Specific tasks for the controller include driving the position and timing of a servo motor and/or linear actuator, as well as switching power on and off from an AC wall socket to a high powered, wide spectrum LED light source. Additionally, it was also used in a costume where it again controlled color, power and timing of LED’s, but these were driven using normal (non shift register) PWM signal controls. My costume using this controller chip is pictured here:

Figure 6: Photos by Mike Vickers

Figure 6: Photos by Mike Vickers

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This is the ATmega32uF (via the Arduino Micro board) for my current project (in progress) that will be used for motor control.

 

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* Mel’s costume is an original design inspired by a wide range of cyberpunk/fantasy artists including Masumune Shirow, Eric Canete, Joe Benitez and various modern gaming concept art. According to Mel, the process was a lot of fun and took approximately three months of on-and-off planning and building. The assembly is made from over 60 parts designed in Solidworks and sewn/cut/glued/laser-cut/heat-formed using various techniques. The costume includes color changing LEDs on the spine and front that are controlled by Arduino boards with Atmel AVR and ARM microcontrollers and onboard RGB controllers (respectively). The costume is powered by 16 AA batteries, 1 LiPo rechargeable battery, two 2032 coin cells and one 9-volt battery. In total, there are more than 70 LED’s on the entire costume and over 60 parts.

** Part one of this interview can be read here.