It does, you know. You just have to get it hot enough.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Manhattan, Museums, and a Student Show

The day after the last class project was due we headed to Manhattan for a long weekend of museums and shows.

The highlight for me was going to the student show for NYU’s ITP school. ITP is a 2 year program in computational art and design, that is, integrating computers into art and the design process. Their mission statement actually says it is “to explore the imaginative use of communications technologies […]”, but mission statements don’t always accurately describe what people really do in a program. It was one of the reasons we were making the trip, but not the main reason and I really didn’t know what to expect given the sorts of student shows I’ve been to in the past. But I left the ITP show feeling both inspired and a little embarrassed at the quality of my own work of late.

In somewhat random order, here were some of my favorite works out of the ~100 that must have been on display:

Felted signal processing: It turns out that felt made from wool and steel wool has interesting electrical characteristics and can be used to control music effects in realtime. Best business card: email address on a slip of paper stapled to some wool.

EMBrace, a tool for translating Hertzian space to the physical space. I wish I could have worn it around a bit just to see how it worked, but the demo was pretty informative.

soft pneumatic exoskeleton, which is exactly what you’d expect, given the name. I stumbled across Che-Wei Wang’s website a few months ago while looking for Arduino information. The guy is not only a machine, he has one of the best student websites I’ve seen recently.

networked wildfire dectors. Networked, self-organizing wildfire detectors that are simple enough to distribute as a kit for kids to build in school. I wonder how many real-world, useful, no artsy-bits-at-all projects like this come out of a typical first-year ITP class project. If you’re in a wildfire-prone area and involved with a childrens’/science museum, you need to work with this guy. (I’m talking to you, Oakland and SoCal.)

We also hit a few museums: Cooper, the Met and the MOMA. The MOMA show, “Design and the Elastic Mind” was half the reason for this trip, and it didn’t disappoint. Thankfully, the MOMA didn’t enforce an idiotic “no-cameras” rule, so I got a lot of good photos to go along with the catalog that I bought. Their permanent collection is also pretty amazing, so I was able to take a lot of useful photos for my swipe file. If you couldn’t make the show, the catalog for the exhibit is totally worth the money. I bought one just because it had so much more information than the little placards by the exhibits. (Also, I think I’m going to try and get everyone I know who had work in the show to sign my copy on “their” page…)

I’d never been to the Met before, so just being in the physical building was cool, like the first time I went into Grand Central Station. You spend your entire life seeing these places in the movies but being there is completely different and not something that could easily be replicated with VR. Your eyes have to physically re-adjust and focus at things that are much father away than things typically are in a building. Sadly, the reason we went to the Met — the superhero costume exhibit — was a bit underwhelming. It was mostly fashion that’s already been on catwalks grouped with a handful of famous costumes. Of course, the Met banned photography for this exhibit, so I couldn’t get any good photos of the famous costumes on display. Adding to the annoyance, the catalog for the show was iffy at best. However, the massively amazing collection of stuff the Met has made up for the superhero exhibit and I was able to get a lot of reference photos of medieval and Japanese art.

And the Cooper? Disappointing, but that’s partially my fault. I’d just assumed that their extensive collections were at least partially on display, but they aren’t. You have to contact them at least two weeks in advance and make an appointment. Had I known that, maybe I’d have had a chance to see something cool, but instead I ended up paying to see the three current exhibitions, two of which did nothing for me. The vast majority of the space was used for a Rococo (my least favorite period?) exhibit while the “product sampler” exhibit (what a cool idea) was stuffed into the basement (bad idea).

Due to poor planning we didn’t get to go to the Museum of Sex, but maybe next trip out we’ll manage it.

The rest of the trip was fun — we did obligatory things like shopping in soho, riding the trains and going to Times Square on Saturday night where we got trapped in massive crowds there to see Will Smith shooting a movie. The new Kinokuniya is way cool, the W Court is a great hotel, and almost every meal we had was excellent. It must be terrible having to decide between Nobu and Blue Ribbon Sushi when you want to go out for a treat. On the other hand, Hane Sushi (on 3rd at 38th) at half the price, was probably three-quarters as good as either.

As much as there is to do and as much fun as it is, I don’t think I could ever live in Manhattan. To begin with, I didn’t realize that automobile horns are legally a “deadman switch” in NYC and that you have to keep honking or your car will automatically turn off. And I get that space is at a premium, but damn things are crammed in tight. I used the restroom in one cafe where I could barely get in past the open door then close it behind me, and I’m not what anyone would consider overweight. Much of the city reminded me of the military submarine and ship tours I’ve been on — no wasted space and get used to being up-close-and-personal with people every moment you are not in your bunk.

The cost of visiting Manhattan might be quite expensive in the long run. We made reservations a couple of weeks in advance, so we got a table at a decent time at Nobu. I had the omakase at Nobu paired with a dry nama nigori — an amazing meal worth every last penny. So now that I’ve been to Morimoto and Nobu, I need to get to Japan and have omakase at Kaishoku Michiba and Koumei Ariake so I can decide for myself who truly is the best Iron Chef Japanese.

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posted by jet at 21:03  

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Desktop Fabrication vs. The Future of Design

Ok, so that’s like an entire PhD thesis or book, and I’m not up for writing that just yet.

What I am up for is explaining how desktop fabrication — 3d printers, laser cutters, cnc — is changing how I think about designing and making things.

I’m making this bracelet/armband/forearm protector thing as part of a random project that I’ve been wanting to do for ages. The short of it is, “what could I do with a full-on PC strapped to my forearm? Would it be useful or would it just be annoying?” Instead of what I used to do — just go make something — I’ve decided to approach it using a formal design process. I’m doing lots of sketches and variations, writing lists of requirements, coming up with “negative examples” of things I don’t want to do and so on.

Over the weekend I was sketching out how it would actually attach and started to look at all sorts of straps and elastic bands and then it hit me — I’ll just 3D print something that fits my arm nicely and put a little clip on it. It doesn’t need to have any sort of super-flexible adjustments to fit a wide range of people, anyone who wants one can just print out an attachment part that fits their own arm.

It was one of those “duh” moments, but to be honest, but this is what the future is going to be like in terms of design and manufacture.

Until now, bespoke manufacturing has usually been very expensive or time consuming (or both). Example: I just bought a nice pair of boots and paid an extra $75 over retail to have them custom made to fit my feet. I traced my feet, took some measurements, sent them off to the company, and 3 months later I got a nice pair of boots in the mail. Three months ago I could have bought the same pair of boots in the store and taken them home immediately, but I was willing to wait 3 months and pay an extra $75 for a perfect fit.

So, it’s 5 years from now and I decide to buy some new sunglasses to celebrate the start of summer. I walk into REI or Sunglasses Hut or wherever, look through their catalog, try on a few pair to see how things look. Then, instead of settling for the one that both fits best and looks best, I just pick the one that looks best and wait for them to print one out, customized for my particular facial structure and difference in ear heights. (That latter thing is a real PITA for some of us, nothing like walking around with your frames mismatched to your eyebrow line to make you feel like a real dork.) Or maybe I find a pair I like and pay a little extra to have the clerk behind the counter change the color. (Or, just as likely, I slip the clerk a $20 and they print a knock off of a designer frame, one that has an expensive licensing fee, using a pirate dataset the clerk downloaded from the Internet.)

It doesn’t stop there — pretty much anything you can make out of plastic or metal is going to be easily made on the desktop by someone with typical blue-collar training and skills. Business models are going to have to seriously change to adapt to this new way of thinking about the design/manufacture process. If you’re old enough to remember when the all-in-one color photo developer/printer machines came out, you also remember how much cheaper/easier it was to get your photos printed at the drugstore than at the pro photography store. The same goes for flat-bed scanners and desktop printers — I don’t need to run down to the copy shop to make a few copies, I can just do it here at home. Take that convenience for 2D media and translate it to 3D. I just broke the the little plastic knob on my stand mixer — do I mail order one from KitchenAid or do I stop in at the 3D print shop on the way to work and have them dupe one for me? Or maybe I use the 3D duper we just bought for the office and hope the boss doesn’t mind…

Things are going to change. They’re going to change in (I hope) wonderful ways that we can’t even begin to predict.

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posted by jet at 12:25  

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