10 July 2006

some thoughts on the cricket construction kit.

so i ran across an article on the cricket construction kit in the tech one day. or maybe it was tech talk. either way... in one of the MIT newspapers. and at first i was like, oh no... i want to do something similar... is what i want to do too similar? and then i thought about it. and i think there are some major differences in what i'm thinking of doing for a thesis vs. what the cricket construction kit does.

1) price. price price price. so expensive for that. $250!! i never would've gotten one of these as a kid. as it was growing up, LEGOs were too expensive to ever get large sets, much less a lego robotics set. with all the concerns over the digital divide between rich and poor, why aren't they trying to make something that everyone can use? or really, something that everyone can afford? call me idealistic, but i really do think that the idea of making a profit gets in the way of any good intentions.

anything i make, i want it to be affordable to anyone, something that can spread, something that can be added on to, something that will grow with the users.

i'm more of a fan of open source, open hardware, creative commons things. the product is secondary to the ideas. and when this is the case, the way you make a living is by providing support, which is much more interesting and engaging, anyway, than continuously working on hardware development. i mean, when it comes right down to it, i am limited by my own experiences and my own imagination, so any design that i come up with will also be limited. but if the design is distrubuted, and people can innovate freely, then everyone benefits from the experience of others. my dad always told me that you never can learn more than your teacher, if you only have one teacher, and i think this carries over into open source logic. with everyone bringing their own experiences and ideas to the table, more ideas get mixed together that might otherwise not have been broght together, and as a result, everyone benefits. and in some ways, a community (of sorts) develops around this. i think it's a strong concept, and more and more, i'm fascinated by the idea of the open source community and things like make magazine.

and this is one reason i like the GoGo Board. sure, it may be kinda blocky and a bit hard to put into things at times. but it's cheap. and it's meant to be innovated on. it may not have the sleek design of a cricket, but i think that's good. it hasn't been black-boxed away from the people using it. it isn't mysterious. you can build your own. you can program it. you can see the parts.

2) black-boxed. i started on point two in the previous paragraph... so carry that down. by putting the picocricket in this slick box with these fancy buttons and surface mount components, you're making it mysterious and unattainable, in some sense. sure, you can program it, but you can't add onto it, you can't see the parts, you can't figure out how it works and adapt it for your needs. for example, i think running the GoGo Board on solar power with fuel cells, like the kids at the South End Technology Center tried to do (i'm not sure if they succeeded... i think they might've), might not have happened if they had been using picocrickets instead of GoGo Boards.

3) it doesn't emphasize construction. it's not the programming that i'm interested in when i'm trying to do this construction kit idea. i want more of, as my advisor puts it, a grammar of mechanisms. building blocks for making a machine. a quick reference. something that gives the basics and maybe a few examples and then encourages exploration and building one's own ideas. i think it makes it more powerful to be able to add some interaction with your machines. but i think that the construction part should be able to stand on its own.

instead of giving instructions on how to build a specific thing, such as LEGO does, i want it to give a way of thinking about design, a way to go beyond one thing. this is something i never found in any of my (many) construction kits as a kid (LEGO, K'nex, erector set, etc), and what is what i really wanted. just some hints as to where to go. when you don't know what's out there, or what the possibilities are, it's hard to start. i mean... ideas don't come out of thin air. inventions and ideas are built out of experience... out of previously seen things... out of combining two random things in your head at the right time... out of innovating on something that's already there. same as in art. imitation does count.

(actually, as a side note, there was this nice section in this book i was reading recently on how all tools and inventions are based around stories. even if the story is "i need to do this, and i have this, so this is how i did what i wanted to do", it's still some form of story. i should remember to explore this idea a bit more.)

so, construction. construction is what i'm after. how do you learn to build things that move? how do you externalize motion from what your body knows? how do you create your own thing? and most importantly, how do you build up experience... intuition.

4) commercialized product. i'd rather it be something that people feel is their own, and i feel that the black-boxed-ness and the price detract from this, although the product is quite nice. there's something to be said for the diy aesthetic. i don't want to build dependence on a product, but instead build intuition and confidence for each individual. i want them to grow ideas. i want them to share ideas.


so where does this leave me? i want something cheap, versatile, appropriateable (ok... i made that word up. something that can be appropriated by the people using it). something that helps people develop their own intuition about building things, instead of relying on being told what to do. i want to encourage using the materials around you. i want to lower the barrier to starting to work on things. i want it to be fun. and i think that trying to build some sort of community around it is good, where kids share their ideas and experiences with each other, offer advice, etc.

maybe having some questions to ask yourself when you get stuck would be good. advice from people who've worked with similar things. a reference for the grammar of mechanisms, for which things can be soldered and which can't, for which glues can be used on which surfaces, for geometries. a reference. a guide. i don't know. encouragement for kids/people who want to build things out of cheap materials. maybe with some actual physical examples that come with it. a tool to make wire gears. pictures/drawings of real life examples of these things in action. and encouragement to explore your world.

i'm not sure of the best way to go about this. maybe i should ask kids what they discovered through working with wire... and what suggestions they might have for other people doing similar things? sigh. i think i know what i want but i'm not sure how to get there.


  1. Laura,
    I definitely get your drift... construction, just go out and do it... many of us believe that this is the only way to discover who we are and what we can do

    however I also am a little cautious.. there are several moments in my experience when mentors made a profound difference.. my grandfather gave me some opportunities that were unusual, but that is another story. The person I want to reflect on at the moment is Ricky Leacock. He, along with Ed Pincus, created the film section at MIT; people (students) came to make a movie - a special kind of movie. The students who came had a dream; the dream changed by virtue of the community but Ricky in a funny way could not see this change. He did not think of himself as a "teacher"; rather he thought of himself as a "filmmaker". A woman who met Ricky only recently and I got into a discussion about his teaching. She imagined he was a good teacher, but in the traditional sense. I counterd that... Ricky spent most of his teaching hours talking about and showing his own films; I had to stop him in order to make sure student work was seen. he gave great dinner parties for his "tribe"; students rotated, some coming more frequently than others. One learned through watching his work, listening, admiring, dreaming. I do not believe that any of us would have become as good as we became without his examples. I do not think he would have been as good as he became had he not worked for the Army during WWII and for Flaherty. Each example strengthened his dream of what filmmaking could be (remember it had yet to be fully invented - techinically or formally).

    What I am trying to suggest is that it is easy to romanicize open, unaided creativity. We all come with lots of it. However honing it requires entering into a learning cycle and learning has inputs as well as outputs. This is not to say, you need to follow a specific receipe, but it does suggest that we are often inspired by people who are on one hand like us and on the other hand very different, which is the nature of human life. Witnessing potential activity allows us to expand our imagining to an ever broader or more focused palette of possibility. You would probably not be who you are without the mud time play in your childhood and MIT's Mechanical Engineering program.
    Is the kit which engages our intutions the right way to go... definitely. Multiple input by people who play with it in the early phases will make it better and will allow you closer insight into the nature of the kit (vocabulary of the distributed group of early adopters -- fun, classy etc). With each step you will become surer about the direction you are taking. But do not rule out the idea that "the street finds its own uses for things" and that mentors or shape shifters as they are sometimes known as come in various guises but if they are true also affect the course and impact of your discovery.

  2. you're right. it is easy to romanticize open, unaided creativity. and, true, mentors have a profound impact. but i also think that peers have an equally profound impact. or maybe peers as temporary mentors... if that makes any sense. i mean... just comparing to my own experiences (seeing as that's what i know best), i know i've been deeply affected by those around me, but mainly my group of friends who were all like "screw class, let's go make cool things." which, granted, is probably not the best course to take in MIT undergrad if what you care about is your grades. but i wouldn't be me had i not done that. i think what's important, though, in some sense, is that it not be only one mentor talking down to a group of people, and that it's also important to build a sense of independence from always needing a mentor.

    maybe i should say that i really want the street to find its own uses for things, and that i want to leave it as open as possible for them to do so. and i would also like to help to build some sort of community around this, to aid in them sharing their own ideas... in mentoring each other.

    i've been trying to figure out what the next best step is, and most of the time, i think it's working with a group of students, and getting their feedback on the process. incorporating what they would like to share with others.

    i was also thinking more about this idea of a wiki/blog. particularly, the way myspace is shaped, where everyone has their own page, but is part of a larger community. maybe something like that where everyone has their own blog/space for personal ideas, and a wiki repository for information that the community contributes to. i don't know if that made any sense. like... the wiki is the hub of general information that people think is useful to have around, and the blogs carry all the specific information of individual projects. and you could search through the larger community for specific projects... and maybe there could be suggested similar projects to look at.

    hm. anyway. your thoughts are appreciated, and good to hear.

  3. before she stepped out in the rain...I agree. I would love to find another work for temporary peer mentors (TPMs)as I believe that this is an important class of people who help us on our way and who have been mostly overlooked in the literature.

    re finding groups to interact with: we discussed a small group on our farm and possibly a group at the computer club house. You could also ask Mel King. i am sure he would love to pull together a group at his place. I think it would be really fun to find a group who wanted to play a lot and grow their abilities in this area-- do you call it sculpture?

  4. one of the guys from tats cru (the graffiti/mural guys who was here for an artist in residence program a few months back) said that i'm welcome to come work at this community center in NYC that he works in/helps run, as well.

    mel king is a good idea. i think several small, manageable groups would be good to start with. people i could work with very hands-on and interactive. not so large that i can't talk to each individual and get their feedback.

    i don't know what to call it. in some sense, i feel that calling it sculpture takes away from the mechanical/moving aspect. but i feel that calling it construction or mechanisms or robotics lends itself to a different connotation and that there won't be as many girls who would be interested just from hearing the name. consculption? sculptotics? english has too many connotations.

  5. or maybe sculptanisms? artineering?

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