Monthly Archives: October 2010

Exploratorium planning for an exciting new space

I met with Dennis Bartels and Rob Semper from the Exploratorium staff since I was nearby at the end of last week, and they shared the plans for their new building, scheduled for moving into around 2013. I’m already excited for them – they’ll be taking over two full piers of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco and will be able to create both indoor and outdoor interactive experiences on a scale they’ve only dreamed of before this.

I got pretty excited just brainstorming with them all the possibilities of this, and am thrilled that this museum will be able to take on a central location in one of the hearts of the city. Anyone who has visited before knows how iconic this museum is already for San Francisco. And anyone who has tried to find its currently location or –- worse yet -– has mistakenly become routed onto the Golden Gate Bridge while trying to knows how this current location has given them problems. I’m excited about this at a time when people are realizing that informal education and the blurring of lines between formal and informal experiences for kids may be more important than ever.

Follow the progress and plans for their new building, and check out the Exploratorium’s great website while you’re at it.

Oh, and I snuck into the main museum for old times’ sake – here are some pictures and video snaps to refresh your memory or entice you to visit one of the world’s best science museums. (For the non-Flash version, check it out on our Flickr page.)

Hype Cycle 2010 is here

Gartner has published their annual Hype Cycle, a roundup of which technologies are where on the inevitable expect-too-much-too-early curve of technology hype. Gartner has characterized the typical curve along which most all technologies travel, beginning with high expectations, proceeding to disillusionment when these technologies, and then completing with a slow climb to productive use of the technologies as people recognize the few things that they are truly good for.

Gartner Hype Cycle 2010

Source: Gartner 2010

Technologies they predict have lapsed into the Trough of Disillusionment this year are Virtual Assistants and Public Virtual Worlds, both of which they say are 5-10 years from becoming adopted by the mainstream. Further along the curve are things like Pen-Based Tablet computers and Location-Aware Applications, both of which are beginning to be realized for what they can do and are about 2-5 years from mainstream adoption. Predictive Analytics is even closer to mainstream adoption, another technology with bearing on our and others’ work in education for online assessment. The analysis of the report describes that 3D printing, another topic we’ve discussed here recently, is “not yet widely used,” but can “provide significant value when used appropriately.”

In light of Google’s surprise announcement yesterday, it’s also interesting to note that autonomous cars are listed as barely climbing the initial curve, and more than 10 years from mainstream adoption.

Read Gartner’s release about the 2010 Hype Cycle to learn more.

The Internet of Wood

Though it’s been a couple weeks since my trip to Maker Faire, I still haven’t shared a number of interesting things from this and the conference the following day. First of all, I need to share one of the coolest must-have things at the Faire. The ShopBot. This is truly a transformative device, and is any carpentry geek’s dream come true. Put simply, it’s a wood CNC machine. Even more simply, it’s a router, dust vacuum and platform with a USB plug. And it can turn your dreams into real plywood in no time flat. Here, you can see it doing a number on some MDF – 3D shapes very easily done. The price? Only about $5,000 for a starter version, which really seems like a steal when you see all they can do.

Shopbot milling in MDF

When I first walked by these at Maker Faire, I saw them cutting out jigsaw-like shapes. Thought it was interesting, but didn’t pay it much mind. However, by the afternoon, I understood the significance.

ShopBot-created building blocks
ShopBot-created building blocks

These jigsaw shapes were giant building blocks, and toddlers and adult alike were having a blast making all types of little buildings and shapes.

ShopBot-created building blocks

The concept really hit home the next day, though, when Dale Dougherty dragged a scale-model building on stage at the MakerEd workshop the next day.

He described that this was a scale model of a building designed to be earthquake-proof and used in crisis locations like Haiti. it is made of pieces that pack flat into a pile about two feet high. The idea is that a larger version of these could be made as instant, snap-together shelter for earthquake areas. Or, better yet, you could just put a ShopBot, a generator, and a stack of plywood into a container and drop off the whole thing. They’d be turning out huts on the ground in a matter of a day or so.


The coolest thing was Dale’s reason for bringing this out to the MakerEd workshop. He described that one of the barriers to developing Maker culture in every town around the country was just the lack of a building to tinker in. But what if this building was designed to be a Maker Shed, with some workbenches on the sides and open plans online? Any high school kid (or younger) could download the plans, chug them into a ShopBot, and turn out a full-size shed within a couple days for just the cost of plywood and some tarps for the ceiling. Find a couple hundred square feet on the school grounds, and Bam – instant Maker Club workshop.

This idea got me quite excited, as does the potential for this type of automated construction. 3D printing and the ShopBot do some of the things transformative technologies do best – take a part of the process and remove it entirely, changing the nature of what’s left. In the case of probes and sensors two decades ago, we helped show that real-time feedback through technology could bring students closer to learning the actual science in their investigations and foster great learning in the process. With technologies like these, where sharing and reproducing real-world objects is as easy as clicking a mouse, students come immediately closer to the design and engineering process and are able to think at whole new levels about these important skills. When it takes a student two weeks to see your design come to fruition using a handsaw and sandpaper, the work becomes about the process of creation. When a student can create models in her mind one minute and hold them in her hand by the end of the period, she is freed to think about how to make her design better, or what new ideas could be created. In that same two weeks, she can now redesign a project a dozen times, and riff off other students’ – or even professional designers’ – work.

Cars that drive themselves, courtesy of Google

Apparently, Google has been secretly making cars that drive themselves. They have logged over 140,000 miles of self-navigation and over 1,000 miles of navigation entirely free of human intervention, all on regular roads, including travels on highways, regular streets, and even down the famously twisty hills of Lombard St. in San Francisco.
Partial infographic about autonomous cars

The New York Times says that the most optimistic estimates are that this technology is eight years from market. I say it can’t come soon enough – it feels as I’ve been waiting for this for decades. Still, it’s pretty astounding to think that even with an almost doubled estimate of this technology’s availability, most of our current Concord Kids might never need a driver’s license.

Using all that free time: Putting cognitive surplus to work

I caught up on a few TED talks while descending into San Diego (Thanks, Virgin America!) One of them was the latest from Clay Shirky. Love that guy. In his TEDCannes talk on cognitive surplus, he describes that the world has over one trillion hours of free time each year to commit to shared projects.

Of course, as he describes, much of this shared work doesn’t amount to much more than new LOLCats, but even this, he argues is an important step: any contribution moves a person from consuming to creating, and crossing that barrier is key. More importantly, there are projects that are of true civic value. These, he mentions, have civic value

…created by the participants, but enjoyed by society as a whole…And we can see that organizations designed around a culture of generosity can achieve incredible effects without an enormous amount of cultural overhead

This is true for projects like the communally spread crisis-mapping software Ushahidi he describes, and also for any other open source software, one of the reasons we’ve long been proponents of open-source ideals for our work. Beyond this, however, other creation comes to mind: what might these trillion hours be able to do if seized by individuals to map environmental information? Or work to contribute individual portions of a solution to a complex mathematical problem? Or design and integrate individual parts or systems to a grand, crowdsourced engineering problem. I’ve long purported that there are few weapons more powerful in the world of new ideas than copious amounts of free time in the hands of a bored teenager. Groups of them engaged in amazing crowdsourced projects would have the potential to make huge contributions to both learning and societal good.

Watch Clay Shirky’s video below – guaranteed to be among the best 13 minutes you’ll spend this week.