Open Hardware for Open Science – Interview with Charles Fracchia

Open Science has been a long-standing ideal for many researchers and practitioners around the world. It advocates the open sharing of scientific research, data, processes, and tools and encourages open collaboration. While not without challenges, this mode of scientific research has the potential to change the entire course of science, allowing for more rigorous peer-review and large-scale scientific projects, accelerating progress, and enabling otherwise unimaginable discoveries.

As with any great idea, there are a number of obstacles to such a thing going mainstream. The biggest one is certainly the existing incentive system that lies at the foundation of the academic world. A limited number of opportunities, relentless competition, and pressure to “publish or perish” usually end up incentivizing exactly the opposite – keeping results closed and doing everything to gain a competitive edge. Still, against all odds, a number of successful Open Science projects are out there in the wild, making profound impacts on their respective fields. HapMap Project, OpenWorm, Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Polymath Project are just a few to name. And the whole movement is just getting started.

While some of these challenges are universal, when it comes to Biology and Biomedical Engineering, the road to Open Science is paved with problems that will go beyond crafting proper incentives for researchers and academic institutions.

It will require building hardware.

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Mediated Matter at the MIT Media Lab

Few things have managed to capture the imagination of hackers and engineers around the world the way Synthetic Biology did over the last couple of years. The promise of “applying engineering principles to designing new biological devices and systems” just seemed way too sci-fi to missed out on, and everyone jumped on the bandwagon. All of a sudden, the field which used to be restricted to traditional research organizations and startups found itself crowded with all sorts of enthusiasts, biohackers, and weirdos alike. Competitions such as the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) paved the way, and the emergence of community spaces like GenSpace and BioCurious finally made DNA experimentation accessible to anyone who dares to try. As it often happens, the Sci-Fi itself did not go untouched, and a whole new genre called “Biopunk” emerged, further fueling people’s imagination and extrapolating worlds to come.

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Smile Meter Reacts to Your Expressions With Pharrell’s Happy

MIT's Smile Meter

Here’s a clever use of a webcam and some facial recognition software — They call it Happy ++ and it will DJ [Pharrell’s] Happy according to how much you’re smiling (or not at all!).

It’s another project to come out of MIT’s Media Lab for a spring event this year by [Rob, Dan & Javier]. The facial tracking software was re-used from an older project, the MIT Mood Meter, which was a clever installation that had several zones on campus tracking the apparent “happiness” of the students walking by.

To create the program they’ve split up the song Happy into its various components. Drums, vocals, band, and the full mix. As the webcam recognizes a smile, it records the intensity, which in turn turns up the vocals and band. If no smiling is present there is only a drum beat.  Continue reading “Smile Meter Reacts to Your Expressions With Pharrell’s Happy”

LightByte: Animated Shutters

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Here’s another interesting project to come out of the MIT Media Lab — it’s called LightByte, and it’s all about interacting with sunlight and shadows in a new, rather unorthodox way.

We suppose its technical name could be a massive interactive sun pixel facade, but that’s a bit too much of a mouthful. What you really want to know is how it works, and the answer is, a lot of servos. We weren’t able to find an exact number but the hardware behind LightByte includes well over 100 servos, and a matrix of Arduinos to control them. While that is quite impressive by itself, it gets better — it’s actually completely interactive; recognizing gestures, responding to text messages and emails, and you can even draw pictures with the included “wand”.

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Circuit Stickers

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One of our tipsters just sent an interesting crowd funding project our way. They’re called Circuit Stickers and are a very creative way to get basic electronics into children’s hands through arts and crafts.

The project is the brainchild of [Bunnie] and [Jie Qi]. [Bunnie] is a hacker, and a Director of Studio Kosagi, a small manufacturing outfit in Singapore. [Jie] on the other hand is a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, who focuses her research on combining electronics and programming with arts and crafts. They came up with this idea to bridge the gap that exists between electronics and the arts, and the stickers are a great start. They allow anyone to learn basic electronics in a very easy and friendly way, using skills we all learned as children, drawing and sticking stickers on everything.

The current offering includes LED stickers, effects stickers (to control the LEDs), sensors, microcontrollers, and even breakout boards. They are all in sticker form, and can be connected together using  conductive fabric, thread, carbon-based paint, copper tape, pencil graphite, and really, anything conductive. They have already manufactured thousands of the stickers and everything is working as designed, so the crowdfunding campaign isn’t to raise funds to continue research, or even to start their company. It’s more of getting it out there, and getting these stickers into children’s hands to raise the next generation of hackers from a young age.

The video after the break gives a great overview of the project, and if anything we think it’ll give you some great ideas on children’s electronics projects.

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inFORM the Morphing Table Gets Even More Interactive

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Remember last week’s post on the inFORM, MIT’s morphing table? Well they just released a new video showing off what it can do, and it’s pretty impressive.

The new setup features two separate interfaces, and they’ve added a display  so you can see the person who is manipulating the surface. This springs to life a whole new realm of possibilities for the tactile digital experience. The inFORM also has a projector shining on the surface, which allows the objects shown from the other side to be both visually and physically seen — they use an example of opening a book and displaying its pages on the surface. To track the hand movements they use a plain old Microsoft Kinect, which works extremely well. They also show off the table as a standalone unit, an interactive table — Now all they need to do is make the pixels smaller… 

Stick around after the break to see some more awesome examples of the possibilities of this new tactile-digital interface. There are also some great clips near the end of the video showing off the complex linkage system that makes it all work.

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inFORM: MIT’s Morphing Table

Have you ever wished your dinner table could pass the salt? Advancements at MIT may soon make this a reality — although it might spill the salt everywhere. Enter the inFORM: Dynamic Physical Affordances and Constraints through Shape and Object Actuation.

While the MIT paper doesn’t go into much detail of the hardware itself, there are a few juicy tidbits that explain how it works. There are 900 individually actuated white polystyrene pins that make up the surface, in an array of 30 x 30 pixels. An overhead projector provides visual guidance of the system. Each pin can actuate 100mm, exerting a force of up to 1.08 Newtons each. To achieve the actuation, push-pull rods are utilized to maximize the dense pin arrangement as seen, making the display independent of the size of the actuators. The actuation is achieved by motorized slide potentiometers grouped in sets of 6 using custom PCBs that are driven by ATMega2560s — this allows for an excellent method of PID feedback right off the actuators themselves. There is an excellent image of the entire system on page 8 of the paper that shows both the scale and complexity of the build. Sadly it does not look like something that could be easily built at home, but hey, we’d love for someone to prove us wrong!

Stick around after the break to see this fascinating piece of technology in action. The video has been posted by a random Russian YouTube account, and we couldn’t find the original source for it — so if you can, let us know in the comments!

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