TED Fellows Jane Chen, David Lang and Manu Prakash pose in the Oval Office. Photo: Courtesy of Jane Chen
On June 18, the White House hosted its first-ever Maker Faire – “a celebration of all things built-by-hand and designed-by-ingenuity” – and four TED Fellows were present to show President Obama the inspiring work they are doing. From left to right: Jose Gomez-Marquez, who is designing affordable medical device hardware; Jane Chen, who built a low-cost infant warmer for premature babies; David Lang, who is building a community of citizen ocean explorers using low-cost underwater robots; and Manu Prakash, who has invented a 50-cent paper microscope and a $5 chemistry set inspired by a music box. To find out more, watch Jane’s TED Talk, “A warm embrace that saves lives.” And David’s talk, “My underwater robot.”
Still hurting for gift ideas? Never fear. The inventive and iconoclastic TED Fellows are coming to the rescue with the recent fruit of their labors. These inspired and unusual items — from Chinese-inflected banjo music to a remote-controlled underwater vehicle — are sure to delight your loved ones. Just be gentle stuffing that all-terrain vehicle into the stocking, or Grandpa George into the mushroom burial suit.
The gift: The littleBits Synth Kit Perfect for: Aspiring musicians and actual musicians
The latest ingenious offering from Ayah Bdeir’s littleBits electronic building block company lets you snap together a modular synthesizer from 12 pieces. The product of a three-way partnership among littleBits, comedian-musician-anthropologist Reggie Watts (watch his TED Talk) and famed synth maker KORG, the littleBits SynthKit can be mixed and matched with any other littleBits kits to create all manner of musical artworks and toys with sound. Get it: Order it through the littleBits website ($159)
The gift: The Muslims Are Coming!
Perfect for: The social-justice-minded comedy fiend
Comedian and filmmaker Negin Farsad‘s hilarious documentary follows a group of Muslim-American comedians as they tour Middle America on a mission to combat Islamophobia and convert it to Muslim love. Featuring Farsad, and co-produced by TED Fellow Andrew Mendelson, TMAC also features public interventions like the “Ask a Muslim” booth and the game show “Name That Religion” — not to mention special appearances by comedy heavyweights Jon Stewart, David Cross, Janeane Garofalo and Rachel Maddow. Get it: Order theDVD ($15), or purchase it via iTunes or Amazon ($9.99)
The gift: OpenROV Kit Perfect for: Explorers, your resident Jacques Cousteau David Lang and his friend Eric Stackpole wanted to explore an underwater limestone cave in California, but they didn’t have the remote-controlled robot that would make it possible. So they decided to build one — opening up the process for instructions and advice from the public. In the process, they not only invented the OpenROV, the world’s first affordable, open-source, remote-controlled underwater robot, but formed a thriving global community of underwater explorers. Get it: Buy the latest iteration of OpenROV ($849)
The gift: City of Refuge Perfect for: Fans of pop, folk and bluegrass, and folks with eclectic ears
Singing, songwriting, Illinois-born, Nashville-based, Chinese-speaking clawhammer banjo player Abigail Washburn weaves together disparate musical traditions and genres from the past and present to create an exuberant and soulful sound. Features My Morning Jacket’s Carl Bromel, the Decemberists’ Chris Funk, Turtle Island String Quartet’s Jeremy Kittell, atmospheric jazz guitarist Bill Frisell and Mongolian string band Hanggai. Get it: Available via Amazon ($14)
David Lang wants to make investigating the mysteries of the ocean accessible to anyone curious and adventurous enough to dive deep. Here, the co-founder of OpenROV — a community of citizen ocean explorers and creators of low-cost underwater robots — recounts his blistering journey from office job to fledgling maker to inventor of a robot that could revolutionize ocean exploration, education and research. And, he tells us about his newly launched book, Zero to Maker, a how-to guide for makers everywhere.
You started out on the OpenROV adventure after you lost a desk job. How did you make the leap from that to creating open source underwater robots?
Just over two years ago, I was working for this startup, writing emails, basically. When it went under, I decided to move to San Francisco because I was dating a woman up here at the time. But I also really wanted to start making stuff. I had met a carpenter, and I thought, “You can’t take carpentry away from this guy. You can’t fire him from this. It’s a skill, and it’s real.” I wanted something like that in my life.
So my goal was simple: making things. I started taking these woodshop classes and welding, and then I got into 3D printing, laser cutting.
During that time I met my friend Eric Stackpole, who wanted to build this underwater robot so that he could explore the Hall City Cave, an underwater limestone cave in the mountains of Northern California, where we’d heard rumors of treasure. I was like ‘whoa, that is so cool! Let me just tag along.’ I helped him put up a website, OpenROV, where we explained that it was going to be an open-source underwater robot, and that we needed help building it – because we didn’t know what we were doing.
We started getting great feedback and contributions from people all over the world, and we still do. It’s in the DNA of our project — the fact that this is something we’re all building together.
Did you find treasure in the cave?
No. But actually, we went back there recently, with Men’s Journal and Range Rover, to film this commercial, with a film crew and everything. It’s like a three-minute documentary. It should be out soon. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
What sorts of people were sending you information?
It’s really diverse. Some are professional ocean engineers. But a lot of them are software developers or electrical engineers who just wanted to start dabbling in underwater robots. We have a group with diverse talents. And even brand-new makers, like me, have been making contributions.
Version 2.5 — the latest iteration of OpenROV.
Why do you think people have been so enthusiastic about contributing to this idea? Do you think this represents a new consciousness of some kind?
It harks back to Clay Shirky’s idea of cognitive surplus, right? People don’t want to go home and watch TV anymore — they want to continue to use their brains and be engaged in things. I think everyone is attracted to the project not just because of the robot, but because of this sense of adventure. I think that the cave story is equally important to what we’re doing as the actual, physical robot is.
If you think about it, it’s pretty amazing that two guys in their garage can build robots and go explore underwater caves. I mean, this is a different era of exploration, when anybody can do this stuff. It doesn’t take a research grant to go out and be curious, and have pretty amazing adventures. I think it’s really exciting for everyone to consider all the potential. It’s just flat-out cool!
So essentially, you took all the information people were offering, and then you went to a maker space and cobbled it together?
Yeah! We did our first hundred OpenROVs at a TechShop. Now we have this lab in Berkeley, California, where we’re making these robots. We have a test tank, tools, everything we need.
There’ve been underwater robots in the past, obviously. So why is OpenROV a breakthrough? Is it the low cost and total accessibility?
Yes, that’s the goal. We want to make a scientifically capable robot for less than a thousand dollars. We still have a lot of room for improvement and evolution, but the rate of improvement is now really impressive. The big innovation, though, is the community. It’s not just about one low-cost robot — it’s the fact that we have this growing community of citizen ocean explorers.