Monday, May 13, 2013

Making mental munition: from bits to atoms to understanding

The author and his wife in front of the augmented reality Alma Mater statue at UIUC. Some of the digital statue's production was led by community fab lab organizers, which has been instrumental in producing "bits-to-atoms" outreach.

When the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign needed to remove its 13-foot, 10,000 pound statute in August, 2012, due to a botched waterproofing treatment, the administration was under the impression that the statute would be back in time for the 2013 commencement.

As these things sometimes go, the effort is taking longer than expected, and is costing much more money. The previous effort at waterproofing the statute had trapped moisture inside the statute and caused much more damage. The budget has swelled from $100,000 to $360,000, with the Alma Mater now scheduled to return to its granite plinth sometime in the 2013-2014 academic year.

Posing in front of the Alma for pictures has been a longtime tradition of UIUC newly-grads. A multi-department collaboration brought back the statute in the nick of time for graduation, which drew expertise and equipment from the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology, the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), the Institute for Computing in Humanities, Arts and Social Science (I-CHASS).

Instrumental to the restoration effort were two members from the Champaign-Urbana Community Fab Lab (CUCFL), Robert McGrath and Andrew Knight. McGrath, a retired computer scientist from NCSA, provided software integration, while Knight fabbed up a custom computer mounting solution. More on their lab in a minute.

Knight helping produce a printed circuit board using a CNC milling machine at the CUCFL.
 What came out of this imitative was an augmented reality (AR) application for iOS devices that would magically render a 3D Alma Mater statue. Simply point the iPhone or iPad at a specially-made banner on the plinth, and bam, a virtual Alma Mater.

I'll admit, I was giddy to see the virtual statue for the first time. University faculty and staff were on hand to stage photos and demonstrate the app, but I wanted my own personal digital statue on my iPad. I rushed home to pick up the tablet, and drove back to the plinth with my wife.

"How odd is it that we're more excited to see the digital statue than the real thing?" my wife said, on the way to campus.

It was absolutely true, but what did it mean? In future, would we walk around neatly-kept gardens, pointing our smartphones at vacant slabs of rock, giddy to watch digital renderings pop on our displays? Is it any more or less miraculous to witness the physical product of an experienced sculptor, or the digital handiwork of a talented 3D computer modeler?

Maybe my fascination had nothing to do with that. What McGrath and Knight from the Fab Lab help create was inherently different, because it was the act of turning a gorgeous 1929 bronze statue into digital bits, and then turning those bits into something real again. Well, virtually real.

But the Fab Lab turns atoms into bits, and then bits back into atoms all the time. Three days a week, actually. As one of more than 250 community labs that operate under the MIT fab lab standards, the it opens its doors so the public can create essentially whatever it desires, using vinyl decal cutters, 3D CNC milling machines, 3D printers, laser cutters, and more.

The C-U Community Fab Lab's mission is to promote "ingenuity, invention and inspiration by introducing learners of any age to modern prototyping and fabrication equipment." From my perspective, they've done just that, as they've helped me create custom parts for drones and environmental sensors.

A laser-cut housing for a sensor node prototype, created with the help of the folks at the C-U Community Fab Lab.
None of those things I mentioned in this website's manifesto, almost four years ago. That manifesto, like much of the earlier work posted here, focused more on the political economy of media. In other words, the forces that pull the strings and determines the information and perspectives that people are exposed to on a daily basis.

That manifesto mentions that the title for this website came from a book written by Upton Sinclair. Specifically, it came from The Brass Check, which has a chapter by the name of "The Mental Munitions Factory." In it, Sinclair wrote that newspapers, and specifically newspaper owners, are in the business of manufacturing "mental bombs."

"In every great city of Europe where the revolution took place, the first move of the rebels was to seize these offices, and the first move of the reactionaries was to get them back," Sinclair wrote. Historically, knowledge has that kind of power.

The source of that information, and therefore that power, has been moving away from "legacy" media and on to the internet for some time now. Eyewitnesses are owning the news. This is well known, but there are other fundamental shifts that aren't as well publicized.

The world has changed a great deal in four years, and so has the focus for this blog. Technologies such as unmanned aircraft, commonly known as drones, and sensor networks, are opening our eyes to new avenues of information gathering. Data journalism, once known as Computer Aided Reporting (CAR), is continuing to evolve as "big data" becomes "normal data."

In other words, it's not just about how the information is being served to you (via internet, mobile devices, Glass, augmented reality, etc). A part of the shift is how the eyewitnesses obtain that data in the first place. And more frequently, that is involving building a sensor network, mining a database, and making realtime photomaps with drones.

We've seen it with the WNYC cicada-tracking "swarmageddon" sensor network, and before it, efforts like the Air Quality Egg and Japan's post-Fukushima network of Geiger counters. We've seen it with Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science (PLOTS), doing grassroots mapping of oil spills with balloons. Groups like Canberra UAV and the DC Area Drone Users Group have brought unmanned aircraft to the people, through public engagement and workshops. And more databases are being opened to open analytics efforts and crowd-sourced reporting.

McGrath recently published a white paper which explains the goals and effects of the CUFL. And it shows that maker spaces are very well positioned to equip people with the knowledge and tools to lead the revolution in community information gathering.

"Community fab labs have much broader significance, beyond their local users and specific technologies," he wrote. "The fab lab and maker space are models of democratized technology and knowledge, which may have profound social, education, and personal effects that change communities, economies, and individuals."

"Moreover, it can be argued that a community fab lab harkened back to earlier humanist workshop traditions, reintegrating technology, art, business, and community."

Does that sound potentially as disruptive as the newspapers Sinclair wrote about? Perhaps maker spaces will become the next mental munition factories.

I would be remiss to use the words "munition" and "3D Printing" in a post without at least mentioning Defense Distributed's efforts to produce a working, 3D-printed plastic gun. CUCFL, myself, and the vast majority of people with 3D-printers have no interest in that kind of project. But there are some of us, I imagine, who are wondering whether DD's removal of the gun's digital model at the request of the government doesn't set a dangerous precedent.

What if what if each community had an open-source lab that could turn bits, to atoms, to greater understanding about the world? What if its creations were used to learn about our community and our environment?

Before the decade is through, I think we're going to find out.

A view of the desk in my home office, in the middle of a project to produce an air quality sensor node.