Interview with Star Simpson, part 1: High Voltage Innovation

March 8, 2011

Star Simpson is an open source hardware addict, electrical engineering and computer science student at MIT. Her lifestyle is prototyping, innovating, building things, making devices and hackin’ some wearables.

Star is well known as a team member of the Intellectual Ventures, MITERS, and MonkeyLectric projects.


Photo above: Star Simpson during her lecture in Mama
Photo by Tom Medak (cc)
Photo bellow: Star Simpson by Nick Vu taken from Star’s Facebook

Her wearable device is the reason why she was arrested in 2007 at the Boston Airport, while innocently waiting her boyfriend to get off the plain, wearing a hoodie with breadboard and green lighting LEDs in front running on 9 Volt battery. The shirt had written on the back ‘Socket To Me’ and bellow ‘Course VI’ (reference to her MIT class), and was actually in the moment of her arresting an unfinished project for the MIT.

Star certainly hasn’t been invited here for an interview just because of that incident with the police and the court, but for her innovative and new projects she did in last few years.

I met Star in December during Hacklab Moravice weekend event titled ‘Nothing will happen‘. After Moravice she gave me practically private Arduino programming lesson before her lecture within the programme G33koskop at the net club Mama in Zagreb. I have to admit that Star’s pedagogical process was one the best I’ve ever been exposed to.

Therefore, I’m very happy having such a radiant, young innovator and maker on Body Pixel…


Photo: Star Simpson at Minneapolis Sculpture Park, taken from F-book

Hi Star! So, what was the first thing you’ve built up?

SS: First thing I’ve built? I mean this is really hard question. I remember I would play what I called Erector sets. These are kits with drawings that you can follow to build like models. I also remember like very early I would draw things I wanted to build. I would draw like how they should get put together. I don’t remember when I like transitioned from drawing things in my head to building things my own stuff. But let’s say I was playing with Erector sets from when I was like 5 or so.

What was your high school years in Hawaii like?

SS: My high school was pretty cool. I went to a boarding school and one of the best parts is that it had a robotics team. So, this was an engineering team where we build a robot in 6 weeks to enter the competition. And by robot I mean something with wheels, motors, and arms that can move things around.


Binary Themes taken from Fedora project

That was the moment when you have entered into programming and processing things…

SS: Right! I got very shallow introduction to programming back then. Mostly what I learned then was how to solder electronics, how to assemble mechanical things, how to machine. I also worked in the summers between years at high school in optics lab making telescopes, so I got that reinforce rather well by doing machining during the school year.

I find very interesting in this thing you have mentioned on your lecture that when you were fresh at MIT you have discovered a laser cut. Laser cut is now more mainstream… people like to have them in their studio…

SS: Yeah! It was super fan. Because here is a brand new tool, and working on it’s not only entrancing but you can imagine something and draw it, and basically print out that part. You know that’s the effective chain of making it.It’s incredibly quick to go from imagining something to having it in your hand. That’s really powerful. And at the same time you also have the feeling of like this is something that I wouldn’t otherwise have access to. This is a glimpse of the future at the same time.

Could you describe me a little bit your wearable technology project, because you haven’t made only a shirt with breadboard and LEDs, but you have also participated in many other projects, and with MITERS… I’m very interested in other stuff you did…

SS: Sure. I built like a hat sensor to show when it was like cold or hot out with changing the colour of the LEDs. I have back off from wearable technology electronics a little bit, because of the incident at the airport. But I also worked on the project, actually a research project with MIT, where we put sensors all over the back of your shirt which would then tell a computer what shape your back was while you were sitting.

The idea was to help you passively re-learn how to sit, so that you would have a healthier posture. That would be a faster way to learn how to sit then anything near, than trying to remember it faster than having like a rule minder’s pop up. This would just ping you to work on it, while you are doing other things at the same time.

That was quite cool. And that’s my first concept in a sense of networked sensors and 3D modelling and sensing in clothing; electronics in clothing, clothing that can be active electrically and electronically.

You know, it changes you, changes you role when you are in, and helps you understand the world you are in in a different way. Or interact with things that aren’t even around right now. Like my friend Nadia built a shirt that’s interactive with the internet, and you can click buttons on the internet and then her shirt buzzes. This is a transformation from the intangible to the tangible, and the tactile.

What do you think would be interesting in this field, because I remember when I was interviewing Syuzi Pakhchyan, she answered me that she’s very interested in solar energy, because the idea of recharging your clothing seems pretty awkward. What kind of technology and energy should we use besides solar? For instance, we can’t be sure for now if cell phones are dangerous or not. We’ll know that in like 50 years, when we’ll see all the consequences. What do you think in what direction wearables are going on, in the context of sustainability, natural materials?

SS: Well, let me answer that question about sustainability and wearable technology by backing up a little bit, and also there is a variety of perspectives on wearable technology that exist. Well, my attitude to clothing is very functionalist.

This is definitely in expression of my personality as an engineer, that I will wear clothes that have pockets, over carrying what they look like. So, that’s another reason why the sweat shirt I build with the breadboard on it is really a functional project, but obviously I run into some people who didn’t think it look that cool – the police.

What I have seen in the world of wearable technology from the fashion side of things is very different. It frequently comes into understanding how light can be a material that you wear. And these are cool questions as well. But I tend more to be on the side of like, you know, the practical.


Solar panels taken from New Scientist (c)

You are a cyberpunker, Star… cyberpunk is just that, just gimme this machine out, no matter of the look…

SS: (laughs) Cool, I like that! Thank you! Yeah! So, you have these two different ideas, one is electronics that you can wear, that’s mine. And the other is fashion that can be augmented by having electronics. That’s it! Small skill plus personal power tends not to be environmentally feasible idea.

Solar panels, they cost benefit of producing solar panels versus the poverty get out of them over their life time. It would be cool to wear clothing that helps people think about sustainability, but it’s not yet a situation that a solar panel in your clothes is actually sustainable, when you work out the numbers. Thus, I’m a fan of people living in sustainable ways. I would not yet make that statement by wearing a solar panel.


Tell me now something about your project with Intellectual Ventures that included shooting evil mosquitoes…

SS: It’s a fun project. I worked in the project to create fences made out of lasers called a photonic fence to interrupt the spread of the malaria parasite by shooting mosquitoes down before they can bite humans.

Is it affordable for poverty countries, cause it has been tested in Seattle? What about developing and poor countries that really have serious problems with malaria?

SS: So, the target price point is completely affordable, and it’s designed with that in mind, believe me. The designers are quite aware of what it takes to make something that would be affordable in very poverty standards, not just US standards.

Jump here for the second part of the interview with Star Simpson: Prototyping projects morph!

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