Interview with Star Simpson, part 2: Prototyping projects morph!

March 8, 2011

This is the second part of the interview with Star Simpson: Prototyping projects morph! Read the first part of the interview here: High Voltage Innovation


Photo above: Star Simpson by Jeff Lieberman, taken from F-book
Photo bellow: Star Simpson, taken from F-book

Let’s talk a little bit about Arduino…

SS: Arduinos are quite cool, and I like them because they make electronics so much more accessible. In fact, I can say the Arduino accomplish the goals I had when I wanted to spread open source hardware and make electronics more accessible. They are fabulous. I had already started programming micro/controllers to see and assembling before Arduino was out.

If Arduino had been out then I would probably have started with it, but it wasn’t. So, now I’m already like at another level beyond the Arduino. I still use the Arduino when I need to prototype something very quickly. I love them for like sharing electronics. They are also really great in like company setting. Whereas, previously you would need custom hardware for every project you did.

Now, you can just plug Arduino into it. Everyone can get them. They are available and open. You can make them! If Arduino ever goes out of business, you can just make more. And, now the process of running your project with the embedded controller doesn’t have to be, you know, custom. You can just have a bunch of Arduinos and keep the code around. And you can say that this is the code that runs this project! That’s really powerful!


Arduino Motor Shield
Taken from

Your approach is very practical, tell me something about this relation between low tech and high tech, because you belong to hardware hacking scene… it’ seems like people are rediscovering these very basic, simple, plain techniques and combining them with sophisticated technology that is affordable…

SS: Low tech and high tech?! I mean, I guess for me my life has been a process of building things and trying to improve my ability to build them to the point where they are complex, integrated and you might say commercial quality things. So, in that sense I don’t see low tech and high has been at odds. Rather, it’s just… you know, these are all approaches towards making things you can imagine into realities.


Monkey Light

Could you describe me a little bit your working processes… especially after you have said to me how the whole thing had started in your childhood… I’m not necessarily referring to the Mosquitoes project… any working style…

SS: When I have an idea I immediately write it down. If I think it’s an idea I might work on, I will spend more time on it and I will draw it. I will try to make sure that I have a really clear imagination on it. That helps me stay inspired about it. If it’s an idea that I don’t want work on right away, I have a wiki that is my private, and I keep lots of idea in the back log that I might work on some day.

Sometimes, I’ll read over them and get re-inspired or think of new things also. If a project is something I’m gonna start now or in the new future, I would make a sort of sketch like a schedule and start working on it. The cool thing about working on projects on your own is that they really morph.

They really change as you like get your hands on the real thing. Like see how it really works, so test out this thing you thought might be possible and find out either it is, but like with modifications, or it isn’t. Things always change and get addictive at every step as you push forward on them.


Star Simpson, Experiments with light art, taken from F-book

What are your inspirational triggers?

SS: It can be any variety of things. For instance, I love the tending of Burning Man, because I feel like it’s a show case for really good engineering and really cool projects. Today, I went to an art museum and I thought off like a couple things I thought would be cool to build. So, you can predict.

Myself, I have to carry notebook with me at all times, because you know if I could say OK it’s four o’clock and I’m gonna have an idea, things are gonna be simple, but ‘s not. You have ideas anywhere and anytime, they don’t wait for schedule. Can you predict it?! I don’t think you can predict it.


Introduction to Star’s lecture by Marcell Mars in Mama
Photo by Tom Medak (cc)

You have great and interesting pedagogical approach, I feel like after two hours of working, I learned a lot… Do you think that scientists and engineers should be more clearer when they are explaining these technology issues to people who are not engineers, as myself… to people that like to play with tinkering…

SS: There is some debate for example in open source hardware, whether it’s the role of the hardware designer to make sure and be responsible for other people understanding it and educating people. I tend to lean that way.

I think it’s an honour to make something that someone else can see how it works and can get inspired from. I’m a strong proponent of clear human communication. It’s a personal interest, all of it fascinates me.

So if you think, I would say my style involves a lot of, you know, making things that other people can see, use, understand and learn from. As for us, scientists and engineers on the whole, it’s definitely within the science. Definitely there is a strong prerogative for scientists to make sure their work is understandable, so that can be tested and then checked. And within engineering I would love to see more. It’s something I value.


Ubuntu 3D logo by Olivier Saraja (cc)

I don’t want to bother you a lot with the incident from the airport in 2007. What was like the reaction at MIT, I saw photos with students and professors protesting in Boston, and the media reacted just to have a story…

SS: MIT has a long history and a strong culture of supporting people who build stuff. And I think we became a little bit of a symbol of like someone who is building things on their own, and MIT’s public reaction with the press reaction and with the press release was one that seemed to shut off that culture. And that’s why there is a strong reaction of students and professors speaking against the pressure part.

You took a break after that…

SS: After the court case ended I left MIT for a year. And that’s when I last time was in Zagreb… I felt like I need a break from Massachusetts. I still love MIT, it’s a great place, culture changes towards people who builds stuff inside. It still has a great collection of really brilliant people that it’s great to be around. But, yeah, I did leave MIT for a year after I was arrested.


Star Simpson by Jeff Lieberman

What are your future plans regarding your own plans or with some company…

SS: I really love working on my own projects. So, I think ultimately I will find a way to work on my own projects. That’s why I was drawn to Intellectual Ventures’ invention lab. The concept of fostering a place for people who can build stuff and invent is very powerful to me. I think, anyway I can find ultimately to build the things I can think of, I will do.

Do you plan to work more in the robotics field?

SS: It depends. I worked in social robotics. Building robots to have conversations with people and express and understand emotions. You know, it’s very interesting to me, that topic interests me. At the same time I find it hard to say like I’m only interested in this one field. A variety of fields interest and inspire me. I couldn’t predict the future as to which fields I will ultimately be most attracted.

Star, Thanks a lot!

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