Is Prototyping finally entering the pop-cultural lexicon?
Where it was once an opaque techno-fabulous term used by Q in James Bond flicks, or forming the dubious core of a Star Trek episode, we've now got a word that actually has meaning for the average TV viewer. "Prototyping" arouses interest and fascination, but lately it's also started feeling accessible, like a sexier version of building a birdhouse in the garage with your dad.
Case in point: in addition to reality TV phenomena like Project Runway, Mythbusters and Junkyard Wars, all of which feature on-the-fly construction as part of the drama, we can now count Discovery Channel's Prototype This, which not only uses the term in its name, but invites viewers to submit ideas of their own. This is a marked break from the established depictions of hi-tech: people pay attention when Apple rolls out a new product, but Steve Jobs never asks viewers to suggest what they ought to be working on next.
Now it looks like Prototyping may have its greatest advocate yet, in the form of recent Carnegie Mellon grad Johnny Chung Lee, whose YouTube video explaining how to hack a Wiimote into a VR display has earned him a TED talk, a pile of job offers, and over six million views. If you haven't seen it yet, you pretty much have to stop whatever you're doing and watch it right now:
That particular demo is nearly a year old, and so doesn't constitute news. What's more notable is that the process Lee employed--invent something cool, build it, make a video explaining it--has taken off so fast it constitutes a potential revolution in modern innovation. The New York Times, in their article about Mr. Lee last Friday, notes that the YouTube video wasn't just a clever use of a recent technology, it was by far the most effective way he could've described his creation:
Contrast this with what might have followed from other options Mr. Lee considered for communicating his ideas. He might have published a paper that only a few dozen specialists would have read. A talk at a conference would have brought a slightly larger audience. In either case, it would have taken months for his ideas to reach others.
Small wonder, then, that he maintains that posting to YouTube has been an essential part of his success as an inventor. "Sharing an idea the right way is just as important as doing the work itself," he says. "If you create something but nobody knows, it's as if it never happened."
We hear a lot about the democratization of design, or the adoption of design practices in other areas, but what we're really talking about, more than anything, is iterative problem-solving; the idea, hammered into young minds at any good design school, that the most effective way to solve a problem is to make something, and see how it works. What's so exciting about Mr. Lee's videos, the growing number of gadgety TV shows, and online communities like makezine and instructables, is that they represent a happy confluence of several technologies that make this kind of iteration accessible to the interested layperson. The internet is responsible for several of these technologies, primarily the advent of discussion boards and easy access to specialized knowledge and equipment, but the Times article is correct in saying that the ability to share what you created is just as crucial.
Rock and roll in the 60s and punk in the 70s both depended heavily on easy, low-cost access to the tools necessary for making music, and the venues for performing it--it's hard to imagine Hendrix ever rising to stardom if it would have cost $5000 to buy his first guitar. In a similar way, video-sharing sites like YouTube may one day be identified as the crucial link that turned us into a world of inventors.
For a full list of Johnny Lee's videos, including one where he hacks a Wiimote into a finger-tracking computer controller, and one where he helps launch paint balloons at a Pittsburgh apartment building, visit his site here.