After missing her train and showing up fashionably late, Youtube sensation and self proclaimed robotics comedian Simone Giertz recently spoke to students at Brown University about the importance of building useless things. Held by Brown's Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative, Simone's lecture spoke in a humorous way to the initiative's goal of addressing social problems through developing robots that coexist harmoniously with humans. An inventor from Stockholm, Sweden, Simone bridges the gaps between robotics, comedy and various internet communities.
Unlike the creations by the Humanity Centered Robotics Initiative, most of Simone's work is not intended to be useful. In response to inquiries as to why she spends so much time designing useless things, she says "'Why?' is potentially the biggest party pooper ever." While she understands that people question the sanity behind spending hours and hours building something you're obviously never going to seriously use, what Simone questions is why nobody questions the uselessness and banality of alternatively spending the night scrolling through Facebook and social media feeds. But if you spend your evenings building robots that are meant to fail, "Suddenly people are going to ask you why and suddenly you have to have a reason."
With almost 300,000 subscribers and with some videos that have been viewed over 1 million times, Simone's work has become a pop culture sensation. Though she is known for "silly" projects, such as useless robots, Google Chrome Click Roulette, Tweelium and Soundstagram, her robotics hobby has translated easily to a full time career. As a previous Creative Technologist for engineering consultancy Punch Through, Simone directed a Kickstarter campaign for their Light Blue Bean+. In addition to producing and directing the video, she built all example projects featured in the campaign, which reached its goal of $165,000 on the first day. Simone also co-initiated a collaboration between the creative schools Hyper Island and Kaospilot. The collaboration resulted in fifty students participating in a forty-two hour long hackathon, sponsored by LEGO, that examined the future of play.
Currently Simone continues making her robots as a full time job while traveling for various speaking engagements, such as The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and co-hosting Tested with Norm Chan and former MythBuster Adam Savage.
Want to make something, but don't know where to start? Think of an idea, and learn the tools later. This approach led Simone to her first step into hardware: Chordio. The idea for Chordio was born in 2014 from a mindless strumming motion Simone found herself making on her headphone cords. This mindless motion translated in an iPhone case with retractable guitar strings that hook on to the user's belt and measure capacitive touch to transmit the data to Arduino Adafruit's Bluefruit LE through Bluetooth Low Energy that, in conjunction with an iOS app, allow users to play guitar wherever they go.
Regarding Chordio, Simone says "Ignorance is truly bliss, because if I would have understood how complicated building this project would be, then I probably would have never done it." But along the way, she learned 3D modeling, soldering, hardware programming, capacitive touch, bluetooth and iOS programming. So have the idea, and learn the skills by pursuing it. Fun fact: One skill Simone did learn was how to actually play the guitar.
Though Simone left college after only one year of studying physics, she was an excellent and duty-driven student. Like many of us, she worked hard not because she enjoyed it, but because that is what she thought she was supposed to do. However, despite the guilt that accompanies following your passions when they're divergent from your studies, she quickly realized that she is much better at doing the things she actually enjoys. "It's not that I regret spending a lot of time in school," says Simone, "It's just that I regret not spending more time on the things I was actually really enthusiastic about." The take away? Pursue what you're enthusiastic about and your work will be much more productive (and interesting.)
"What I mean by that is that good ideas might to turn out to be bad or bad ideas might turn out to be good, but you won't know unless you actually build them." The first "shitty robot" Simone ever built was the Toothbrush Machine: a robotic helmet that uses a MeArm to move the attached toothbrush that crudely moves the brush back and forth along the wearer's teeth.
Made as a joke for a pilot episode of a children's show about electronics, Simone never intended this helmet to be taken seriously. However, shortly after posting a video of her helmet on reddit, over 500,000 people had seen it and her inbox was flooded with comments telling her that even though the idea was intended to be a joke, the concept could be a game changer for those with mobility issues.
"It just blew my mind, because here I am making a silly robot and other people can find seeds in that and it can be a platform for other ideas."
Still can't decide if you should go ahead and pursue the ideas that have been lurking in the back of your mind or sitting dormant in your sketchbook? "If you find the things you do interesting there are probably other people who do too." Case in point: everything Simone has ever made. Still wondering what the point of actualizing the ideas would even be? Remember: "Creating things is a purpose in itself." Start making.
Thumbnail image courtesy of Camilla Perkins. Title image courtesy of Susan Lin via Twitter.
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I can echo Simone's words here. Go ahead and make something, then share the results. The MeArm that Simone used (well the first of its kind at least), was created in haste and was in itself pretty shitty, but I shared it anyway. Some others got interested and helped make it a product, and two years on it's my full time job.
Have ideas, make things, share. It's really quite nice.
I have to admit before reading this article, I thought that making useless products was a waste of time, money, and resources. I still think that much of Americas companies do waste a lot of their time making, marketing, and selling useless products in order to make profit. But after hearing about what Simone is doing, maybe there's a better approach to making a bunch of useless gadgets. So much of today's world is filled with useless items and gadgets, that have no purpose to anyone besides for another way to make money for someones bank account. And the truly sad thing is people feed into these products like mindless consumers always searching for the next new and life changing product. Only to be weaseled and tricked by a clever sales person to buy the new and improved gadget for the low two payments of $9.99 and finding out it's not exactly what they thought.
In my contemporary issues in design class we talked about how so much of today's market is filled with useless products and technology. These big wig companies seem to push out products faster than they can realize what the benefits are. They're so focused on trying to revolutionize the world, that it seems like engineers and designers are pushed to try and put everything they know and seen into one simple thing. It doesn't work like that, you can't put touch screens and hands free on every product you sell. Even worse these companies don't seem to think about the risk or harm these products can do to people or the economy. I see this taking effect all around America, with no human interaction check outs and cashiers popping up in almost every grocery store and now even fast food counters. I understand it's use, its faster for customers, its suppose to make things easier and these touch screen robots aren't suppose to screw up. The thing people tend to forget is that humans created these devices and like always humans are flawed and so are the things we make. many times these machines have malfunctions during the users operation of them, making it extremely irritating and time consuming for them. The major concern is the elimination of human interaction and the loss of jobs. For many big companies its easier to repair and pay someone to fix machines than it is for them to actually pay a worker. They eliminate hard working peoples jobs because why not everyone loves technology, why not implement that into everything we do?I find it super interesting the way Simone goes about her robotic work, She creates all these robots not because she wants to sell or make profit off everything she invents, but because she actually enjoys doing what she does. I totally agree with her statement about how no one questions when people today spend hours on ends on social media, but all of a sudden people tend to think your crazy and foolish if you spend your time making things that have no purpose or have not yet found purpose. Now I totally agree with Simone's approach to making useless robots or products, but when companies start to do this and start trying to make big money it begins to get out of hand, there's already a bunch of useless products out there already. Just a little bit ago Samsung phones did something along the lines of this. They were releasing their newest samsung note phone to compete with the releasing of the iphone 7. Samsung decided to rush their design and engineering and all hell broke loose after they released the phone. All around the world their phones were com-busting and exploding. They eventually had to call back all of the phones and they had to go back to the drawing boards, it was useless. They spent so much money, time and resources on something that wont even be used. If they would have made the product and tested it before hand seeing what the flaws were and what was working, than maybe the phone would have turned out to be a success. That's why Simone's process works, she invents robots for the pure fun of inventing and she knows most of the robots she makes are useless, but every so often her robots might actually have a better purpose than what she thinks. her robotic tooth brush was one of those inventions, at first just being a joke, but come to find out thousands of people were telling her that it could actually help people with mobility disadvantages. Its amazing and just down right awesome, Simone says it best "go home and build some useless things, because than you might build some useful ones". Companies and people need to take the Simone approach to creating and design new gadgets and products. and instead of just pushing out one more useless product out into our economy in order to hit it big, they should start coming up with a bunch of ideas and theories and prototypes until they stumble across something that just might be useful to people.
"pursue what you're enthusiastic about and your work will be much more productive and interesting"