The Obama Administration this week announced $140 million in federal funding for two new innovation hubs, one in Detroit and the other in Chicago. The Chicago institute, headed by the University of Illinois through their UILabs initiative, will focus on digital design and manufacturing. It involves several other universities and companies and has room for several more partnerships aimed at creating new manufacturing opportunities that take advantage of advances in computer-aided design and manufacturing. It is an exciting development that will likely spur further innovation in the already energetic development climate Chicago offers.
That same day, a few Computer Science students and I serendipitously found ourselves in downtown Chicago for a startup-themed event called Technori Pitch. Technori Pitch is a monthly event that aims to raise the profile of promising startup efforts in Chicago. The event features five new startups each month by giving their entrepreneurs an opportunity to present their nascent companies to an audience of about 500 people. In the audience are other entrepreneurs, developers, consultants, and potential investors, who listen as the starters pitch their ideas in presentations worthy of airing on Shark Tank.
When we attended this week, we saw presentations on a variety of startup ideas, including a system that monitored the health of a fish tank using sensors that communicate with an iPhone app, and new healthy meal delivery company, an inexpensive and lightweight alternative to jet skis, a $75,000 highly maneuverable hovercraft, and a nostalgic gramophone-shaped speaker system that connects to smartphones and tablets via Bluetooth. Some of these ideas have already garnered significant startup funds on Kickstarter, others are self-funded, and others are using a mix of capital from various sources to get to the point where they are ready to hit the market. It was a fascinating and exciting set of presentations. You could feel the energy in the room, the sense that at least one of these ideas is going to be a game changer and will make its creators fabulously wealthy.
The theme of this month’s Technori was, quite fittingly given Obama’s announcement earlier that day, “The Maker Movement”. The Maker Movement is a trend in computing and manufacturing that has been gaining steam for the past two or three years and has been catalyzed by the increasing popularity and affordability of 3D printers and ubiquitous computing devices. 3D printers, such as the Makerbot 2, which we purchased this year for our new course in robotics in the Computer Science department, make creating production-grade plastic parts and assemblies possible for hobbyists and inventors an affordable reality. In our new robotics course, for example, Dr. Dominiak is working with a group of eight Computer Science students to fashion a robotic hand-and-arm assembly they are designing, building, and programming to be able to grasp objects. It is the first effort in what will likely be a multi-year offering in which we build additional robotic components.
The Makerbot, which cost about $2,400, makes a course like this possible for us to offer. More broadly, though, the advent of affordable 3D printing means that people with an idea for a product can make a mock-up of it, test it, refine it, and iterate on its design until it’s ready to take to market. In other words, the 3D printer is doing for “makers” what modern programming languages and development environments have been doing for us software engineers for quite some time.
This is outstanding news for Computer Scientists and Computer Engineers. We no longer have to focus our programming efforts to just what can be shown on a two-dimensional video display. We can tie our applications to custom designed hardware to make it move, to sense, and to react to its environment. We can remotely control and monitor these novel devices from websites, desktop applications, and mobile apps, enhancing the versatility of these tools. We can integrate our custom hardware and software packages using low-cost or open-source computer hardware solutions such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi. In other words, we can work alone or in teams to design products that integrate hardware and software together in ways that used to be the domain only of heavily funded corporate research labs.
The Maker Movement feels like a revolution, one of those historic trends that fundamentally transform how we live. Only time will tell whether it ultimately has that kind of impact. Regardless, these are truly exciting times to be a Computer Scientist, because we are at the forefront of this movement. We identify problems that need solving, use our problem solving prowess to design effective solutions, and then we write software to make those solutions come to life. Now, thanks to inexpensive and powerful computer hardware and the advent of high-quality affordable 3D printing, the range of problems we can solve is so much broader than just what can be displayed in pixels on a screen.
The distance between the next great idea and the next revolutionary product has never been so small. Computer Scientists can traverse that distance with just a few lines of code. We are on the fast track to the future. In fact, we are the ones making it.