Pocobor.

Studiomates in the NY Times

Recently our shared studio space in Brooklyn, Studiomates, was written up in the NY Times. It’s an interesting article discussing the recent trend of people wanting to work in spaces shared with other creative types, and not isolated at home or in a coffee shop. I completely agree with that premise.

Poco-NY

Here at pocobor we’re excited to announce that we’ve recently opened a desk at a really cool collective in Brooklyn called Studiomates. It’s located in the DUMBO neighborhood right by the Manhattan and Brooklyn bridges. We’re very excited to have a presence in New York City, a city we feel is quickly becoming the technology hub for the East Coast. So if you’re in the neighborhood and want to chat, drop us a line!

Village Tech Solutions

Pocobor recently started helping out Village Tech Solutions, an awesome non-profit organization dedicated to providing affordable and relevant technology solutions to the developing world. One of the first systems they developed was the WireBridge (shown below), which is a human-powered river crossing system that has facilitated over 3 million river crossings across deep river gorges in Nepal to date.

One of their current projects is to develop Looma, which is an affordable audio-visual technology device that can provide an interactive window to the internet and access to educational content for village schools that don’t have access to electricity, computers, or even books. The portable, battery powered system integrates a projector with control wand (imagine a Wii controller) so it can act as an electronic whiteboard. It also provides an internet connection over WiFi or any mobile data network if either is available. If not, there is a wide variety of educational content (textbooks, lessons, etc.) stored locally on the device itself to facilitate learning. The system can be recharged from solar panels in villages where the electric grid is not available or is unreliable.

A team of volunteer students from Stanford, Dartmouth, Columbia, Johns Hopkins, George Washington University and Menlo School spent this summer developing an amazing initial prototype. As the fall rolled around and field testing in Nepal begins, there were a few more design tasks that Pocobor started helping out with, including developing a custom power supply for the module and a circuit board for the IR camera used to track the control wand motion.

It’s been a great collaboration and Pocobor is excited to continue helping out with such an interesting and useful project!

Pocobor in Uganda

We recently returned from an amazing two week trip to Uganda, Africa! We were there deploying a handful of product prototypes for a field study and meeting our users face to face. The image above is the site of one of the deployments, which was a typical off-grid (no electricity) village home and business. It was an amazing hands on, user-centric design experience, which gave me the opportunity to identify and empathize with the end user. An incredible amount of information was exchanged and user behavior understood in a very short amount of time. From the first deployment on, opportunities and design changes have been swirling in my head. Now that we’re back in SF we’re ready for the next phase of the project, even as field data continues to trickle in.

I enjoyed experiencing the polarity of the bustling city and the quiet and peaceful country. The capital city, Kampala, was vibrant and alive with movement everywhere. The countryside was beautiful with more rolling green hills (and Matooke, the local green plantain) then I’ve ever seen. The people were incredibly welcoming, friendly, and hospitable, which made us feel immediately comfortable and at home in both the city and the country. I’d just recommend using extra caution when crossing the road; the pedestrian in Uganda has no right of way.

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The electronics district in Kampala.

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Does it get greener than this?

Gold at Robogames!

Podium Moment Reenactment (No Flowers? How about Bamboo?)

We are proud to announce “Passage for Peace” received a gold medal in the Art Bot Competition this weekend at Robogames!

Our initial interest in participating was just to share the concept, but we are ecstatic that the judges appreciated the piece. We were extremely encouraged by the strong positive feedback from Robogames guests as well. Guests jumped, especially the kids, at the opportunity for a “Touch Exhibit” they could actually interact with instead of just admire with their eyes. I even saw numerous people circle back with friends to show off our piece and interact with each other through our exhibit from across the room.

Although the two installations were located next to each other at Robogames, guests grasped and endorsed the larger concept of installing and connecting two or more exhibits in different countries around the world. The distributed exhibits would connect people through touch, sound, and warmth across physical, cultural, and language barriers to promote Peace. Learn more at the project url: www.passageforpeace.org.

If you missed Robogames, we are continuing to show the exhibit as much as possible to get the community interested. We’ll keep you informed about the next showing, so keep an eye on this blog!

Finally, we’d like to give a special thanks to Marnia Johnston who curated the Art Bot portion of Robogames as well as David Calkins and Simone Davalos for organizing such an awesome event. Thanks!

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“Passage for Peace” at RoboGames

We’ll be exhibiting the interactive art piece we’ve been working on with KnoEnd Designs (Passage for Peace) at RoboGames this Friday, Saturday and Sunday (June 12-14) at the Fort Mason Festival Pavilion in San Fransciso. We’re participating in the Art Bot portion of the show that will feature interactive and/or robotic art. Please come out to experience our exhibit first hand and enjoy a great event for anyone with an interest in robotics or smart products!

“Passage for Peace” Website

Our project “Passage for Peace” that we developed in collaboration with Knoend Design and that we exhibited at Milan Design Week 2009 now has a dedicated website: www.passageforpeace.org. Please take a look at the website to learn more about the project details and check back in from time to time to track further project development.

What Does Pocobor Work On?

He doesn’t know, either.

Last week Akbar tackled the idea of whether the word “mechatronics” is effective in describing our field to people. However, that discussion is based on a more fundamental question – what do we actually do (i.e. what is the thing that “mechatronics” or any other word is actually trying to describe)?

Field vs. Application

To answer this question, I think it is important to first distinguish between the tools we use and the purposes we apply them towards. A good analogy might be to consider an engineer at an automotive company. Their field (the collection of tools, techniques and concepts they use to do their job) may be mechanical engineering, but their application (the project that they are working on) is a car. Similarly, I would say that mechatronics describes our field but that our applications may be much more varied.

What Is Our Field?

The literal definition of mechatronics is actually pretty straightforward – our niche lies around the intersection of mechanical engineering, electronics, and software. The semi-coherent pinwheel of death / Venn diagram shown below is a nightmare to parse but actually does a decent job of summing up the different areas that fall within our purview (with the qualification that we work on all of the intersection areas, not just the “Mechatronics” one). However, neither the diagram nor the above definition resonates in any meaningful way with the vast majority of people. Because of this, I think it is probably more effective to evangelize our field in terms of what mechatronics allows us to do as opposed to how we do it.

Mechatronics Pinwheel

Perfectly comprehensible, right?

So, What Do We Actually Work On?

Because we are a consulting firm, we work on a wide variety of applications, from cleantech projects to medical devices to consumer products to automotive systems. However, if I had to pick one common thread that links virtually all of the work we do, I would say that we generally work on making devices and systems smarter. This can involve changing the way a user interacts with something or making the device able to function more effectively independently from the user.

Because saying “make things smarter” is pretty vague, let’s consider some examples. Imagine a house that turns off the lights when people aren’t in the room to save electricity, or a coffee maker that starts brewing your coffee in the morning before you get up so it is ready when you come downstairs. Picture a system that keeps track of your workouts at the gym and helps you track your progress and improve your technique, or even a Segway (by the way, all of these products currently exist). Making products smarter could mean equipping them with better communication technology so that you can control them remotely via a computer or phone. Or it could mean adding sensors to allow them to be aware of the situation around them so that they can respond in the most useful possible way. Finally, it often means integrating motors or other actuators so that the system is able to actually affect the physical world.

At the end of the day, we believe that mechatronics and its applications to smart products can enable a staggeringly broad set of improvements to our quality of life. Our goal is to get other people as excited about it as we are.

Mecha-What?

Over the last year and a half I have talked to many people about Pocobor and mechatronics. These conversations have proved to be more difficult than I expected. Some people (mostly engineers) understand exactly what we do, some people kind of understand, but a vast majority of people only take away that Pocobor is some sort of engineering consultancy and our work is probably complicated and boring.

When we started Pocobor, we knew mechatronics was not a terribly common term outside of our field and we understood we would spend a good portion of our marketing effort on actively educating people about mechatronics. We were, and still are, excited about being on the forefront of evangelizing mechatronics to the world and getting people excited about how mechatronics will shape the future by improving the products and services of tomorrow.  However, we weren’t aware how uncommon the term was, especially since mechatronics is a fairly mature field.

A Little Background…

The term mechatronics was coined over 40 years ago by Tetsuro Mori, a Japanese engineer (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mechatronics). Today, small microcontrollers are readily available from a variety of manufacturers and cost less than a couple of dollars each. People in the U.S. use mechatronic products every single day, from their cars to their microwaves to their smart phones.  Specific mechatronic engineering programs are even available from many universities, such as Professor Ed Carryer’s program at Stanford University (ME218).

So, What’s The Problem?

Given its ubiquity in our lives, one might think that people would already have a pretty good idea about what mechatronics is. And yet, for the most part, it is still unknown outside of engineering circles. Personally, I think the problem comes down to the word mechatronics itself.

Mechatronics is a portmanteau (portman – wha?) of the words “mechanical” and “electronic”. It makes perfect sense; after all, mechatronics is the blending of mechanical systems with electrical systems and software. The problem is that when most people hear mechatronics they might as well be hearing gobbledygook. It is just a jumble of letters to them. They can’t visualize how the word is spelled or decipher its roots. Even if they do happen to break the word down into mechanical systems, electronics, and software, the conversation still requires a long winded explanation of how these three fields fit together and the services we provide. This makes it difficult for people to internalize and talk about later. But even worse, it makes some people tune us out as soon as we start talking because they think what we are about to say is going to be technical and boring.

So, What’s The Solution?

This is the question we are asking ourselves at Pocobor. We like the word mechatronics. It’s not a word we just made up. It’s a real field and aptly describes what we do. However, we also need to be sensitive to the very real idea that it may be in our best interest to find a word that the general public can understand or can immediately identify with. One such example is Smart Product Design. It’s simple and understandable. However, is Smart Product Design as a term any more informative to the general public about we do than mechatronics? Because mechatronics is still unknown outside of certain circles, regardless of what word or phrase we choose to describe it will still require some explanation. I believe the solution may lie in not the word itself but in perfecting a succinct, understandable explanation..No term can be a silver bullet; there has to be a discussion.

In general, we try to tailor our message depending on our audience (engineer vs. non-technical individual, medical device field vs. clean tech, etc.) and we are  always trying out different ways to best describe Pocobor. Mechatronics is a growing field that is becoming more and more prevalent in our lives. The challenge for us is understanding how to best convey this message.

“Passage for Peace” Demonstration

A picture is worth a thousand words, so a 60 second video must be worth 1,500,000 words (assuming 25 frames per second).