Bill Fienup and his colleagues are fast, but they’re not furious. Maybe that’s why, after finishing last year’s entry for Red Bull Creation – a nationwide annual competition in America in which six teams of inventors have 72 hours to conceive and build an invention based on a given theme. They calmly stood around and drank a couple of beers, rather than pointing out to their still-working competitors that they had finished a full 90 minutes early.
“We didn’t gloat,” says Fienup, a tall, cleft-chinned, poker-faced 33-year-old mechanical engineer known for attending Halloween parties in an amazingly functional homemade Inspector Gadget costume. “That’s not really our style. ”Whatever their style was, it worked. Fienup’s Chicago-based team, MB Labs, won Red Bull Creations, and the US$10,000 prize, for coming up with Autoloop, a musical instrument that allows users of any age or skill level to make sounds by putting marbles onto a sensor-laden table. “The judges were blown away by the complete re-imagination of what a synthesizer and musical output device could be,” said Greg Needel, the competition’s head judge, at the time.
As gratifying as it was to win the contest with a novelty music item, the members of the MB Labs team have set their sights on greater prizes. MB Labs is part of the maker movement, a growing technology-based DIY culture. This new breed of makers create and invent using both artisan and modern methods.
It’s a broad umbrella term, but in simple terms, Fienup says, “a maker is someone who builds something physical”. Those somethings tend to be of a mechanical or technological nature. Think of a DIY nut who discovers things like open-source learning, computer-aided design and 3D printers. There are plenty of them, and they often meet up and share ideas at Maker Faires or through Make magazine.
MB Labs’ core members include Fienup, software engineer Josh Billions, new-media artist Harvey Moon and electrical engineer Daniel Lindmark. Going to the next level means working together, not just to prepare for the next Red Bull Creation event in July, but also as a full-time product development consulting firm. “If you have an idea for a project that involves hardware, but don’t have the expertise to pull it off on your own, we’re your people,” explains Billions, who, with Moon, launched MB Labs in 2011 while studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “We try to add design or personality to everyday objects.”
One of their projects is Scout Alarm, a home security system that can be controlled via smartphone, requires no monthly fee and is so customisable that it can be used to guard anything from a bathroom window to a liquor cabinet. Facilitating all this is another business in itself. Earlier this year, Fienup, Billions, Moon and colleagues Dave Hull and Kyle Sowards funded Catalyze Chicago, a collaborative workspace for hardware entrepreneurs. Visiting the facility is like strolling into Willy Wonka’s workshop.
While a lot of serious and lucrative work goes on here, so does a fair amount of goofitude. On one wall hangs last year’s Red Bull Creation qualifying project, an installation called Persistence consisting of a 1.8m LED-laden robotic arm that draws on a phosphorescent canvas. Users submit drawings on the MB labs website, and the robotic arm re-creates them in glow-in-the-dark form on the canvas. “Most of the submissions have been either really cool designs or drawings of cats,” says Billions, “though when we launched the website, we were all sitting in a dark room watching the canvas and tapping out code, and a 6ft penis shows up. I told the story to my mother later, and she was like, ‘Oh, that was me.’”