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 which six teams of inventors have 72 hours to conceive and build an invention based on a given theme - Fienup and the rest of his crew 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 taunt,” 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 $10,000 prize, for coming up with Autoloop, an 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 their win was, the MB Labs guys can and have done more—much more—than create a nifty one-off musical novelty. MB Labs is part of the “maker movement,” a steadily growing phenomenon perhaps best described as the technological face of DIY culture.
In simplest terms, Fienup says, “a maker is someone who builds something physical,” but those somethings tend to be mechanical and technological in nature; think the Mythbusters guys, not Martha Stewart.
For MB Labs—a fluctuating group whose 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, 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 still a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. “We try to add design or personality to everyday objects.”
Like what? Well, there’s Scout Alarm, a home security system that can be controlled by smartphone, requires no monthly fee, and is so customizable that it can be used to guard anything from an exterior window to a liquor cabinet.
Facilitating all these goings-on is yet another business—Catalyze Chicago, a West Loop co-working space for “hardware entrepreneurs” founded earlier this year by Fienup, Billions, Moon, and their colleagues Dave Hull and Kyle Sowards. Visiting the facility is like strolling into Willy Wonka’s workshop, if Mr. Wonka trafficked in sprockets and gears instead of Everlasting Gobstoppers.
While a lot of serious, potentially lucrative work goes on here, so does a fair amount of goofitude. On a nearby wall hangs last year’s qualifying project, an installation called “Persistence” that consists of a 6-foot, LED-laden robotic arm that draws on a phosphorescent canvas. Users could submit drawings on the Persistence site, and the robotic arm re-created them in glow-in-the-dark form on the canvas.
“Most of the submissions have been either really neat designs or drawings of cats,” Billions says, “though when we had just gotten the website up, we were all sitting in a dark room watching the canvas and tapping out code, and a 6-foot penis shows up. I tell the story to my mother later, and she’s like, ‘Oh, that was me.’ ”