Persistence and Serendipity: Summer in the Hackerspace

Posted by David N. Wright on July 30, 2017

As I have covered in this space, over the last three months, the Hackerspace has been focused on two projects. One is seemingly pretty straightforward, but full of persistent trial and error. The other is more nuanced, but shows the role serendipity sometimes plays in launching any journey of inquiry.

The first project is one we’ve mentioned before that involves scanning a museum artifact so that reproductions can be shared with community members, schools tours, etc., as a form of public engagement. We’re working with the New Westminster Museum and Archives to create a 3D scan of an Indigenous arrow point. As always, projects like these seem simple, particularly if your knowledge is limited to the optimistic future of technology profiles common to the the evening news. But, they’re horrifically complex in practice. We’ve discovered that 3D scanners don’t work well for any object that has ridges or, more precisely, produces shadows. We were all set to purchase a pretty expensive 3D scanner, but we quickly discovered the scanner wasn’t going to do what we needed it to do. As a result of this trial and error discovery, we’ve moved on to photogrammetry software. Briefly, this software stitches together multiple photographs of an object to create a 3D whole–think the The Matrix, bullets and Keanu leaning backwards scene. The issue with the photogrammetry software is that it needs a lot of pictures from a lot of different perspectives and angles to reassemble the analogue object correctly in digital form. The best way to get all these pictures is to build a camera rig that looks like a helix with 30 SLR hi-res cameras mounted on it, then you float the object inside the helix and boom! 30 shots from 30 angles. Well, we don’t have 30 cameras, a helix rig, or a “float” holder; so what now?

The answer is we hack through things until something comes through. Our first go was with a classroom Elmo–and you thought they were only good as a document projector. But, the resolution isn’t high enough and the angle / distance / perspective changes too much. The result is an arrow head that is fatter on one side than the other, or bulges out in weird places. Now we’ve decided to fabricate a rig that will hold cell phones so that we can get maybe 12 people together, attach all their phones to the rig, and shoot away–fingers crossed, and kudos to our students who figured out this way forward ruminating on the problem in the Hackerspace.

As a sidebar, the reproduction of Indigenous objects is one fraught with ethical issues and questions of ownership. Where did this object come from? Are we allowed to reproduce it? What are the ethical implications of reproducing historical artifacts? In short, when we’re working on these technical issues, basic humanities-based questions always jump to the front. Do your STEM with gusto kids, but remember, being able to address questions based in the humanities is crucial for a complete understanding of the task at hand and the implications of your finished product hitting the world.

The second project we’re working on is archival. For the last month or two, we’ve been working to figure out how connected storytelling and archival materials might be enhanced in digital environments. Thanks to a connection born out of the Douglas College Intersections Series talk on Augmented Reality, we’re working with a small technology start-up and The City of New Westminster to help develop narratives in a walking tour of New Westminster. Briefly, the company has nodes placed in the New West downtown core–and elsewhere–that trigger an alert on your cellphone based on proximity–nothing to point at, one just “walks by” and the event is triggered. The target market for these walking tours in 18-25 year-olds; or, a lot of our students. To this end, the students are working with New Westminster Tourism, Museum and Archives, and the start-up, to develop narrative sequences of locations in New Westminster that appeal to them. Hoping to move beyond the “read the plaque on the side of the building,” these tours will skew younger and include content that appeals to them.

The serendipity part here is that we were already working through connected storytelling on our own and the above project–a great extension of our work–popped up out of nowhere. The benefits of the Hackerspace were apparent again in that we were ready and equipped to give it a go with the walking tour because 1) we were working on similar projects on our own, and 2) we could respond quickly to pilot a project; having space, resources (we’re in a library!), and students at hand.

To sum up, it’s been a more busy than expected summer, but a fruitful one. The Hackerspace is messier than ever, and as more and more students become aware of the space, it’s occupied more and more. It’s shaping up to be a busy Fall. Feel free to drop in whenever we’re open–maybe you can help us solve a problem–serendipitously!

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