Wichita innovators meld art, technology, ideas

08/22/2014 10:42 PM

08/23/2014 10:07 AM

Few people talking about jobs and innovation in Wichita have heard of Tom McGuire and his wildly inventive friends. And his milling machine, made by hand. And his 3-D printers.

And how some of his devotees have crashed homemade radio-controlled airplanes on the Wichita State University golf course.

Nor have they heard about his collaborators. John Harrison, for example: teacher and app inventor, MIT graduate degree in media technology, lead violinist with the Wichita Symphony Orchestra.

And most have not heard of their techie, art-inclined, tool-happy friends from MakeICT: A tribe of T-shirt-and-sandals people with inventions, artwork, music, super-capacitors and wry opinions about rules and conventionality.

Until now, these characters have stayed off the radar of WSU administrators, though students and faculty knew of them.

They built a “maker space,” based on the international maker movement, to “innovate, learn, and build community at the intersection of art, technology, science, and culture.”

They mash together music, art and tech to play with ideas and create things.

WSU leaders, announcing big plans recently, have said that WSU will redefine how to create jobs, with innovation and a maker space stocked with local creators. And yet they’d never heard of MakeICT.

Until last week.

The tech tribe wearing sandals and T-shirts just got discovered by the tribe with neckties and Ph.Ds.

MakeICT was listening

Neither tribe knows yet what to make of the other.

WSU president John Bardo has said repeatedly that innovation, including wildly inventive innovation, is a pathway out of a sluggish economy.

He announced plans last week that would cost hundreds of millions of private, student fee and tax dollars.

He wants to: Create a maker space at WSU for inventive people. Bring in smart people from differing disciplines, including art and music and “collide” their differing ideas to make new things.

He didn’t mention MakeICT.

But MakeICT was listening.

Moments after he explained his plans to faculty, a guy with a Fu Manchu mustache strode up to Bardo in the student center ballroom and stuck out his hand.

“I introduced myself as the president of MakeICT,” Dominic Canare said.

“He said they’d be in touch,” Canare said. “I hope it’s not long.”

It wasn’t.

Invited for a chat

The new dean of WSU’s engineering college is a tech-savvy engineer with a past that included playing saxophone and majoring in music for a while. Royce Bowden, the new dean, had told Bardo about the maker movement upon his arrival in January.

Bowden heard about MakeICT last week – and learned that one of the founders worked in one of Bowden’s own third-floor Wallace Hall engineering school labs. So he invited MakeICT founder Tom McGuire downstairs for a chat.

If antigravity is a counterpoint to gravity in physics, then the MakeICT techies are a kind of antigravity counterpoint to academics with titles and Ph.Ds.

They haven’t been hiding. Three founders have assisted teaching instructors at WSU, and they have extensive individual websites showing photos and YouTube videos of their art and tech inventions.

Some of McGuire’s devotees have flown, (and sometimes crashed), homemade radio-controlled planes made from Styrofoam, Nerf balls and plastic 3-D-printer-made propellers on WSU’s golf course.

“Not sure they were even allowed to fly planes on the golf course,” McGuire said. “But … um … yeah … they sure did crash planes out there.”

Other MakeICT founders include Jens Torell, a manager of sales and marketing for Textron, and Canare, a computer programmer working on a WSU Ph.D.

MakeICT started two years ago with Harrison, the Wichita Symphony’s concertmaster with multiple skills, whether playing Mozart or Beethoven, or getting a graduate degree in media technology at MIT, or teaching music or engineering skills at WSU.

Harrison enters his own media art in shows. He loves teaching, but quit at WSU last fall to form a start-up company making mobile apps that might help children with anger and social issues.

He heard about maker spaces at MIT.

“That’s where I first saw the model, these figureheads at the top with beautiful grand ideas, much like President Bardo has described … and I saw at the same time, the students creating the content. You need both.”

He came back to Wichita in 2005 hoping to create a maker space here. He met McGuire, who knows tech and art, and who makes some artwork that includes electronics.

They enable crossover learning between WSU and the community. McGuire teaches for free at MakeICT workshops. But he also runs the WSU labs, and assists instructors teaching engineering 101 and senior design in electrical and computer engineering. Some WSU students show up at MakeICT’s shop in Delano with half-finished engineering projects at semester’s end, Torell said.

McGuire has no academic credential larger than his associate’s degree from Hutchinson Community College, a fact he states with a wince.

But WSU students rave about how he and his MakeICT pals teach and inspire. “The coolest guys I’ve ever seen in my life,” said Austin White, a WSU junior in computer engineering.

Catalysts for super heroes

With McGuire coaching him, White is using 3-D printers, a laser cutter and other tools to create a plastic hand for what he said may one day be one of the world’s first full-sized open-source-created humanoid robots.

And Rich St. Aubin, a WSU senior in electrical and computer engineering, is hand-making and testing components that may one day power cars with a combination of solar energy, super-capacitors, hydrogen, gasoline and car exhaust.

They do all this in a WSU lab with whiteboards loaded with hand-drawn schematics. And there’s “the wall of shame,” where the radio-controlled airplane inventors tack up pieces of homemade planes they crashed.

McGuire, shy when talking about himself, becomes something different when talking about students:

“Being a superhero is something we do for fun,” he said. “But the real work we do is being a catalyst for superheroes. We built a home for them. It’s a place where regular everyday people can discover and develop their super powers.”

“When I’m not sleeping, or in class, I’m in here,” White said, in the WSU lab.

Keeping the lights on

MakeICT does workshops: How to use a 3-D printer or soldering irons. How to make things, solve problems.

“I’d like to make it so that kids could have the ability to explore art, poetry, electronics, entrepreneurship,” Harrison said. “And to think about ideas.”

Much of what MakeICT teaches, on or off campus, is that to succeed “you have to learn to fail, and fail and fail again,” Canare said. New inventions fail all the time, he said. It’s how we learn.

They built their own 3-D printer. Canare jokes that MakeICT techies are so talented “they can make 3-D printers that make 3-D printers.”

McGuire made sure they also had a Styrofoam cutter, like he has in the WSU lab, to make prototypes of inventions.

Torell brings business sense to the group. With donations, and the $10 monthly dues from MakeICT members, they acquired soldering irons, drills, hammers and other tools.

But by July, MakeICT could barely pay to keep the lights on in Delano. Their penchant for giving away knowledge was succumbing to dollars – they were about to lose their maker space.

But there was a buzz in the community that said “pay attention to these guys,” said Shelly Prichard, the Wichita Community Foundation president. “These are guys I could take my stepson to, to learn how to run a 3-D printer – and learn how to think about a career.”

Prichard’s Foundation helped them write an application to the Knight Foundation, which brought $17,000, for rent, equipment, recruitment and forming a business plan.

That kept the lights on.

Now there might be more. Though Torell has some questions.

Apple’s art division

The announcements by Bardo have left the MakeICT founders … puzzled. No one but their T-shirted devotees paid attention before. They invented tools, taught tech and played foosball in spare moments in the former Bluebird Arthouse in Delano at 914 W. Douglas.

Now Bardo is preaching the gospel of maker space, pledging to expand by half the size of the campus and seeking innovators who mesh art with music with tech.

MakeICT founders says it might be good to have more space, more tools and an arrangement with WSU.

“But WSU’s plans are a business-focused initiative,” Torell said.

MakeICT has never been about money, Torell said. It is about creating. Inspiring. Learning.

“And we’ve got hobbyists,” Torell said. “Or people who want to do just a one-off, make something to automate something in their house.”

Would MakeICT fit with WSU’s plans? Bowden, the engineering dean, realized quickly after he checked them out that they are a talented group, and not flakes with impractical ideas.

“If they were, WSU would never have hired them to teach here,” Bowden said.

Putting differing talents together sometimes makes great sense, he said. It leads to diverse thought, “to solutions we would not otherwise see.”

He knew someone who worked at Apple, where Steve Jobs’ teams reinvented world technology, he said.

At Apple, “It was always the people from Apple’s art division – not engineering – who always got all that they wanted.”

Sneaking in

In a WSU lab McGuire oversees, Austin worked on the plastic hand of the skeletal robot he’s fashioning in part with the shop’s 3-D printers. When he and the other 100 or so open-source collaborators around the world are finished, he said, the robot might walk and talk.

He cracks a human/robot joke: “We engineering people like to make our own friends.”

MakeICT could teach people a lot, he said.

They already inspire young people like him.

Bill Gates, before he invented Microsoft, started out as a young, driven innovator, White said.

“Working and learning in places just like this. In labs just like this,” White said. “Only he had to sneak in to do it.

“We don’t have to sneak in here.”

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @roywenzl.

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