INTERVIEW by LOUIS LUCERO II | PHOTOS courtesy of H. SMITH/JENNI WESTBROOK
As much as it might sound like the premise of a television series, the real-life story of Waterloo Labs is fact, not fiction. In 2009, a handful of engineers actually did begin creating and documenting do-it-yourself novelty projects from “deep in the heart of Texas” while working at a multi-national equipment corporation, fielding tech support calls. To date, the group of chemical, mechanical, and electrical engineers have orchestrated fireworks using a computer, driven a car with an iPhone, and played vintage Mario using only eye movements as controllers, and they’re just getting warmed up.
How did the idea for a do-it-yourself lab first come about?
The guys who started Waterloo Labs all worked for National Instruments. We were actually all in the phone support department, taking calls for all of our company’s hardware and software products. After a while we got to be pretty good with them, where we knew how to use them inside and out, and we started to imagine all the cool things we could do. And basically we saw an opportunity to do something really cool that wasn’t out there yet because we had the tools and the means to do it. So we started meeting and we started making ambitious and outlandish plans and then seeing which ones we were able to start from.
From the beginning we always wanted to make sure the ideas were always project-based, never product-based. We don’t want to start with a product and go, “How can we market this?” Instead, we go, “Here’s something really cool we want to do — what do we need to pull it off?”
Can you walk me through the process of how a project comes to pass, from conception to execution?
We have a kind of master idea-list that we keep kind of sacred and very secure that has a lot of the ideas that we’ve come up with over time. The ideas are rated on two factors: One is Practicality, and one is Awesomeness. If it’s a ten in Awesomeness and a ten in Practicality, that means we’re doing it tomorrow, but normally an idea is somewhere in between. We don’t use the numbers to help us pick the projects, but that just kind of helps us filter through them and see which ones we should actually do.
Then we kind of sit around and do a lot of “white board engineering” — just sketching things out and saying, “Here’s how this might work.” So we start with the idea, and we brainstorm and see which ones are practical, and once we have something we can try, we build a prototype, and we might build a small-scale version. Once the ball gets rolling, it’s just a matter of some of the details. And on every one of the projects, something comes out at the last minute.
Will a project ideally have some potential for a practical application, or are you all happy to experiment simply for curiosity’s sake?
Practicality is certainly not our goal. We do want to make outlandish systems, and sometimes that probably costs more than most people want, but that’s just because we happen to have a few thousand dollars worth of hardware lying around. And so while an idea like our first-person shooter game was really practical — there are plenty of commercial applications for technology, like an interactive game system — it’s not really practical for the D.I.Y. crowd.
Now, we have done a lot of projects that are a lot more feasible because we do want to make things that people can do at home. The first project we did was shooting fireworks off and we did that with the cheapest hardware we could get — basically, burning up resistors. The other one that we did was a piano staircase using aluminum foil and yardsticks and a student device that a lot of people have to buy as a part of their freshman engineering class. So while it’s always a goal to make it look cost-impractical, our first mission is to pull off whatever ambitious thing we’ve set up.
It seems there’s a very eclectic set of interests within the Waterloo team, ranging from volleyball and photography to theatre and gardening and camping. Have any of those side interests ever come into play in past experiments?
We always look for those opportunities, certainly. If we end up doing a project involving a car, for example, we always ask, “Hey, who’s a car expert? Who knows how to get this thing started?” Or, “Who knows how to take out a steering wheel?” We always defer to expertise whenever possible.
As far as having people from different areas of expertise — there’s one chemical engineer, two mechanical engineers, and three electrical engineers (and you’re also a computer engineer) — does that benefit you guys from having those different ranges of expertise, as far as what questions arise, or what ideas you’re able to pursue?
Absolutely; it’s critical. We definitely need a multi-disciplinary team because we never know what we’re going to be facing. Because we choose such ambitious projects that involve a little bit of everything, a little bit of mechanical engineering and a little bit of programming and a little bit of wiring, you do have to have a very diverse skill set and a very diverse group. That was definitely a consideration in selecting the interns this past summer.
Who do you hope to reach with your videos?
We look for unique opportunities. If you look at our videos, we always try to appeal to an existing audience — we’re not trying to make videos for nobody; we do want these to be seen. And so we’ll engage car bloggers or video gamers, for example. Basically, the videos we make are the exact kind of stuff that I would want to show up on my RSS. And you know, I kind of think of myself as the target audience, and so we always try to make sure it appeals to what people are actually reading about, so they don’t have to read about, you know, wireless communication closed-loop control theory — instead they can read about car-surfing.
To what extent do any of the projects interfere with your day-to-day work? Has anyone ever been chastised for working on a Waterloo project on National Instruments’ time?
It’s not always easy to find time for Waterloo. All of the founding members are now no longer in that phone support department; we’re all in various products management roles — that’s why we hired the interns. I’m personally a K-12 product marketing engineer, so I work with high schools to figure out where our technology will fit in at a school. As you might imagine, standing in front of a bunch of 17-year-olds and talking about why they should care about science and engineering, I get to use the Waterloo Labs videos all the time. So Waterloo still has some overlap with my job — I’m trying to make engineering cool for kids.
What’s been the most fun Waterloo project to be a part of?
The one that we’ve finished that I’m most proud of is definitely the eye-controlled gaming system: that’s the one that I personally did the most on. Everyone kind of takes leadership roles on the projects; on that one I did the software, and that one was very software-intensive.
What can Daily BR!NK readers do to contribute to your success?
It’s very likely that we’re going to have another summer intern program next year; if we do, we’ll certainly publicize that on our blog, and on our Twitter and Facebook accounts, and on our YouTube channel, of course.
In addition to that, we obviously really appreciate people subscribing and following our projects. We do have three new videos that are going to come out in the next three months, and I definitely think we’ve continued to up our game. We’re also definitely open to doing public events and things like that, so people can contact us through Twitter or Facebook if they’re interested in that.
And we’re always willing to provide a place to bounce ideas off of. We’ve had lots of conversations with people about “Hey, is this possible?” or “How do you do this?” We love having those conversations, so whether it’s a tweet or just a comment on our blog, people can get in touch with us directly and maybe even brainstorm the next great idea.