Behind an unassuming storefront on 43rd Street in City Heights, a group of people squat around Rita Roberson, popping up every now and then to use the laser cutter behind them. “Let's try this,” says Cathy Herbst, an architect and professor at Woodbury University, as she places a small cardboard creation on the armrest of Roberson's wheelchair.
“Always good to have an architect on hand,” says Katie Rast, as she watches Herbst slide Roberson's cell phone onto the cardboard holder for a near-perfect fit.
While the group focuses on turning the cardboard template into an acrylic cellphone holder for Roberston's wheelchair, a mom and her two young children work on designing vinyl stickers on a few of the computers available. On the other side of the small room, Brian Kosedal, a young computer-chip designer who lives Downtown, types away on his laptop, working on his own invention, which uses software he's designing for the ShopBot, a robotic precision-milling machine that cuts wood (among other things) and sits in the corner of room, taking up a good chunk of the small, bustling space.
“This is it,” Rast says after things calm down a bit. “The Fab Lab is sort of a place for people to experiment with stuff.”
Rast, a thin young woman who wears earth tones, hiking boots and striped scarves and exudes an contagious enthusiasm, helps run the Fab Lab with Xavier Leonard, a multi-media artist who was neck-deep in the dot-com fervor of the '90s and has always been interested in the so-called “community technology center movement.” The two run the Fab Lab under the auspices of Heads on Fire, a nonprofit organization that goes by the slogan “Dedicated to bridging the digital divide” and often uses the made-up word “Technoliteracy” to describe its goal of making sure everyone—the poor and underserved, mainly—is part of the technology revolution.
Leonard started Heads on Fire in 2002 after he traveled to West Africa and Bolivia, two places he saw as having the necessary technology to help people affect wider-spread change (he describes Bolivia as being so wired that he could get wi-fi access in the middle of the jungle) but lacking in terms of putting the tools of technology into the people's hands.
“I just realized that these people would never benefit from technology,” Leonard says. “The Internet was all around them, and it wasn't changing lives…. It made me realize that there really needs to be some people or agencies or groups that are really picking up the benefits and taking them directly to the people, because it's really not happening on its own.”
Heads on Fire (www.headsonfire.org) started off working with schools in underserved communities, introducing technology and multimedia art to kids who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity. Late last year, though, the organization changed its direction when it was tapped by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) to site and run a Fab Lab in San Diego. Fab Labs, or Fabrication Laboratories, are located around the globe, everywhere from rural India, where community members invented a bicycle that converts kinetic energy into electric energy and powers an entire school, to Norway, where one guy used the lab to invent a sheep-tracking device. The Fab Labs started as an outreach program run by MIT's Media Lab, which describes the purpose of the labs as putting the proper tools in the hands of average people in hopes of inspiring inventions that tech nerds would never think of.
“You never know where the next genius is going to come from,” says Kosedal, the computer-chip designer. “Who's to say if things had been different, Bill Gates could have come from rural Africa.” Kosedal's been going to the Fab Lab pretty much since it opened six months ago, and his idea for an invention was actually inspired by the ShopBot, a piece of equipment he couldn't afford on his own.
“I think the Fab Lab is great,” he says. “It's given me the opportunity that normally I wouldn't have. The problem is, I've always had great ideas, but I've never had the tools to do it. The Fab Lab gives me a workshop where I can experiment to make my dreams come true; without that, I couldn't bridge the gap from idea to actual product, and that's a huge barrier for any entrepreneur—getting your idea into a product you can show people.”
While people like Kosedal and Roberson—who says her disabilities have given her idea after idea for inventions because the world isn't built very well for her and her wheelchair—swing by the Fab Lab and immediately get to work, using the tools the lab provides (everything from laser cutters, 3D scanners, computers, printers and open-source software to double-sided tape, scissors and glue), others take some time to catch on. They walk in and receive the “you can make almost anything” speech by Rast or Leonard, but their eyes tend to glaze over. Instead of heading toward the 3D scanner, they head straight for a computer and, at least at first, stick with what's familiar.
“There's an interesting understanding gap,” says Rast, who was recently on crutches for three months and ended up using the Fab Lab to invent three things that made life a lot easier (a foot prop that folded out from the crutches and allowed her to rest her leg, crutch saddlebags that took the place of a purse and a third invention she's keeping quiet because she says she may end up marketing it). “I've explained plenty of things to plenty of people plenty of times, but usually they're like, ‘Oh, there's a community center and there's lots of computers—cool, I need to check my e-mail.'”
“Yeah,” Leonard agrees, “you can talk and talk and talk to people, but they really don't get it—like, really, really don't get it until they're actually here seeing people make stuff or being involved in making stuff themselves. We've realized it's not this thing that you can just plop down and say, ‘OK, the doors are open.'”
The two are hoping to solve what they're calling their “communications challenge” by setting up a mini Fab Lab in the next City Heights Farmers Market (4440 Wightman St., 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 22). After people see what goes on in the Fab Lab, maybe even make a sticker or a wooden plaque themselves, Rast and Leonard think things will take off.
“I want to see lines out the door,” Rast says, “people waiting to get their hands on stuff.”