On Tuesday we dropped in on Tom Igoe, ITP instructor, Arduino team member, and the man who (with Dan O’Sullivan) literally wrote the book on physical computing. We found him busily preparing equipment to be sent to the central-american rain forest to test the feasibility of low cost, XBee-based mesh networks in Primatology field studies. “I’ve always wanted to work with monkeys,” Tom explained.
Once that was squared away, we headed out for burgers and chatted about the path that brought him to and kept him at ITP. Since many of our lunches are with startups, it was interesting to get his take on the benefits and pitfalls of approaching problems from an academic perspective. While academia can provide more flexibility to explore (and, in some cases, fail big,) the funding question, as ever, looms large. Tom said the trick is to determine the most funding you can get from a sponsor without ending up taking on all their institutional problems, and then making your project happen without exceeding it.
Even within academia, there can be significant differences in the kinds of projects undertaken and the funding required. Tom identified three basic categories of work in ‘design & technology’ (my wording) programs: expressive, instrumental and instructive.
Expressive work is created primarily to share the creator’s personal point of view; these are what might generally be called works of art, and budgets range widely but are usually flexible. Instrumental works are utilitarian; while they needn’t be as practical as a wrench, they generally exist to serve a need and frequently require more financial support to bring to fruition. Instructive works try to teach experientially, expanding the understanding of those who interact with them. With instructive works, budget limitations can have a great effect on the number of people that experience can be brought to.
Tom places ITP as tending more toward the expressive side, while MIT’s Media Lab concentrates primarily on the instrumental and instructive. I’m interested to see where the first year of thesis projects for my own program end up.
For now, we’ll let Tom get back to the monkeys, and look forward to the next Studio Lunch.