Critical Making Lab Research in the News

PhD student Gabby Resch’s research experimenting with new modes of multisensory museum interaction was recently mentioned in a Toronto Star article on the use of 3D printing to enhance a blind Brazilian mother’s birth experience.

Fall 2014 Critical Making Workshop Series

We are hosting a workshop series at the University of Toronto this fall!

The first event in the Critical Making Lab Workshop Series uses desktop fabrication tools to make custom prostheses. “Scanning, modelling & printing—An experimental toolchain for prosthetics,” the first workshop in the Critical Making Lab Workshop Series, will take place Thursday, the 18th of September. Open to students and the public, this workshop will explore a prosthesis-production toolchain developed by researchers in Semaphore’s Critical Making Lab. Using affordable 3D scanning and 3D printing tools, as well as free 3D modelling tools, this workshop offers participants the opportunity to try out a process which will soon undergo a pilot study in a Ugandan hospital.

The workshop will take place from 1PM to 3PM, Thursday, the 18th of September in the Semaphore Demo room (rm. 1150, on the ground floor of Robarts Library).
Registration is full.

This workshop will ask participants to explore 3D design with the aid of a library of building blocks. This workshop is ideal for anyone interested in design, 3D printing, or building blocks. No training or special tools are necessary, though experienced designers are welcome. We will be providing iPads preloaded with the design software. Participants will be able to take any completed prints home with them.
DATE & TIME:Tuesday October 14th, 1:30pm-4:30pm
LOCATON: Semaphore Research Cluster Demo Room (room 1150), Main Floor, Robarts Library, 130 St. George Street
Click here to register.

Extending the “Doomsday Clock” that has been representationally deployed by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists since 1947 to warn the world of the possible imminence of nuclear catastrophe, participants will develop tools to alert the public about the growth or decline of a variety of threats to global civilization, such as ecological crisis (i.e. desertification or ocean acidification); political or sociological catastrophes (i.e. potential genocides or infrastructure collapses); and public health issues (i.e. influenza pandemics).
This workshop is ideal for data scientists seeking to make their data more meaningful through the use of eye-catching visualization; sociologists, political scientists, and environmental scientists who would like collaborate with technologists to build educational tools; historians and futurists alike; public health and disaster researchers; designers and artists.
DATE & TIME: Tuesday November 18th, 1:30-4:30
LOCATION: Semaphore Research Cluster, Demo Room (room 1150), Main Floor, Robarts Library, 130 St. George Street
Click here to register.


Article About Quantified Toilets on iSchool Website

There’s an article on the iSchool website discussing the Quantified Toilets project that came out of our CHI hackathon. It can be found here.

Re/Making the Unknown: A Symposium Exploring Humanistic Approaches in Science and Technology Research

A few of us from the Critical Making Lab are co-organizing a half-day symposium that brings together scholars from multiple fields to discuss the use of interdisciplinary humanistic approaches and methods in understanding:

  • how scientific and cultural knowledge are produced

  • how infrastructures that cross disciplinary boundaries can share objects, methods, and features

  • and how new technologies that blur material/digital distinctions are changing cultural institutions

Date: June 18

Location: Room 1150, Robarts Library (Main Floor), 130 St. George Street, University of Toronto

Session One – 10am to 12pm

Finding the Known in the Unknown – This session will discuss historically-informed approaches to curating unknown, discarded, and damaged/destroyed technoscientific objects. This session will be facilitated by curators from the University of Toronto Scientific Instruments Collection, and will present a handful of case studies that see historical artifacts from the collection brought to new life through the use of cutting edge technologies.

Coffee and light lunch (provided) – 12pm to 1pm

Session Two – 1pm to 3pm

3D (De/Re)Materialization This session will consider, with respect to the use of 3D technologies in humanistic approaches to science and technology studies, how 3D scanning and printing can be beneficial for some humanities scholars. Through the presentation of relevant examples and a live demonstration of 3D scanning and printing technologies, it will encourage a discussion around whether 3D makes possible certain kinds of investigations that are becoming increasingly necessary in a number of disciplines. The session will be facilitated by scholars from Information, Museum Studies, and History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.


This symposium is an effort of the Jackman Humanities Institute Working Group on Humanistic Studies of Science and Technology.

DIY Water Sensing Workshop at Subtle Technologies (May 30th and 31st)

This event is co-organized by Nina Czegledy, Adriana Ieraci, Antonio Gamba-Bari, Michelle Gay

Guest Speakers : David Lawrie, Ramón Guardans

May 30, 2014 6:00-9:00 pm AND May 31, 2014 10:00 am-5:00 pm

Place: Semaphore Demo Lab, Main floor Robarts Library
130 St. George Street, on the University of Toronto campus

Registration includes materials for the kit (estimated at $50). Bring the kit home with you.


In this one and half day experimental workshop we will explore basic water characteristics, mythologies, practical facts, socio-technical issues, cultural and art projects about H2O. Participants will be invited to bring their own fresh water samples – from their homes, from run-offs in their neighbourhood, or from nearby water sources. We will build a simple electronic DIY testing kit, based on the Arduino, and develop a test methodology to sense the water properties. No previous technical knowledge is necessary. CLICK HERE FOR MORE INFO

Not Print Print Bang Bang: 3d printed guns and the illusion of digital immateriality

Recently, in the Critical Making lab we printed a nonworking version of the Defense Distributed 3d model ‘liberator’ handgun. To be precise we printed a disabled version of the gun as part of a project on the increasing hybridity of the virtual/material world and the role of 3D printing more generally. We did so publicly (link to Globe and Mail story here) in order to initiate an open conversation on issues related to 3D printing and guns and to hopefully engage law enforcement, regulators, policy makers, and 3D printing advocates in developing a measured rather than a knee-jerk response to the perceived problems associated with 3D printing. That an open conversation is necessary was brought home to us by recent calls by both conservative and democratic politicians in the US for regulation of 3D printers.

We are certainly interested in facilitating and extending the current debates and are hopeful that we can work with authorities to address concerns. However, we also want to be clear that the gun is just a ‘canary in the coal mine’ for a whole slew of important theoretical and pragmatic information issues. Our work is not on firearms or the functionality of 3D printed guns per se, but addresses the limitations of our capacity to engage and think about them. We are primarily interested in the increasingly tenuous dividing line between our mundane and physically embodied existence and the seemingly separate and virtual modes associated with digital technologies. Recent debates regarding the material nature of information have been given a new locus given the development of working 3D printable guns. Our reason for printing the gun was simply to take note of this new recentering and to explore the issues from a number of different perspectives.

More specifically, the law and other formal and informal entities are used to treating ‘the digital’ and ‘the physical’ as two entirely separate worlds. We have been encouraged to think this way by a whole variety of individuals and institutions, including both libertarian (e.g. John Perry Barlow’s famous ‘Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace’) and conservative voices (e.g. reasoning regarding the DMCA in the US,) depending on need. Over the last few decades, a lot of work has been done to encourage the idea that information is immaterial, that form and content can be separated, that the medium is just a neutral channel for transmission. (Mcluhan was prescient in calling attention to the limits of this idea!)

Matthew Kirshenbaum has noted that “computers are unique in the history of writing technologies in that they present a pre-meditated material environment built and engineered to propagate an illusion of immateriality”. 3D printing calls attention to this fallacy – and the 3d printed gun is only one example of this, albeit a particularly evocative one. Other examples of this fallacy include the idea that all information (not just the computational) is similarly immaterial. This results in the idea that once books and other textual materials have been scanned and digital versions have been created, the physical ‘versions’ can simply be thrown away since all value resides in the ‘informational’ content and that has been captured. While librarians, archivists, and critical scholars from a range of disciplines (Katherine Hayles, Matthew Kirschenbaum, JF Blanchette, and many others) have been speaking about the problems of this perspective for many years, 3D printing definitely highlights the pragmatic and not just the theoretical import of such issues.

Our research on 3D printing includes work on its use to facilitate accessibility for the visually impaired, new forms of distributed productivity and design, and other socially beneficial attributes. Our printing of the gun model and exploration of its dimensions should not be taken as either a whole-hearted embracing of the cyber-anarchistic future articulated by its original creator, nor of a ‘won’t somebody think of the children’ reductive response. Instead, the project stands as part of our work as information scholars and as public intellectuals debating and exploring new information technologies and the patterns of life associated with them.

Matt Ratto on 3D-Printed Guns

Matt Ratto recently appeared on an episode of TVO’s The Agenda with Steve Paikin to discuss the critical implications of 3D printing dangerous, controversial, and occasionally illegal technologies (like guns) with Paikin and Cody Wilson, director of Defense Distributed, the R&D firm behind Liberator 3D-printed gun.

Flwr Pwr

March 9, 2012marie-eveFeatured0

Imagine a garden of dream flowers, powered by duracell, made of abandoned Starbucks coffee cups, styrofoam cubes cut from the latest iMac packing materials, a brain made in Italy, a blossom made by 1/2 Tod 1/2 Bot. The flowers glow with an eerie pulsating glow, sending secret missives across a darkened room. Some flowers horde their individuality, resisting attempts to transform, to change. Others broadcast their distinctive natures broadly, encouraging nearby flowers to go with them, to be like them. Still others promiscuously adopt the patterns of others, reproducing, syncing, connecting. They live, they die. The garden flourishes, it declines.

Web 2.0 technologies offer us enhanced ways to interact and share information, to collate and collect perspectives, and to
receive feedback on ideas and creative work. The expectations associated with these socio-technical networks are vast but there are potential issues as well. The plan for the ‘flwr pwr’ workshop was to create a series of shared construction exercises that could facilitate and inform discussions around ‘walled gardens’ and provide some common ground for thinking through the social issues involved. We call this technique ‘critical making’ as a way of drawing connections between thinking and conceptualization on critical social issues and shared practices of material construction.

The ‘flwr pwr’ critical making scenario involved the construction of a physical type of cellular automata. Using pre-assembled and coded components, workshop participants constructed simple electronic agents called ‘flwrs’ that ‘talk’ to one another
using infrared light patterns. They can be programmed in various ways – to be more open or more closed, more aggressive
or more sharing. These behaviors effect each agent’s individual survival as well as the survival of the network as a whole.

Here is an chapter titled FLWR PWR: Tending Walled Garden, written by Dr. Matt Ratto and Dr.Stephen Hockema. It was originally published in Walled Garden, part of the E-culture book series in 2009. It is a publication by Virtueel Platform.

Tending the Walled Garden

This has been converted to PDF and has a separate page containing the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 license.

Social Crowning… or the Physical Facebook

This week in class, we had an interesting discussion of how technology affects our notions of social capital, in addition to the way it affects notions of public space (as we discussed in previous classes).

During the lab, we decided to scrap the RFID idea we had last week, realizing that it was too complex for this project and might be a good idea for our final project instead. The team decided to brainstorm a whole new idea and build it in one lab session. WOW! We had the option to build a wearable device or a project that implemented Digital Rights Management (DRM). Our initial idea combined both, but we decided instead to build a wearable device.

crown, Arduino, breadboard, battery

crown, Arduino, breadboard, battery

Some silly team member suggested making a crown. It started with an idea to build a wearable that could indicate the wearer’s mood. Then the discussion turned to ideas of social capital and social networking technologies. We eventually decided to make the crown into a wearable device that would indicate different elements of “social status”. Though at first we designed it with high school students in mind, the final device is an object meant to be worn by undergraduates or young adults aged 18-22 at social events ( the types of events which are attended for the purpose of meeting new “sexy” people). The crown has four categories, Single, Straight, Sober and ?, each with an LED embedded above it.  By turning on certain lights, the wearer announces their status to people at the event. The categories are humourously intended and are meant to critique the often limiting choices available for describing ones social status on social networking sites such as facebook (for example, the option of straight/NOT straight excludes other possible sexual preferences).

During class, Matt focused on the question of “how can we design objects that are meant to be re-purposed?” It is quite possible for wearers to re-purpose this technology to overcome these constraining and somewhat degrading categories, in a very grassroots way. I hope this doesn’t shatter the illusion for anyone, but those categories are made using black pen on yellow electrical tape. Anyone could peel them off and create their own categories. Symbols or logos could also be used, especially to indicate secret status or membership in a secret society. This technology could even be used to indicate serious allergies or health conditions.

Because of the powerful, transformational potential of this object, we’ve decided to make the code open source:

// CROWNTASTIC! by Mike, Nancy and Marta

int led_13 = 13;
int inPin2 = 2;
int val2 = 0;
int led_12 = 12;
int inPin3 = 3;
int val3 = 0;
int led_11 = 11;
int inPin4 = 4;
int val4 = 0;
int led_10 = 10;
int inPin5 = 5;
int val5 = 0;

void setup() {
pinMode(led_13, OUTPUT);  // declare LED as output
pinMode(inPin2, INPUT);    // declare pushbutton as input
pinMode(led_12, OUTPUT);  // declare LED as output
pinMode(inPin3, INPUT);    // declare pushbutton as input
pinMode(led_11, OUTPUT);  // declare LED as output
pinMode(inPin4, INPUT);    // declare pushbutton as input
pinMode(led_10, OUTPUT);  // declare LED as output
pinMode(inPin5, INPUT);    // declare pushbutton as input

void loop(){
val2 = digitalRead(inPin2);  // read input value
if (val2 == HIGH) {         // check if the input is HIGH (button released)
digitalWrite(led_13, LOW);  // turn LED OFF
} else {
digitalWrite(led_13, HIGH);  // turn LED ON

val3 = digitalRead(inPin3);  // read input value
if (val3 == HIGH) {         // check if the input is HIGH (button released)
digitalWrite(led_12, LOW);  // turn LED OFF
} else {
digitalWrite(led_12, HIGH);  // turn LED ON

val4 = digitalRead(inPin4);  // read input value
if (val4 == HIGH) {         // check if the input is HIGH (button released)
digitalWrite(led_11, LOW);  // turn LED OFF
} else {
digitalWrite(led_11, HIGH);  // turn LED ON

val5 = digitalRead(inPin5);  // read input value
if (val5 == HIGH) {         // check if the input is HIGH (button released)
digitalWrite(led_10, LOW);  // turn LED OFF
} else {
digitalWrite(led_10, HIGH);  // turn LED ON

A Magical Stop Light

The magic is that it works! Or to be more specific, it performs the functions we asked it to do through the code.  This week, our group was instructed to build a moral technology. We decided to emulate an existing technology by building a prototype for a traffic light. We briefly discussed the concept and went to work. This week’s lab was particularly fun in that we were encouraged to rummage through the Critical Making lab and use whatever materials we could get our hands on.

First, we wrote the code and created the circuit. We built the circuit, lining up the LED lights along the breadboard and attaching all the grounds to one pin on the arduino. The code (included below) is quite simple, turning the appropriate lights on and off for a set period of time. Once we knew that the code and the circuit were performing properly, we were ready to move the circuit off the breadboard and into a physical object.

The delegation of tasks in the making process occurred naturally within the group. Nancy took on the task of soldering wire and header pins together and insulating them with purple stuff(?). Mike wrote most of the code. Marta collected materials to fashion the object/ shell for the circuitry. Though each person took on roles associated with their strengths, there were overlaps. Nancy and Marta worked together to solder the wires to the LEDS, Mike experimented with various elements to use as a supporting post for the object, Mike and Marta collaborated on building the circuit, Marta helped to complete the code.

A hollow threaded pipe with a base was the main support for the light. A pink piece of foam was cut into a vertical rectangle, the bottom of the foam forming a narrow post shape. This narrower section was inserted into the hollow pipe to produce the main body of the object. We applied a piece of yellow duct tape over the main rectangle at the top of the object for aesthetic purposes.  We soldered the LEDs to long wire soldered to header pins. We then punched holes in our object and inserted the lights in the appropriate spaces (it took a moment to remember the order of the colours, revealing to us the ubiquitous nature of this technology (we know what it means without thinking about how it operates or is constructed)). In this case, attaching the circuit to the physical object was as easy as inserting LEDs into some holes and tying the loose wires together at the back. Potential issues that may arise in future projects may be integrating the wiring and circuitry into the physical object in a more seamless, less obvious way.

What fun!


// Assignment 1
// Moral Actor:
// This program is used to control a stop light.  It consists
// of three lights (green, yellow, red) that are controlled by time.
// Created By: Marta Chudolinska, Nancy Davies, Michael Trumbull

// Define constants
#define red_light 13
#define yellow_light 12
#define green_light 11

void setup () {

void loop () {

// Go, Caution, Stop Sequence
digitalWrite(green_light,HIGH);  //Show Green
delay  (10000);                  //Pause Green 10 seconds
digitalWrite(green_light,LOW);  //Turn off Green

delay  (3000);

delay  (10000);

//Blink Sequence
delay  (500);
delay  (500);
delay  (500);
delay  (500);
delay  (500);
delay  (500);
delay  (500);
delay  (500);
delay  (500);
delay  (500);

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