About Rowena McGowan

Rowena is a second year Museum Studies student at the iSchool and curator at Semaphore lab. Having read 'I, Robot' at a formative age, she is fascinated by technology's potential to make the world a better place.

A Different Kind of 3D Modelling

The Critical Making Lab currently deals mostly with 3d printing and its impact but researchers at Queen’s University have taken 3d modelling in a different direction. Learn all about it here.

Dr. Ratto in ‘We Make Things’

Dr. Ratto is one of the many experts featured in ‘We Make Things,’ a short film about DIY technoculture.

Gabby Resch talks Critical Making for Made in Toronto

As part of the Made in Toronto exhibition which opened last week, Gabby Resch was recorded speaking about critical making and the critical making lab. Watch the videos here.

Critical Making on Display at Made in Toronto



A new exhibition has opened at University of Toronto, focusing on locally made objects and the Critical Making lab is heavily featured. Come down to Made in Toronto at Victoria College, 73 Queens Park Crescent, to check it out!

3D Printed Limbs: A Cultural As Well As A Technological Shift

Is new technology truly available just because it’s technically available? The Critical Making lab is hard at work on creating 3D printed prosthetics for Ugandan amputees but it’ll take a cultural, as well as a technological, change to really make the program take flight. Read the story here.

Is a Prosthetic A Limb or Just A Piece of Property?

In a perfect future, the Critical Making lab will have outfitted a prosthetic limb on everyone who needs one. But as technology becomes more advanced, the divide between person and prosthetic becomes thinner. Motherboard explores the legal ramifications of improved prosthetics and asks whether damage to a prosthetic should count as personal or property damage.

If They Only Had a Brain

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3D printing a brain is one thing.

Making it useful for med students is another. But with some gelatin, a solvent and a little bit of ingenuity, research associate Joshua Qua Hiansen can turn a printed mold into an echogenic and accurate model of a brain.

It looks like a brain. It sounds like a brain. It even squishes like a brain.

Highlights From The Critical Making Lab Collection: Biased Voting Machine

In Canada, we tend to take voting for granted. We expect it to be open to us and we expect it to be a simple and fair process. In 2009, Dr. Matt Ratto challenged his Critical Making class to imagine a world where voting was openly biased. This object is one of the results:


It’s a little broken at the moment but in its original form, the voting machine would have two buttons, one red and one green. To vote, the user would have to press one of these buttons. It seems simple enough, doesn’t it? And it is – unless the user has red-green colour blindness.

A colour-blind voter using this machine is forced to either guess which button signifies which option or seek help from someone else. In no case can they reliably cast their vote on their own. The object raises questions of biases and privilege. For a person with a full range of colour vision, it’s such a non-issue it’s doubtful that they’d even notice there was a bias. But the person being excluded will notice.

And if it’s this easy to miss the bias against one group, it leads to the question: who else do we not notice we’re excluding?

To learn more about how this object was made, check out this post from 2009.

Curation at the Critical Making Lab

A critical foundation of Critical Making is, of course, the act of making, the creation of an object from spare parts or specially created components, and the exploration and critique of the process. So what happens when the maker is done making?

That’s where I come in. I’m the curator at the Critical Making Lab. When the researchers are done with an object, it’s my turn to play!

My duties involve cataloguing the objects, deciding which objects should be kept and which should be recycled, finding a place to store them and (the fun part!) organizing them into exhibitions. As a non-researcher, my background is a little different from most of the other lab residents – I’m actually a Museum Studies student, albeit one with a bit of an intellectual crush on emergent technologies.

Be still, my heart! Source.

There are a lot of challenges to being lab curator.

I’m the new girl and I just don’t have the context I need for many of my objects, especially since I don’t have a background in any sort of computer or electrical work. The big, fancy ones are pretty easy because I can Google them. It’s not hard to find information on things like the prosthetic sockets or blind tennis; they were pretty well-publicized projects. But I would frequently quickly catalogue an object which I thought was just a test print and move on. Then, days later, someone would walk by and casually mention that the object I had set aside was, in fact, part of some terribly significant and interesting project. I’m lucky in that everyone in the lab is quite friendly and willing to share their knowledge but it’s hard to get answers when you don’t even know what questions you need to ask.

Painting robot 4

Random junk or super cool robot components?

There’s also the fact that the Critical Making Lab is not a museum space. Displaying objects is a secondary concern. Every decision I make has to take functionality into account. Yes, I can mount part of my exhibition on that shelving unit there but it’s right next to the full-body scanner, so people might need that space. Yes, I can create a beautiful and elaborate slideshow with multiple components to show off every aspect of the lab but who’s got time to update something that involved once I’m gone?

But hey, even if the job has its challenges, I wouldn’t change it for the world. And if I occasionally end up shirtless in the lab on a weekend because I needed a black backdrop for photography and it was the only black cloth I had, well, it’s just another day in the life of a Critical Making Lab curator!

The Darker Side of 3D Printing

3D  printing may potentially change manufacturing and our culture as a whole. But is it really all sunshine and roses? Lab curator Rowena McGowan explores the issue of 3D printed guns on the University of Toronto Museum Studies program blog.

Researcher Profile: Joshua Qua Hiansen

February 17, 2016Rowena McGowanPeople0

Joshua Qua Hiansen is a research associate at the Critical Making Lab. His work station, covered as it is in human organs, may lead one to believe that he is a serial killer. In fact, his work is far less unpleasant and far more interesting.

Hiansen is doing research in using 3D printing to provide cheap and customizable medical models for training med students.

Most anatomical models are expensive and therefore most facilities cannot afford a wide assortment . Hiansen’s models are much quicker and cheaper to produce, allowing more customization. Because he can print a spine in a day or two, for example, teachers can easily have both textbook perfect models and examples of extremely diseased spinal columns. This is quite useful – real body parts are seldom as simple and well-laid out as those in books or classic models.

Spine flipped

A test print of a spine. Photo credit: Joshua Qua Hiansen

The spines are also an easy way for students to practice locating the areas they need to in order to give epidurals – something for which I am sure those of us who have been or are planning to get pregnant at some point are quite grateful for!

Hiansen doesn’t just make spines. He also produces other organs, including bronchial tubes, hearts and brains.

The tricky part is creating models which are echogenic (able to bounce an echo), for practice using the ultrasound. PLA plastic actually has a consistency similar to bone. For accuracy, though, many of the models are mounted in a gel matrix. Keeping to his goal of producing models which are cheap and simple to make, the medium Josh uses is simply grocery store gelatin.

Organs together

Anatomical models of a heart, bronchial tubes and spine assembled. Photo credit: Joshua Qua Hiansen

Want to see more of Josh’s work? Follow him on Twitter!

Heart to Heart in the Critical Making Lab

This Valentine’s Day, Research Associate Joshua Qua Hiansen wants to give away his heart. It’s okay, he has a lot of spares:

Purple heart 1 Pink heart 1

Of course, these hearts don’t beat for anyone, even true love. They’re anatomical models for teaching medical students. More on Josh’s Twitter:

Mixed media human aortic valve

Demonstration of valve printed in flexible resin

Progression of printing


Saving the Ocean Through Footwear?!

Here in the Critical Making Lab, we’re always interested in new technological innovations. That’s why we were so curious about Adidas’ plan to 3D print sneakers from ocean plastic. Read the story here.

A short video on the PrintAbility project

Interested in seeing how the Critical Making Lab’s PrintAbility project works? iPrintability has you covered.

All About The Critical Making Lab’s Partner, Nia Technologies

printAbility is one of the many exciting projects that Critical Making Lab researchers are involved with. It focuses on creating the infrastructure for making customized leg prosthetics in the developing world. Learn about the lab’s partner in this work, Nia Technologies, here.

Highlights from The Critical Making Lab Collection: Model of LightSail Cube Satellite

Anyone who’s interested in 3D printing probably has at least a tiny soft spot in their heart for science fiction. And what’s more sci fi than space travel? Of course, we’re not quite here

or here


But space travel is evolving all the time. The Planetary Society, a non-profit space advocacy group, has been busy developing a a citizen-funded project called LightSail that will use the sun’s energy as a method of propulsion. See the Planetary Society’s website for more information. The LightSail model is experimental for now – the first test flight was in 2015 – and a full demonstration isn’t scheduled until later this year.

The Critical Making lab has partnered with The Planetary Society to create realistic 3D-printed models of the LightSail Cube Satellite. There models are not functional, but will be used for educational purposes to explain how the actual Lightsail works. Stay tuned for future examples…

LightSailSolar sail






Note: Spaceship images from Wikimedia.

Researcher Profile: Daniel Southwick

Daniel Southwick

Daniel Southwick is a PhD candidate in the Critical Making Lab, currently working on his dissertation. He is interested in troubling current conceptions about 3D printing. 3D printing is often promoted as the transition from digital objects into physical ones. Daniel’s recent project, the Camera Obscura, shows that it isn’t that simple.

The Camera Obscura project started from a simple goal: Southwick wanted to print and put together a camera from a pattern downloaded from the internet. If 3D printing truly was as simple as it is often perceived, this should be no issue. It was not, however, that simple.

Creating the camera in fact required physical and social structures which were not present for Southwick. The pattern was not created in a void but as part of the creator’s environment. The pattern came from a European country; connecting parts were metric and difficult to get in Canada. Putting it together also required a great deal of implicit knowledge of how cameras work – for example, Southwick initially printed the camera in white plastic, not realizing that reflection of light would be an issue when actually taking photos.

Camera obscura

The camera, put together

Although Southwick wanted to avoid excessive self-reflection, he pointed out that the Camera Obscura project demonstrates just how complicated it can be to move an object from the digital realm into the physical and how deeply an object’s pattern is influenced by the culture and environment of its creator. Companies such as BumbleJax are using acrylic prints to print various types of images as it makes the image impervious to UV rays and also brings out the vivid colors of an image.

Camera Obscura photo 2

Photo taken with the camera. Still a ways to go!

iSchool Lecture: Morality in Video Games

Games increasingly promote morality systems. Mia Consalvo, CRC in Game Studies and Design, Concordia University, will discuss players’ understandings of moral dilemmas in video games in a talk titled ‘Playing (as) a better me: Choice, moral affordances and video games’ on January 21 in Bissell 728, 140 St. George St., Toronto, Ontario. More information here.

Congratulations to ginger coons, PhD

November 21, 2015Rowena McGowanevents0
ginger coons PhD

ginger coons, with supervisor Matt Ratto (left) and Patrick Keilty (right).

The Critical Making lab is pleased to announce that ginger coons has successfully defended her dissertation, “Something for everyone: Using digital methods to make physical goods” and is now a fully fledged doctor! Her committee consisted of Professors Matt Ratto (supervisor), Patrick Keilty, Brett Caraway, Daniel Bender, Anna Croon Fors (external examiner) and John Portelli (exam chair). The lab wishes Dr. coons equal luck and success in her post-doctorate work.

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