Santa Cruz-based project aims to change the way we interact with technology
Jay Silver has a degree in electrical engineering from The Georgia Institute of Technology and another one in Internet technology from The University of Cambridge. But while that educational background helped him build a foundation of knowledge, it left something to be desired.
“One of the biggest things that my education taught me, was that education doesn’t teach you how to make things,” says Silver. “So I went through years of getting degrees and I still didn’t know how to change the world, I didn’t know how to make things.”
That idea is at the heart of “MaKey MaKey: An Invention Kit for Everyone,” a project created by Silver and his collaborator Eric Rosenbaum that turns everyday objects into touchpads, and combines them with the Internet. The concept is best explained via visual demonstration, but Silver describes it as such: “MaKey MaKey lets you alligator clip the Internet to some junk.” For example, he says, one could surf the web for a piano, and then alligator clip from the MaKey MaKey circuit board—which you plug into your computer’s USB port—to multiple bananas, and voilá! Your bananas now control the piano on
“So you search something on Google, and you take an everyday object and hook it up, and you make the two interact with each other,” he says. “Another way to say all that is, you’re turning the whole world into a computer interface or a keyboard.”
While the kit itself is accessible to everyone, the technology behind it is naturally more complex. But Silver manages to explain it in straightforward terms. “There’s a circuit that pretends to be a keyboard or a mouse, and the computer is like, ‘Whoa, who’s talking to me?’ and it responds ‘I’m a keyboard’ or ‘I’m a mouse’ and the computer says ‘OK,’ but really it’s not a keyboard or a mouse, it’s really a cat or a banana or something like that,” he says. “So the basic technology is about pretending to be a keyboard or a mouse.”
Silver explains the project’s other technological concept by comparing it to flipping a light switch. “Right behind the wall when you flip a light switch, two pieces of metal touch that lets the electricity flow through a circuit and turn the light on,” he says. “MaKey MaKey uses high resistance switching, just like the light switch, except that it doesn’t have to be two pieces of metal, it can be two anythings—a human and a plant touch and that triggers an event on the computer.”
In some ways, MaKey MaKey is a practical and philosophical extension of Silver’s experience at MIT Media Lab. “What I learned there was how to make things; in fact, I took a class called ‘How to Make Almost Anything’—that was the name of the class,” he says. “That’s my idea of real education, an action-based education.”
Silver studied for the last six years in the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at MIT Media Lab. “Their whole philosophy is that kindergarten is really working, but the rest of school is kind of broken, so let’s flip education upside-down, and that’s what we’re doing with MaKey MaKey,” he says. “We’re not telling anybody how anything works, or telling anybody any information, or providing a curriculum, or anything like that; we’re just providing a station or situation where people can learn through experience, so it’s project-based learning.”
For Silver, who has been working on invention kits for the last 10 years, changing the world is the motivation. “I really want to live in a world where everybody is creating the way the world works together—it would just be an awesome world to live in,” he says. “It’s like voting. You vote at a booth for an official—that’s democracy—or you vote with your wallet—that’s like capitalist democracy—or you can vote with your hands—you just physically, actually change the world—and then that’s your vote.”
People have been casting their votes for MaKey MaKey with their wallets on the project’s Kickstarter page, where—as of press time—it has raised $568,106, despite its goal of only $25,000. “The world’s pretty crazy these days,” says Silver. “I was surprised that it did that well, but at the same time, I really thought about this and put my heart into it, so I wasn’t surprised the world responded.”
Soon enough, those who have provided financial support for the project will have the opportunity to use the kit themselves. Indeed, this creative process—which was conceived and developed by Silver and Rosenbaum—cannot be completed until others have used it. “All construction kits—say Legos—can’t be completed until the person opens the box,” says Silver. “What MaKey MaKey does different from a traditional construction kit—which is already amazing, you can’t complete it until you open the box, you complete it at home—is [that] it’s what I call an ‘open construction kit’; meaning when you open the box, all the stuff you need is not inside the box. You open the box and then the world becomes part of the construction kit. That’s actually what my thesis was about; it was called ‘The World is a Construction Kit’.”
The 32-year-old Silver recently moved to Santa Cruz after having visited the area seven years ago while on a cross-country road trip with his now-wife. “We visited a lot of places in a month-and-a-half,” he says. “And Santa Cruz had the most awesome-things-per-hour, so we were like, ‘We have to live there someday’ … So, for seven years we’ve been trying to get here—and that means finish school, find a job, have our kids, all the stuff we’re doing, but now we’re here and we plan on being here forever. We’re really inspired by the way people are here—the sense of entrepreneurship, spirituality, the love of the land.”
Beyond the shipping of MaKey MaKey this summer, plans for the future of the invention kit aren’t concrete, but Silver is looking forward to finding out what the project inspires in others. “I think it’ll change people’s outlook, people will use this and then they’ll realize ‘OK, the Internet and computer interfaces aren’t some crazy stuff that I can’t understand, they’re something that I can have an effect on and make a change to,’ so then they start to see their relationship with the Internet as more malleable, as more adjustable or configurable under their own power,” he says. “That’s the real contribution—if I can make one, to a few people—it would be this contribution of catalyzing this creative confidence that everyone already has inside of them, but maybe it got stopped at some point.”
For more information about MaKey MaKey: An Invention Kit for Everyone visit makeymakey.com.