Meeting a Hero

When The Reality Inspectors were at EYEBEAM Gallery in NYC as a part of the World Science Festival, we were lucky enough to visit ET Modern - the gallery of the famed data visualization master, Edward Tufte.

We were honored to get to tour the gallery with ET – as he goes – and to chat for a while afterwards.  He even went and saw our Theremin Inspector and gave some good notes for improving it!

Theremin Inspector – Singapore – in CNET Asia

The Theremin Inspector that Alex Hornbake & I built as THE REALITY INSPECTORS is currently in Singapore.  CNET Asia has given us some nice coverage:

Theremin Inspector at Lightning in a Bottle Festival 2012

I setup a slightly modified version of The Theremin Inspector at the Lighting in a Bottle festival as a part of the SMART Gallery - “where Science Meets ART.”

These captures come directly from the camera so they look a little funky compared to how it really looked to participate in the exhibit; but they show how kids, left to their own, will figure out how the theremin works.  And maybe dance a little with the energy when no one is looking…


Summary of Theremin Inspector at EYEBEAM

This is currently a draft awaiting approval.

You can catch a Reality Inspectors exhibit at EYEBEAM in Manhattan right now.  We’re proud of the installation and we had an amazing time at the opening, June 3, 2011.   The best part, for me (Sean) was seeing the kids playing with the Theremin Inspector and getting really excited about the theremin and the mixed reality world they saw themselves in. The best part, for me (Alex) was being able to look in the mirror and see electromagnetic field lines extend from the antennae of a theremin and seek ground through my body.

Big Thanks

There’s a lot of thank you’s that we owe to people and we probably won’t catch them all.  But we want to start with the AMAZING teams of Science Gallery and EYEBEAM.  What an honor to work with these people doing professional work at the intersection of science and art — and doing a damn fine job of it.  We also need to thank, especially, Amber Tisue who joined the Reality Inspectors team to make a soundscape for the Theremin Inspector;  and HATCH, the network that introduce Alex and myself and connected us to Amber.  Big thanks to Yarrow Kraner, whose visionary concepts for SuperDudes pioneered a the online social networking revolution and leds millions of people — including those who participated in our workshop — to see the super heroes within themselves. Thank you to the OpenFrameworks community for making tools that can help materialize these ideas, and to OpenNI for providing libraries for the Kinect.  And a final shout out to our friend and mentor, Scott Shepard, who answers the phone when we call trying to figure out how to quickly and cheaply denature a mirror surface, or any other crazy things you have to accomplish to be a Reality Inspector.

Also, thanks to the media outlets that gave the exhibit some coverage (check us out on NY1) and to the World Science Festival for hosting BIORHYTHM as a part of their extraordinary event.

The Theremin Inspector

The goal of the Theremin Inspector is to teach people how a theremin works.  It’s pretty spectacular to see people light up when they realize their body has become a part of a field of electromagnetic energy.  They smile, they dance, they tell their friends, and most important for our goals, they ask questions.  This project *appears* to have made a significant advancement in getting people of all ages to feel curious about electromagnetic energy.  We call that a huge win.  And it reveals what might be our most important lesson learned:  we need to have a secondary, supportive setup that allows people to learn more about the science before and after the immersive, mixed reality environment.

You can see in the pictures that the setup relies on a pretty nifty technique we developed to be able to project on a real mirror, and compensate for the user’s perspective.  We did this to increase the extent to which the user can appreciate that our artistic representations of electromagnetic energy do, in fact, represent something that’s really happening.  (We’re big on the idea that science education should be a sensory experience.)

The way it worked, more or less, is that you step into the installation, let the camera track you by holding a pose for a few seconds, then start playing/inspecting the theremin.  You get a sweet soundscape, thanks to Amber, and you get amazing visualizations of electromagnetic energy superimposed in the space between you and the theremin, thanks to Alex’s OpenFrameworks wizardry.


We were honored to be there as a part of the World Science Festival.   Our hosts, EYBEAM Art+Technology Center are amazing.  We can’t thank everybody, but we definitely want to highlight the incredible help we got from Stephanie, Marco and Jamie  –  also special thanks to Amanda, the ED.  If you don’t know EYEBEAM, get to know them.  They’re doing incredible work fostering and advancing the interactive art+science space by giving that community a hub and a space in Manhattan.

The Inspector is one of about a dozen exhibits in the BIORHTYHM traveling exhibit put together by Science Gallery.  Again, too many people to thank, but special thanks to Rob, Lea, Alison, Lynn, Derek and a special thanks to Michael John, the ED of the gallery.  You guys rock.

Our Workshop:  LegoViz

We were asked to put on a workshop as a part of the World Science Festival.  We love legos.  So at the workshop, we spent some time talking about how to tell stories with data, then jumped to the fun part of telling stories with LEGOS.

With the blessing of yet another friend and mentor, Yarrow Kraner, we decided to use a different type of information for our lego-visualizations.  We wanted to help kids and people of all ages tell THEIR story; their goals; their aspirations; their identities.   So we used the SuperDudes format for helping people describe themselves as superheroes, then asked them to build their super hero tool belts with legos.

We saw lots of amazing creations.  There were platforms for time travel, swiss-army-knife style tools that could restore crop lands in seconds, at least one heavy artillery cannon, and loads of inventive props that helped people tell their stories.


Alex and I both agree that the vision Yarrow had with SuperDudes resulted in the best question ever:  ”what’s your super hero story?” and we had a lot of fun teaching people to think creatively about visualizing information in a storytelling context.


We loved every minute of this experience.  We’re honored and humbled to be a part of it.  If you’re in NYC, stop by EYEBEAM and tell them we sent you.

On inspiration and origins…and happy retirement wishes

When I logged on to Facebook this morning, the first post I saw was a Jim Henson quotation passed on by friend and mentor to The Reality Inspectors, Yarrow Kraner, founder of HATCH and President of CHISEL. The quotation was this:

My hope still is to leave the world a bit better than when I got here.
–Jim Henson (1936-1990)

It’s a sentence that summarizes the lives I’ve seen my parents live, and given that they’re both thankfully in good health, the lives I’ll see them live while another generation or two are born and raised. What does this have to do with The Reality Inspectors and teaching science to kids? It’s simple: I design and build technology that helps people overcome challenges they face in the real world, and I’ve done that kind of work since I was about 8. My father, in his techno-wizardry, empowered me to be able to do so; I could type before I could write. But it was the challenges faced in my mom’s public school classroom that provided the inspiration.

For 40 years, today marking the day we celebrate her retirement, my mom — Linda McDonald — has taught children who have special learning needs. “Special Ed” as the education world typically refers to her chosen tract. These kids have ranged from the wounded and abused to drug addicts and people with extraordinary disabilities who could move just one or two muscles in their whole body, while a lucid mind remained trapped inside. In that time, I suspect that the recognitions, awards, appointments and consultations she’s received don’t add up to much compared to the smile she shines every time one of her students learns to walk instead of crawl, to run instead of walk.

I remember being very young and her being very frustrated with the lack of support for the technologies that enabled her students to communicate and to engage. Her district couldn’t afford to invest in the best in class technologies — education funding being the subject of an entirely different lecture series I may someday post — which put her in the position of having some hardware, some software and none of it working or supported properly. This was the early 90′s, so “plug and play” was hardly an option, especially for relatively rare devices like paddle switches to mount to wheelchairs.

I was set to spend time learning and working, on a regular basis, to figure out how these technologies could be brought to life. I would tinker, tinker, break, tinker, learn, fix. A process I still follow today, for the most part…

I learned a lot about how to use computers doing this kind of volunteer work. But I learned what remains to this day, the most important lesson from a paddle switch. (If you don’t know what this is, just imagine a big single button on a switch that can be easily clicked or held and released. It becomes a controller for all kinds of human-computer interfaces.) My mom had a student — and I wish I remember the details more clearly, but I don’t — who was quadriplegic. So the student couldn’t move any muscle, except for a slight twitch of the head. A lifetime without talking, clapping, grasping or any movement whatsoever; but clear signs of understanding language, surroundings and even other people.

My tinkering in some part, in that case, led to the positioning of a head switch; thanks to all my mother’s tireless work to get this to happen, it was then connected to a custom piece of software that spoke words out loud. That way, the student could hold down the switch with only a slight gesture of the head, while a box highlighted different words or graphics and release the switch on thing which the student wished to say “out loud” through the software.

In today’s age where Stephen Hawking gives TED talks, this doesn’t seem that big of a deal, but at the time it was a tremendous thing. And this experience and dozens more like it have shaped who I am, who I want to be and the kind of work I see fit to contribute in this world. It is, perhaps, the most important thing my mother ever taught me: technology can empower all kinds of people and make us more human, more connected to our own humanity and more immersed in the grace that comes from finding the beauty and the value in each and every single person.

As just one of thousands of students over the last 40 years, let me say thank you for your service, Mom. The world is a better place because of the lessons you’ve taught us and you’ve set a high standard for the amount of love, faith and respect we must have for all people.


Theremin Assembly @ EYEBEAM in NYC

We had a bit of a tough time finding a theremin on short notice.  No problem, though.  Our fearless engineer Alex Hornbake has mad skills, so with the Science Gallery Dublin engineering lead (Derek) we ran up to Sam Ash music center in Manhattan and bought a Moog Theremin Kit.   We time lapsed the assembly for you to check out:

Reality Inspectors :: Theremin Assembly at EYEBEAM NYC from Sean McDonald on Vimeo.

Also, a picture of our current work setup.









credit for the photo:  Rob Warren, Director of Shitty Photo Science, Department of Shit Photos, U.K.  All rights reserved.


This is our manifestor: a living document that guides us. We thought about writing a manifesto, but that didn’t express the reality of the situation, that our goals and perspectives will change over time.

There’s something about the expression “out of sight, out of mind” that resonates. It’s culturally pervasive because we all seem to recognize that, on average, when we don’t see people, we don’t think about them as much. Often, when we don’t see people, we enter an emotionally shallow relationship with them. So what does this human trait help us understand about science education?

Imagine a world where we didn’t have direct human interactions with the people we love. Man and wife might consumate their marriage face-to-face to make a baby, but over 90% of how they know each other is from journalistic writings about each other that they receive from a third party.

This is the nature of most students’ relationships with the science that they’re supposed to learn. “ some text about this and show me that you know it.” But it’s still, for the student, out of sight, and maybe thereby, out of mind.

Our mission is to take science out of the abstract and into the emotional by making it visible, putting students face-to-face with science. We think that just about everybody will fall in love with the reality of the existence in which we live if they just get to know it a little bit better.



Theremin Inspector v2 @ EYEBEAM ::: Jun – Aug 2011

We’re excited about debuting THE THEREMIN INSPECTOR v2 at EYEBEAM Art + Technology Center in New York.   It opens Jun 2, 2011.  More soon.

Education Toy: Theremin Video Game

Waves exist.  That’s a big deal when you’re a little kid.  Our Theremin Inspector is all about teaching kids that electromagnetic energy exists.  And it works.

Visualizing Waves with Beatboxer Cian Styles

Analog Mixed Reality

It’s easy to think of augmented and mixed reality as something new.  But people have been having fun with interactive reality for a very long time.  Check out a couple ideas we’ve worked up.