In Praise of People Who Tell Us How to Play with New Toys

I’ve been thinking about getting a 3D printer for a long time but haven’t taken the plunge yet. Aside from the money, space, and inevitable proliferation of small plastic things to step on, part of me is worried I wouldn’t know what to do when I got it. I think of myself as a creative person, but I feel most comfortable being creative when I have a little scaffolding to hang onto, like a recipe to modify or commercial sewing pattern to alter. This post is a tribute to the people who help give the rest of us that boost we need to figure out how to play with new toys.

A pile of Lego bricks

Image: Curtis McHale, via Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0

When it comes to 3D printing, Henry Segerman and Laura Taalman are two of my inspirations. I wrote about Taalman’s MakerHome blog a couple years ago, and now she posts at Hacktastic, a blog about “design, math, and failure,” in her words. Segerman’s book Visualizing Mathematics with 3D Printing was published recently. I had the privilege of reading it early and blurbing it, and of course I recommend it. As a mathematician, of course I want to print mathematical objects, but something I appreciate about both of them is getting an idea of what 3D printing can do that other visualization media often can’t, like knots and links printed in place without seams and hinged negatively curved surfaces. People like Segerman, Taalman, and Mike Lawler, who has been basing some of his math lessons with his kids on their work, help me understand how I can put that 3D printer to good use if I ever decide to get one.

Another emerging technology is virtual reality. Recently I’ve been admiring the way Emily Eifler, Vi Hart, and Andrea Hawksley of eleVR are helping me think about how to play with virtual and augmented reality. I’ve never been particularly gung-ho about VR. It’s always felt like something for a certain type of tech geek or gamer whose interests and mine are not terribly aligned. But a series of blog posts and videos they’ve made recently have broadened the way I think about what you can do with VR.

They’ve posted about room makeovers, VR makeup, multi-person activities and games you can play with a VR headset and brush for drawing, and experiments in combining VR with real physics. They also have a guest post from artist Evelyn Eastmond about using VR to enhance the experience of meeting people online, and I enjoyed Eifler’s meditation on context in VR and the way you can use this technology to change and enhance people’s experiences in the world.

More immediately mathematically, they have teamed up with Segerman and Mike Stay to create Hyperbolic VR, which immerses the user in hyperbolic 3-space. I also recently saw a video and blog post about a VR app called Hypercube that allows the user to manipulate 3D shadows of 4D objects using VR equipment.

The eleVR team’s social VR experiments remind me a little of one of my favorite podcasts, Flash Forward by Rose Eveleth. In each episode she imagines a possible future scenario—meat is outlawed, the Earth acquires a second moon—and talks about what might actually happen to cause that scenario. On the last episode of the recently concluded second season, she had an algorithm write the script for the fictional future scenario part of the show and then tried to figure out what the scenario would be and how to interpret it. I’ve seen some funny stuff come from Markov chains and neural networks, but this was a new level of creativity and interactivity for the listener, and it got me thinking about how else the techniques could be used.

Thank you to the brave explorers who help the rest of us tap into our creativity!

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