Prototyping Creativity at CCA’s Hybrid Lab

John Lasseter, chief creative officer at Pixar and Disney once famously said, “Technology inspires art, and art challenges the technology.” Situated firmly at this powerful intersection is San Francisco’s California College of the Arts (CCA) and their cutting-edge Hybrid Lab, a multidisciplinary creative technology lab that makes tools of engineering accessible to design and art students.

Toward the end of February 2014, Hybrid Lab manager Andrew Maxwell-Parish rode a utility bike designed by CCA students over to OMC headquarters to pick up the lab’s newest addition, the Othermill. Maxwell-Parish explains, “We had been looking into getting a small Roland for making PCBs, but the cost was a little too high to justify it with our budget. When the Othermill came out, it seemed like it had huge potential.”

CaseStudy-CCA-AtDesk-Index In the short time that the Othermill has been in the lab, it’s become a favorite tool among students. Maxwell-Parish adds, “Students will grab other students and bring them into the lab just to show them the mill. It’s already a very popular machine and I see it becoming only more so.” Currently used predominantly for custom circuit boards in a variety of projects from installations to wearables to mechatronics, it’s proven indispensable for lowering the hurdles of getting started with electronics.

Michael Shiloh, associate professor of electronics and programming at CCA, has been using the Othermill with his interaction design students and says, “Andrew did the purchase, but if I’d known how useful it would be, I would have been demanding it, too.” Shiloh adds that it’s allowed him to fluidly teach practical PCB design skills and has reduced the time he spends debugging delicate solderless breadboard projects. Because of the Othermill, he now encourages students to go directly to PCB, and students are free to experiment with diverse circuit ideas and shapes, enabling them to easily adapt boards to their creative projects.

One of Shiloh’s third-year interaction design students, Colin Willson, employed the Othermill to create an interactive digital disco ball. The project uses distance sensors connected to an Arduino to change the brightness of specific LEDs according to the activity they detect. Willson explains, “The Othermill enabled me to create unique and detailed custom-shaped circuit boards which not only held the circuitry, but also acted as the structure of my project.” He adds, “It’s a great tool to have in my arsenal, and I’m sure I will use it again. It was a perfect solution for my disco ball project and I’m glad I had access to it.”

CaseStudy-CCA-DiscoBall Despite the fact that Willson hadn’t had previous experience with CNC mills, he says, “At first look, the software appeared a little daunting, but I actually picked it up rather quickly and was pretty comfortable with it after that.” Another CCA interaction design student, William Felker, had been trained on other CNC mills, but hadn’t spent much time using them because of their “seemingly complicated nature.” He adds, “Otherplan makes connecting and performing maintenance on the Othermill quick and easy in comparison to larger mills.” Thus far, Felker has used the Othermill to make Arduino breakout shields, custom power switch relays, and various PCBs for mini analog electronics projects. Next up, he plans to start experimenting with milling machine wax.

One of Shiloh’s fourth-year students, Jasmine Calderon, is eager to spend more time with the Othermill, and says, “As an interaction design student, the user experience of a product is very important to me. I thoroughly enjoy working with the Othermill because I can visually see what’s going on when my board is being etched or drilled. What I really love is how I can select which ‘layer’ I want to focus on. I enjoy being able to work on one thing at a time and seeing my design build up.”

As the students become more familiar with the capabilities of the Othermill, it’s exciting to see their creativity flourish. Maxwell-Parish sees first-hand the positive effect it’s had in the Hybrid Lab and says, “Anyone who has spent significant time doing electronic prototyping loves this machine. It is the type of machine that changes your entire workflow.”