Designing the future, 1 chair at a time

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UC Berkeley’s 3D Modeling Club’s Facebook post about its annual design-a-thon could not have been more perfect — “No experience? This is a great way to jump into one of the biggest parts of the maker and design communities.”

“No experience” is all I need to hear, but any notion that this was an event for novices quickly dissipated once I read, “We’ll provide Arduinos, bluetooth chips and other materials for you to use.” I have no clue how bluetooth chips work, and I don’t even know what an Arduino is, much less how to use it. But the prize for the winning team was a 3-D printer for each team member, so I gathered up my team, which consisted of a business major, a cognitive science major and myself, and showed up only 30 minutes late.

Between my two teammates, they had a little more than two hours of experience with 3-D modeling. I actually took the 3-D modeling DeCal last semester, but there are two reasons people take DeCals — a genuine interest in the subject matter or a desperate need for credits. It’s safe to say I fell into the latter category, as my final project was a crude model of a human arm.

The people seated around us at the design-a-thon made it pretty clear that we were the least experienced. There was one guy sporting a jacket that read, “Amazon Alexa Developer.” I don’t know if he really helped develop Alexa, but as an intimidation tactic, it was working.

After introductions and a welcome slideshow, we were given our theme: health and fitness. Starting at 12 p.m. Saturday, teams needed to design and print out a prototype before Sunday’s 10 a.m. showcase to the judges. After seeing teams immediately get to work and start making use of the vast array of electronics and wires, my team decided we needed a more secluded space to think of a product.

Most of our ideas were either beyond our skill level or just plain bad, and they ranged from long, bendy razors to spoiled milk detectors. Nearly two hours of brainstorming passed before we frustratingly landed on the first idea we had: attachments that turn any chair into a rocking chair. It’s a bit of a stretch for that concept to be categorized as health and fitness, but everybody is happier in a rocking chair, and mental wellness is an important aspect of health.

Deciding on a design for the device was equally time-consuming, as my team ran through about a dozen different designs before settling on one that we thought was easily portable and retrofittable. It was as simple a design as you can imagine three confused dudes could come up with.

The basic structure was four separate pendulums that can be attached and calibrated to any chair to make it swing back and forth. Actually designing the pendulums on the software proved to be the easiest part, and our designs were in the printing queue by 6 p.m. Printing can take hours, so it was safe to leave, and perhaps the best feeling of the entire experience ensued as we grabbed our complimentary burritos and left the rest of the teams behind to design through the night.

Our plan was to pick up our printed product in the morning, assemble it before the showcase and let the awards follow. That night, one of my team members asked if we should make sure the prints fit together properly before going to bed, and we actually started walking over to the printing center in Jacobs Hall, but laziness won over and we decided to just go home. This proved to be a crucial mistake.

Come the morning, we were predictably behind schedule and showed up to retrieve our prints just 15 minutes before the final showcase. Of the four pendulums, only one had printed properly. Even our tiny display chair didn’t quite look right. It didn’t help that our display was flanked by a planter that plays music to the plants and an arm band with a gyroscope that provides feedback during a workout. It was easy to talk trash on the opponents, such as a water bottle that tells you when to drink (I’m already capable of knowing when I’m thirsty), but ask me to create any product other than ours in that room and I would not even come close.

I don’t know what our final score was, because we left before the awards ceremony. We clearly were not serious competitors, evidenced by the fact that only three of the five judges even bothered to stop by our display. To be fair, it was hard to tell exactly what was happening at out table, as we only had a quarter of our prototype, and the informational part of our display consisted solely of pictures of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson with the song “Let It Rock” playing in the background.

Despite our apparent failure, partaking in an event in which the personal stakes are low and the burritos are free is bound to be a good time. And even though our prototype could only rock a chair with one leg, I still think it’s a great fucking idea.

Contact Ryan Melvin at rmelvin@dailycal.org.

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