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An Interview with Valkyrie Savage and Stefanie Mueller, ACM UIST

We recently learned that a forthcoming technology conference, ACM User Interface Software and Technology (UIST) Symposium 2015, which runs November 8-11 in Charlotte, NC, has chosen 3D printing as part of its Student Innovation Contest. The contest will test students’ ability to pair 3D printing with the field of animatronics. Animatronics, for those not familiar, is defined by Dictionary.com as “the technology connected with the use of electronics to animate puppets or other figures, as for motion pictures&rdquo. It is great to see such a large group embracing the technology of 3D printing for a contest that involves students, providing even further credence to the technology that has evolved so rapidly over the last 3-5 years. To find out more we spoke with the two committee chairs of the Student Innovation contest, Ms. Valkyrie Savage, a Ph.D. student at UC-Berkeley, and Ms. Stefanie Mueller, a Ph.D. student at the Hasso Plattner Institute located in Pottsdam, Germany. The interview was conducted via email and the transcript is below.

1) This is the 28th ACM UIST conference, is this the first time your group has focused on 3D printing for student innovation? Are there any other subgroups doing anything related to 3D printing at the conference?
This is the first time we've focused on 3D printing for the contest, yes! In prior years, we have been more traditional-hardware focused, using for example the Microsoft TouchMouse and Synaptics Forcepad. There's a lot of research on 3D printing (some by myself and Stefanie) that is presented and demoed at UIST.

2) What are some of the goals of this competition?
The competition is about getting new students involved in the UIST community, and giving those students that already are a part of it a chance to try something outside their research area and (gasp) have fun! This year's contest focuses also on creating opportunities for younger students (high school) to get into programming through the process of storytelling. This year we're having more of a tool-building contest and less of a hacking contest, which we're hoping will encourage broader appreciation of STEAM skills and invite these high schoolers to pursue them in college.

3) Could you talk a little more about the role that 3D printing will have in the building of these animatronic creatures? Will you have a 3D printer on-hand at the event for contestants to use?
We won't have one on-hand for them to use, but the skeletons of the animatronic puppets are essentially composed of servos connected by 3D printed parts. We'll have pan-tilt mounts designed to serve as necks for the creatures, which servos can snap into for motion. Stefanie has a student working on other types of 3D printable accessories for the contest, and we're encouraging some 3D printable tool-building, as well: we'd love to see tools to help specify motions for the puppets, or "emotion kits" that will allow snapping on, for example, a happy face or a sad face.

4) What is each of your own experiences with this technology? Does it relate to either of your dissertation topics?
Yes! We are both writing dissertations on 3D printing. Stefanie's focus is on techniques for speeding up the printing process, including integrating Legos or lasercut plates as a low-res standin for some parts. My research is on printing interactive devices (like game controllers) that can be sensed by snapping in a single sensor, like a camera or a microphone.

5) Is there an age limit or do you only need to be a student between a high school and before post-doc?
No age limit! We would love to see a wide variety, since design teams with more diversity have been proven to have better ideas on average.

6) How many people can be on a single team?
Teams can include between 1 and 4 students.

7) Are contestants allowed to get assistance from non-team members?
We prefer to limit this; we really want the students to drive the contest and not just execute their advisors' wishes. We'll have a technical help team consisting of the folks who pitched animatronics to us that can assist with any issues that crop up, but we want the designs and thinking to come from the students.

8) What do you think high schools and colleges can do better (if anything) to foster efforts related to 3D printing, STEM, or STEAM education for students?
From what I can see, things are moving in a good direction (at least here in the States, maybe Stefanie has some opinions about Germany). I have a lot of really close-held opinions about the education system in general (when I graduate, I'd like to do some middle-school or high-school teaching) and I think a lot of core problems with the way its run need to be worked out for these types of initiatives to be a true success, but stepping towards the common core and general integration of disciplines is an excellent start! I'd love to see more partnerships with communities, and more opportunities for high school students to drive their own project work and learning, but these types of shifts tend to come slowly. The maker community is accessible outside of schools, though, which I think is a great strength, and some students can take their learning into their own hands, as it were.