For a couple of years I have been working on outfitting the History Department at Western University with a new digital lab and classroom, funded by a very generous grant from our provost. The spaces are now open and mostly set up, and our graduate students and faculty have started to form working groups to teach themselves how to use the hardware and software and to share what they know with others. There is tremendous excitement about the potential of our lab, which is understandable. I believe that it is the best-equipped such space in the world: historians at Western now have their own complete Fab Lab.
In provisioning the lab and classroom, I wanted to strike a balance between supporting the kinds of activities that are typically undertaken in digital history and digital humanities projects right now, while also enabling our students and faculty to engage in the kind of “making in public” that many people argue will characterize the humanities and social sciences in the next decade.
Here is a high-level sketch of our facilities, organized by activity. The lab inventory actually runs to thousands of items, so this just an overview.
- Teaching. We have classrooms equipped with new Macs and Windows machines, LCD projectors, Samsung SDP-860 document cameras, and software for programming, writing, editing and bibliographic work, 2D and 3D design, audio and video production and other common digital tasks.
- Historical GIS. Windows workstations with ESRI ArcGIS. An Epson Expression 10000XL large-format scanner for digitizing maps, posters and photos.
- Digitization. A Canon 300II microfilm / microfiche digitizer with a complete set of lenses, and a number of flatbed and sheet-feeding scanners for documents. OCR software includes Adobe Acrobat Pro and ABBYY FineReader. Networked laser and inkjet printers for hardcopy.
- Photography and Videography. Panasonic Lumix cameras including the micro-four-thirds GX1 and the compact LX5 and LX7. Zoom lenses and lenses for 3D photography, tripods, lighting kits, and a green screen. Sony HDRPJ710V and Zoom Q3HD video cameras. Pivothead video recording eyewear and GoPro HERO 3. On the software side, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro.
- Image Projection. A short throw Hitachi CP-A222 with tabletop stand. Pico projectors to be built into exhibits: AAXA P4-X and Microvision Showwx+. Matrox DualHead2Go boxes for multiple display installations.
- Graphics. Illustrator, Maya, 3DS Max, SoftImage, MotionBuilder, Sketchbook Designer, Mudbox, Moment of Inspiration, Photomodeler, Poser, Anime Studio, Manga Studio, iStopMotion, ScreenFlow and a number of 24- and 12-inch Cintiq pen displays.
- Oral History, Podcasting, Audio and Music Production. Microphones, headphones, audio mixer, Saffire 6, Akai APC 20, Akai MPK Mini MIDI keyboard and Akai RPM3 Monitors. Ableton Live, Max 6 and Audacity. Zoom H4N digital audio recorders. Express Scribe Pro transcription software and foot pedal controllers.
- Mobile Computing. iPads and Nexus tablets.
- Laser, Vinyl and Paper Cutting. Full Spectrum 40W CO2 laser cutter, a Roland Stika vinyl sign cutter, Craft Robo CNC paper cutters. In addition to Illustrator, Pepakura Designer and Popup Card Designer software.
- 3D Printing. Makerbot Replicator 2 and Thing-o-Matics, PrintrBot Jr. Through my own lab, access to a large number of Makerbots, a Darwin RepRap, MakerGear Prusa Mendel RepRap and a Rostock delta robot.
- 3D Scanning and Modeling. Xbox Kinect, Asus Xtion Pro and Leap Motion scanners. Through my lab access to a NextEngine 3D laser scanner and NetFabb Pro software.
- Haptics. Novint Falcon force feedback controllers.
- Wearables. Arduino LilyPad and Adafruit FLORA.
- Advanced Design and Fabrication. Via my own lab, people in our department also have access to Sherline CNC mills and lathes; Rhino, LinuxCNC, Vectric, Mach 3 and CamBam software; a Modela MDX20 mill and scanner; a Zenbot 1624 CNC router; PCB fabrication facilities; SKMI API-0040 and BK Precision 2530 oscilloscopes; a BK Precision 4011A function generator; a BK Precision 2831E digital multimeter; Global Specialties PB-503 proto boards; XYTronic 850D hot air rework station; Weller WES51 soldering stations; Extech lab power supply; precision measuring instruments (micrometers, calipers, gages, rules etc.); Anadigm FPAA, Cypress CY3210 and CY8C system-on-a-chip, Atmel AVR and TI EZ430 development kits; LabJack U3-HV, Nonolith Labs CEE Analog and National Instruments USB-6008 DAQs; VEX robotics, MicroRAX, Makerbeam, LEGO Technics and Mindstorms prototyping kits; Phidgets, MaKey MaKey, Arduino, Beagle Bone, Basic Stamp and Raspberry Pi microcontrollers, sensors and actuators; and Mathematica. We also have a very well-stocked library of electronic components.
To date, the facilities have been used most fully by Devon Elliott, a PhD student who is working with Rob MacDougall and I. Devon’s dissertation is on the technology and culture of stage magic. In his work, he designs electronics, programs computers, does 3D scanning, modeling and printing, builds illusions and installations and leads workshops all over the place. You can learn more about his practice in a recent edition of the Canadian Journal of Communication and in the forthcoming #pastplay book edited by Kevin Kee. (Neither of these publications are open access yet, but you can email me for preprints.) Devon and I are also teaching a course on fabrication and physical computing at DHSI this summer with Jentery Sayers and Shaun Macpherson.
Past students in my interactive exhibit design course have also used the lab equipment to build dozens of projects, including a robot that plays a tabletop hockey game, a suitcase that tells the stories of immigrants, a batting helmet to immerse the user in baseball history, a device that lets the Prime Ministers on Canadian money tell you about themselves, a stuffed penguin in search of the South Pole, and many others. This year, students in the same class have begun to imagine drumming robots, print 3D replicas of museum artifacts, and make the things around them responsive to people.
In the long run, of course, the real measure of the space will be what kind of work comes out of it. While I don’t really subscribe to the motto “if you build it, they will come”, I do believe that historians who want to work with their hands as well as their heads have very few opportunities to do so. We welcome you! We’re very interested in taking student and post-doc makers and in collaborating with colleagues who are dying to build something tangible. Get excited and make things!