27 July 2018

THE MAGNETISM OF AN 'IN-BETWEEN'

SPECIAL EDITION – MI FEATURE

BY: CHRISTINA BONDI

On Saturday, July 21st, I set out for the Ontario Science Centre, donning my Back to the Future t-shirt and hoverboard necklace. The reason for this expedition was POPnology, an exhibition visiting from May 19 to August 6, 2018. I eagerly walked into Proctor & Gamble Great Hall. Before me, popular culture and science/technology had actively joined forces, allowing for conversation. I stood at the threshold, between one and the other, and explored this thrilling ‘in-between’.

Baxter, a robot designed by Rethink Robotics, is positioned near the entrance of POPnology. Visitors are first greeted, and then introduced to the exhibition space. During Baxter’s brief presentation, its arms move and facial features change. The sign just below the robot reads, “Demos every 5 minutes. Even robots need rest!” Reflecting further, it is clear that Baxter illustrates an enduring need for humans to convey anthropomorphic features or mannerisms onto robotics.

Baxter welcomes visitors to POPnology. Photo courtesy of Christina Bondi.
Baxter mentions four central ‘spheres’ in which to reflect upon the term popnology: ‘How We Connect,’ ‘How We Play,’ ‘How We Live & Work,’ and ‘How We Move.’ Throughout the exhibition space, visitors are able to learn about how science fiction and science coexist and converse with each other: in wrist and handheld devices, robotics, virtual reality, video games, 3D printing, space exploration (i.e. Mars and aliens), autonomous vehicles, AI, and so on. For example, I found the visual timeline of real versus fictitious robots to be quite effective. In the image below, you will see that these robots—whether they be conceptually or materially constructed—were, are, or will be a part of our popular culture.

Robots: a timeline. Photo courtesy of Christina Bondi.
The exhibition features a time capsule structure with several significant individuals, in relevant fields: the visions and realities of select authors, scientists, inventors, and business people throughout history. These include, but are not limited to, Leonardo da Vinci, Walt Disney, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs. The capsule even includes four small displays (one for each ‘sphere’ of POPnology), which make up a popular culture collection (i.e. books, photographs, and other objects) of a time past.

The POPnology time capsule. Photo courtesy of Christina Bondi.
Also, it was truly inspiring to see the Back to the Future DeLorean time machine and hoverboard; I always appreciate learning about how others envision and contemplate the future. But more to the point, I am a devoted Back to the Future fan.

 The Back to the Future DeLorean time machine. Photo courtesy of Christina Bondi.
Both children and adults are encouraged to engage with POPnology’s exhibition space. The many interactive elements balanced and complemented the themes’ written text. Visitors manoeuvre robotic arms in order to remotely lift dinosaur eggs and create block structures. A rover drives around a small area of Mars, based on remote-control implementation and human engagement (i.e. click the buttons to assign movement). During my own visit, I thoroughly enjoyed a game of tic-tac-toe with ToeBot. Though quite clever and determined, I did find a way to double-trap the robot.

An engrossing game of tic-tac-toe with ToeBot. Photo courtesy of Christina Bondi
To further obscure the real and the virtual, I also had the chance to ‘transport’ myself into two virtual settings (of ten) via an Oculus Rift headset. The experience was brief yet intense. In one setting, for example, I had been placed on the top of a building, overlooking a dystopic/futuristic cityscape. I spent the time struggling to convince myself that it was simply a virtual construction. Did I dare move forward and risk stepping off the platform?

Desperately seeking a return to some kind of material form, I then thought of 3D printing. The 3D printing booth at POPnology features both Formlabs and MakerBot printers—the latter in ‘additive action’ for passersby to witness! Even the ground-breaking, inaugural 3D printed car (Local Motors) is on display, to praise and applaud. 3D printing is quite a multi-purpose process, as it can produce prosthetics (i.e. Exiii HACKberry arm), medical models, and decorative items, just to name a few.

3D printing booth (left), Local Motors 3D printed car (centre), and Exiii HACKberry prosthetic arm (left).
Photos courtesy of Christina Bondi.
POPnology offers engagement with both traditional (i.e. arts-and-crafts) and digital forms of making. For instance, a workshop is available for children to construct a Mars lander, consisting of a parachute and other craft supplies as needed. This allows for a more traditional crafting experience. Nearby, STEAMLabs (a Toronto-based makerspace) calls for interaction via coding/programming. The result involves moving a robotic arm, so as to lift Minecraft-themed objects.
Coding with STEAMLabs. Photo courtesy of Christina Bondi.
As a small treat, I will end by sharing one last experience. Whilst exploring the exhibition, I came across the POPnology photo booth. Because of my Back to the Future attire, I thought it was especially fitting to document the visit. Below, you will find me, presumably, in transit through time; when selecting photographs for this article, I had noticed that the Back to the Future DeLorean time machine replica features the same backdrop (see image 4 to compare).
 “Where am I?” Photo courtesy of the POPnology photo booth, Ontario Science Centre.
Examine (through both written/visual content and experiential activities) the deep-rooted attraction between popular culture and science/technology at the Ontario Science Centre’s POPnology. This exhibition closes on August 6, 2018. No need to jump into your DeLorean time machine quite yet. There’s still some time!

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