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Syyn Labs’ Chief East Coast Geek Builds Scrappy Rube Goldberg Machine for PopTech [Video]

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Last fall, when most of Syyn Labs was hunkered down in its Los Angeles warehouse building a Rube Goldberg machine for the Google Science Fair, Heather Knight was building one to kick off PopTech, the brainy and fun annual conference in Camden, Maine. PopTech’s video on the making of Knight’s creation just came out, and it’s a must-see.

Director Beth Cohen, PopTech’s director of media production, and her crew follow Knight, the only Syyn regular based on the East Coast, as she and two friends (Syyn volunteers Chris Becker and Marek Michalowski) scour antiques and collectibles shops for everyday objects, such as a softball, a shopping cart and a rocking chair. Over four days, they assembled a series of whimsical and physical chain reactions that evoke the OK Go machine that Knight contributed to (a row of books tumbles just as dominoes did in that earlier piece). But what’s particularly instructive is seeing the wondrous contraption stop. It happens more than once. The conference theme, appropriately enough, was “Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures, and Improbable Breakthroughs.”

Syyn’s usual performances on film are, by nature, misleading. It’s easy to mistake the single shot of continuous action in Syyn’s Google, Disney and OK Go machines as the norm. In fact, the OK Go device required 85 takes before the entire series of interactions made it to the end without failing. A rolling billiard ball would miss its target. A chair wouldn’t tilt over. Whatever the trigger, it didn’t work. The Rube Goldberg machine may be a star, but as a performer it’s a nightmare.

Knight had to build a more reliable machine for the opening of PopTech. For the most part, it works, eventually showering the audience with hundreds of balloons. When it stalls, though, in a hilarious bit of off-stage directing, she flings a book to trigger the next action and get the thing moving again. Watching this, you realize what an astonishing feat it is that Syyn gets a machine to complete dozens of interactions without fail, even one time.

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That sort of technical and intellectual puzzle explains why someone like Knight, who’s earning a PhD in robotics at Carnegie Mellon, flies across the country several times a year to work alongside her Syyn colleagues. She fell in with them while she was living in L.A. and working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena. The projects and the collaboration across multiple disciplines are exhilarating. “Our biggest fear is not that we won’t succeed,” Knight tells me. “It’s that we’ll succeed and lose that spirit and that brotherhood.”

Don’t miss another video of Knight that’s making the rounds online. Her TED talk from December features a joke-telling robot, which is part of Marilyn Monrobot, her robot theater company.

Read more Fast Company coverage of Syyn Labs

About the author

Chuck Salter is a senior editor at Fast Company and a longtime award-winning feature writer for the magazine. In addition to his print, online and video stories, he performs live reported narratives at various conferences, and he edited the Fast Company anthologies Breakthrough Leadership, Hacking Hollywood, and #Unplug.

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