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Australian Student wins International Award

Australian Student wins International Award

Australian Student wins International Award

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Australian Saul Griffith, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology doctoral candidate, has won the prestigious Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for inventing a machine which quickly tests vision and a desktop machine which manufactures low-cost eyeglass lenses. These machines could dramatically improve life for billions of people in developing countries who cannot access, nor afford, prescription glasses.”

Merton Flemings, director of the Lemelson-MIT Program, which sponsors the annual award for inventiveness, cited Griffith’s innovative device eyeglass manufacturing and his work creating comic strips that inspire children to learn about science and engineering as important reasons he was chosen this year.

“It’s sometimes easier for engineers and scientists to work on the next generation of computer chips or the next PDA, but there are some beautiful problems that a lot of people don’t go after because it’s hard to get support and funding and it’s incredibly hard to be successful,” Griffith said. “It would be nice if my work inspired others to address some of these problems and make them more acceptable.”

Griffith’s advances in low-cost lenses sprung from his interests in rapid prototyping technologies and efficient manufacturing. Using a process dubbed programmable molding, he created a portable device similar to a desktop printer that can produce any prescription lens from a single-mould surface in less than ten minutes.

The device casts the lenses by applying pressure and constraints to a programmable membrane, which becomes the mould surface when under pressure. The current device uses car window tinting film for the membrane and a reservoir of baby oil for applying the correct pressure. A large range of lens types, covering the majority of prescriptions, can be cast from two such mould surfaces.

Traditional lens manufacturing systems require expensive moulds for each lens type. In remote rural areas, it is cost-prohibitive to maintain a library of thousands of lenses for relatively small populations of people. The traditional process not only comes with enormous inventory and handling costs, but also can result in excessive waste. Griffith’s patent-pending device essentially eliminates these problems.

But efficient lens manufacturing is only half the issue. Proper diagnosis of vision problems is the other half. Current automatic diagnostic technologies are expensive, fragile and error-prone. Because they rely on a patient looking at electronically generated images a few inches away from his or her face, they can lead to incorrect diagnoses. Plus, highly skilled people are required to operate these machines.

To resolve this problem, Griffith has created a prototype device to test the human eye. Patients need only wear the device, which looks like an oversized pair of goggles, and look at the world around them. An electronic sensor superimposed on the goggles monitors the lens in the wearer’s eye and adjusts the device’s lens to cancel the refractive errors, thus determining the correct prescription.

Griffith’s interest in rapid prototyping and personal fabrication could someday lead to what he terms, “low cost digitally enabled machine tools that allow more people to build their own stuff.”

“I am still extremely interested in this area,” he enthuses. “The idea of Open Source Hardware and people sharing their design code over the web is very powerful. I think it’s actually more relevant to more people than pure open source software. I'd love to see everyone involved in product development by sharing designs on the web and manufacturing their own personal items at home or in properly resourced local libraries.”

“So I'm very interested in developing this molding concept in areas outside of lenses and that is something I will be doing in a small start-up company (www.squid-labs.com) when I finish at MIT in a few months and the low-cost eye testing device will also be developed in that company.

Griffith attributes his inventiveness to his nurturing parents, an artist (http://www.pamelagriffith.com/) and an academic who reside in his native Sydney, Australia. “I was always tinkering with things I found laying around, just to get ideas,” he recalled. “When you’re a kid you don’t really think about it, but you learn a lot about how stuff works. Now, I can subconsciously draw upon all of the things I broke growing up. Fortunately, my parents encouraged my toy de-construction!” The Howtoons Project

When awarding the Lemelson prize, the judges also noted the work Griffith had done in a project named Howtoons (www.howtoons.org), in which Griffith seeks to instill that same mischievous spirit of discovery in future generations of kids. Part comic strip and part science experiment, the one-page Howtoons help children find imaginative new uses for soda bottles, plastic buckets, duct tape, balloons, ice, salt and other household materials.

Griffith said the project aims to inspire kids to see the world not for what it is, but for what it could be. “I'm currently very passionate about www.howtoons.org and believe education in the physical world around us is incredibly important,” said Griffith.

"Too many people grow up with no understanding of the technology that is pervasive in their lives. We are pursuing a very hands on educational content that is also just damned mischievous and fun, I am intrigued by cartoons as a high-bandwidth visual communication tool. I'm currently looking at a book deal to make those happen in the real world, and potentially TV and film as well.

Much of Griffith’s research is in industrial materials science and manufacturing. “I’m influenced by the elegant way nature manufactures things, which is significantly better, in most cases, than the way humans do. I hope to develop new manufacturing processes that are simpler and can make things more efficiently and with less waste. You can characterise my work as ‘tools of mass construction,’” he said.

Griffith’s doctoral thesis at the MIT Media Laboratory explores the relationship between information and physical structure in materials and self-assembly. He is looking at ways to build programmatically assembling machines and materials with higher complexity and function than current self-assembling systems. His research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation Center for Bits and Atoms and DARPA.

The Squid Labs Start-up

Saul’s studies have fuelled many passions, amongst them “intelligent textiles that are active in that they monitor or react to their environment in an interesting way.” “That work and a few other textile projects will also be continued under my Squid Labs start-up. Squid Labs will be based in the bay area of California as I have to get away from Boston, because the long winters are driving me nuts!

“I need more sun, and more consistent wind to pursue my kitesurfing addiction. Fortunately the other squid labs founders share the addiction so our board meetings will be on the water....

“I also developed an electronic rope while at the media lab. I still have a big interest in textiles thanks to my father's influence. I will also be continuing that project under Squid Labs.

Basically it is a composite fibre mix that enables the rope to monitor it's own wear and loading conditions with a very simple electronic interface at one end of the rope. So what is your vision of your future?

“I love the work I am doing for my PhD thesis, but it is quite conceptual and a long way out. How do you build machines that build themselves programmatically from microscopic components and exhibit the beautiful properties of biological systems like self-repair, error-correction, replication, and fabulous 3D complexity. It is really early days.

“Perhaps I would best describe it as the challenge of understanding how a tree builds itself from a seed, and then using those concepts to build machines that grow. In general I think the huge opportunity for the future that I would love to see occur is taking bio-tech into bulk materials. All the focus right now is on biomedical applications and crop/agriculture type stuff.

“I'd like to think about and work on how to take biotech concepts into the fabrication of building materials, packaging materials that recycle themselves, growing parts and objects. Perhaps I don't have the skill set for it, but I am enamoured by the ideas.

“I would also love to see a future where many more people engage themselves in their own consumer habits by building and recycling their own objects.

“It would be a much more interesting and productive world were it so. I think there is profound unexplored space in this area using the web connected to computer-controlled machine tools and the sharing of the description files for those objects as well as the design process. I am not satisfied with the majority of products and their poor design, perhaps this would lead to better design. I think educational projects like Howtoons will be a part of that.

“I've never been able to stay in what other people would call one field of endeavour. I love to look for the connections between fields old and new. I can personally see all the connections between everything I do. For example, Saul’s older sister selena is an Industrial Designer and runs a company named www.monkeykites.com. Saul designs the aerodynamics, and Selena “does everything else”, according to Saul. “She teaches industrial design and can do just about everything and tries to.”

“I can see similarities - the lenses and kite designs share some very interesting aspects of constrained minimal energy surface design, though I think other people just see it all as haphazard.”

… and what has it been like attending the fabled MIT media lab?

“The Media Lab has been amazing. It is wonderful hands-off atelier education. It's like a Montessori school for adults; just get lots of energetic people, put them in a box with great resources and let them bounce around off each other and produce lots of cool stuff, stuff that works, doesn't work, is pointless, is important. It all comes out of the creative mix and is an addictive atmosphere to work in. I would love to see something similar spring up in Australia. Definitely not a media lab copy - I think it is time for something new, probably with a stronger mix of the biological and physical sciences with art and music and education thrown in the mix.”

About the Author
Mike Hanlon After Editing or Managing over 50 print publications primarily in the role of a Magazine Doctor, Mike embraced the internet full-time in 1995 and became a "start-up all-rounder" – quite a few start-ups later, he founded Gizmag in 2002. Now he can write again.   All articles by Mike Hanlon
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