Interview with John Cole of Dexter Industries

Interview with John Cole of Dexter Industries
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Dexter Industries makes robotic sensors for Lego Mindstorms Nxt that are “easy to use, fun, and have real-life applications for scientists and engineers.” I recently caught up with John Cole (above), the founder of Dexter Industries, for a quick Q&A.

Could you please answer the following questions:

1. Tell us a bit about yourself — where you live, what you do for a living, what you are interested in?

I usually live in the Washington, DC area with my wife. She works for the US Government, and we end up travelling quite a bit. For the past few months we’ve lived in Kabul Afghanistan. We’ve also lived in Mexico City, Washigton DC, Baghdad; we’ll be moving to India in a few months.

I studied chemical engineering in school, and I work as an engineer. I’ve started a biodiesel company, worked for an oil company as an engineer, and for the past few months I’ve worked on large infrastructure projects in Afghanistan.

I really fell in love with LEGO MINDSTORMS when I restarted the “hands on” phase of my life a few years ago. It reignited my passion in computers and robots. So I started Dexter Industries to start making some sensors I thought I needed for the LEGO MINDSTORMS. Turns out other people needed them too.

My other passions include running, diving, and travelling. My wife and I travel quite a bit for her work and for fun.

I also like to make beer. I’ve been looking for a way to combine robotics and beer lately.

2. Why do you like making things?

Making things is fun! It’s a lot of fun to make something yourself and show it off to your friends or family. There’s that feeling of ownership and problem-solving that’s hard to put into words, that’s sort of intrinsic to every project you do.

There’s also a lot of potential to change the world when you make something. There’s an awesome story of the century that’s just cooking up now: people are getting access to tools and they’re making life better. Ideas are flowing more freely than ever. Makers are the acolytes of this new wave of potential. When you make something, you’re not waiting for others to do, you’re doing yourself. It adds real meaning to life to go out and make something, to solve a problem, and leave the world a little better than it was.

3. Can you tell us something about the kits and components you make?

We make 3rd party sensors for the LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT. The NXT is so diverse: you can hand it to a 10 year old and they’re making robots in a few hours. You can also hand it to a 40 year old network engineer and they’re hooked and making crazy, complicated things. You can program it in Labview, C, C++, Matlab, and Java. When I first saw it, I thought it was amazing. I still think the kit is amazing. It’s disarmingly simple: people get intimidated by technology, but LEGO’s are something everyone grew up with so it’s not that hard to start with the simple, and grow into the complex.

We make sensors that are on the cutting edge for LEGOs. We started with a simple 110V switch (my first electronics project in about 10 years since graduating from college). As I’ve learned more and more about programming and design, we’ve gotten more complex. We now have some really cool stuff that wasn’t out there for the MINDSTORMS system before: an XBee module, a WIFI module, an IMU, a Thermal Infrared sensor. The sensors are used by middle schoolers, high schoolers, college students, and adults. It’s awesome that a high schooler can buy our wifi sensor and now his robot can communicate on the internet, get the weather, post data, and tweet. It sounds trivial, but it wasn’t there until Dexter Industries made it.

4. What kind of thing do you dream of making?

We have some really cool projects coming out for the LEGO MINDSTORMS, including some software for the WIFI sensor we offer right now. I really like making things though that help other people to make things.

I did recently buy an android phone and an IOIO. I need to get my feet wet with it, but I’m looking forward to making some things for the Android that are closer to my roots in chemical engineering. I was really inspired by the OpenPCR project. There are so many ways that the mobile phones could help with developing world problems: you have enough processing power in the phone to run a whole medical lab. I’m hoping that when I get to India, a dream project will develop.

5. Can you tell us about one of your favorite tools?

My favorite tool changes on a monthly basis; it totally depends on what I’m working on. Lately, my favorite tool is the Salae Logic Analyzer. I bought one not really knowing what I’d use it for: I saw it and knew I would need it. It’s got such an elegant and intuitive design. I’ve never used the manual: I just plugged it in, started the software and started using it. I use it almost daily now for troubleshooting and testing. It’s got an elegant design, the software is super-easy to use, and it’s a go-to tool whenever I think a digital circuit is misbehaving.

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Mark Frauenfelder is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Make: magazine, and the founder of the popular Boing Boing blog.

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