Maker Faire Detroit: Mind Flame Interview

Maker Faire Detroit is almost upon us, kicking off tomorrow, July 28, at 9:30, and running through the weekend! The excitement is building as makers are putting the finishing touches on their projects and preparing for showtime. To wrap up our series of interviews with Detroit makers, we chat with Matt Oehrlein, president of i3 Detroit hackerspace, and co-creator of the red-hot Mind Flame project.

1. Describe the project you’re bringing to Maker Faire Detroit this year. What are the components and how does it work?
The piece is a brainwave-activated flame effects display called “Mind Flame.” Two participants wear EEG headsets that read electronic pulses from their brains. They measure your intensity of concentration, and when it is at a certain level, the display erupts with huge jets of flame. The EEG headsets are off-the-shelf headsets from a company called NeuroSky. They measure small electrical pulses that originate from neurons “firing” in your brain, and translate those pulses into measurements like “concentration” or “attention,” which can be read wirelessly from your computer, or an Arduino.

The flame effect part involves some propane tanks for the fuel, some empty tanks as a gas accumulator, an electronic solenoid valve, and a hot carbide igniter similar to something you’d find in a gas clothes dryer. The electronic valve is opened by a relay controlled by a microcontroller, the propane gas whooshes out of the accumulator, past the red hot igniter, and creates a pretty satisfying fireball or flame jet.

2. What inspired you to make it and how long did it take from concept to creation?
After seeing all the awesome flame effects pieces at Maker Faire Detroit 2011, I wanted to do a flame effects piece for 2012. I really like to do projects that participants can interact with, so brainwave activation was my choice for implementing that in a you-don’t-see-that-every-day fashion. I had the opportunity to get help from Josh “Bacon” McAninch, who does the flame effects work for the very popular Gon KiRin fire-breathing dragon, and my friend and fellow i3 member, Ed Platt, who is a smart software whiz in general. It took around a month to go from concept to creation. Maybe 40 hours total. A huge chunk of time was just spent on me getting educated on how to safely do flame effects, and shopping for those hard-to-find plumbing parts.

3. Does your project work off the combined electronic pulses from the two headsets, or can you host dueling headsets?
The project supports dueling headsets. Actually, the entire project is two mostly independent flame effect systems sitting right next to each other. I thought it would add an interesting element of competition to have people try to out-concentrate the other participant. The end game is to have a duel of some kind where the participants try to burn down the opposing player’s little wooden house, or wooden stick figure, or pop a balloon, or something like that. We are still experimenting on what is the most fun and still cost effective for a large event, but just sending huge fireballs through the air is still pretty satisfying.

4. Do you have any records set yet by concentration ninjas?
I’m not sure. Ed is definitely better than me at controlling his brainwaves, but not a lot of people have tried it yet. I have a feeling people who meditate regularly will do well at this game. We are still tuning the rules of the concentration portion of the game, so no one has really gotten a chance to really hone their tactics yet.

3. Have you exhibited at Maker Faire previously?
I haven’t! I am actually fairly new to the Maker Faire/maker scene. It’s been a little over a year now since I joined a hackerspace and really dove in. I volunteered last year just to help out i3 Detroit (hackerspace) members and get a feel for the event.

Matt Oehrlein (left) and Ed Platt (right) and their Mind Flame device.

4. Tell us about yourself. How did you get started making things and who are your inspirations?
I’m a 20-something-year-old engineer. As a kid, I didn’t really fit that common narrative of taking apart everything I could get my hands on. I definitely built a lot of things, but my weapon of choice was definitely my K’Nex set over Legos or dismantled toys. I was into computers throughout high school, but I think a major milestone in my life was my first microcontrollers class in college. Being able to program something that I could attach sensors or motors to and have it interact with the physical world was huge for me. I felt like I could give little bits of intelligence to things that would ordinarily behave very predictably, or not move at all. By the end of that class, I had stocked up on electronics, a soldering iron, and other tools, and had my own little electronics lab setup in my bedroom.

As far as inspirations go, I generally don’t have role models that I want to emulate as a whole, but I do find specific characteristics in people that I admire. Right now, a characteristic I am trying to get better at is just raw, unrestricted creativity. I believe thinking creatively is one of the most important skills for success, and I see a lot of people at hackerspaces that are able to just generate a lot of really great, attention-grabbing, wacky ideas that have the potential to make you go, “Huh… It never even crossed my mind to do something like that, but that’s really cool!” I think getting a degree in science or engineering can kill creativity in people because students (especially undergraduate) are taught to find the one right answer following a very concrete process, and not to think of multiple solutions or how to reframe a problem. You could say I have some un-learning to do.

5. You’re the president of i3 Detroit hackerspace. What makes i3 distinctly Detroit?
Manufacturing. There is so much infrastructure and community here to support the automotive and manufacturing industry. Because of this, there are abundant resources for people who want to weld or machine parts. It’s so awesome to be able to have members who can teach you how to build something out of steel or brass, and actually be able to just walk down the street to one of many industrial equipment or materials suppliers to buy everything you need. I have yet to visit a hackerspace with a better-equipped machine shop than ours. The economic struggles of the Detroit area are, overall, a benefit for a hackerspace. Our rent is comparatively low, and we can pick up high quality used equipment for a huge discount from local companies that are liquidating.

6. What’s your favorite tool at the hackerspace?
I’m mostly an electronics guy, and am most comfortable around a soldering iron, wire strippers, and multimeter. However, I think it’s pretty hard to beat a good laser cutter. Cutting things with light is tough to trump for the coolness factor. I could watch that thing go for hours.

7. What’s your day job?
I am an R&D Control Theory Engineer for Eaton Corporation. The group I work in does all kinds of cool simulation, modeling, and optimization of complex systems. Things like how to use machine learning to optimize hydraulic controls in construction equipment for better fuel economy, or how to predict and prevent data center outages using statistical modeling. It’s a great gig and I love it.

8. What do you love most about Detroit?
The people. I’m not a Detroit native, but people here are the most down-to-earth people in the world. People from Detroit leave their egos at the door. They won’t talk at you about their new mobile/web/social media startup flavor of the week they are working on and how they will be the next Facebook if they could just get some venture capital. They don’t look down on anyone for being from the wrong type of family, tax bracket, or neighborhood. They are humble, sympathetic, and real. They can recognize their strengths and their faults, and are amazing friends.

To test your concentration ninja skills and check out a plethora of other creative maker-made projects, come join us at Maker Faire Detroit this weekend!

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I'm a word nerd who loves to geek out on how emerging technology affects the lexicon. I was an editor on the first 40 volumes of MAKE, and I love shining light on the incredible makers in our community. In particular, covering art is my passion — after all, art is the first thing most of us ever made. When not fawning over perfect word choices, I can be found on the nearest mountain, looking for untouched powder fields and ideal alpine lakes.

Contact me at or via @snowgoli.

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