By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

When it came to finding a way to express the ideation, invention, and innovation of the Syracuse Tech Garden, the team at Little Tinker had a “bright” idea.

The Tech Garden, located in downtown Syracuse, calls itself Central New York’s premier innovation and technology incubator. Little Tinker, a student startup that spent last summer growing its business there, was commissioned by the incubator to develop a unique kid of greeting for visitors. So Isaac Budmen, Little Tinker co-founder and CEO, and Chris Becker, its software engineer, came up with a clever way to express those attributes. They devised an interactive lightboard featuring a display of words, an experience of interactive play, and a technological system allowing visitors to “paint” with light.

The pair, both also students at the School of Information Studies (iSchool), found their inspiration after seeing an LED panel display at the Open Hardware Summit in New York, Becker explained. The symbolism of multiple images of light sparked the plan for a lightboard display using interactive motion-sensing panels.  

So they set to work. From basic instructions, the Little Tinker team put together the first panel. From there, they assembled seven more sections so they could piece eight panels together for a large, synchronized display. The work was accomplished assembly-line fashion, first soldering dozens of microchips onto a backboard, then soldering the connections for hundreds of sensors, panel by panel. The back of the board is covered with hundreds of motion-tracking proximity sensors. These visualize human motion using light, Budmen noted, so that when someone walks in front of the lightboard or swipes a hand along it, the board responds with a “light painting” effect.

To finish the display, they chose a layer of Plexiglass for the top. They had it etched locally to feature the Tech Garden logo. They added some content: a series of printed words stacked horizontally to depict the incubator’s characteristics: “Build, Explore, Grow, Innovate, Nurture.”With an emphasis on the initial letters, another word, “BEGIN” is spelled out, symbolizing the start-up nature of the Tech Garden and the ground-up business development activity that takes place there, Budmen said.  

As an added element of entertainment and surprise for the interactive display, visitors who check in via location-based social networking service Foursquare are treated to an extra light show. The Foursquare check-in sets off a series of blue lights that spark in sequence behind the etched sections of the Plexiglas, in a welcoming “hello” of sorts.  

“The Technology Garden is a place with incredible possibility,” Budmen noted, discussing how the team arrived at its choice. “We looked to capture the story behind the Technology Garden and embody the work they are doing in business incubation and ground-up business development in a unique package that has an appeal to people of all ages. I’m thrilled with the work our team has done on the lightboard, and grateful for the opportunity the Tech Garden has given our team to help build the future.”  

Linda Dickerson Hartsock, director, Syracuse University Community Engagement and Economic Development, reflected on how the installation captured the Tech Garden’s mission of fostering entrepreneurial activity “by stimulating technological creativity through the incubation of technology start-up businesses” in Syracuse and the Central New York region, according to its website.

 “We love the way Little Tinker integrates smart electronic interfaces with creative industrial and graphic design, and are thrilled that this fabulous student startup is demonstrating its cutting-edge technology in this showcase installation. This is real ground-breaking innovation that merges digital and physical reality. It is so fabulous that it is coming out of the iSchool and Student Sandbox at The Tech Garden, our partners along the Connective Corridor.  Little Tinker is positioned for big success. ”

As a firm, Little Tinker strives to “build meaningful experiences and bring these stories to life with intelligent electronics that interact with online events,” its website says. Its products “strive to reach one goal; create a meaningful and magical experiences for our audience that gives them a story to share.”

This is the company’s second commissioned installation, and it reflects a trademark Little Tinker style. The team’s first project was creating a molded plastic machine, shaped like the spaceship logo of the NEXIS (New Explorations in Information and Science) Center at the iSchool. That interactive installation dispenses gumballs when guests check in upon arrival via Foursquare.

To see the display in person, visit the Tech Garden at 235 Harrison Street in Syracuse.

The Tech Garden Light Board