TEDxUCLA 2017: Gravity

Playing with creativity


About AnnMarie

Dr. AnnMarie Thomas is the director of the Playful Learning Lab at the University of St. Thomas, where she is a professor in the School of Engineering and the Opus College of Business. She is the creator of Squishy Circuits, and the author of “Making Makers: Kids, Tools, and the Future of Innovation.” AnnMarie and her research students explore the intersection of the arts, technology and education and are always in search of their next unusual collaboration.

About Damian

Damian Kulash is the singer for the band OK Go, which is at the forefront of an emerging class of independent creative entrepreneurs making art in both digital and physical spaces. The band has sold over a million albums, and their self-directed videos have been viewed more than 200 million times online. Past projects include an interactive video made with the Pilobolus dance company, a live album chronicling the 180 concerts they played in 2010, performances at the Kennedy Center and various festivals, and collaborations with the Muppets and Sesame Street.


AnnMarie: So when I tell people that I’m an engineering professor, the first word that often comes to mind isn’t “fun.” And I had this great idea a few years ago to teach an intensive engineering dynamics class, the study of forces in motion, during what would have otherwise been a four-week break for students. I mean, who wouldn’t want to give up their extended vacation to have a daily class on this stuff, right? That was their response, too.

Fortunately I have some great collaborators in Minnesota where I’m from, and we put a maybe unique spin on our course, and I want to show you what ended up being our class on dynamics.

Music: I think gravity’s got me. I think gravity’s got me. Oh no, please don’t let go.

All these restraints and requirements. Rigid bodies won’t form till spent. All these things I’ve said you know they’re true. Am I spinning or is it you?

I think gravity’s got me. Oh no, please don’t let go. I think gravity’s got me. Oh no, please don’t let go.

Like a rocket potential energy. Quickly converts to kinetic me. Our cross products meet and reference frames harmonic motion gain.

I think gravity’s got me. Oh no, please don’t let go. I think gravity’s got me. Oh no, please don’t let go. Oh no, please don’t let go.

AnnMarie: So it was the same content we would’ve taught anyway, but instead of sitting in the basement swinging a pendulum, I swung my students. And instead of stretching a spring, we had him jump 40 feet off a trapeze with a bungee cord.

And the fun part about this is that the students had fun. I would come in on the weekends and they’d be working really hard, but they’d be laughing. Heck, we even got a local band to take the course notes and turn it into our theme song.

Right? Same work. But what we found was that it was joyful. And adding joy to an engineering class somehow isn’t in every discussion, but it should be. And this became the basis of my work in the lab that I run, the Playful Learning Lab. We try to take any learning situation and make it playful, make it joyful, add those smiles. And I want to teach you a few of the tricks that we use.

The first is look for that joy, look for the smiles. The second principle came when my daughter, my oldest daughter, was about two and I wanted to teach her electronics, right? Toys today have a lot of electronics in them, but it’s sort of magic to kids. It doesn’t need to be. I didn’t want to give her a breadboard, and a sautering iron might burn her, so we had to come up with a different way to teach circuitry.

So one of my research students and I spent the summer in the kitchen making lots and lots of Play-Doh recipes. We came up with one that was really salty and we came up with one that was really sugary, and that meant that we could actually build circuitry. The salty dough, it conducted electricity. The sugar dough, it was an insulator.

So we could build circuits that lit up. We could also build circuits that spun. And the best part of this, right, is that when you’re done with it, you can squish it back up and start over. These were actual functioning electrical circuits but that even the smallest hands could play with, right?

And it’s almost magical. I’ve seen some of you playing with them out there, that you can start there with Play-Doh and end up with this circuit. And this is the second thing we look for when we take on projects: we want to add whimsy.

I’ll also admit that I used Squishy Circuits as a test. I had them in my lab, and when I had guests visit, I’d show them the circuits and a lot of people would dive in and smile and build stuff. A lot of other professors would look at them and say, “Why are you doing this?” I don’t like collaborating with the “whys,” and actually collaboration is my third trick.

Our lab loves playing with new people, be they professional musicians who want to add tech to their shows, be they professional chefs who want to rethink what they’re doing. We always want to play with new people, not people that have the answer to a specific question that I have, but rather people that we find interesting and who know things we don’t know and we can go into it as true partners, right?

So when you have a problem that seems boring, or a challenge you’re not quite sure what to do with, ask yourself who you can play with. Set up a play date for yourself with a new collaborator. And sometimes really magical things come out of that.

We were working with a Michelin-rated restaurant in Chicago and one of the chefs introduced me to his wife who was a pastry chef who made incredible sculptural cakes. And she had heard about the Play-Doh work that I was doing and for fun, not for a specific project, we started messing around with different pastry recipes that would conduct at different levels, right? And again it was just, we wanted to learn new things.

But last spring I was invited to Denver to speak at the Factory of Imagination and I found out that one of the little six-year-olds in the audience was having a birthday. So it seemed like the perfect time to put our play to work, and we had some slightly unusual cupcakes.

Can you grab a cupcake? Pick a cupcake. Wait wait, what did you do to my cupcake? Put it back. It doesn’t play music for me. All right, try a different one. Poke it.

So something you might have noticed is that he was holding a string. That string was a silver balloon string that grounded him to the circuit. So that’s why the cupcakes play music for him and not me.

Now this is a great collaboration, but flying a pastry chef with me to Europe to make awesome delicious cupcakes is fine. But we decided that this was a chance for us to do something even bigger. And we called in lots and lots of our friends and said, “We’re going to the Factory of Imagination, what can we do with awesome pastry?” And we had machinists and coders and my flying trapeze catcher I worked with who also was an engineer, and we said, “What kind of awesome factory cake could we build?”

And we had conversations like this: So we put a laser on the balloon? Well what if we blew it up like this? Hey do you guys have this? And I had to fly with this stuff so some of the things got ruled out. But what we ended up with was a factory cake that played music, that lit up, and also that exploded edible confetti.

And my favorite part here is look at the faces over here. These are the conference organizers and they didn’t know this was happening, right? Surprise! That’s my fourth element, right? Surprise is the fourth thing we look for in every challenge that our lab takes on. How can we find surprise in even seemingly mundane things?

And it doesn’t take international pastry travel, right? This is my favorite surprise that I do as an educator: for the final project in my first-year engineering design class, the students get on a bus. School bus. They just don’t know where we’re going, what the project is, or even how long it’s gonna take to get there. And what they really don’t know is that when they get on, the bus is already half-full of four-year-olds.

And the four-year-olds have been taking a modified version of the course from me, and the four-year-olds do the same final project. So regardless of who the client is, be it a museum, be it a park, the students have to do the same projects and present the work.

But for this first bus ride, they’re all in it together and they’re problem-finding together. If you want to be playful and you’ve forgotten how, there are few ways better than borrowing four-year-olds.

So the next time you have a challenge you’re taking on and you want to figure out how to make it playful, maybe something that seems mundane like a final project, there are four keys. Find the joy, make people smile. Find the whimsy, where’s the magic that you can imbue in this? Play with new people, not people you think have the answers, but people you think are awesome and you want to learn from them. And finally there’s a surprise in everything. Thank you.

Music: Upside down and inside out / And you can feel it / Upside down and inside out / And you can feel it, feel it

Don’t know where your eyes are / But they’re not doin’ what you said / Don’t know where your mind is, baby / But you’re better off without it

Inside down and upside out / And you can feel it / Don’t stop, can’t stop / It’s like an airplane goin’ down

I wish I had said the things you thought that I had said / Gravity’s just a habit that you’re really sure you can’t break

So when you meet the new you / Were you scared? Were you cold? Were you kind? / Yeah when you met the new you / Did someone die inside?

Don’t stop, can’t stop / It’s like a freight train / Don’t stop, can’t stop / It’s like an airplane goin’ down

Don’t know where your eyes are / But they’re not doin’ what you said / Don’t know where your mind is, baby / But you’re better off without it

Looks like it’s time to decide / Are you here? Are you now? Is this it? / All of those selves that you tried / Wasn’t one of them good enough?

‘Cause you’re upside down and inside out / And you can feel it / Inside down and upside out / And you can feel it, feel it

Don’t stop, can’t stop / It’s like a freight train / Don’t stop, can’t stop / Until you feel it goin’ down

I wish I had said the things you thought that I had said / (Are you scared? Are you cold? Were you kind?) / Gravity’s just a habit that you’re really sure you can’t break / (Are you here? Are you now? Is this it?)

Upside down and inside out / And you can feel it / Don’t stop, can’t stop / Until you feel it goin’ down / Upside down and inside out / And you can feel it / Don’t stop, can’t stop / Until you feel it goin’ down

AnnMarie: You guys went easy on me. I told you there are four tricks to making a playful situation. Joy, hopefully we had some joy, hopefully we had some whimsy. But I gave the talk by myself and I didn’t really have a surprise for you.

I heard that because its gravity I was showing these videos right before my talk, and I brought them to my students, and we watched the video and they had some great questions. Even better? I asked questions of the four-year-old preschool class at St. Thomas, and the four-year-old roadrunners were super excited to write questions about that video. And I couldn’t resist inviting Damian Kulash to come and answer them. So let’s welcome Damian Kulash! (applause)

Damian: Hi.

AnnMarie: Hello!

Damian: How are you?

AnnMarie: And Damian, the four-year-olds wrote the questions for me. So we’re gonna start with, “It’s so messy! Who cleaned up the mess?”

Damian: We had a very small crew. And there were like four people whose job it was to clean up the mess. The thing is we were shooting that in Russia in, it was November. So all the, the floor was foam so that we wouldn’t hurt ourselves too badly when we smashed into it. And so all the paint would get everywhere, soak into the floor, and then when we’d shut the plane down for the night they would just freeze, it wouldn’t evaporate. So the next day when we get in and it would warm back up it would just be like a puddle, basically? So if you, if you watch again, there’s, the flight attendants land on their butts at some point, we have to actually like quickly slip magazines under their butts so that they’re not, so they don’t have a big wet ass the whole rest of the video.

AnnMarie: All right, there’s a follow-up: do you clean your own room?

Damian: Do I clean my own room? I’m supposed to. I do it, mostly I clean my own room.

AnnMarie: I think that’s what the four-year-old said when I asked them that.

Damian: I clean my room more now than I did when I was four. I’m still pretty bad at it, though.

AnnMarie: How did you turn off gravity?

Damian: We didn’t. We ran along with gravity so that if I was the wallet, and the plane was my hand, we went like this so that we didn’t ever, we didn’t feel gravity while we were doing that.

AnnMarie: So is that a single take?

Damian: That is a single take, but it’s 45 minutes long. So there are eight, there are eight parabolas which is the shape, y’know, you do that in. And we would fly, we would do that for 28 seconds, land, stay very very still for five minutes while you go through double gravity as it catches you, and then double gravity again as it throws you. It takes about five minutes between the first double gravity and second double gravity, and then you get 28 more seconds of freefall.

AnnMarie: And then you splice them all together?

Damian: Right. I mean in the end, basically it was like splicing it? What we, what we did was just speed up the film a whole lot. So that five minutes turns into about a frame, which is y’know, 1/29th of a second.

AnnMarie: The roadrunners are very concerned that you got out of the seat on a plane.

Damian: Yeah. It was even more concerning for me.

AnnMarie: And they want to know if you got sick.

Damian: Yes. We all got pretty sick. Luckily we were on a very strong psychedelic drug which you should definitely introduce the four-year-olds to.

AnnMarie: I’m not going to tell the four-year-olds this. Milk and cookies.

Damian: It is a drug called scopolamine that the, we asked people at NASA what should we do to make sure we don’t puke everywhere. And they’re like, “Oh, well we take scopolamine.” So we got, we got our doctors to prescribe us scopolamine which means you can put this little patch on the back of your, like right behind your ear, and it gives you this tiny dose of this very very strong psychedelic. And I guess it just screws with you enough that your brain is like, “I don’t know, this is weird but I don’t have to throw up, y’know?”

AnnMarie: Did it work?

Damian: It worked, it worked. We got very nauseated, but none of the band members threw up. However, apparently this drug is illegal in Russia? And so when we were like to our crew members we were like, “Guys, you’ve got to get scopolamine, this stuff.” And so they all went out and got their motion sickness patches but they don’t have scopolamine in them, they have like menthol or something, and so they just puked all the time. There was like, we got really used to seeing like… (wobbly vomit sounds)

AnnMarie: So back to that, who cleaned up the mess?

Damian: Yeah, that was part of the mess. Yeah.

AnnMarie: So now my engineering students asked, “Do you choreograph a video like this in advance? Assuming you don’t just have a zero gravity plane in your backyard?”

Damian: Correct. We we do not have one in our backyard or anywhere else at our disposal, sadly. But you can’t choreograph something like this in advance, or at least I can’t choreograph something like this in advance. So the whole process, as with many of our videos is split into sort of three parts instead of two. Like most people when they make things, plan plan plan plan plan plan plan plan plan, that’s pretty free, and then make, very expensive and short. And so we do like, have kind of an idea and then go get in that idea, like some sort of cheap version of it, learn what the plan might actually be, then plan plan plan plan plan, then make.

AnnMarie: What is the cheap version of zero gravity?

Damian: Well, it’s never cheap. So what we did was we, when we found, I mean for 10 years, every time somebody with a deeper pocketbook than mine was like, “Hey we should make a video,” I was like, “I know! Let’s go zero gravity!” And so like Pepsi would be like, “We want to do something where there’s Pepsi in one of your videos.” Zero gravity, Pepsi! Like, aren’t you selling that?

AnnMarie: Coke Zero. Pepsi Zero, it’s not Coke Zero.

Damian: Pepsi Zero! God, if I had only said that. So we got told no a lot. But eventually an airline, a Russian airline was like, “We like your videos, would you want to do one in one of our airplanes?” And I was like “YES! Yes.”

Damian: And so we worked out that we would do 20 flights, meaning there’s 15 parabolas per flight. So six of those flights were just pure like, bounce off the walls, who knows what we’re doing, during which time like this very proper almost military scientific-like cosmonaut crew were just watching us going like… they, ’cause, like people sometimes hire out their plane to do these things and maybe for one day, and maybe to be like, “whoa I did this once,” but not for a whole week where they like are clearly not, they have no plan. You know like, we’re just like bouncing off the walls and these guys are like “nyet,” you know.

Damian: But then we came, we filmed all of that, came back to the States for three weeks or so and like picked out the best moments we had sort of stumbled into and picked out like things we had tried that worked less than we thought, things that we tried that worked better than we thought, and went back with like a plan. During that month, I think all those dudes actually watched our videos, and so when we got back they were like “WE WILL FLY!” You know? And they were like really, really, really psyched.

And so then there was six flights of like choreography, we had kind of a basic choreography at that point. And I’m going too long, I’m sorry.

AnnMarie: You’re not!

And then eight of actually shooting.

AnnMarie: So, related question actually that both little kids and the big kids asked was: “How does he come up with the awesome ideas for his videos?”

Damian: Play. Ta-da! Bing! Well it’s sort of the thing I was saying before, like we try to come up with a sandbox in which to play where we, we’re pretty sure we will find good ideas.

Damian: Like with the zero gravity video for instance, there’s no… you’re definitely going to have some interesting idea if you go get in zero gravity for a few hours. And we’ve gotten used to knowing sort of which types of ideas are likely to like, unfold in interesting ways. That sounds very abstract.

Damian: Like early on in our video-making career, as we sort of like stumbled into this thing as a rock band going like, “wow we can make these little films,” we tried a lot of animation ideas. And usually there’s like some really cool style, like you can, “wow we can make this thing using only bananas and tinfoil!” And when you first see it you’re like, “That thing’s only bananas and tinfoil!” But over the course of three minutes you never, like, it can’t go any further.

Damian: So we have found is it’s best to find a sandbox in which we know there’s like a limited number of ideas, but they’re going to be wide-ranging so we can keep stumbling into something new. And we just get in, and play play play play play, until we have what we feel like is a vocabulary of about twice as many ideas as we will need, and then we line them up and let the bad ones fall away.

AnnMarie: So are there any sandboxes that you’ve jumped into as a band and had to go spectacularly awry?

Damian: Yeah, tons of them.

AnnMarie: What is a sandbox that we won’t see video of?

Damian: We have, there’s a video that may or may not come out still where we tried to make a physical animation happen behind us in real time. That’s hard to explain, but there’s, it required a lot of technology that may just fail.

AnnMarie: Like space, as we’ve heard today.

Damian: Yeah, we tried once to get, we’ve tried, we went to the Arctic Circle and tried to record a song in, out in the middle of nowhere. And it happened.

AnnMarie: We haven’t seen it yet though, have we.

Damian: Yup, you haven’t seen it.

AnnMarie: We might never?

Damian: I went looking for it, it was online shortly and I mean, for a little while, and I went looking for it and can’t find it now. So that’s how good that was. I mean, it’s not really like a light switch. It’s not. Or it’s not like an old-fashioned light switch. It’s like a new modern dimmer switch. Like we, we don’t, if an idea isn’t, it’s sort of like, it’s like a, it’s like a dating dance with the idea.

Damian: So we’ve started a lot of like, “hey, that that dating idea is kind of cute” and gotten like midway through being like, “this idea is kind of dumb and boring,” y’know? Like there is, there are few ideas, like we haven’t, we’ve never gotten to the point where like we’ve proposed marriage to the idea and been like, “s*** we shouldn’t have done that.”

AnnMarie: Got it. Well thank you Damian!

Damian: You’re very welcome. Thanks, thanks so much you guys.