SmartLab at Ignite Boston 5


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Science should be open, sexy, and fun. Where open source lab instruments, open data protocols, and electronic lab notebooks meet large format multitouch installations and augmented reality technologies, there will be tons of awesome, learning-by-doing, and fun.

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  • Hi! My name is Jason Morrison and I’m going to tell you about the SmartLab project.
  • Background: I strongly believe that science should be conducted in the open, and that scientific data should be openly available - way more than is today, and not just the successful experiments. The scientific process should be aesthetically pleasing, and it should be a lot of fun to do. By this, I don’t intend to sugar-coat things, but rather to craft tools that help engage the scientist and enhance the feeling of flow.
  • SmartLab is: Where \"opened source\" lab instruments, open data protocols, and electronic lab notebooks meet large format interactive displays and augmented reality,with a goal of making science more fun, engaging, and with more flow. We've got guitar hero, and photoshop hero. I want pipette hero.

  • \"so, what are we working with?\" The target sciences are anything like cooking. For example, chemistry, synthetic biology, molecular biology, and genetics. These consist of moving tiny volumes of liquid around, some of which contain interesting molecules. We want to mix them, measure and record different properties of them, as well as sort them or separate them based on these properties.
  • Show of hands, how many scientists? Scientist or not, who uses open source tools? Open-source or not, how many of you build the tools you use? I want everybody to do two things: (1) Invent new tools or rebuild existing tools from scratch, in an open way. (2) Hack proprietary tools and document their innards in an open way.
  • And that includes scientists. I want a culture of makers/builders/DIYers in chemistry and biology. I want enhanced tools, hacked tools, DIY tools, free and open tools, because this *will* make science more affordable, approachable, transparent, and fun. I love this quote by Freeman Dyson, illustrating the gap between astronomers and biologists; astronomers do it yourself, biologists (traditionally) don't. Change that, full stop.

  • Once we have a collection of opened-source lab instruments, we can make them talk to one another, and to our computers. Ideally, they would all have WiFi and little HTTP servers inside that serve and consume well-formed standards-compliant data markup. There are already open formats for specifying protocols, specifying dependencies and instructions, kind of like a .deb and a Makefile all in one. That's great, there's the format, where's all the data *written up in that format?*

    (Hold slide)
    If we have semantically-encoded recipes (called \"protocols\" - protocols are scientific recipes), and well-formed streams of instrument data, we could build a system that can guide us through protocols in realtime. It receives realtime feedback and confirmation from our instruments that we're doing the right step, while logging the recorded data for your later viewing, annotation, interpretation, and publication.

  • The right interactions and right feedback cues really reinforce a sense of flow.
    As a coder, I've got some sweet ones; autotest, continuous integration, an editor so configurable that is basically wired into my brain.

    But, it's a lot harder to add these cues to real life than to software. Let's apply new technology to do this, but do it thoughtfully. Making your work more fun is not achieved by candy-coating it; it's achieved by thoughtfully constructing tools that intelligently help you with the task at hand..

  • Imagine a large-format touch-interactive benchtop that annotates real physical objects
    with two things: The first is realtime measurements from your instruments (enabled by the open instrument and data protocols), along with a consistent user interface for controlling and automating them.
  • The second annotation the system provides is realtime guidance on your protocol steps. Here you can see that while it is annotating some materials you have out, it is indicating a series of steps to perform, and, along the bottom, it shows your progress within the larger protocol. Imagine the possibilities for two things - helping teach newcomers, and helping pros catch errors quickly.
  • Now that you have mountains of open, well-specified data, you can interact with it. There's tons of software to do this already, but I think there's a really sweet niche to fill in visualizing and manipulating data sets in a large-format and tactile way.

  • Next, how do you jump through the hoops required to publish your results? Easy; you shouldn't have to. An integrated open platform could make painless the process of capturing results from instruments, charting and annotating them on your laptop or interactive benchtop, and publishing them to an electronic lab notebook. And this should be a continuous process, not a “big-bang” release like paper publication. I want to see more finely-grained results from labs, the size of blog posts and software commits.
  • So, what’s the status right now? These photos are the result of some of our basement tinkering and hacking at DevHouse Boston 5. Currently, we're moving the setup to a hackerspace in Davis Square called Willoughby & Baltic, which is a great place to work on it, with an electronics lab and several machining shops, and soon sporting a biology wetlab.

  • So, get involved! Help bring science back to makers, tinkerers, and do-it-yourselfers, and help distill process and productivity ideas from the amazing suite of tools available to the software world. Go to, join the mailing list, share your ideas, and, most importantly, start hacking!
  • SmartLab at Ignite Boston 5

    1. 1. SmartLab Jason Morrison
    2. 2. open Science should be sexy fun
    3. 3. Why is there this huge difference in cost between the sky survey and the genome project? Astronomers and biologists have different attitudes toward their tools. Jim Gunn, one of the leaders of the sky survey, invented and glued together the electronic camera that is the essential observation tool. Biologists, with a few notable exceptions such as Fred Sanger, traditionally buy their tools and do not build them. Building their own tools is not a part of their culture. Freeman Dyson: The Sun, The Genome, and The Internet
    4. 4. scientists, enthusiasts, tinkerers, makers artists, designers, HCI & interactive pros developers, robotics & electronics hackers natural philosophers, practical physicists, and free open source hardware & software lovers