Two Engineering Seniors Represent Tech Start-Ups in NYC

October 5, 2011
By Jing Jin

Brian Schiffer ’12 and Jeremy Blum ’12, electrical and computer engineering, attended the Open Hardware Summit on Sept. 15 and Makerfaire on Sept. 17 and 18 in New York City. This summer, as Kessler Fellows, Schiffer and Blum worked at the start-ups Zeo and MakerBot, respectively, for which they were presenting at the conferences. 

Schiffer’s track to employment with Zeo was unconventional to say the least. His first interaction with the personal sleep management company was when it came to campus in 2009 with its Zeo Personal Sleep Coach, used by Prof. Jim Maas, psychology, and his Psych 101 students for a sleep study. Schiffer won a Zeo and asked if they were hiring. According to Schiffer, they told him they told him, “not really, but take a business card. He proceeded to hack Zeo and asked again if they were hiring. This time, they responded, “Why don’t you come work with us?”

Zeo products make use of an EEG headband that records the user’s brain waves as he or she sleeps. Previously, to access the information, the user had to upload it onto the Zeo website and view it there. To protect users’ privacy and to get the information into the hands of users and researchers, Schiffer opened up Zeo’s platform by developing libraries to directly take data offline without ever having to upload it.  

Opening up was important to Schiffer on a personal level because he is interested in exploring lucid dreaming, or knowing that you’re dreaming while you’re dreaming. Because Zeo tracks a user’s sleep stages, it can recognize a sleeper’s REM stage, during which dreaming usually occurs, and send cues to the sleeper. Since all the libraries are open, any programmer can customize the light and sound cues Zeo sends during a user’s REM sleep.“In dreaming sleep, you actually will incorporate outside stimulus; if there are red flashes, you’re not going to necessarily see red flashes, but you’ll all of a sudden see a red chandelier twinkling. If you hear a sound, the person you were just talking to might actually be saying that to you now,” Schiffer explained.

Schiffer, like most users, have also used Zeo products to help him wake up at an optimal time (in between sleep stages) and to troubleshoot restless nights with actual scientific data. For those who are uneasy with the idea of a device recording their brain waves night in and night out, studies have shown that Zeo exposes the user to a very small fraction of the radiation in comparison to the radiation from his or her home’s wireless router. It is “insignificant compared to the radiation I’m getting battered with every day,” Schiffer said. A very small fraction of Zeo’s customers with sensitive skin have also complained of reactions from the band, made of dry, silver-coated fabric electrodes.

Schiffer continues to be a consultant with Zeo and “enjoys making new innovations to it and opening up data to everyone.”

In all aspects of his life, Blum is someone who is always wearing multiple hats. For the Open Hardware Summit and Maker Faire, he was a participant taking in the various ideas and products, a reporter for element14 (an online community for electronic design engineers), and a demonstrator showing off his SudoGlove, a glove with sensors to detect hand gestures and that can be used to control another object, like a toy car.

Since his sophomore year, Blum has worked in the University’s Creative Machines Lab on robotics, and he has recently joined the Fab@Home Project, which –– like MakerBot –– is focused on 3D printing. Since both groups operate on an open-source model, Blum can contribute to both. Even so, each has its own specialty: MakerBot strives to make 3D printers available to everyone, where for decades the machines had been used for industrial design prototyping. Fab@Home’s spin-off  Fab@School strives to bring 3D printers into classrooms.

“Kids can learn more hands-on science and engineering […] They can actually build something and see it materialize,” Blum said.

What fascinates Blum is “the idea of people collaborating on things and still being able to make them into a sustainable business model, which is a totally new idea” –– the reason being that it is not obviously cost-effective to give out hardware (as opposed to software) for free. He, however, sees significant and specific benefits: eliminating production costs, avoiding the recall process (the company would simply upload a new design for customers to download and print), allowing the community of users to support each other and decreasing support costs, receiving free research and development, and in general, speeding up the development process.

To Blum, the 3D printer isn’t just any other piece of technology but one critical to the ongoing transition toward “democratized manufacturing." He reminisces that in the 1960s and 70s, when something broke, the owner fixed it, but “then we entered the society of disposable everything.” More important than enabling quick repairs, the 3D printer allows the consumer brimming with creativity to implement the redesign he or she envisions, and in an open-source world, to share it with others.

Blum admitted from a sustainability point of view, a 3D printer is “not designed to replace consumer culture; it’s designed to supplement it.” Just taking into consideration the petroleum used in transporting goods from regional distributors and manufacturing plants around the world, a 3D printer could have a decidedly positive impact on sustainability. Ultimately, it not only changes the way individuals engage with products, but “more importantly, it changes the way individuals engage with companies,” Blum said.

Blum remains connected with MakerBot as a consultant and naturally, through his work with Fab@Home. As is apparent, though, he always seems to be doing something on the side. Blum in fact has a personal enterprise of sorts, and since 2006, he has made over 90 YouTube videos that have attracted over 8,500 subscribes and been viewed a collective 2.7 million times. Many of these videos have been tutorials, which explain his projects – small and big – and then outlines his entire process in detail.