Brightly colored wires tipped with connectors of all sorts are not uncommon in Spark!Lab. When Draper Spark!Lab opened on July 1, 2015, we seeded it with tech most often associated with the hobby and Maker culture. This intentional seeding had to be friendly and intuitive for visitors of any age or background. We believe that everyone is inventive even if they are not particularly tech savvy. Fostering this inventiveness using tech-seeded activities hinge on the strategic--and sometimes serendipitous--physical interfaces we use with the activities. The most important of which, when electricity or data is involved, are the wires and connectors. Most of our tech-based interactives rely on 3- and 4- pin data connectors or on 2-wire power connectors. With such variety of need comes a great variety in design.
It seems that letting someone plug and unplug a connector would be simple. It would if it was in a house where this happened three to ten times per day. High volume crowds and excited young inventors is a challenge. Imagine plugging and unplugging something 500 to 1000 times per day. That puts a lot of strain on a plug! The number of cycles, use, and misuse our connectors face is staggering. We joke that our space should be a testbed for any new kid-targeted or high-use products. We definitely can provide a diverse and high-volume sample size!
We need easy-to-assemble, directional, durable, and intuitive electrical connectors. They need to hold the wire firmly and be easily connected and disconnected thousands of times a day. During the first nine months of operation we have tried about half a dozen off-the-shelf connector solutions. Most of these have involved three lead connectors and cables. Many of the products we tried did not hold up. Some, to our surprise, were fantastically robust.
The plus side of electrical connectors is if we can’t find a suitable item, we can make them. This is where we invent! We can design and 3D print custom connectors that we cannot purchase. In Spark!Lab, we have been practicing what we preach in terms of problem solving and the process of invention. We can also invent connectors that are intuitive for a given activity. So far, our most promising avenue has been the creation of magnetic electrical connectors. We use small neodymium magnets to bind the connectors together. Our voltages and currents are so low that danger of electrical shock is practically non-existent. We are now trying to make these smaller, more flexible in connection range, and easier to assemble after printing.
Bridging the connectors, we have the wires. Wires are also a huge challenge. Can they hold up to the Spark!Lab audience? Can they hold up to the strain and flexing that that they will endure? With all of the devices in our homes it would seem that wires would be an easy issue to overcome. Most of us don’t even consider what is in the plastic coated stand that plugs in to our wall, phone, computer, or game console. A look inside can prove enlightening. Most of the cables we use have bundles of hair-thin strands of metal transferring all of our power and information. The number of the strands, as well as the size of their bundles, plays a vital role in what they can do. Too few strands or too small of a bundle will literally burn up if too much power is applied. The more wires in the bundle, the less flex there is to the wire as a whole. Our ideal is sufficient power conducting with a high degree of flex.
There are some absolutes when we consider wire for our activities. What we know is that multistranded wire with six or more stands only need apply. Solid core, hookup wire, hair-thin connecting wires or multistranded three to five wires do not make the cut. They are great for testing and fantastic for cost but not good for longevity. We rarely use anything that outputs a significant amount of power, so small wires work well for us. We could use small wires with thick plastic insulation, but with that we lose flexibility. Inventors need flexibility. So, what is the solution? Right now, researching and trying new things is our most effective tool. Some of the moderate successes we have found are USB cables with the end removed, landline telephone cable, and multiple wires twisted into one single stand. Though these have been promising, there still are no ideal solutions.
During the first nine months of operation, we prototyped no fewer than eight magnetic electrical connectors. We have tried out over eight different types of wire. We are getting incrementally closer to an adaptable archetype. Though we have not made a final product that I am happy with, we keep working at it. The spirit of invention is rooted in subtle improvements and small changes that make a big difference. Someday soon I hope to be writing a blog entitled the Great Connector Success!