Media Lab to MoMA: A Complicated Reality of Dreams Coming True
By Jie Qi (MS ‘12, PhD ‘16)
This is a story of dreams coming true in roundabout ways. How things inside are often not at all what they appear to be on the outside.
It’s my story of accidentally starting a company while a PhD student at the MIT Media Lab, and living to tell the tale. My (not so) secret? Mentors and collaborators who believed in me, especially when I didn’t believe in myself.
PS: The company survived too :)
The first time I saw design, engineering, art, and science blended together was at Design and the Elastic Mind, an exhibit at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) back in 2008.
I was a pre-med major at the time, studying biomedical engineering as a sophomore at Columbia University, dutifully following my parents’ desire for me to become a doctor. This was despite my tendency to fold little paper toys and draw late into the night ever since I could remember, especially the nights right before exams (it was to relieve stress!).
As a child of immigrant parents and a first-generation immigrant myself (I was born in China and came to the US when I was five years old), I had all the motivation and pressure of the American dream: to “make it” in this new country.
At the time, striving to be a “starving” artist was not quite my parents’ idea of this dream. They warned that I would find myself shivering on the streets, drawing people’s portraits for crumpled dollars. It simply wasn’t a viable option to them, which meant it wasn’t an option for me.
Yet when I saw the beautiful, bizarre and provocative objects in Design and the Elastic Mind — origami paper that made music when folded, pig wings grown in a tissue-engineering lab, words flying across the screen in interactive story maps — I was totally mesmerized.
The subjects I loved did not have to be siloed. Instead, the power of engineering, the truth of science, the freedom of art, and the imagination of design flowed together until they were a unified creative whole.
I remember poring over the exhibition website for hours afterward, looking at every single piece in the show. It was a pivotal experience that led me to leave the safe and scripted pre-med track and pursue my own path in design, engineering, and art.
It was also terrifying because suddenly couldn’t see where the path would lead anymore. Instead of a path, there was just a void. But the void was open.
So imagine my surprise and wonder when, 11 years later, I found myself standing back inside the MoMA, this time seeing my own work hanging on the wall, smiling next to senior curator Paola Antonelli:
It was Paola who had curated Design and the Elastic Mind all those years ago, setting me on a new path. And it was Paola again who selected my work for the current design exhibit, Energy, leading me right back where I started but also totally changed.
It truly is an honor and a dream come true.
The Exhibit: Paper Circuits
The dandelion on display is made up of circuit sticker components — LED lights, a microphone and a microcontroller — connected with conductive copper tape. Circuit stickers are flexible printed circuit boards that look and feel like regular stickers but are actually fully functional electronic modules. The copper tape acts as wires, electrically connecting different parts of the circuit, while also making up the lines of the dandelion drawing.
Together this system is called a paper circuit: a blend of paper craft with circuits and programming. Instead of using breadboards and wires to build electronics, it uses conductive tapes and inks, and flat paper-friendly electronic components.
Paper circuits combine the simplicity and expressive flexibility of paper with the interactive and computational possibilities of electronics and code.
Hanging next to the dandelion circuit are sample Circuit Sticker Sketchbooks for sharing how others can build their own paper circuits too. This activity book explains basic circuit concepts using hands-on activities for readers to build functioning circuits onto the page guided by templates, like a coloring book for circuits.
The entire Circuit Sticker Sketchbook PDF is free to download. Here’s what the sketchbook looks like in action:
Each circuit building activity is coupled with a drawing and paper crafting activity to show that the circuit alone is incomplete. Rather, it’s when we transform the circuit with a story or character or scene that the circuit comes to life with purpose and meaning.
Likewise, technology — and for that matter any resource like energy, money, power, and privilege — is a means, not an end. It’s how we use it that matters. But I digress…
By using familiar and friendly paper crafting as an on-ramp to creating technology, my hope with paper circuits is to make electrical engineering and coding more accessible to everyone, especially to those who might otherwise find it intimidating. The expressive aspect helps make building electronics interesting to others who might otherwise find circuits and coding abstract and irrelevant.
Or as professor Mitch Resnick famously put it, the goal is to build low floors and wide walls, in addition to high ceilings.
It’s by bringing new voices and perspectives into creating technology that we get innovations that serve everyone.
Since the circuit stickers toolkit first launched in 2014, through a company called Chibitronics, it has become a tool used by thousands of creators and educators all over the world to make their own paper circuits. You can check out what the educator community is up to here, as well as some gorgeous creations from the art and craft community here.
What makes me most excited is to see others beginning to embrace the idea that art, design, engineering, and storytelling do not need to be split — that technology can be expressive, emotional and accessible. That it doesn’t take an expert or an engineering degree to participate, and inspiring technologies can come from anyone.
In fact, the majority of people who create paper circuits with Chibitronics are girls and women, which is extremely unusual for an electronics toolkit. I’m especially inspired by our craft design team, a group of 11 lovely ladies who create endless new takes on beautiful paper circuitry and then share tutorials of their projects so that everyone else can create too.
The Journey: A Tour Backstage
Not long after I saw Design and the Elastic Mind at the MoMA in 2008, I learned about Ayah Bdeir, an artist in New York who created interactive art using electronics. In other words, she was a living example that art and engineering could coexist in one person and she happened to be a short subway ride away from me.
So I reached out and a dream came true when Ayah not only responded to my email but took a chance and asked me to help with her new project: littleBits, now one of the most popular electronics toolkits for learning to build circuits.
Even though I knew very little about electronics at the time, she believed in my ability to learn. And even though I fried her Arduino board during my first days on the job, Ayah continued to trust me — teaching me to solder, read datasheets, and eventually help prototype some early littleBits.
It was through working on littleBits that I began feeling comfortable building circuit boards. In fact, it was Ayah who first introduced me to using copper tape to prototype circuit boards on cardboard, which turned into a core material of paper circuits.
Ayah also introduced me to her alma mater, the MIT Media Lab, and Leah Buechley who would eventually become my graduate advisor. It started with a life-changing summer research internship through Distributed Research Experience for Undergraduates (DREU), a wonderful program where college students get to spend a summer researching at a college other than their home university. As part of the internship, I kept a weekly blog of my experience.
That summer, Leah taught me to make my first paper circuits. What started as an assignment to make examples of DIY paper sensors and switches eventually resulted in this electronic pop-up book:
At first I made paper buttons and knobs that were squares and circles, like the ones we’re most familiar with on our consumer electronic devices. But because paper was so easy to customize, I soon started making sensors that looked like flowers or fish or stars. I fell in love with how, by using circuits and code, suddenly I could see entirely new possibilities in paper, a humble material that I thought I already knew and didn’t realize I could love even more.
Being at the Media Lab that summer was itself a transformative experience. For the first time I was in an environment where crazy ideas were given a chance to become prototypes-and it turned out that many were viable enough to become functioning technologies. I became much more open to what is possible and returned a year later (another dream come true!) as a graduate student with Leah, eager to explore more as part of her group, High-Low Tech.
In the months before I started graduate school, I met Natalie Freed, now my long-time friend and collaborator. It was at Grace Hopper, a wonderful and overwhelming conference for women in computing, that Natalie shared her project on long-distance play through remotely connected dollhouses. The warmth and friendliness of this technology stuck in my mind, and so when on the first day of graduate school orientation I saw Natalie again across the room-it turned out we were both starting as master’s students at the Media Lab-we instantly clicked.
In our first semester, for a class project, Natalie and I created hand-made prototypes of circuit stickers (then called I/O stickers), thus planting the very first seeds for Chibitronics.
Being a student at the Media Lab felt to me like learning and creating in a place where our questions and ideas could fly without friction or gravity. In theory, being in a place without gravity or friction sounds liberating, and in many ways it was. It allowed many of us to bloom as creators and storytellers, pushing our own boundaries and even breaking boundaries period. But in practice it was often much more awkward than that-imagine trying to run without gravity or friction and you know what I mean!
Pushing boundaries also meant that we inevitably would push past them, discovering our own limits, and the uncomfortable but soon-to-be familiar state of being a TOTAL MESS. I’m grateful to my advisors Leah Buechley, Joe Paradiso, and Mitch Resnick for being so supportive, especially when my explorations pushed me flat onto my face. They continued to trust me with freedom to explore while I slowly learned to navigate.
Freedom is exhilarating and empowering. But at the same time, I found the uncertainty, constant decision-making and taking responsibility for these decisions to be exhausting, terrifying, or even debilitating. I remember sitting in front of Leah during one of our weekly one-on-one meetings, crying, my head melting down with more thoughts than my brain could hold.
When there are so many paths forward, which is the right one? Work on a project for the class? How about that research paper? Is this even important enough to work on? Is the idea new enough to be research? Oh gosh, what about the story? I need to learn to present my work better! Everyone else around me seems so good at public speaking, so comfortable in front of the crowd and the camera, so famous. How about member companies? Is my project good enough to get their attention? How do I talk to them? What about classes? Grades? What grades? What is success anymore? It used to be if I studied hard and passed exams, I felt like a good, successful student. But it’s not enough. Now I have to be CHARMING?! How can I change the world when I don’t even know how to make eye contact at a cocktail party?
And the guilt.
So many people would be so happy to be where I am. I’m in such an amazing place, how can I possibly feel anything other than wonderful? This is my dream! Oh gosh, am I crying again? Why am I crying? And oh gosh it’s in front of my advisor. She’s nothing but nice and supportive. How can I be so unappreciative for this opportunity? How can I let her down by crying?
So these flail-flavored thoughts would go around and around in my head until they short-circuited and tears came out of my face, forcing me to slow down.
It was during these times that having supportive friends within the Lab community, like Natalie, was so crucial. I remember another time crying (yet again) on the lime green couches in the Lifelong Kindergarten space as Jay Silver, a PhD student at the time and a known shepherd for junior students, told Natalie and me that in fact many students went through these emotional roller coasters-feeling both creative euphoria and then plunging into extreme imposter syndrome and self-doubt. That there is nothing wrong with us, that we are in a unique and challenging environment, and most importantly that we are not alone. Help is around us and we are in this together.
I eventually learned to reach out to the therapists at MIT Mental Health & Counseling. At the time it was out of desperation and I felt like a failure, but now I realize it actually takes a lot of strength to seek help. I’m so glad I did.
Because we were in such an unusual environment, with access to unique and abundant resources, the challenges we ran into were also often unusual. The stakes somehow seemed higher; such pressure seemed to bring out the best but also the worst in everyone.
The therapist was like a coach who helped me digest all the rapid changes happening in my life, teaching me how to slow down by journalling out my anxiety, take things one step at a time-it’s okay to work things out in series rather than try to rush them in parallel and jam things up-have the patience to let myself be human and to realize that some of the challenges I encountered are not even about me at all but larger issues within society.
Then Leah left the Media Lab during the first year of my PhD. When this happened, with High-Low Tech gone, I wasn’t sure if there was a place for me there anymore, and so I took a remote semester in New York. Away from the community and structure of the Lab, that’s when things really plunged and I found myself spending most of my days horizontal.
It was at this point that I bonded with my mom. It got to the point where she would call me every day, reminding me that sometimes the bare minimum of making it up, out and through the day is dream enough. She took the pressure off me and held me with her voice when I felt most alone. Having her to talk to in my darkest moments was what got me through the deepest of my depression. For this I am forever grateful.
After that semester, I returned to the Lab, joining Joe Paradiso’s Responsive Environments group, realizing how special a place it is, how special the community is, and how much I needed the structure. This time I hit the ground curious and strolling-not running!
Shortly after I got back to the Media Lab, I met Andrew “bunnie” Huang. bunnie took a group of us students to Shenzhen, China to explore manufacturing and learn how to do research at scale. It was during this class that we began working out a way to create circuit stickers in factories, which laid the foundation for bringing them to the world.
With much energy, dedication, and stubbornness from my cofounders bunnie and Patricia Ng, circuit stickers the research project charged ahead and became Chibitronics the company, leaving the fuzzy protected cocoon of the research lab and entering the wild world of business. Now instead of worrying about publication deadlines and submission reviewers, we faced customers and the fire hose of keeping a tech company alive and aligned with our original mission: to inspire and empower people to create through paper circuits.
As I grew, and my projects grew, so did the challenges I faced.
Internally, as someone with experience only in academia, my different values and working style often clashed with bunnie and Patricia. Being much younger and less experienced than them also left me often uncertain of myself and feeling like I was not contributing enough. Externally, challenges came from all directions, from places we couldn’t have imagined, like our crowdfund backer patenting our work or tariffs from trade wars.
It’s here that my friend and personal mentor Sally Rosenthal saved my day and my sanity, many, many times. I met Sally, who happens to collect pop-up books, during my first semester at MIT. She had seen a video of my electronic pop-up book on YouTube and contacted me out of the blue. Sally has been patiently and generously working with me behind the scenes ever since.
Sally’s background in academia, industry, technology, and business gave me a context and reality checks that I could trust, helping me decode interpersonal situation in terms I understood (“things are not what they appear”) and always giving practical steps (“when something is confusing or doesn’t match up, get more data”). She has also been unendingly patient and energetic with her belief in me, especially when I run low myself. All of this has helped me navigate not only the social, interpersonal, and business sides of Chibitronics but also life in general.
Sometimes there isn’t someone to light a path for us. Sometimes there isn’t a path at all.
The best we can do is trust our inner compass, and this is another gift I got from my mom, Chunying Li. My mom, my personal philosophy and ethics guru, taught me to approach challenges with empathy, integrity, and patience. That and a regular dose of meditation, if I could help it (and especially when I couldn’t!). From her, I learned to trust my ability to be open and change, to strive to do the right thing or else risk moral injury, to start from my values of egalitarianism, imagination and beauty (it’s our values that keep us grounded and centered), that opportunity multiplies when shared with others and to treat challenges and pain (however much unwanted) as learning experiences, as chances to grow.
It’s also challenges and pain that makes me even more grateful for the joyful moments. As complicated as my dreams have turned out to be-full of mistakes, missteps and painful times where I’ve been truly down-they have been totally worth it.
On this note, I’m deeply excited to share that I found not only my own work, but that of some of my mentors — who continue to be so generous and supportive over the years — at the MoMA exhibition as well.
In yet another stroke of curatorial karma closing the loop, bunnie’s name and mine appear right next to Ayah Bdeir, Jay Silver, and Eric Rosenbaum:
A cluster of Media Lab alumni who made creative learning toolkits currently out in the world — littleBits, Makey Makey, Chibitronics — representing so many more voices and a place that taught us to let our imaginations run into reality in the most wonderful ways.
Perhaps we can be so lucky as to help others’ dreams come true, and be there if the reality of those dreams turn out to be complicated too ;)
- ¹To Jessie Thompson and Zach Berta who came to one of my early paper circuit workshops and first came up with the delightful idea to make a paper circuit dandelion that responds to blowing. Their magical poster titled “What Makes a Weed Not Be a Flower?” seeded the idea for my dandelion painting and has inspired countless educators and creators ever since!
- To my advisors Leah Buechley, Joe Paradiso, Edith Ackerman, and Mitch Resnick for providing the support, guidance and wisdom to navigate my journey through the Media Lab. And to the Media Lab community for being awesome.
- To the Chibitronics team, thanks for hanging in there with me and doing the messy work of getting magical things out into the world, without killing the magic.
- To the educators and designers, especially Nexmap, the Tinkering Studio, and Wonderful Idea Co. Thanks for not only helping share paper circuits, but also inventing it along with me as well.
- To Yoshihiro Kawahara and the Kawahara Lab at the University of Tokyo for giving me the opportunity to continue my explorations.
- Finally to my family: Quanle, May, and Michael Qi, to my partner Ira Winder, and especially to my mom Chunying Li. I could not possibly be here without you.
Originally published at https://www.media.mit.edu.