Monday 14 June 2021
A head full of crazy plans
Linda: ‘The first time I saw you in real life was during an introduction meeting for new employees. There, you spoke about your field with a lot of enthusiasm. But I've known you for a long time – from clips on the kids’ TV show Het Klokhuis, which my daughter watches. How would you describe the work you do yourself?’
Edwin: ‘In short: I build robots. But actually, I wear several nice hats. I am a teacher of Creative Technology at UT. This bachelor's study is about the interaction between technology and people. My research at the Robotics and Mechatronics department is mainly about designing robots, for example for the gas industry.
In addition to my UT work, I do a lot of technology in art projects. This is great, because it allows me to often involve students in work for clients outside the UT network. And I run a creative-technical workshop for people with autism. In this respect, too, I make a lot of links with UT – think of research into autism problems, or students who are doing a graduation assignment with us.’
Linda: ‘If you look at the principles of Shaping2030, you are a kind of poster child for the UT vision. Everything you do is interrelated and influences each other.’
Edwin: ‘Right. That's the core of creativity: you shouldn't focus too hard on one thing. Especially when you are working on different projects: it will generate cross-pollination and subsequently new inspiration arises. A disadvantage of this is that I am not really a specialist in anything, and it can sometimes take a long time for a project to be completed. Still, this is the best way for me to be creative and innovative.’
Linda: ‘That was also clearly on display in the tv-show "We gaan het maken" (“We’re going to build it”, a TV program of the Dutch Public Broadcasting Service NPO, in which UT researchers help people with disabilities find solutions for their daily tasks, ed.). I watched all episodes intently - also because I have a physical disability myself. I wondered: what was it like for you to participate in that show?’'
Edwin: ‘Online I was already being called Emmett Brown, the crazy professor from Back to the Future, haha! And an interview with Tubantia called me “Professor Furby”. But it's no surprise: I like that this program is about people who, despite their disabilities, have their lives in order. The show doesn’t look down on people. Our issues were not about life or death either. For example, I started developing a game controller for Marc, a 24-year-old man with a progressive muscular disease. These kinds of projects make you confront your own preconceptions...’
Linda: ‘Such as…?’
Edwin: ‘You easily underestimate the precision involved in people’s lives. At first you might think that there’s an easy solution to a specific problem: we'll just put a cushion under Marc’s controller, and we’re done. But if you really look at what someone’s body is still capable of, you will see that it’s not that simple. Marc could feel the difference between a brand-new controller and one that had been used for a hundred hours. I also didn't expect how important it would be to involve him from day one. You can come up with a wonderful solution for someone, but if it doesn't feel right to them, they won't do anything with it.’
Linda: ‘I recognize that – it’s always terrible to look for daily living aids… After an operation on my wrist, I experimented with speech software. Nice idea, but I quickly became completely crazy - just let me type! This reminds me: you said a few times that your technology should be open source. But does that make sense if it’s specifically made for one person?’
Edwin: ‘Since the tv-show “We gaan het maken” I have received emails almost every day from people asking if I can help them too. Great fun, but unfortunately, I don't have time for that. So in order to avoid having to set up a something of a factory, I like to share my knowledge online – that way people can use the information themselves.’
Linda: ‘And what about that creative workplace ... What exactly do you do there?’
Edwin: ‘We organise daytime activities for people with autism who have dropped out of the “normal” system. Often, they have previously had a career as a veterinarian, lawyer or accountant, but got tangled up along the way. It’s often difficult for people with autism to structure and communicate. They’re fine when it comes to subject content, but when they have to start planning independently, they get stuck.
Our initial idea was to take on projects from local companies. But we soon had to conclude that any form of performance pressure is absolutely detrimental to their progress. I came up with a solution: recently we were allowed to develop an escape room for the Palte Huis, a historical museum in Oldenzaal. I put three Creative Technology graduates to work, they came up with the concept and storyline and carried the project, and our employees made the puzzles.’
Linda: ‘Great! It sounds like there’s a lot of interaction between different groups. Speaking of work pressure: with all the different things you do at the same time, I can imagine your brain sometimes can short circuit. How do you experience that yourself?’
Edwin: ‘Well, university work is never finished at five o'clock. But I have to say, this doesn’t give me sleepless nights as often as before. And when I do lie awake, I often get clarifying insights as to how I can continue my work. At the start of the corona crisis, I had a lot of trouble teaching online classes. It was such a horrible experience: students all have their camera and microphone turned off, and then you talk for 45 minutes without having any idea of how the lecture is received. If I had wanted that with my life, I would have become a radio producer. After a few times I gave up. I started recording and editing my lectures in ten-minute blocks.’
Linda: ‘Did that make it a bit more accessible?’
Edwin: ‘Exactly. Students are allowed to watch those videos at home. Now we will work in small groups during the online session, and more in-depth on content. That works.’
Linda: ‘What drives you to do all these different things?’
Edwin: ‘Hmm, I don't have a master plan. Every project I agree to do, eventually leads to great discoveries. In that sense my work still feels like a big voyage of discovery, and it just makes me happy to have practical but also a substantive work. That may also be why I have been an assistant professor for quite a long time. I'm sure it will stay that way for a while - I still have all sorts of crazy plans.’