HackSpace magazine

Meet the maker: Evil Mad Scientist

By Andrew Gregory. Posted

Regular HackSpace magazine readers will know the name Evil Mad Scientist. We featured their EggBot kit last issue in our roundup of beginner’s kits, and the AxiDraw pen plotter is all over the internet – at least, it’s all over the hashtag #plottertwitter.

They’re also keen supporters of open-source hardware. We caught up with 50% of Evil Mad Scientist, Lenore Erdman, to find out what made them become accidental entrepreneurs.

“We started Evil Mad Scientist accidentally. We did not mean to start a business. We went to the very first Maker Faire with our project and people said ‘Ooh, how d’you do that? I want to do that!’ So, we started making kits to make it feasible for other people to do projects like ours. Every time we would do a kit, we would bring money back into the next round of the kits. It grew very gradually, and now it’s our full-time job. It’s been a slow-going, organic, interesting journey.

“That first project was our interactive LED dining table. It had 400 LEDs and a connected series of nodes that had a light sensor on them. When something would change over that sensor, it would change which LEDs were on and how bright they were. For example, when you pass the salt, or move the napkin, or pick up a drink, a sensor would send a message to its neighbour node – I’ve changed, do you want to change? That would trigger a ripple of changes throughout the table.

Lenore & Windell

“The interactive LED panels that we made for that were large – initially the PCBs were 12 by 14 inches; now the ones we make are 12×12 inches, and they have 80 LEDs on a panel. And they’re completely analogue – there’s a damped signal, so they’ll come on and ripple and fade out. And they’re pretty. People still get them. Coffee tables, bars, nightclubs. There’s a museum in Texas that has a wall of them, and there’s a museum in Australia that made an archway that you could walk through with them.

“It took a few years for me to go full-time, and Windell [Windell Oskay, co-founder of Evil Mad Scientist] went full-time a year or two after that. The years blur together after a while! We’ve been doing this since 2007. It was several years before I went full-time.

“I had no dream of entrepreneurship. What motivates us is that people are interested in and enjoy what we do, and that’s still what drives me. People love it; they get so much out of it. It’s really rewarding to see how much people get out of the projects that we do.

The project that launched a company – Evil Mad Scientist’s interactive LED dining table


“We sell components, we sell kits, and we sell plotters. The components tend to be purchased by educators. LEDs for classroom use, pager motors for making art bots.

“They get used, for instance, by model train enthusiasts who want to make their trains more realistic and who want to put LEDs into their trains, but who find it hard to shop for LEDs at a traditional electronics store because there isn’t information, or someone to contact about how to do that. Well, I have a really good article about what resistor you should use with your LED if you’re using an AA battery, for example (hsmag.cc/MFcmTe). We have niche cases like that where it’s a hobby that’s not necessarily electronics-related, but somebody wants to do something with LEDs or electronic components.

“This is one of the beautiful things about open-source hardware – when you document your hardware well, people can use it for other things. Scientists are always looking for solutions to problems that you and I don’t know exist. They’re looking at very narrow problems in fields that we would never think about our thing being used there.

“For example, a group was studying coral reproduction, which is tied to the phase of the moon. And so, they wanted to shift the length of the month: what happens if you have 30 days instead of 28 in the cycle? They used some of our LED boards to control the light source to the coral over the course of the experiment – I would never have imagined someone ever needing to selectively light a tank of coral!

“One interesting use case for our stuff that we helped out with is a group that’s using the AxiDraw as an XY stage. Instead of using it for drawing, they’re using it to make a light source and a sensor on the head of the AxiDraw, and they have it mounted on a tripod. What they’re doing is material analysis of artwork. They’re scanning the artwork to find out what’s in the pigments.

“The reason they didn’t use any existing scanners is that they needed it to be portable – they can’t move the artworks. Most collections are not going to let you move a painting, still less a mosaic on the floor. So if they can mount their XY scanner on a tripod, they can make it portable

“Here’s another great niche. When we started making the EggBot, we were selling it to a maker crowd, thinking that robotics hobbyists were getting to try out some art. We were contacted by members of the International Egg Art Guild to ask us when we would be releasing an ostrich version! It’s not a very large community, but there are people dedicated to making art with eggs.

“AxiDraw has gotten us several new niches, including people sending direct mail. They want a letter, or the address on an envelope, to look handwritten. This is a large group of customers, and some of them are doing interesting things, often retail- or marketing-related.

“And that lets us make machines that artists love. #plottertwitter is a joy, and much of #plottertwitter is AxiDraw. There are also people using vintage plotters which are wonderful machines. We’ve been doing plotter projects since the very beginning of Evil Mad Scientist, whether as side projects or related to other research projects.

“We’ve been inspired by pen plotters for a long time, and the vintage ones are incredible hardware. It’s interesting to watch these communities of plotter artists that have grown up. Most of them will recommend the AxiDraw as a start machine, but for people with a lower budget and more time on their hands, they’ll recommend the vintage plotters, with the caveat that you’ll be in for a lot of work in terms of connectivity, software, and all those issues. There’s no tech support, for example.

The AxiDraw, a USB, computer controlled pen plotter that has spawned an online community of plotter artists

New horizons

“We’re always working on new AxiDraw-related things. Whether it’s software or hardware, there are some advances we’d like to make on the hardware. One of the difficult software projects related to handwriting is stroke reconstruction. If you’re generating strokes, if you start with a font, that’s relatively easy. But if you want to reproduce something that already exists, that’s actually quite difficult: knowing which stroke to draw first, what direction to do it. For example, if you think about the letter X, you and I know that it’s two lines that cross. The computer does not necessarily know that. Is it two Vs connected?

“People will say ‘I have hand-drawn artwork – can I get AxiDraw to draw it?’ Well, did you draw it on the computer? Did you record those strokes in a way that AxiDraw can do? There are tools for vectorising scanned artwork, but they’re limited. They don’t necessarily know the intention of the artist.

“One of the questions I get a lot is: ‘how should I get started?’ And it’s a really tough question. For most people, getting started shouldn’t necessarily be an open-ended kit. It should be something that’s going to capture their interest, so they should have a goal in mind, or an area that they want to focus on. The most successful introductions to electronics happen not because you want to learn electronics but because you wanted to do A Thing: you wanted to light up the epaulettes on your costume; you wanted to light up the tinder-box on your train engine; you wanted something to make a noise when something happened.

“So, the most successful learners usually have a goal in mind. And a lot of our projects are like that. If you have a kit and you build it, you end up with something that does something. If it’s a clock, if it’s a robot eye… sometimes that’s just enough to get someone hooked and bold enough to try another thing.”