Editor’s Note: Doug Campbell is the founder of Syyn Labs, a radical, creative collective based in downtown Los Angeles. Be sure to check out CNN The Next List’s profile on Syyn Labs this Sunday at 2pm
By Doug Campbell, Special to CNN
“Would they be cool with us launching a rubber chicken into Space?”
A group of excitable characters are volleying ideas around in a gritty but colorfully decorated warehouse. A disco-starfish stands sentry next to a bear wearing a fez. A giant banana and a stuffed monkey hang from the ceiling. A conversation is underway.
“We can do it with fluid dynamics, by tinting layers of oils as they react to the data.”
“Thermal imaging should give us an accurate read of the audiences facial temperatures…”
“Either way, we should use robots… and the paint cannon.”
The brainstorming session resembles a dream in which Salvador Dali is teaching a class at the MIT Media Lab and everyone has ADHD. But this is real. And this is work. And this happens almost every day here at Syyn Labs.
It’s a humorous alternate reality, one where engineers demand creative fulfillment and artists have no fear of circuit boards. But how did we gather such a group of quirky innovators? It all started back in 2008 when I met a hacker who was demo’ing an installation at an LA tech event. The event attendees were invited to send a word, via text message, to a phone number. Then Flickr images that were tagged with that word burst on to the projector. The images started innocently enough with “puppies” and such but since it was anonymous, the imagery soon degenerated into the inevitable body parts and profanities.
I had always been a technophile and interested in creating playful environments at social gatherings, a hobby that I refer to as “social hacking”. As silly as this installation had been, it had achieved its goal as I watched adults turn into giggling children. I left inspired and in the subsequent months, I began identifying and recruiting the most energized and creative artists and hackers I could find to showcase projects at the monthly Mindshare LA salons that I was hosting in downtown Los Angeles. Our mission back then was rather straightforward; to employ the playful use of technology to get attendees interacting amongst themselves, others and the world around them in interesting new ways. Every month it was something fun and mischievous: a beautiful visual in the living room that was really displaying sound data from bathroom; a screen that would recognize you by a unique badge and then display your Facebook relationship status for all to see; a Twitter visualizer that could display moods of the attendees by extracting emotions from their tweets. Every month there were new experiments, sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn’t but it didn’t matter because everyone always loved what we were doing.
By late 2009, what we had originally labeled Mindshare Labs, had attracted a lot of attention with our bizarre endeavors and were being asked to showcase work at other events. Many of the crew realized that they wanted to turn this creative outlet into a full time job. We made the decision to formalize the social group into a spin-off organization called Syyn Labs LLC, and to leverage the talent that we’d collected to seek out new ventures and opportunities that had not yet been explored. With that, an opportunity presented itself that single-handedly opened a passageway to a whole new means of expression. The band OK GO was looking for a team who could construct a Rube Goldberg machine for their video for, “This Too Shall Pass.” Needless to say, the video exploded and put Syyn Labs on the map. Two years later Syyn Labs is now a creative collective that employs a number of full time Syyners as well as an army of scientists, artists, engineers, molecular chefs, roboticists, circus performers, graphic designers, hackers and more.
Was the birth of Syyn Labs an unprecedented occurrence that can easily be replicated? Its hard to say, but the odds seem unlikely. The world is full of people who are aspiring to discover, hone and showcase their talents. If you can provide a forum that encourages and celebrates these aspirations, they will shine brightly and there’s no limit to what might happen. It’s important to note that finding them is only the first step - bringing them together is the more challenging part. The cultivation of talent is a talent in and of itself but here’s a healthy recipe for innovation that has always worked for me:
1. Gather creative, curious and talented people.
2. Encourage out-of-the-box thinking & personal project sharing.
3. Give them a regular forum to apply their skills.
4. Mix thoroughly and repeat steps 1-3 until you reach the desired consistency.
But do proceed with caution. Cooking up creative genius presents a bevy of unique challenges. Not everyone can mesh with the eccentricity of this group dynamic, where emotions and egos can be as powerful as the brains from which they emerge. But ultimately, when the main goal is to build awesome stuff with your friends, it’s a pretty self-navigating trajectory.
Syyn Labs gets hired to conquer unique challenges for all types of entities, leaving an indelible mark wherever we go. We brainstorm. We design. We build. We pursue our passions, dabbling in technology and dreams.