DIY Scanning Electron Microscopes, Virtual Reality, Valve: An Interview with Ben Krasnow

April 3, 2014 | 13:00
DIY Scanning Electron Microscopes, Virtual Reality, Valve: An Interview with Ben Krasnow
DIY Scanning Electron Microscopes, Virtual Reality, Valve: An Interview with Ben Krasnow
Have you ever wished that your windows would clean themselves? Or that you could control a mouse cursor just by talking? Where does someone even begin to have ideas like these, and the resources to turn them into reality? This week’s interview will focus on a man who does exactly that; Ben Krasnow is an electrical engineer and mechanic who’s passionate about sharing his experiments with the world, with the hope that he can encourage more people to explore and team up on big, worthwhile projects.

I recently had the pleasure of being a guest in Ben’s lab in California. We briefly discussed his work with Valve and what motivates him to spread his love of science and engineering with the world.

ADG: Can you explain a little bit about who you are and what you do? Who is the enigmatic “Ben Krasnow?”

BK: So I’m a mechanical and electrical engineer at Valve and STEAM. I work on Virtual Reality and other hardware at Valve. Up until 2011, Valve was a software company, but they wanted to transition to creating some hardware components, so they hired me along with other hardware engineers in order to better understand and develop hardware.

ADG: I’ve seen a few of your YouTube videos on Applied Science …they’re interesting, and some of them actually made me laugh out loud. What inspired you to make this YouTube Channel, and what inspires you to disseminate knowledge to many people?

BK: [Pauses] That is a good question. When you’re getting started, there are no subscribers… it’s hard to be motivated to make videos daily [if that is your intention]. In the early days it was more of a journal to keep track of stuff I’ve been doing. And then the channel started growing a bit, and it became a viewership and publication type thing, so I focused on that.

ADG: What is the most exciting project you’ve ever worked on?

BK: That would have to be the scanning electron microscope. [A scanning electron microscope] is a type of electron microscope that produces images of a sample by scanning it with a focused beam of electrons. The electrons interact with atoms in the sample, producing various signals that can be detected and that contain information about the sample's surface topography and composition. I brought it to maker faire to show it off. I worked on it for about 4 months.

ADG: What was your goal or purpose building it?

BK: I built it and didn’t intend for it to be a decent scientific tool. The whole point building it was just to go through the process, and it was possible to built it without a research budget… To show other people they could do it too.

ADG: What got you interested in mechanical and electrical engineering?

BK: I started off early on, in high school and even prior to that. I really thought programming would be my concentration, but I enjoy building things with my hands more than typing code… I got my degree in mechanical and electrical engineering, with the intention of being a builder more than anything.

ADG: Do you have any advice for hackerspaces on how to begin some projects like the ones you’ve been working on? How to get started, what resources they might find useful, etc.

BK: Ebay is a great source for tools and other resources. And McMaster-Carr is the biggest hardware store ever. If you can’t find it there, you really couldn’t find it anywhere. Between those two sources, you can get a good start.

ADG: What are some good projects for beginners to start on?

BK: The scanning electron microscope. Or a CT scan machine. It’s not as difficult as people may think. It requires an X-ray source, but on Ebay they’re easy to acquire. Time-wise, it’s almost a one-weekend project.

ADG: How would you encourage youth to become in hardware hacking and engineering?

BK: Mentoring is always a good thing. If you can find a person who knows more than you do, you should ask them. Hackerspaces are also a good start. Picking a project and figuring out what you’ll need to learn as you are going along is a good way of doing it. Unfortunately public education isn’t part of the deal.

[Most schools] are too busy teaching the testing curriculum, they only want students to pass the test, there is no room for students to do creative stuff… it’s pretty lousy, unfortunately it continues all the way to the University level.

As soon as employers find people coming from hackerspaces are just as capable as students from universities… things might change for the better.

Valve doesn’t require anyone to have a degree to work there. [Having a college diploma] doesn’t really have a mark on a person’s ability to do things. It isn’t as great a certification as they once thought it was.

For more information about Ben’s projects, and his contributions to DIY hardware, check out EHSM’s YouTube channel and watch Ben’s presentation on his airport body scanners.
Alison Dorantes-Garcia has done a series of interviews with speakers of EHSM (Exceptional Hardware Software Meeting) 2012. The conference explores the outer limits of open source hardware and software. The second edition of EHSM will take place in Hamburg, Germany June 27-29, 2014. The interviews will be published weekly on TTF

Image: Makezine
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