Dr. Travis Feldman Kickstarts Innovation

Photo courtesy of Kickstarter

Dr. Feldman’s word game Pijin, which he described as “Scrabble for phonemes,” was crowdfunded in 2014.

Have an idea, but no funds to see it through? Use Kickstarter to bring it to life! Since 2009, the popular crowdfunding base has funded 137,740 fabulous, quirky, and sometimes downright weird inventions. Among these funded inventions, three of them belong to Choate’s very own i.d. Lab Director and English teacher, Dr. Travis Feldman: Molecule Synth, Pijin, and the Battery Powered Orchestra Workshop (BPOW).

Even before venturing to Kickstarter, Dr. Feldman has pursued electronics and DIY design for years. He explained, “Circuits and music-oriented electronics have always interested me. In 2011, I rented a MakerSpace in Portland, Oregon and began making my own guitar pedals, microphones, and electronic musical instruments. I was giving them away to people and they liked them.”

The inspiration to create Molecule Synth, a system allowing users to create their own musical instruments, came to Dr. Feldman a year later. He said, “In February of 2012, I had the idea to create a modular system that you could make your own musical instruments with — sort of like Lego. I decided to use the periodic table as a metaphor for sound design, and since I really love board games like Settlers of Catan, I wanted the form factor of it to be on the tabletop.” The decision to create a flat design opposed to a more traditional one was also motivated by user-friendliness. According to Feldman, “Modular synthesizers have been here since the 1960s, and they are very overwhelming with how abstract and complicated they looked. I wanted to do something more fun like a board game that had the power of the modular synthesizers. So I laser cut hexagons and started tinkering with how they could fit together.”

Four months later, Dr. Feldman finished the prototype of his project. However, he didn’t think of marketing it through Kickstarter until a conference his MakerSpace held in June of 2012. The enthusiasm he received for Molecule Synth inspired him to crowdfund his creation. “I had dozens, even hundreds, of people check out the project and they all reacted positively. That was my first test with people who didn’t know me or what I’d been doing. So I stepped away, took a trip with my family, cleared my head a little bit. By the time I came back, I had made my decision,” Dr. Feldman said.

Kickstarter requires a video and a three-to-five-page description for every project, so Dr. Feldman began working immediately on both elements after returning from his vacation. He said, “Creating the video came across as inspiration, like the muse was being channeled. I just went to my favorite places and described the instrument and set up the camera on my kitchen and drew images of what the Molecule Synth was. It took me two days to create that.”

The written description, however, was a bit more challenging. “You have to answer, what is this, who’s it for, and what it does,” Dr. Feldman explained. “For the write-up of my Kickstarter, I thought hard for a few days on who would use it and how would they use it. My tagline was ‘An electronic musical instrument for everyone.’ I also had to map out how to move a hobby of mine into production. Part of the narrative is the creator describing how the project can be made and shared with everyone. That was a learning experience — I’m an English professor. I didn’t know how I could bring my project to scale.”

Though Dr. Feldman initially faced challenges in presenting Molecule Synth, his efforts paid off. Starting with a $15,000 goal, Dr. Feldman raised $33,672 from 240 different backers in just one month. Molecule Synth was featured as Kickstarter’s Project of the Day on August 28, 2012, received hundreds of thousands of views, and was featured on several news organizations and radio stations.

In February 2014, Dr. Feldman began raising funds for his second Kickstarter project, Pijin, which he described as “Scrabble for phonemes.” Unlike Scrabble, which requires the player to spell words in their traditional usage, Pijin requires players to spell only what they hear as a word is pronounced. The title of the project, Pijin, adheres to its own rules: it’s a phonetic spelling of the word “pigeon.”

Pijin’s website, pijin.org, explains much of the philosophy that contributed to the phonetic word game. The website states, “As children acquire language, learn, and gather up their vivid sensations of life into pliant, overflowing expressions, they demonstrate incredible powers of language invention and imagination. And yet, this too soon gets tangled up and children find their creativity drying up… The distance between the written word and the spoken word grows as we get older.” With its focus on the subjective and consensus-based sounds of each word, Pijin is an attempt to reduce that distance.

This project held new challenges. Consisting of 144 small letter tiles, 52 Action Cards, 6 Player’s Mats, and one Player’s Manual held within a Pijin GrabBag, each Pijin package offered the unique difficulty of creating, shipping, and selling a new type of board game. Dr. Feldman had to coordinate the graphic design of each game, contact a company in India to make the cards, and find plastic bags that matched the size of the cards.

However, Dr. Feldman also noted the similarities between Pijin and Molecule Synth. “Whether it’s a synthesizer or a game, one of the fun things is figuring this stuff out. The fun part of Pijin was getting the boxes of tiles laser cut in China. For both projects, calling all your friends over and putting the kits together is also fun,” Dr. Feldman said.

Pijin, like Molecule Synth, was met with success. Its $15,000 goal was exceeded — receiving $17,233 from 205 different backers in one month — and it was featured as the Kickstarter Project of the Day on March 11, 2014.

Although most people think of Kickstarter projects as physical items, Kickstarters can also be events. Such was the case for BPOW, a weekend event based around new media and DIY electronics. Taking place on August 10 and 11, 2014, BPOW was the First Annual Interactive Electronic Arts Festival to take place in Portland, Oregon. It resulted as a collaboration between Dr. Feldman, Edward Sharp, and Androo Meyers, and featured workshops ranging from Squishy Circuits to Analog Modular systems. According to Dr. Feldman, “It was a ton of fun — we got an international response and had people from Copenhagen to Australia attend.” Of the project’s $1,000 goal, 44 backers contributed $1,375.

Unfortunately, Dr. Feldman isn’t selling his projects through Kickstarter anymore: BPOW’s Kickstarter was dedicated to raising money for the two-day event, and the one-month fundraising time of Molecule Synth and Pijin has long passed. However, Molecule Synth is still available at a hardware purchasing site called Tindie. In fact, Dr. Feldman sold his last one to Tony Hawk. Dr. Feldman explained, “He bought it for his son Riley. I’m a skater and have been since I was a kid, so it was especially exciting. He even sent me a photo of Riley opening it up at Christmas.” Make sure to check out Dr. Feldman’s great inventions and be on the lookout for some new, creative ideas in the future.

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