Towards an Equitable Technology

An interview with John MacLeod, Founder/CEO of New Media Learning and Managing Director at Marinovation Learning Center MakerSpace-Media Studio at South Novato Library (amongst many other fascinating things!)

(Photo above courtesy of Community Education Center (CEC) MakerSpace-Media Studio)

John MacLeod is a creative and inspiring leader in the movement to introduce young people to emerging technologies through hands-on par­ticipation. I have had the pleasure of collaborating with John on an innovative new library/multimedia learning center in Novato for the past couple of years, and I’m excited about the possibilities he sees for helping enable today’s young people to play an active role in our technolog­ical future. I met with John beneath the Ferris wheel at the Marin County Fair to discuss his background and where he sees things going in the next few years.

John grew up a real hippie and child of the 1960s in Massachusetts, attending Woodstock and embarking on an architectural education at Merrimack College. Prior to completing the program, he left school to work on a farm in Vermont, and from there began designing and building solar-powered homes. He moved to the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia and founded a company called Lightworks that made solar stoves and collectors. He built himself a passive solar home. Eventually, he became a lobbyist for the solar tax credit, which was implemented by the Carter administration, but later collapsed with the oil crisis.

young girl playing

Photo courtesy of the San Jose Public Library

In the mid-1980s, John moved out west to Mill Valley. The world of microcomputing was in its infancy, and a group of Marin entrepreneurs and programmers was working to start a new company called Autodesk. They thought that, with his knowledge of drafting (which he really didn’t have), John could be a great asset in helping the company develop its first computer-aided drafting program. However, his talents fell more in the area of sales, and he began working with Autodesk in that area in 1986, eventually becoming director of international sales. After he’d spent five years in this position, the company went public, and John left to start a nonprofit called New Media Learning, with the goal of making technology available to kids.

His early efforts included establishing the McMagic program at Davidson Middle School in San Rafael with George Lucas, which has since been running for more than 25 years, and setting up a digital academy at Drake High School, where he is still teaching. He also started an afterschool youth center in downtown San Rafael with support from a wide range of major computer makers and burgeoning software companies. Through the center, the students started a new online magazine called FastForward, published by and for kids, creating a platform for discussions of tech­nology, entertainment, sports, and business.

John MacLeod and Sara Jones

John MacLeod with Marin County Library Director Sara Jones

Around two years ago, I was working with Marin County librarian Sara Jones and her staff to develop the design for a new temporary home for the South Novato Library at Hamilton Field, on a site which had been transferred from the U.S. Army to the Novato School District. At the time, the library was housed in one of the renovated hangers at the decommissioned military base, but the lease was about to expire.

At the same time, John learned that his after-school youth center was going to be losing the lease on its downtown San Rafael facility. John and Sara had a fortuitous meeting, and the decision was made to move the center into a greatly expanded facility at the site of the new library in an inspired joint project between the Marin County Free Library, Marin Office of Education, and Novato Unified School District. In a precedent-setting collaboration, all three agencies have actively participated in the planning, operational, and financial aspects of the new joint project, and I was lucky enough to be involved as the design architect. Marshall/Lee Architects, which has a long history of projects with the school district, served as architect-of-re­cord.

view of South Novato makerspace

Makerspace at South Novato Library | Novato, California

Working together, we were able to bring John and Sara’s vision for the new learning center together. The new facility includes one building for the library, a media lab with video production and recording studios, and a makerspace. The makerspace may be the largest within any library in the Bay Area, with flexible work areas for woodworking, circuit board creation, 3D printing, laser cutting, and a wide range of other hands-on activities for participants of all ages. The final building at the site is currently being developed as a classroom of the future, and we are going to be working to have it outfitted by the end of this year as the first wireless virtual learning space of its type in the U.S. Vive, which is the current world leader in virtual reality headset technology, has already set up a similar classroom in China.

This brings me to the core topic of my talk with John. Mark Zuckerberg has said that virtual reality “is the next computing platform” of the 21st century. John’s goal is to help make immersive learning accessible to people through libraries, and he is working with the California State Library and Califa, a California-based nonprofit library membership consortium, to bring virtual reality headsets to more than 200 libraries throughout the state by the end of this year. The first site is our very own South Novato Library, which has been up and running now for over a year. The two companies participating in this program are Oculus and Vive, the world leaders in virtual reality headset technology. Ten high school students are currently participating in a virtual reality production class, designing their own 3D immersive games in a summer program at South Novato Library.

view of makerspace

Photo courtesy of Kevin Krejci

John believes that virtual reality is going to be transformative for the learning process. He cites a study by Stanford University that saw an 80% retention rate for topics studied using the new platform, which makes sense given that most of us are visual learners. It’s also a lot of fun. I remember being mesmerized by the description of “the Corridor,” the virtual reality file storage system described in Michael Crichton’s visionary novel Disclosure. John hosted a virtual reality demonstra­tion booth at this year’s Marin County Fair, and the long lines were a testament to the public’s interest in this new system.

John sees this as the next major step in communications, with an impact similar to that of microcomputers, the internet, and the cell phone. Right now, affordability is still a major stumbling block, but as with all of those innovations, costs are already coming down. The technologies are there for the high-speed graphics and CPU pro­cessing speeds necessary to run a virtual reality system; quicker wireless speeds and better resolution are already a reality; and 360-degree cam­eras are also available and getting more affordable, which will broaden the range of possibilities for virtual reality content.

a child using a VR headset

Photo courtesy of Andri Koolme

Other major corporations, including Microsoft and Magic Leap, are already well into the design and production of their own virtual reality systems. And to bring things full circle, John is now consulting with Autodesk on the upcoming release of its virtual reality add-on to Revit, the company’s 3D building information modeling software system. This will allow architects and their clients to put on headsets and walk together through the conceptual models of their future buildings, move things around, look at alternatives, and more fully visualize their designs. It is a bright and exciting future.

Many thanks to John for taking the time to talk with me about his history and what he sees coming in the next years.

 

 

 

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Posted In: Architecture, Blog, Education, Makerspace


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