DECEMBER 2, 2014
Coby Unger is, by his own description, “a maker of things and a connoisseur of high fives.” He’s also a familiar face at DM+D—and, as of last month, the co-star in an Atlantic article on prosthetic limb design.
While studying industrial design at Philadelphia University, Coby worked with Public Workshop on Smith Playground builds and Building Heroes projects. When he graduated from PhilaU last May, he traded Philly for San Fran and became an artist-in-residence at Instructables. Now he works on the shop staff at Pier 9—Autodesk’s fabrication facility—and has a part-time artist residency at Autodesk.
It was in that role that Coby met Aidan, a 9-year-old whose left arm ends just below his elbow. Aidan had designed and prototyped his own prosthetic at Superhero Cyborg Camp—a KIDMob program for children with upper-limb loss. When Coby Skyped in to the camp’s final presentation, he immediately wanted to help develop Aidan’s idea further.
Coby tells the full story in this excellent video, including how he built an open-source prosthetic arm that includes fork, Lego and Wii-mote attachments, and can even expand as Aidan grows:
We caught up with the busy DM+D alum to find out more about his current projects, his inspirations, and his earliest making attempts.
5 QUESTIONS FOR COBY UNGER
1. WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON NOW?
I’m working on a giant set of K’Nex for Smith Playground that are going to be called K’Flex. They’re approximately four times the size of regular K’Nex. I also just started working on a double-decker standing desk for Pier 9. It’s like a bunk bed, but at work. One person is at a seated-height desk. The person facing them is elevated and at a standing-height desk with the desks overlapping by about two-thirds. It’s mostly for space saving, but also just for fun. Underneath the standing platform there is going to be a bed—like a naptime space. There is a specific spot for it at the [Pier 9] office already and people are bargaining about who gets which space on the double-decker. It’s very much like a bunk bed from summer camp.
2. HOW DID YOUR TIME AT DM+D INSPIRE YOU?
I’m way more excited about working with teenagers as builders and designers. I think there’s a different sort of creativity that kids have. Kids are not afraid to say, ‘I think this would be cool; let’s make it.’ That was one of the best things about working on the prosthetics project with Aidan. Working with kids makes projects more powerful and more fun, and it’s a great opportunity for everyone involved.
3. SPEAKING OF KIDS, WHAT’S ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS YOU REMEMBER MAKING ON YOUR OWN?
There’s a photo of me, probably around age 8 or 9, wearing this construction helmet that has a bunch of tools Velcro-attached to it. It was a utility helmet so I could keep all my tools close at hand. That’s one of the first things I remember making.
4. WHICH MAKERS HAVE HAD THE BIGGEST INFLUENCE ON YOU?
My dad was a carpenter when I was younger, which was influential for sure. My friend Rob’s dad was really cool. He’s still a tinkerer-maker. For the helmet, I was really inspired by him. He had a utility helmet that was way more usable.
5. WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE PART OF THE CREATIVE PROCESS?
I just like building things. I don’t like the stages of drawing and sketching or CAD work. What I like is just building stuff, and I kind of go crazy if I don’t have at least one or two actual build projects going on at a time. I also go crazy when I have just one thing. I like to be able to bounce around and do a bunch of different stuff at the same time.
I like to build full-scale immediately. If I need to do it more than once, that’s fine. But I learn better about how to do something by doing it rather than by sketching it out or doing CAD or anything. I’d rather build something immediately and make mistakes, then build it again and fix things if I need to.