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THE NEXT LIST

Examining What's Happening at Syyn Labs

Aired March 11, 2012 - 14:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to THE NEXT LIST. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta.

You're about to meet a group called "Syyn Labs." They're a collective bunch of physicists, roboticists, musicians, circus performers, even a molecular chef who believes science can inspire extraordinary interactive art.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot comes off as almost impossible. That's absolutely by design. It couldn't happen though without the contributions of some of the extraordinarily talented individuals who are part of our team and we're really proud of that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

GUPTA: They're headquartered in this pretty unassuming 5,000 square- foot building, which has been converted into this hybrid science lab/fun house. As you're about to see, innovation at "Syynn Labs" is sparked by pure unadulterated fun and a healthy dose of science.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ADAM SADOWSKY, PRESIDENT, SYYN LABS: My name is Adam Sadowsky and I'm the president of Syyn Labs. Synn Labs is an art collector. We're a group people from various disciplines who come together to create newly fun and interesting innovative art.

GUPTA: What is the unofficial motto here?

SADOWSKY: Well, there's a couple. Geeks with girlfriends. We've also been called a drinking club of art problem. The past company called us the league of extraordinary nerds. We were about 15 who participate in a pretty active way, but we sometimes grow to as many as 50 if necessary.

GUPTA: What is the common trait that people who work here have?

SADOWSKY: I would say the common trait of people at Syyn Labs is that they are different. That they're all a little unusual in -- an expert in their particular field.

One of our members, Eric Gradman, is an extremely talented -- almost a renaissance man. ERIC GRADMAN, FOUNDING MEMBER: My name is Eric Gradman. I'm one of the founding members of Syyn Labs. I'm a lead engineer. I'm a roboticist. I'm a circus performer. I'm a huge geek. Yes, I am also a world-class whistler.

SADOWSKY: Davis Galigan is -- we call him pirate. He has a long experience on the open seas rigging tall ships and captaining them.

DAVIS GALIGAN: I'm Davis Galigan. I don't really have a title here at Syyn Labs. I sort of defy a title. I'm a designer. I'm a fabricator. I'm a janitor. I'm a manager. I do a little bit of everything.

SADOWSKY: He's a phenomenal rigger and engineer. And he's got great facial hair.

DAN BUSBY, LEAD ENGINEER: My name is Dan Busby and I'm a lead engineer.

SADOWSKY: Dan Busby is trained as a physicist from Caltech who's got a wide and diverse background in engineering.

BUSBY: Now I consider myself an artist, but I initially went into this as a physicist so all of my art has a physics background.

GALIGAN: Some people express themselves through science. Some people express themselves through art. Syyn Labs is a meeting place where it all comes together.

GRADMAN: Like most good ideas, Syyn Labs was born in a bar. A bunch of us were meeting regularly, drinking some beers and talking about what projects we were working on. We got really competitive.

And that really drove us to make bigger and better and cooler experiments and it cause us to collaborate. And because of our success with that, the band "OK Go" found us and gave us that first gig that really got us going as a real team.

SADOWSKY: Of course, we knew of "OK Go" because they are infamous. They produced some of the greatest music of our time including, perhaps, the very first viral music video.

They were looking for what they called a machine that they could dance with. And we after a few minutes of talking realized that we were all talking about the same thing, which was --

It's basically a chain reaction of physical events. It sort of becomes shorthand for a very complex chain reaction that often does something mundane at the end. We were all really excited.

First of all, we knew we had the stills. We put together this really fantastic team. We grabbed people who worked at JPL, and we got physicists, and we got our pirate on board, Davis, who's a fantastic rigger.

And we had just this fantastic group of individuals who came together to help us to achieve that dream.

GUPTA: Give us some idea, you know, peek behind the curtain -- how hard it was to do?

SADOWSKY: The "OK Go" video was incredibly hard to do. It was incredibly hard to do. Just the two shoot days, we took 85 takes. Of course, doing the machine is itself incredibly difficult. But add the complication of having to sync to music and to things along the way and do it in one shot. It was incredibly difficult.

GRADMAN: At Synn Labs, we have to celebrate our failures because we started off with Rube Goldberg machines and nothing fails more often. We worked through it. We turn our failures into our successes. We're very good at pulling the bacon out of the fire, I think.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: This is a pretty amazing place. When you think about a place like this, are you guys -- is it a business? Are you trying to make money with what you do here? Are you trying to create for the sake of creating? How would you best describe it?

SADOWSKY: I would say it's a little bit of both. I think that we do commercial jobs because we find that there's certain ample opportunity out there to create stuff in the commercial space. That satisfies our desire for interesting and fun creativity.

But at the same time, a lot of what we do raises money for the stuff that we want to do that isn't necessarily for a commercial project or sponsor.

GRADMAN: One of my favorite projects at Syyn Labs was the DNA sequencer that we built for the Glow Festival in Santa Monica.

SADOWSKY: We decided to build a 100-foot-long double Helix made out of 512 individually computer controlled full-colored LED's and connected that to a music source. We had a deejay come. The light sequences were programmed to play with music. It was beautiful.

GRADMAN: One project that I loved working on was the car organ that we made for Diehard Batteries.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We powered a cube of light, a double stamped keyboard, 24 cars without batteries and Gary Newman.

GRADMAN: We went to the desert unprepared. We had never seen the cars before --

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All with one diehard platinum battery.

SADOWSKY: We came up with a design where we took 24 black and white cars and arranged them like a piano keyboard, the black puns on a steel deck like the keys on the piano. We replaced horns with horns of our design that were all tuned to match their location on a piano keyboard.

GRADMAN: The reason I loved this project so much was because we brought everything we needed, yet still everything went wrong. Every technical problem we could encounter we encountered. And it came down to the last minute.

It was just the most amazing moment. Wow. We did it. We absolutely did it and it was great.

SADOWSKY: It caught the attention of the producers of "Extreme Home Makeover." They thought that it would be really fun to carve out a mini project that Syyn Labs could do as part of a couple of episodes of "Extreme Home Makeover."

BUSBY: When we were working on "Extreme Makeover Home Edition," we got to work on fun, different projects and it was actually interesting. We got to work on projects that helped people that had you know, specific problems.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My gosh.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Isn't that cool?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I can hear birds.

BUSBY: This one guy, he had PTSD after an IED explosion in Iraq. So we worked on this chair that he could sit in, and he could like listen to music. It was calming and -- look at some pictures of his favorite mountain scenes or whatever to kind of calm him down and keep him from having PTSD episodes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And here we are in our theater.

BUSBY: One of the other "Extreme Makeover Home Edition" projects we worked on was a -- there was a little girl with dwarfism. We were told to make something fun for her.

So we made a puppet show for her that she could control while sitting in front of it. And the puppets were pictures of her or her family or friends or me and Eric and Brent, of us just like with different poses of our mouth.

And we took those images and turned it into a puppet that she could steer around. And so it was a lot of fun to work on that project. When you're making toys for kids, you get to play with them yourself. That's always fun.

SADOWSKY: The folks at Chevy approached us about doing a launch for their new Chevy Sonic. We started talking about what would make a good launch, and we came to the conclusion that we should actually launch the car for the launch.

We found a site in Long Beach a parking lot and we built a tower of shipping containers, 10 shipping containers high and four wide. We built this crazy gear mechanism that could push the car along in very, very small units.

We connected the whole thing to the internet and let people come to a web site where there was a big hand that said "click here," on the screen, behind the car.

If they clicked on that hand, it would move the car forward. So everyone all over the internet could contribute toward pushing this car closer and closer to the edge.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: After nine hours and 2.5 million clicks, this happened.

SADOWSKY: We are interested in creating unique and authentic experiences. Every single one of these projects represents an opportunity to look at the world in a different way. And that's what we're about.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GRADMAN: So we've shown you a bunch of technical things we do here at Syyn Labs. Now I'm going to show you how we blow off a little steam the end of the day.

I'm going to light this thing, and you're going to put it -- put it in your mouth, pointing nearly straight up and down. Look -- your mouth is wet, and fire doesn't burn in places where it's wet. It's perfectly safe and --

GUPTA: Perfectly safe?

GRADMAN: Perfectly safe --

GUPTA: Famous last words, all right.

GRADMAN: You ready? Here we go. Yes!

GUPTA: Where are we now? What is this area called?

GRADMAN: So, this is my work area at Syyn Labs. It's probably the messiest.

GUPTA: How much time do you spend here?

GRADMAN: You know, I spend about half my time in the day and a lot of time at night. I come in after I do the rest of the stuff during the day, and I'll spend all night working on a project.

Even though we've got big clients, we've become a much larger organization, a lot of us still just love spending our entire nights here working on cool stuff.

GUPTA: Is that right? GRADMAN: We spent all night working on this space bike.

GUPTA: You got asteroids, the game everybody knows. This is a cyclone. You got the trainer on the back. How does it all work?

GRADMAN: So what we've done is we've -- we've added a simple rotation sensor to the handlebars here. So now we know how the handlebars are rotated. Every project must have a big, red button to start the game. That's your firing interface.

GUPTA: I'm pedalling -- you're pedalling. You're not just going in the direction -- you could actually increase the speed?

GRADMAN: You can increase the speed. You can brake by pedalling backwards a little bit. This is standard caster brakes. If you want to stop your spaceship at a moment's notice because you're about to slam into an asteroid, you can do that. You can be one of the best. Jump on there and kill some asteroids.

GUPTA: I love it. The pedals controls it -- the buttons, I'm going to start. Here we go.

This was one of my favorite games growing up. I used to be very different at it. Very different now, I'm not going to lie to you. The ship --

GRADMAN: Right into it. As a kid, I was always a huge nerd. I spent all my time in the computer lab. I spent all my time reading books. I spent my early childhood building cardboard robots.

I supposed I was actually a performer at the age of 3. I was cast to be part of a very famous Super Bowl Oscar Meyer Wiener commercial where I'm sitting in a red wagon singing how much I liked hot dogs.

I barely remember that. It wasn't until I got to college that I realized I also had a sort of exhibitionist performance side to me, as well. And at that point, that side of my life exploded, and I became a circus performer.

And I became a juggler and a fire dancer and toured with a band all over the world. I feel like now I'm bringing those two sides of me, the childhood super nerd and the later in life circus performer together to one package here at Synn Labs.

A little circus play, why not? You know, it can't all be geeky electronic stuff, right?

(END VIDEOTAPE)

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: So if you can think of it, you can build it, it seems here. What is this?

SADOWSKY: Well, this is the support truss, the outer ring of what is going to be the world's fastest gumball machine.

GUPTA: Really?

SADOWSKY: Yes. It's so big that the track will, I think the ball will travel something like a quarter mile. And we're building it in such a way so that people can actually compete. Two people sit side by side in race car seats.

A gumball will come shooting out of a sports car, out of the tailpipe of a sport car and go zipping around this crazy track. And whoever gets their gumball first wins.

GUPTA: How hard is it to do? To start from scratch literally doing something like this?

SADOWSKY: Yes. You know, this hasn't been built before. There aren't blueprints for this, it doesn't exist. We have to create them. Part of that is not just building the blueprints, but we also have to build the tools, to build the supports, to build the machine.

GUPTA: So you build the tools, to build the support, to build the machines.

SADOWSKY: Yes.

GUPTA: When you say starting from scratch, I mean, you literally are.

SADOWSKY: Sure. It's often the best way. We are all self-described geeks and nerds, though or discipline regular so varied. We like to think that we've got the best of all of them.

GUPTA: How do you get people like that to work together? I mean, because they are so smart and so talented in their own fields. It's a challenge. It would seem at least, to get them to work on projects together.

SADOWSKY: I think that it is a challenge sometimes, yes. But I think that everybody's really interested in impressing each other. So I think that that serves as a really good glue to move everyone forward toward the same goal, absolutely.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: From the past work that we've done, I've noticed that things really start coming together -- like we start tossing out ideas and, wow, we can do this. Things start coming together when we figure out, this is the story we want to tell.

GUPTA: Tell me about the brainstorming sessions. Was that always part of the plan, to get everyone in a room to talk?

SADOWSKY: Yes, it even predates our incorporation as a company. Every week, we get together at 8:30 at night. And we have a few drink, and we talk about what's been -- what we've been working on as individuals and what we have planned to do, maybe opportunities that are coming up on the horizon.

GUPTA: Is it always a congenial thing? Again, you have strong personalities. Did the sparks fly literal?

SADOWSKY: I wouldn't say the sparks fly, but there is definitely, you know, a lot of -- of bashed remarks and a lot of -- barbed remarks and a lot of laughing and no one is safe.

Everyone gets their share of poking and you are best to say exactly what you mean and you best say it accurately, and you better be right because otherwise everyone's going to jump down your throat.

We at Syyn Labs are really excited by science, technology, mathematics. We believe if we can we should try to inspire the next generation to pursue those things.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: That's an amazing idea. What if teachers could have that in their classrooms?

GRADMAN: To the educational component, to be able to allow lots of people to interact with this simultaneously. I was thinking we extend this with objects that you can magnetically stick on the board.

SADOWSKY: Particularly in middle school where we think we can make the best contribution.

GUPTA: You take some of what you've worked on into classrooms and let them see it, let them play with it, touch it.

SADOWSKY: We're working with a company called Game Desk, which is a phenomenal company that is aligned right now to help redesign science, technology, engineering, mathematics and perhaps our curriculum for the L.A. unified school district and maybe others, as well.

BUSBY: Put a magnet on the wall, and you can see the magnetic field. You can draw those in around the magnets --

SADOWSKY: Each one of us had an inspirational teacher and an inspirational curriculum. So we really want to try to give that back.

We really want to try to inspire kids in these areas because we believe that this is a fundamental -- of fundamental importance, understanding the world around us. And we believe it's all center to creating great art and so that's -- that's what we do.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

GUPTA: Syyn Labs is an extraordinary collection of people pooling their creativity to take earth to new extremes. They're a unique group driven to do more with what they love doing. In the end, they're all agents of change. That earns them a spot on THE NEXT LIST.

For more on this episode and other agents of change, go to cnn.com/thenextlist. And join me on my live streaming at cnn.com/sanjay.

It's a one-stop shop for all my videos, blogs, tweets, and behind-the- scene photos. Thanks for joining us. I'm Dr. Sanjay Gupta. See you back here next Sunday.