Top 5 Understated Toronto Favs

In the last few years, I’ve been extremely lucky to travel much to visit and work in many of the most interesting places in the world including Spain, Bhutan, Mexico and Kenya. Today, I want to list a few things about a very special place that I have written little about here before: Toronto. I emigrated with my family to this cold but friendly city more than 15 years ago. Ever since moving to this adopted home, I’ve always felt good coming back from travels and trips both short and long. So in the manner of lists about everything that are popping all over the place and for no particular reason, here are my Top 5 Understated Toronto Favs: (Warning! This is an opinionated piece and has no claim to objectivity!)

1. Tea Heaven

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Yes, I know this is a surprise but I believe tea is king in Toronto! China and India might be the places most associated with ancient tea drinking traditions, Kenya and Sri Lanka might be some of the largest producers of tea, Japan and England might have woven the most etiquette and ritual around tea, and, my native Iranians might have chosen it as their national drink, but it is Toronto, my friends, that in my mind owns the title of Tea Heaven. Wondering why? I challenge you to find more variety of teas anywhere in the world! While different places focus on a few special types of tea (for example, the super sweet and milky Chai of India and the small and strong red tea of Turkey), it is extremely hard to find all of these in one city in the world. In Toronto, you can find authentic Persian tea, Indian tea, Chinese tea and even a Japanese tea ceremony master! In addition to these, there are many many independent teahouses with different atmospheres all over town. My buddy Hamed’s Samadhi Teahouse in Kensington is a hub for art and spirituality events, while other places, such as Bambot, focus on board games. Because of Toronto’s cultural diversity ,many of the big franchises – Starbucks, Second Cup and the tea-dedicated David’s Tea – have a lot of teas on offer, something that is hard to find abroad.

In my recent travels, especially in Western Europe, I loved the coffee (and sorry to say, I’m not at all impressed by Toronto’s coffee scene, except maybe the Jet Fuel in Cabbagetown Parliament), but missed the tea. And now, a big reveal: in the cold winter days, when the sun shines through the frozen sky, I long for a big cup of Tim Horton’s green or Earl Grey tea! I know, this comment kicks my reputation as a tea enthusiast and I do agree the coffee at Timmy’s kind of sucks but the teas are surprisingly good (and are of the people with affordable, no frills prices)!

2. Public Library Champ

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For a few years after I moved to Toronto, I was completely obsessed with the public libraries: their open spaces, seemingly unending cultural resources (especially the movie and music sections), and great services, made me swoon with joy every time I walked through their colourful bookshelves. Over the years, this passion has turned into a kind of mature and settled love, where I still long for them but am not desperate to spend as much time as possible with them. Yes, my love of public libraries is old but the memories are still fresh: the first time I searched the Internet, the first time I opened a New York Times Review of Books Magazine, the first time I checked out 20 world music CDs: they all happened here!

In addition to being culture meccas and democratic spaces where the patrons don’t have to buy over-priced coffee, be hipsters looking for degrees, or even shower, to enjoy the free Internet, space and heat, libraries in Toronto offer great services such as free museum passes (in the last year, I’ve visited 5 good Toronto museums with these gifts) and great public and often free speeches: I’ve seen Wade Davis talk about his Into the Silence book and Thomas King share short funny-sad stories from his An Inconvenient Indian there. In short, if you live in Toronto, the public libraries are some of the hippest, awesomest, coolest places to be! And some of them are even in historical buildings and have great collections to check out (for example, the Osborne’s Collection of Early Childhood books). Check them out!

3. Movie Mecca

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Toronto is a movie mecca: it hosts two important international festivals (The Toronto International Film Festival and The Hot Docs Documentary Film Festival), more and more films are being filmed here, and there are important movie interest hubs all over town. In the last few years, I have seen Werner Herzog and Slavoj Zizek give talks on their films here. The Zizek talk was fantastic, you can watch it here. Among the institutions peppered around town are Queen Video (legendary video rental store), Suspect Video (strange horror and erotic sections) and Bloor Cinema (docs and late night replays). Sorry to say the National Film Board of Canada Mediatheque closed down recently. To end this on a fun note, Toronto also has its own very weird underground cinema, Cineforum, with some of the most fringe selections I’ve seen!

4. Food Funhouse

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Fusion is, or can be, confusion! But in Toronto, mostly its awesome. Again, another thing that struck me when I arrived here with my extremely unexperienced palate was to see the diversity of the culinary arts available to explore here. 3 Chinatowns, 2 Little Indias (that I know of) and a very large number of Japanese, Greek, Persian, Thai, Mexican, American, French and … restaurants to choose from. You can be authentic and go to the suburbs to try ethnic food without hearing much English or knowing exactly what you are eating (check out this blog for hints) or be cosmopolitan and try unusual fusions such as Thai and Hungarian or Korean and Mexican!

5. Multicultural Kaleidoscope   

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There is a lot of cultural diversity in Toronto and even if you don’t find the best of something, then at least you have leads to where you can find the best! This is best reflected in the music and art scene, as well as, the diverse neighbourhoods. A great place to start is to check out the international festivals from Harbourfront Centre’s summer festivals – they have featured Orchestra Baobab and Balkan Beat Box in explosive free concerts before- to Toronto Fringe Theatre Festival and events such as the Luminato Festival and International Festival of Authors. Small World Music is an independent world music promoter with nice events in the GTA and NXNE brings alternative rock bands to stages large and small around town.

For more underground tastes, there are also a lot of places that are more niche and off the beaten track, two places with very different approaches are Beit Zatoun (an activist hub) and Good for Her (for gender and sex activists). If you have any interest in classical music, there is a ton of free and very affordable events happening in Toronto. A great place to find them is here. One of my favourite venues especially for chamber music and piano recitals is Music Toronto events. Finally, if you are into performance and digital media art, there is much possibility here. The annual Nuit Blanche is a place to start (although I have to say, I’m not a huge fan because of many reasons) but there are also regular programs of cutting edge artists from Marina Abramovic to Ai Weiwei to Robert Lepage.

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Toronto Mini Maker Faire 2014

As we put the final touches on our two tables, I can hear people entering the main hall of Toronto Reference Library on this November Saturday morning for the first day of Toronto Mini Maker Faire. Yes, people are up early and ready to explore and get the latest news on local Makers, most recent 3D printers and scanners, wearable computers, crafts augmented with electronics (or not) and many other fun and crazy ideas!

Toronto Mini Maker Faire 2014

Toronto Mini Maker Faire 2014

This is the second time we are at the Toronto Mini Maker Faire and we have come a long way since last year when we were mainly spectators. Granted, on one of the days last year, I (with my collaborator, Natalie Comeau) demoed an early version of our wearable computing design, HugBug, at the Faire, but other than that we were observing and getting acquainted with the Toronto Maker scene. Last year, I visited with participants from an experimental MakeShop I was facilitating at York. This year, several of the participants from the MakeShop were also at the Faire but in a different capacity: as Makers presenting their work.

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Our tables at Maker Faire

“Making” in this context, refers to a specific way of fabricating custom prototypes and designs using hands-on methods that can range from using embedded electronics and 3D printing to using craft materials and methods, usually with an emphasis on open-source and Do-it-Yourself (DIY) designs and with a view to share knowledge and experience with fellow “Makers”. This attitude has become widely popular in the last decade through publications such as the Make Magazine and events such as Maker Faire, as well as, the proliferation of thousands of fabrication and Maker spaces, hack labs, and online forums and communities around the world. Making, with roots in older notions of “Hacking” and “Tinkering”, has gained such recognition as to be dubbed as the “new industrial revolution” and a “movement” that promises to democratize design and fabrication (see Chris Andersons, Makers: the New Industrial Revolution). Our Making activities have grown much over the last year and our presence at the Faire reflects this: in addition to two tables, we are also running an ambitious workshop for Makers with disabilities and their parents and caregivers. We are showcasing several projects that are examples of cross disciplinary collaborations. In this post, I will briefly describe these projects but before that I would like to briefly describe my experience at Maker Faire in general. This year, I mainly stay at our tables, describing and demoing our projects and meeting a lot of amazing people. While we have a great team of knowledgable and energetic volunteers at the table who would cover me if I want to take a break, I am having such a great time sharing experiences with visitors that it is difficult to leave! Also, I have worked on all the projects that we have on the table in some capacity and it is such a pleasure to present them to an open-minded audience. Because of this (and sadly!), I haven’t seen many projects other than our own. However, my brief detours around the Faire made me realize the range of projects from the usual embedded computing platforms (mainly Arduinos in many shapes and sizes, as well as, Raspberry Pis), to many shades of 3D scanning and printing, to hacked toys (in the creative sense of the word!), to non-digital puppets and even a hitchhiking robot that has crossed Canada!

Fun Projects at Maker Faire: (clockwise from top left) mixMotion, Puppets Cool, Cyberpunk/homemade mechanical nut cracker

Fun Projects at Maker Faire: (clockwise from top left) mixMotion, Puppets Cool, Cyberpunk/homemade mechanical nut cracker

The free and public location of the Faire at the Toronto Reference Library is fantastic: accessible and inviting to the general public (as Making should be)! Over the weekend, a whopping 10’000 people were estimated to visit the Faire! In my experience, I talked to so many interesting people that at the end of the Faire, I had an information overload and had to take a couple of days completely off to reflect and digest all the input! As I mentioned, this year we have two tables, one showcasing a range of projects from our lab, Graphics and Media at York (GaMaY), and the other, showing our colleague and collaborator, Ray Feraday‘s work, with especial focus on our collaboration on DIY open-source assistive technology. On his table, Ray has set up a pong game developed using the Scratch programming language, running on Raspberry Pi and controlled using home-made cardboard controllers using Makey Makey, all put into a cut kitchen table top surface. It is a hit with children! Screen Shot 2014-11-26 at 8.35.13 AM TalkBox TalkBox is an open-source DIY communication board for children or adults with no voice. This is truly a classic Maker project: the idea was first conceived by Ray, an inspiring and inventive special education teacher working with the TCSDB, who I met last year at Maker Faire. He had created a customizable communication board using the Makey Makey and conductive tape and was interested in improving the design and making it more mobile and affordable by replacing the Makey Makey and attached computer with a touch sensor and Raspberry Pi (an embedded computer). We formed a team with Toni Kunic, a great programmer and a computer engineering student at York and Melanie, my supervisor, and met over many weekends to work out and implement a new design for TalkBox. The result is a DIY communication board that can be used to store voice samples and associate them with touch buttons that play them back once touched. TalkBox costs less than $80 and is open-source (both hardware instructions and software code are shared freely with users). For more information please see this link.

Ray demoing TalkBox at Maker Faire

Ray demoing TalkBox at Maker Faire

Unexpectedly, we won an award for TalkBox at MakerFaire! Bridgable, an innovative design firm in Toronto, awarded us with the Bridging the Gap Award. This award was given to a team that demonstrated “a clear connection between a user need and product benefit; an extraordinary translation between research and design, concept and prototype or material/technology and execution; and an appropriately accessible and well communicated presentation”. We are very happy to accept this award as it provides us with further recognition of the idea of making “Making” accessible that we have had in mind with this project.

The Bridging the Gap Award

Bridging the Gap Award

MakeTalk Workshop Since the beginning of our collaboration on the TalkBox project, we had envisioned a process through which children with disabilities, their teachers and caregivers could put together the kits themselves. We wanted to make the design available and the process of Making accessible. The vision of making Making accessible has been discussed before  by inspiring assistive technology advocates and digital activists, Amy Hurst and Shaun Kane (see their paper here).  Additionally, we wanted to make a process in which we explored alternative ways to fund and deploy the technology to the people who need it most. To these ends we partnered with the Tetra Society of North America which is a volunteer-based organization that brings together student volunteers, retired engineers and inventive users with disabilities and their families together to modify, create and deploy assistive technology solutions. Tetra has a chapter at York University with many student volunteers. We decided to ask for their help in running a workshop at Maker Faire and also getting funding to create a series of TalkBoxes. The president of the York chapter, Brandon, is also a graduate student at our lab and along with another volunteer coordinator, Zareen, helped with recruiting, coordinating and training volunteers. (Brandon is also great at soldering, so he helped prepare the soldering part of the TalkBox kits too!)

Pre-workshop preparations

Pre-workshop preparations

In preparation of the workshop, we ran a series of dry runs at our lab in the weeks preceding the Faire. We recruited the help of Yana Boeva, a graduate student in Science and Technology Studies at York who has experience in Making and creating instructibles. Our amazing Tetra volunteers helped with every stage of the process: from preparing the material to running the workshops. Melanie designed a customized case for the Raspberry Pi which she miraculously (read, through many hours spent in the lab!) managed to print in time for the participants at the Faire.

3D printed modified Raspberry Pi cases

3D printed modified Raspberry Pi cases

At the Faire, we provided a kit consisting of all the parts and instructions to 7 groups of users with disabilities and their parents/guardians/care givers. I decided to stay the tables while most of the rest of the team were busy at the 2-hour workshop, so I could only tell from their elated faces and happy expressions how rewarding the process was.

MakeTalk Workshop: Kit, process, outcome

MakeTalk Workshop: Kit, process, outcome

Putting the kits together is not trivial and yet everyone at the workshop managed to put them together and get them working. I was reminded that one of the joys of working with people with disabilities is that they have a lot of patience and see value in process rather than just wanting quick outcomes.

HugBug HugBug is a playful wearable interface designed to teach children about digital design. I developed it with Natalie Comeau. I used it in a workshop in Mexico (described here) and presented it at the Design and Emotion Conference in Bogota. I have simplified the design and made it more robust and straightforward. HugBug is very successful at Maker Faire with many children and adults trying it out.

Colin trying out HugBug

Colin trying out HugBug

The next step for this project is to connect HugBug to biosignals (I am currently working on this project with our colleague, Manuel, from University of Seville) so that it would externalize various states onto its LED lights (e.g., stressed vs. relaxed).

Manuel connecting HugBug to Biosignals

Manuel connecting HugBug to biosignals

Rafigh Rafigh is a living media interface to encourage children to engage in learning and therapeutic activities. It consists of a real mushroom colony connected to a micro controller that controls the amount of water administered to it. At Maker Faire I have an early prototype of Rafigh with dried mushrooms for demonstration purposes. I am currently conducting a study with the working prototypes in situ at participants’ homes. For more information on Rafigh please see this link.

Magic Wand Magic Wand is a project of the Wandmakers, a team of three engineering students, Sonal Ranjit, Chitiiran Krishna Moorthy and Kajendra Seevananthan, designed and fabricated their own Harry Potter-inspired wand after attending the MakeShop sessions I facilitated last year. The Wandmakers created a custom 3D model of the wand, which they printed and outfitted with a microcontroller, accelerometer and laser light, such that specific movements of the wand would be translated into “spells” that would cast a laser light.

Magic Wand

Magic Wand

Magic Wand was first presented at the TEI’14 student design competition earlier this year and Sonal joined us at Maker Faire to present the Wand to many interested children (and adults). They had printed the instructions on beautiful rice paper that people took home as a souvenir. Their 3D model is open-source and available for free download on Thingiverse. It has been quite popular with fans and since last February when it was uploaded has been downloaded more than 1500 times!

Children trying Magic Wand

Children trying Magic Wand

Synchrum Synchrum is a tangible interface to facilitate audience participation through rhythmic collaboration. It was inspired by the Tibetan prayer wheel and aims to capture its physicality and performativity. A light source is attached to the top of the object and a weight rotates under the light. By detecting the number of blocks in the light by a sensor we calculate and communicate the rotation speed of the device wirelessly to a computer that can then coordinate its speed with other Synchrum units. Using Synchrum, members of an audience can synch with each other and collaborate to bring about a change in a performance or environmental factor (such as ambient sound, music or light). In a previous performance, members of an audience collaborated together to remove virtual chains from a performer. Synchrum was designed in collaboration with Alexander Moakler and Assaf Gadot and was presented at TEI’12 and UIST’12 conferences. Please see this document  for more information.

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Our Team This year our team consisted of Melanie Baljko (my supervisor and co-director of GaMaY), Ray Feraday (our community partner, a special education teacher and an inventor), Brandon Haworth (a PhD candidate at our lab with focus on serious games and Making), Toni Kunic (software and design developer for TalkBox), Sonal Ranjit (co-designer of the Magic Wand), Yana Boeva (instrcutible designer for the TalkMake workshop), Manuel Merino Monge (visiting researcher from University of Seville, working on HugBug), Natalie Comeau (co-designer of HugBug), Catherine Duchastel de Montrouge (Science and Technology Studies), Colin Ruan (Computer Science) and myself. Additionally, we got a lot of help from the York University Chapter of Tetra Society volunteers who tirelessly helped run the MakeTalk workshop, as well as, helping present at the tables. These included: Zareen, Steven, Syed, Nina, Laura, Vassil, Greene and Nitzi. Additionally, Jeannette Da Luz from TCDSB helped create digital content during the Faire, and Glenn Barnes and Hamed Dar from Tetra Society of North America, helped with setting up and running the tables. Thanks so much everyone and great job!