Tech grad ‘Hacking the Wild’ in Science show

Photo courtesy of Andy Quitmeyer

A pioneer in the field of digital naturalism, Andrew Quitmeyer received his masters and doctorate in Digital Media at Tech. He stars in the new Science channel show “Hacking the Wild,” which premiered on Wednesday, Feb. 15 at 10 p.m. on the Science channel. The Technique had the opportunity to talk with Quitmeyer, who is currently a professor in Singapore.

Technique: How did you become involved with the show?

Quitmeyer: I was kind of a rogue Ph.D. student, and I went off and joined with a bunch of field biologists working in the wild and running around places like Panama and Madagascar. I would build a lot of DIY electronics and scientific tools as well as interactive artwork with them.

I’m also coming from a documentary background, and so I document my stuff very heavily. Some Hollywood producers happened to see my weird videos I would put up, and I think they really fell in love with the aesthetic. … I think they thought I was charismatic and fun, and so they were like “oh hey, we want to do a show about your research,” but by the time it turned into a show it also became a survival show. …

It’s got a little bit of my core research ideas, like go build cool electronics in the wild, with a candy coating to try to get the general public to accept it. The general public seems to like survival shows of people just trying to make it out of the forest.

Technique: Besides the technology aspect, how is “Hacking the Wild” different than other survival shows? Do you have a camera crew with you, or how are the logistics set up?

Quitmeyer: In terms of comparing it towards other survival shows, the formula is maybe a bit like some other survival shows like Bear Grylls or Survivorman … and we have a camera crew like Bear Grylls. …

The difference is that I’m trying to bring a little bit of electrical engineering and design into the forest too, so I tend to have a backpack full of cool goodies. … I try to improvisationally make different interesting objects to get me out and survive.

Technique: What sort of stuff do you have in your backpack? How do you decide what to put in there? Is it based on what location you’re going to or more general?

Quitmeyer: There’s definitely a general setup. My colleague Hannah Perner Wilson and I have been working on this concept for my research of a wearable studio: trying to take your regular electronics studio out into the wild and have something that you can wear on you always. …

She made me this beautiful backpack that turns into a hanging workshop. … It’s got some butane soldering irons, wires, conductive fabrics, different sensors, lots of different microcontrollers like Arduinos, some battery packs, lights, lots of prototyping materials, little bits of silicone, [etc.] …

Then I let the environment inspire me and work with it, or the environment is attacking me and I have to try to figure out how to deal with it. Basically, I have a lot of small scale industrial design and electronics engineering stuff all in one backpack and solar panels too. That’s been probably the most reliable way to recharge electrical things out in the wild. …

Technique: What was the biggest challenge during filming?

Quitmeyer: Weight is always a big challenge, and that’s true of either the filming or my workshop. I carry a lot of stuff because I never know exactly what I’m going to need, even like a laptop — I pretty much pull apart a laptop in every episode — but that gets heavy and I don’t have any room for food or water in the TV show. …

Dealing with differences in climates, you have all these tools and devices that are mostly engineered to be indoors kinds of things. It’s like bringing your indoor cat outside for the first time; it freaks out and doesn’t know what to do.

When my electronics get exposed to humidity in the jungle and then they get a bunch of fungus inside of them, I have to scrape it out to get them working again. Or when I bring them out to the desert, they get all dusty. Figuring out how to weatherproof these things in different climates has been really tough.

Technique: How did your experience at Tech contribute to this show? Besides your research, has anything else you’ve done at Tech informed the show?

Quitmeyer: It definitely came from my research, and the digital media program where I got to be a fun digital naturalist and develop all those concepts.

Then in terms of other ideas, the television show is a lot more broad and generalized than my research. My research would generally be about like art working with animals to try to do sensors specific to animals. The things that we built on the show ended up being a lot more general, like from building a head mounted navigation guide to a giant house or a boat, and that used a lot of different skills.

When I was at Tech, I would bounce around between colleges all the time. I would go over and work in robotics, or I’d go over to architecture and hang out with the designers, or I’d go up to HCI, … and I would go out to as many different talks as I could.

So, we bump into these challenges, and you just rack your brain for how do I build a boat — I’ve never really built a boat before — but maybe you think about working with some big architects that you’ve seen and how they’ve attached wood together.

If you want some kind of impeller device to charge batteries on the boat, you think about when you bumped into some electrical engineers at Tech. So I think that being at Tech and bumping around all the different resources they had available definitely contributed to the show.

Technique: Is there anything else that you would like to share?

Quitmeyer: I would just say that, in general, my goal of the show is to get the word out to people to really enjoy nature, to really empathize with it a lot more.

The show paints everything as like it’s dangerous and it’s scary, but it’s also really beautiful and cool. We can use technology not just to survive nature but also to thrive in it. So using technology to bring us closer to nature rather than trying to eradicate it is my big goal of all of this.