Creativity Lives Here

An Interview with Jean Noel Lefebvre

With the proliferation of affordable ‘Net-connected technologies during the last decade, the nontechnical members of society have come to realize that electrical engineering is an exceedingly creative endeavor. Outside-the-box innovators like Jean Noel Lefebvre are literally reinventing how we interact with the world around us.

By Wisse Hettinga

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Jean Noel Lefebvre is an electronics engineer with a strong interest in how people interact with the electronic systems. A true outside-the-box thinker, started his company, Ootsidebox (www.ootsidebox.fr), right in the middle of the YouFactory fab lab in Lyon, France. He knows where creativity lives and is willing to show it to you. Meet Jean Noel Lefebvre.

HETTINGA: Why do you have your office in the middle of the fab lab?

LEFEBVRE: The fab lab here is a wonderful place where people can come to do some 3-D printing, laser cutting, or to work with electronics. But perhaps more importantly, it is a place where you can meet other people, where you can learn new skills and find new ideas and inspiration.

HETTINGA: That is important for you—the interaction between technology and others?

LEFEBVRE: Yes, that has always been part of my projects. My first invention was the Ootside box. It was a touch application and it allowed you to control a computer or a system just by pointing or with gestures. We tried raising enough funds on Indigogo to continue developing it, but unfortunately, we did not reach our targets. After that, I decided to name my company after this project. Through this project, I also discovered the Arduino ecosystem and the enormously inspiring world of makers and fab labs. I always was interested in electronics, but when you are very young, you have no idea what you are doing and all my radios and sound equipment failed. That is what I learn here—how to help people, sometimes young people, understand how electronics works.

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HETTINGA: And what do they need to learn?

LEFEBVRE: Good soldering! If you learn good soldering, you are already halfway to a successful project. I sometimes do soldering classes in schools. I bring some easy soldering projects and some equipment, and it is very rewarding to see how the kids are able to make their first electronic project.

HETTINGA: You are a big fan of Arduino.

LEFEBVRE: Indeed. The Arduino platform and ecosystem is important because of its low threshold to the world of electronics. Arduino is even so important and valuable that I decided to make a real gold version, the Golduino. I have it here, and it is still work in progress, but for people who want to have something special and valuable, it will be a great thing to have or to give to others.

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HETTINGA: Again, I see you have a special take on electronics. And again, this refers to a special interaction between people and electronics.

LEFEBVRE: I feel that is very important. The world of technology can make people alone and isolated with very little room for emotions. Take the IoT developments as an example. You can see it as a world of sensors, actuators, and huge amounts of data. You can easily get lost. To find a response to that, I am doing a special project called “Color the World.” It will be a Wi-Fi-connected lamp that will take the color of everything you hold in front of it. In the back, there will be a world map where you can “share” you color with others and color the world. On Earth Day you can all decide to color the world green, make your part of the world yellow if the sun shines, or blue if the world is “blue.”

HETTINGA: And you found a way to keep playing your old EP records?

LEFEBVRE: Ha, yes. If you are like me, you will still have your old EP vinyl records, but no easy way to play them anymore. With my Floating Disc Player, you will be able to use the cover of the EP to play your favorite music again. Inside the EP cover, there is an RFID tag, and the moment you insert the EP in the player, it will recognize the song in the playlist and start the music. It is a great player for home parties!

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HETTINGA: What more are you working on?

LEFEBVRE: Again, it is interaction, I am afraid. I am making an interface for the Airbar. The Airbar is an infrared sensor bar that originally was developed to turn your laptop screen into a touch screen. With my interface, it will be possible to turn everything like desks, whiteboards, displays, and windows into interactive areas. You can draw a piano keyboard on a piece of paper, launch the application, and you can start playing by just touching the paper. The resolution is good enough to recognize your writing on plain paper, turn that into a digital pattern, and display that in an application.
HETTINGA: This will all be available for others?

LEFEBVRE: Yes, it will be available on my website www.ootsidebox.fr. It will be all open source, so everyone who is interested can continue developing the product.

HETTINGA: You know where creativity lives?

LEFEBVRE: Yes, that’s easy. It lives where open-minded people come together and want to share their ideas with others. That is why fab labs, tech shops, and makerspaces are important—open places where people can walk in, have a coffee and a chat, and go away with new ideas.