Sierra Madre’s lone townie bar, the Buccaneer, is about to get its first glimpse of formal wear. A roving party bus occupied by 20- and 30-somethings gussied up in tuxedos and gowns is slated to arrive. The game for the evening is to tell inquisitive bar denizens that the party is celebrating the launch of its faux-company, Pet Heads, an organization that provides medical marijuana for pets. But most of the tuxedo clad pack made up of engineers, mad scientists, designers and entrepreneurs might as well be celebrating the launch of their own company, Syyn Labs.
Syyn Labs is a local artist collective of self-proclaimed geeks that has produced projects for Santa Monica’s Glow festival, the rock group OK Go, Sears, Disney and Google, among others. They are most famous for their creation of the Rube Goldberg machine for OK Go’s video “This Too Shall Pass”, but the team’s real signature is taking on insanely difficult challenges and producing stunning creations that blur the line between art and technology.
There’s no Cristal being poured on Syyn’s party bus, but you will see plenty of tequila, the occasional flash of a silk stockinged leg and lots of glittery disco lights.
The team ‘s dashing resident physicist, Dan Busby, is recounting his Rubens’ tube creation — possibly the world’s largest — a wondrous cylinder of flames that dances to the beat of music. Geoffrey Emery, Syyn’s documenter and mobile expert, adjusts his top hat in defiance.
“Now, let me tell you about real science,” Emery interrupts.
The Syyn member launches into an explanation of Cloud Mirror, created by his colleague Eric Gradman. Another party trick — this one more digital in nature — starts with giving event-goers a badge upon entry. With data on the badge acquired from online registration, Cloud Mirror technology trawls the Internet and finds dirt, so when the event-goer looks at their reflection on a screen a snarky thought bubble emerges, such as: “I didn’t know my name matches four registered sex offenders.”
It’s this geek bravado, and flirtation with debauchery and interactive art, that’s the foundation of Syyn Labs.
“Art is a sign of current tools of the time,” Syyn co-founder Doug Campbell says. He explains that Syyn aims to create messages and statements utilizing the most advanced tools available
The group’s first official project, creating OK Go’s Rube Goldberg machine, was a viral hit with over 23 million views on YouTube. Famously tricky, the Rube Goldberg machine is familiar to those of us who were weaned on — or did the weaning — watching Pee Wee Herman or Back to The Future’s Doc Brown’s morning antics. Named after a cartoonist and science romantic who invented the concept, the contraption features a series of complicated chain reactions of odds and ends that perform simple tasks.
But before Syyn was creating domino-effect-like gizmos that splash paint on walls and smash televisions as seen in the OK Go video, the eclectic group gathered weekly at Barbara’s in the Brewery Art Colony for a geek show-and-tell. Over pints and whiskey, weekly interactive experiments were shared. “We started out as a drinking club with an art problem,” is a favorite saying among the Syyn Lab team.
The group spends so much time at the Syyn laboratory, housed in an old paint factory warehouse, that they’ve developed plenty of shared Syyn rituals. For instance, most projects are done with the collective’s signature “safety juice” (Tecate) in hand, whether it’s tossing around fire balls for kicks or conceptualizing something creative for “The Colbert Report.”
“Our brainstorming sessions are usually a wild time because everyone is coming from a different background,” Busby says.
The Syyn team largely refers to themselves as artists but they are much more than that. The Syyn regulars are Los Angeles real-life super heroes. Consider Syyn’s only regular woman on the team Heather Knight, who is actively working on socializing robots, or Busby who on his days off from work plays with 10,000 volts of energy. Visionary co-founder Campbell has the power and drive to gather thousands of people to events. And then there’s also laser manipulator Brent Bushnell, and design whiz Hector Alvarez. This list is composed of just some of the eclectic characters of the team and their accompanying super talents.
“It’s a rag-tag group of people who do all sorts of crazy stuff,” Alvarez, Syyn’s Creative Director, explains. There are seven co-founders, about a half a dozen regulars and up to 50 volunteers. Backgrounds include psychology, robotics, software engineering, advertising, entrepreneurship and graphic design, to name a few skills.
Although the moniker of the company suggests evil, Syyn is mostly up to good. Or at least shenanigans that fall into purgatory. Most of the individual creations, such as Bushnell and Adam Croston’s evolved Chess Boxing game entitled “Go–mma,” or David Guttman’s Brain Pod, a contraption that matches colors and sound to your brain waves, promote play — whether it be drunk or sober.
Several of the Syyn crew point to Eric Gradman as the most versatile member. Along with being a gladiator of technology and hacking, Gradman is a musician, nationally ranked whistler, circus performer and software engineer.
“One cool thing about Syyn Labs is that all of us build these devices. And then immediately think, ‘How can we get these devices to communicate?’” Gradman says.
Which may explain why Syyn is so successful at Rube Goldberg machines. The company has become practically flooded with requests to build the machines, causing the majority of the team to be weary of the idea of creating more RGMs. Hardly a surprise considering the now-infamous OK Go project took 85 trials.
Still, Syyn was up to the task when Google recently tapped the company to create an elegant science-fair themed RGMs for both video and live demonstration.
“The only way we wanted to do a Rube Goldberg machine is if we had a fresh new approach … The fact that we had to make it out of science experiments was a very big draw,” Alvarez says.
The video is filmed at a science fair depicting classic experiments like baking soda volcanoes, hamster-powered machines, and model rockets. The film was debuted Jan. 11 with over 300,000 views on YouTube its first three days, and is directed by Jonathan Zames. The director says collaborating with the Syyn team felt like he was joining the circus.
“I don’t just want to work with them again, I want to be one of them,” Zames says. “They have this ability to find these amazing components, or stuff you’ve never thought of. And I think it’s because they are so plugged into the academic world and the technology industry.”
The constant challenge for Syyn is creating a balance between corporate gigs and creativity, while not losing the playful , up-for-the-challenge spirit of the company.
“We don’t do the traditional stuff, that’s not why you come to us,” says Syyn President Adam Sadowsky. “You come to us if you want something very authentic and you want to produce something that people will remember,”
Currently, with the exception of Sadowsky, all of the team have day jobs or separate avenues of entrepreneurship. But Sadowsky says several members are hoping the company becomes profitable enough so that they might one day be able to leave their day jobs.
But for now they remain L.A.’s (mostly) incognito super heroes, proof that the tech-savvy don’t just reside in Silicon Valley and that L.A. has plenty to offer in the engineering world. To know Syyn, and become a part of their mad scientist/designer/tech genius underworld, is to knock back a few beers with them, which is not so difficult in L.A. The team are regulars at the monthly downtown events Mindshare and Projectfresh — both organized as smaller, beer and cocktail infused versions of TED led by Syyn members. The events and its participants generally have the same sense of intellectual wonder and desire for a good time that characterizes their group’s dynamic .
“It used to be that we all got together at a bar brainstorming how we can mess with people,” Syyn member, David Guttman says. “Now, as we move towards bigger gigs with clients that already have in mind an idea. We take that spirit [from the bar] when we are building and creating.” And the occasional boozy outing in a tuxedo doesn’t hurt the creative process either.
— Sophia Kercher