Meet Björn Hartmann

17 Nov, 2015

Meet Björn Hartmann

Björn Hartmann has had many job titles: inventor, designer, artist, DJ, producer. He can now add tenured professor to this list. In July, Björn was promoted to Associate Professor in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. But don’t expect him to take a well-earned vacation just yet. Björn has just as many positions at UC Berkeley alone.

In addition to co-founding the CITRIS Invention Lab, acting as the Faculty Director of the CITRIS Connected Communities Initiative, and remaining engaged in the BCNM, the Berkeley Institute of Design, and the Swarm Lab, Björn serves as the Chief Technology Officer of the newly launched Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation. This interdisciplinary center acts as a “hub for students, teachers, and practitioners who love working at the intersection of design and technology.” No surprise then that Björn has been tasked with tackling the science and technology component of the Institute. His unconventional path to an academic career will help ensure that as the Jacobs Institute evolves, it continues to serve the needs of its diverse audience: artists, engineers — makers at Cal.

Born and raised in Southwestern Germany, Björn moved to Munich in the mid-90's, where he became part of the PC-demo scene - writing chip tunes and other electronic music - and ran a BBS (Bulletin Board System) for song exchange. By 1996, Björn was regularly DJing and had gained a reputation as an avant-garde composer.

His diverse interests in computers, art, and media, led him to the University of Pennsylvania, where he graduated in 2002 with a slew of degrees in Communication, Digital Media Design, and Computer Science. Rather than follow a traditional career, Björn pursued these interests by collaborating with Jay Haze and Sean O’Neal to form Contexterrior Media, an umbrella company for the record labels Tuning Spork, Contexterrior, and Future Dub. After graduation, the labels moved from Philadelphia to Amsterdam and Björn performed extensively in the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Germany, Denmark, Poland, and Japan. For several years, Björn juggled his musical career with managing not one but two start-ups — during this period he also created, which released free minimal music under a creative commons license.

As a DJ, an entrepreneur, and member of a community of musicians sharing work online, Björn became intrigued by the possibilities afforded by the musical transition from analog to digital. Both the form of music and the ways in which consumers interacted with these products fascinated him, and after a period as a research lab engineer in Paris, in 2004 he began a PhD in Computer Science at Stanford University, with a view to exploring these issues further. As his studies deepened so did his appreciation for the design at work around us and the intensive prototyping necessary for music and art.

Björn now develops software and hardware centered around interactive design prototyping. His prototyping tools for wearable electronics are being employed by researchers at UC San Francisco to envision new medical devices. Meanwhile, his web-based AutomataTutor software is used by more than a dozen universities and thousands of students to teach and learn important theory of computation concepts. Other prototypes have turned into games and art interactives through collaborations with companies such as IDEO, Leapfrog, Nokia Design, and Frog.

Björn emphasizes the design-thinking at the heart of his practice in both his classes and his role as a mentor to successful effect. At the CITRIS Invention Lab, summer fellows Wenqing Yan, Victoria Hu, and Colin Ho, prototyped the first version of their cat-eared, LED-lit headphones Axent Wear and went on to raise over $3 million in an Indiegogo campaign — the second largest in Indiegogo’s history at the time. And they’re not alone — Nick Kohut, Paul Birkmeyer, Andrew Gillies, and Kevin Peterson designed the world’s first foldable, programmable, origami robots at the Invention Lab and formed Dash Robotics, which was subsequently featured on CNET, Popular Science, Engadget, Techcrunch, IEEE and more. Björn’s students are also making their own mark on the field, with their research on design tools for 3D printing being incorporated into Autodesk’s Meshmixer software.

Since Björn specializes in prototyping, he is well aware that successful products take from multiple fields and it is this multi-dimensional gathering of resources and specialties from across the disciplines that he hopes will create a robust design program at the Jacobs Institute. With courses building upon skills taught in co-conspirator Eric Paulos’ New Media Critical Making program, Björn seeks to help build a constellation of design curricula that allow for both technically advanced and novice students to leap into interactive design. By tailoring these courses to diverse backgrounds and disciplines, he’s excited to see new perspectives brought to the design process — and the expansion of real-world problems and solutions that design teams will choose to explore.

Björn may have a lifetime of titles from his pre-Berkeley life — and every one will prove useful in his new role.

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