To understand Jay Silver, it helps to go back 10 years, to a night he spent flying kites on a beach in his native Florida with the woman who would become his wife.
She asked him whether he knew how to listen to the wind. Being an engineer, he responded that wind produces only white noise, and white noise contains no information.
But he loved her, so he opened his mind and gave it a try.
"And I felt a deep joy," Silver said during his talk last fall at the PopTech conference here. "And then I stopped pursuing information and efficiency, and I changed my life's course a little and started to practice rituals of joy."
This childlike sense of play, curiosity and discovery -- one that many people lose as they move through adulthood -- has informed Silver's life and work ever since. It's no accident that he shows audiences video clips of wide-eyed toddlers encountering snow for the first time or an M&M candy skittering around on a moving escalator. Or that he took the stage at PopTech in a T-shirt, baggy shorts and a surfer cap, looking more like a skateboarder than someone with a Ph.D. from MIT.
Yes, at 33, Silver is something of a big kid himself.
He's also a leading proponent of the "maker movement," the do-it-yourself culture of inventing, hacking and prototyping that inspires many young engineers in tech fields.
At the MIT Media Lab, Silver studied how to make tools that engage people's creative spirit and help them make things with modern technology. One of his first creations was Drawdio, an electronic pencil that lets you make music as you draw.
Next up was something with the Silveresque name of MaKey MaKey, an invention kit he developed at MIT with fellow student Eric Rosenbaum. Funded by Kickstarter (they set a goal of $25,000 and raised $568,000), the simple electronic kit contains a circuit board, alligator clips and USB cables and helps anyone turn everyday objects into touchpads that can be used to interact with a computer.
People clamp the alligator clips to an object and then connect them through the kit to their computer. Touching the object produces a tiny electrical connection, which the computer interprets as a keystroke or the movement of a mouse.
The kits cost $50 and say "Be stoked. The world is your construction kit!" on the box. Since they began shipping last summer, people around the world have used them to control computer programs with anything that can conduct electricity: fruit, plants, water, even household pets. One student at Southern Methodist University won a talent show by hooking MaKey MaKey to plates full of food and eating his way through a crowd-pleasing rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
MaKey MaKey seems like a toy, and educators have used it to play games or teach kids about basic electrical circuitry. But Silver believes that his kit can also help engineers test concepts and prototypes more cheaply.
"Some people are just totally goofing around (with the kits). Some people are making devices so that their son with cerebral palsy can access browsing the Web," he said. "I don't know which of those two things actually are more important. They're both, to me, really valuable."
Silver, now a maker-research scientist at Intel Labs, hopes MaKey MaKey will awaken the creative impulse in people and encourage them to tackle their own DIY projects.
"Right now, in culture, there's this feeling that we have to make (things). And I think it's because we didn't make (things) for a while, with the Industrial Revolution," he said. "I think when you make something, you're kind of making meaning and purpose. You're kind of making the world what it is. You're voting with your hands -- not in a booth but making change, right now, that really happens in your own space."
Long before that night on the beach, Silver's roiling imagination was inventing stuff.
As a boy in Cocoa Beach, Florida, he duct-taped a fork to a hand drill to make an automatic spaghetti-twirling machine. In fourth grade, he discovered by accident that his walkie-talkies communicated at the same frequency as his remote-control car. So he combined the car, an upside-down trash can and some other parts to make a robot he controlled by making certain sounds into the walkie-talkies.
"Like any good child of the '80s, I watched a lot of 'MacGyver.' But I was pretty bad at making things," he said. "I loved kites. Kites have more questions than answers. I love things with more questions than answers."
Silver is fascinated by the idea of combining or refashioning objects, like his spaghetti twirler, to create uses for which they were not intended.