Innovation Economy

Can he engineer stardom on reality TV?

Gui Cavalcanti is a contestant on “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius” TV show.
Discovery channel
Gui Cavalcanti is a contestant on “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius” TV show.

Highlights from the Innovation Economy blog.

Could reality TV’s next big star be an Olin College-educated robotics engineer who lives in Davis Square?

Snooki’s potential successor is Gui Cavalcanti, a contestant on “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius,” debuting Wednesday at 10 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. Cavalcanti is known as the cofounder of Artisan’s Asylum, a “maker space” in Somerville that provides artists and entrepreneurs with access to a wood shop, metal shop, 3-D printers and other tools, and instructional classes. He also led a successful effort last year to raise money online to build a giant, rideable six-legged robot named Stompy, pulling in almost $100,000.

“Big Brain Theory” challenges contestants each week to come up with a solution to “a seemingly impossible engineering challenge.” The eventual winner will earn $50,000 and a one-year contract to work at WET, a Los Angeles design firm known for the fountain display outside the Bellagio in Las Vegas.


Cavalcanti said he spent about seven weeks shooting the show, in and around Los Angeles. In the first episode, airing Wednesday, he plays a major role as the teams try to stop an explosives-laden package in the bed of a pickup truck from exploding. “Big Brain Theory” feels like a blend of “Mythbusters” and “Project Runway.” It’s a lot of fun to watch if you are interested in how design, math, and engineering can be applied to real-world scenarios.

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What inspired Cavalcanti to audition?

“I was an avid fan of ‘Battlebots’ and ‘Junkyard Wars’ growing up, and watching the shows got me even more interested in engineering than I was before.

“When I heard there was a new kind of ­design/build show coming up that was looking to feature real design and engineering skills (as opposed to the hacking skills that were prominent in ‘Junkyard Wars’), I really wanted to participate, if only to inspire a new generation of kids to get interested in engineering like I had been. On top of that, it was an opportunity to just get away and make stuff for once, which I ironically hadn’t been able to do nearly as much as I wanted while running ­Artisan’s Asylum.”

A digital capture-the-flag game

Most people have not heard of Ingress, an augmented reality game being beta-tested by Google. But think of it as a digital version of capture-the-flag in which players from blue and green teams use mobile phones as they move around the real world, trying to find and claim ownership of “portals” to another ­dimension.


Not surprisingly, a lot of the competition for portals happens around Cambridge, ­including on the MIT campus.

But following the April 18 shooting of MIT police officer Sean Collier, Ingress players made two decisions. They called a temporary cease-fire on the MIT campus, turning it into a neutral zone. And they created a memorial to Collier near where he was killed at the Stata Center.

Two days after the crime, Christopher ­Davis, an Ingress player and Google employee, posted a message suggesting that two portals be placed side by side, one from each faction, near the Stata Center on Vassar Street, and at Copley Square.

“Nothing could be a stronger statement that ‘We are Boston. We are united,’ ” Davis wrote in a posting to the Ingress forum. The two teams worked in partnership to set up the memorial; it was completed around midnight last Tuesday, hours before a real-world memorial for Collier was held at MIT. (The Copley Square memorial has not yet appeared.)

Ingress player Stephen Lewin-Berlin, a managing director at Quanta Research in Cambridge, said the idea was not uncontroversial within the Ingress community.


“For some people, this is an important symbol,” he said. “But for others, Ingress is a way to play and get away from real life. He said that he was hoping the cease-fire and ­memorial would endure for a week.

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