When Avengers: Age of Ultron hits theaters this weekend, you can imagine the elated looks on children’s faces. Lasers, body armor, eye-popping fight moves. They’ll go to sleep that night dreaming of rocket boots and repulsor rays.
Meanwhile, outside Toronto, a part-time mad scientist will be up in his garage prototyping all kinds of futuristic gadgets for his engrossing YouTube channel, The Hacksmith. Many have seen James Hobson’s electrified Wolverine Claws or the pneumatic exoskeleton that went viral last summer, prompting comparisons to Tony Stark—a fellow he resembles not only in terms of technological prowess but also attitude, physique and, yes, peculiar facial hair.
But this Canadian engineer is no comic book character. And finding out what makes him tick is quite an adventure, as we learned in a wide-ranging interview, featuring soccer robots, souped-up scooters, electric dune buggies, Chinese lasers, jumping stilts, thermal imaging and digital projection. Check it out, then ask yourself one question: Can rocket boots and repulsor rays really be that far behind?
“Technology is finally advancing to the point where things in movies and comics, once make-believe or CGI, are now a real possibility. People love the idea of what they could do if they had access to the equipment—so I show them how.”
Every superhero has an origin story. I’ve always been interested in engineering and technology. Back in 2007 I got my first taste of it. I was on my high school robotics team, and we built a soccer-playing robot for a competition. It was the first year we competed and we did really well—from regionals to nationals, we took home gold at every competition. It was sort of a cross between soccer and an arcade game. You had to shoot balls into a net while two other robots attempted the same.
But then… After we did the robot we came back and realized we could build cool things—really cool things. We had some extra robot motors that we hooked up to one of those Razor scooters. Got it up to 35, 40 kilometers an hour [25 mph] flying down the school hallways! That’s where the spark was really born. Resurrection Catholic School in Ontario, 2007.
Wow. In freaking Shop class? The last year of high school we wanted to make something bigger. We took a 1993 Honda Del Sol and converted it to electric using parts from a donated electric forklift.
And you’re still using those parts? Since then I’ve moved onto a more recent project, making an electric dune buggy with the original parts from the Del Sol conversion.
Ironman and Batman didn’t have superpowers. Just gear. What is it about this gear that’s so captivating? Technology is finally advancing to the point where things in movies and comics, once make-believe or CGI, are now a real possibility. People love the idea of what they could do if they had access to the equipment—so I show them how.
What’s in your toolkit? An industrial laser cutter, a 3D printer, basically a full auto mechanic’s toolbox, welding capabilities, a paint booth, a forklift. And I’m looking to get a CNC mill, which makes any kind of metal part. I had the laser imported directly from China—it came on a boat!—and it’s basically a piece of very expensive commercial machinery… that I have in my garage. So I have a YouTube series called “Will it Laser.”
What’s the favorite? People love it when I laser food, for some reason. The reason this series is so successful is that not many people even know that laser cutters exist. So I’m doing exactly what any 12-year-old with a piece of expensive unsupervised equipment would—seeing what it can do!
When your friends come over do they just want to use the laser? I’ve lasered lots of phone cases, personalizing them for friends. The machine gives you complete control. It’s USB controlled and I can basically cut or engrave anything I want. You can also use it in manual mode. Like a glorified Etch-a-Sketch. Basically it can cut anything except for metal. Wood, plastic, cut stone, engrave rock. The reason it can’t do metal is that metal absorbs and disperses the heat too fast in order to cut. It is possible to chemically etch it though!
Where do you do all this? I just bought a house with a bit of property, so I’ve been busy doing renovations lately. But the real reason I got the house was for the garage—it’s a massive detached 1300 square foot mini warehouse that was originally built in the nineties for a trucker to service his big rig—complete with a 14-foot tall garage door. I’ve got another YouTube series tracking its transformation as it becomes a cross between Tony Stark’s basement… and the bat cave! Still a long way to go, but people are already seeing its potential.
What’s your ideal superhero project? Build the big offroad tumbler from Batman. Or maybe his motorcycle. Definitely if I had the timing or resources. Ideally a full Iron Man suit. The iconic exo-loader from the Alien movie too! Grappling hook guns.
And if it were just you? I’d love to build some kind of bat cape. Not fly necessarily, but jump off 20-, 30-foot buildings. I used to be really into parkour and that would just be really cool. Probably like a wingsuit, but larger to slow your descent.
A lot of your ideas come from superhero movies. Are there things you would design yourself that don’t come from movies? I haven’t started capitalizing on movie releases (but I should), and it is the plan down the road. Do a project about something from a movie as it’s coming out to ride the wave of popularity that follows. I do come up with my own projects and ideas, and to an extent, the exoskeleton really doesn’t follow any movie example that closely. For audience appeal I tend to focus on pop culture stuff, but there are some projects that I don’t share—potential product ideas that I may market eventually.
Talk to me about Spring Boots. These are commercial products. They weren’t available in Canada. I was studying abroad in Germany when I found them. They’re a lot of fun by themselves. They’re just for fun. Think of them as extreme pogoing. You have to bounce quite a bit before you can jump high. Like a trampoline. I thought “What if I could compress the spring and release it instantly?” I haven’t tested this yet because I could get hurt. But luckily my shop now has crash mats.
Wait. Crash mats? I used to be a gymnastics coach too. Parkour and freerunning. Hell, I’ve even competed as a rock climber on occasion.
Wow. OK, walk me through a superhero suit you could build. It’d be a cross between Batman, Ironman and the Green Arrow—Body armor, dark color, nice and camouflaged. Decked out with technology: grappling hook, defensive non-lethal weapons, night vision—not big bulky goggles, something small. I actually have a thermal imaging camera unit about the size of a stick of gum. Some heads-up display like Google Glass, but more badass looking.
Weapon of choice? I’m a big fan of archery. A bow or crossbow seems more exciting. Anyone can shoot a gun, but a badass has a bow. Ideally I’d like to have some kind of leg jumping boots. Basically rocket boots. But we’re not quite there yet. It’s more than possible to have a master boost. One blast to get to the top of the next building.
And the videos? 2 GoPros, JVC GZ-EX310 WiFi Camcorder a basic handycam with wifi. Down the road I’d love to have a dedicated cameraman so I can focus my energy on making projects. I do this all on a tripod unless I have a friend over at the time. I edit on Adobe Premiere.
What does your girlfriend think of all this? I don’t have one right now. But they’ve been pretty supportive of it in the past. But at the same time it does take up a lot of my time—I’m a bit eccentric when it comes to this stuff. Luckily most of my friends see what I’m doing as pretty awesome. Like Tony, I always love to throw a big party.
Where do you find the time? Nights and weekends. I work fulltime as a product developer for a company called Christie Digital Systems designing digital projectors.
Sounds badass. We have a medical division, which is pretty cool. They make a product that can scan an infrared image of your skin. Infrared light gets reflected by tissue, but absorbed by the blood in your veins—the camera can literally see your veins under your skin and it projects this image back on your skin in real-time so nurses can get the vein the first time. Your skin is the projection screen.
Wow. Pretty much any digital projection technology, like most movie theater projectors, big screens at outdoor venues, and tons of stuff like virtual reality simulators for the army, gaming industry, etc. Hell, we even make something like the holodeck from Star Trek—it’s used for immersive visual displays. We also do projection mapping, where you can turn any surface into a projection screen. Like all the fancy opening ceremonies visual effects at the Bejing and Vancouver Olympics. We can even project on a car!
There’s an interesting parallel between watching the Olympics and superhero movies. I think it’s all about pushing the limits of the human body. Being all that you can be. But being a superhero takes a lot of training. Being an athlete takes a lot of training. But on the other side is technology. How much technology can make your job easier?
Is that what’s captivating about what you do? I’m not some big multinational company, I’m just a guy in my garage proving that technology is here and we can actually do these things.
What’s the end goal? I’d love it if my YouTube channel were self-sustaining. I’d love to run a business to make exoskeletons for medical applications. YouTube is the stepping stone for something bigger. If I could create a company because of that I think people would like to see that. There was Steve Jobs, but a lot of companies don’t have someone in the spotlight pushing them forward. If I could create a company like Stark Industries and people could see what’s going on it could have immense popularity. Change the paradigm of what people expect from a company. Kind of like what Elon Musk is doing for Tesla Motors.
What do you think you’d manufacture? Exoskeletons for the medical market, I think, giving people with disabilities the chance for a normal life. Or even better than that. There will be come a point where prosthetics will become better than the original equipment manufacturer components, er, human parts. People who are disabled now could become stronger than what we would consider “able-bodied” humans in the future. There would be a whole new realm of human augmentation—like in that video game Deus Ex. How cool would that be?