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New reality show 'Big Brain Theory' features Somerville robot builder Gui Cavalcanti

Posted by Scott Kirsner  April 26, 2013 09:55 AM

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

Snooki's potential successor is Gui Cavalcanti, one of ten contestants on the new show "The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius," which debuts May 1st at 10 p.m. on the Discovery Channel. Cavalcanti, right, is best-known locally as the co-founder 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, as well as classes in how to use them. Cavalcanti 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. (I wrote about the Asylum last May, and included Cavalcanti on my 2012 list of "Innovation Amplifiers.")

"Big Brain Theory" challenges its contestants each week to come up with a solution to "a seemingly impossible engineering challenge," according to its website. Contestants on the losing team are subject to elimination. The eventual winner gets $50,000, and a one-year contract to work at WET, a Los Angeles design firm best known for the fountain show outside the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas. (I guess every talented engineer dreams of one day designing water features for hotels?)

Cavalcanti says 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," and it's a lot of fun to watch if you're at all interested in how design, math, and engineering can be applied in real-world scenarios.

What inspired Cavalcanti to audition for the show? He explains via e-mail, "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."

Last spring, he says, the show's producer put out a call for contestants. "After seeing it the second or third time, I decided to apply, and got a call back within a half-hour or so," Cavalcanti says. As a result of being chosen for the show, Cavalcanti handed over the reins at Artisan's Asylum to Molly Rubenstein, who had been the director of operations. He says he is now "doing half-time development work at the Asylum," and Rubenstein is serving as the new executive director.

A teaser video for the show is below:

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About Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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