Discovery Channel to bring TV glamour to product prototyping

<i>Prototype This</i>, a new show which will debut this October, will showcase the process behind the conception of a wide variety of new robots, gadgets, and machines.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
On October 15, the Discovery Channel will debut its new show, Prototype This The show is centered around the efforts of its four hosts, from left, Zoz Brooks, Terry Sandin, Joe Grand, and Mike North, to conceive of, design, test, and build prototypes of new robots, gadgets and other machines. Here, the four co-hosts pose on a giant water slide they built that was based on the concept of a perpetual water slide. Discovery Channel/Don Feria

TREASURE ISLAND, SAN FRANCISCO--When the co-host of a new TV show centered around conceiving of, designing, and testing prototypes of robots, gadgets, machines, and other things wears a T-shirt that says "It was on fire when I got here," you know you're in for a treat.

And that's the case with Terry Sandin, one of four hosts of Prototype This, a new Discovery Channel show that will debut its 13-episode first season on October 15, and which is being made here on this island in the shadow of San Francisco.

Sandin and co-hosts Zoz Brooks, Joe Grand, and Mike North are not your typical TV stars. Rather, these guys are seriously accomplished at their various specialties. The term "don't try this at home" certainly applies to their various experiments, at least if you don't have their impressive credentials.

Take North, for example. He's got a Ph.D. in material sciences, with a specialty in biomimetics. Add his ability to be the member of the team often tasked with solving problems no one else can to his rock star looks and engaging personality, and you've got a good start.

Or take Sandin. A veteran of 18 years in the film industry, and having worked on effects and other creations for movies like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Jurassic Park, and The Jackal, he now specializes as the show's machinist/fabricator/animatronics host. And how did he get the job? He told the casting agent that, "I enjoy short walks to make horror pictures at the beach" and sent along a picture of a "Tickle Me Elmo" doll in a pickle jar.

Co-host Terry Sandin, who spent 17 years working as a machinist and fabricator in the film industry, talks about his role on Prototype This His T-shirt reads, 'It was on fire when I got here.' Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

For his part, Brooks has a Ph.D. in robotics from MIT's famous Media Lab and wrote his thesis on coordinating human-robot communications. He's the team's software specialist and the one that forces everyone to listen to death metal.

And lastly, Joe Grand is the team's electrical engineer and self-styled "hardware hacker." A member of Make magazine's technical advisory board, he also runs his own product development and design firm, Grand Idea Studios.

It's clear that with Prototype This," Discovery Channel is hoping to tap into the same audience that flocks to MythBusters each week. And--no surprise--the same production company, Beyond Productions, makes both shows.

I got to spend most of Tuesday at Beyond Productions to witness the team and the show's crew, working on one of the forthcoming episodes, and it was an illuminating, and humorous few hours.

On Tuesday, the focus was on an episode in which the team was working on building two prototype devices that would be used by firefighters.

The first is what they were calling a "pyro pack," a custom molded backpack that a firefighter could wear on his or her back and that would hold a series of things that normally have to get lugged by hand: A dry-chem fire extinguisher, an oxygen tank, batteries, wire lights, some electronics, and more.

The four co-hosts gather around to inspect the 'pyro pack,' a backpack for firefighters. The idea is that the pack will allow a firefighter to easily carry a number of the essential pieces of gear they need, including a dry-chem fire extinguisher, an oxygen tank, electronics, and more. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

The second was a specialized robot designed to climb stairs carrying up to 500 pounds of the kind of gear that usually slows firefighters down and forces three of them to do what this robot could now allow one to do.

The specific design of the pyro pack was done by Scott Summit, an industrial designer Prototype This contracted to help them create it. And that's one of the things the show does each episode: look for the kinds of experts who can help them build the things they want to make.

"We do a lot of that," said North. "We're smart enough to know that we don't know everything."

On this day, the molded parts of the pyro pack had just arrived from the 3D printing firm in Carlsbad, Calif., that had been engaged to make them.

The prototype of the pyro pack, which the four co-hosts are seeing for the first time in its nearly-finished state. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

So, the team spent about 30 minutes filming--and re-filming and re-filming--a scene in which North and Sandin arrive through the door to one of the workshops carrying the parts with them and then showing them off to Brooks and Grand.

All told, they shoot the scene about six times, under the direction of supervising producer John Tessier, who makes sure they have it right and cover all the angles they might need.

At one point, both Grand and Brooks puts on a piece of the pack that fits on their arms--and which is designed to help a firefighter direct dry-chem from the extinguisher onto a fire without having to hold the extinguisher--and starts strutting around with it.

Co-host Joe Grand inspects a part of the pyro pack that fits on a firefighter's arm. The piece is intended to allow the firefighter to direct dry-chem from a fire extinguisher onto a fire without having to hold the extinguisher in his or her hands. Instead, it is held in the pyro pack. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

It looks like something one of the X-Men would wear, and Brooks picks right up on that.

"This already makes me feel like a freaking superhero," Brooks shouts out.

But Tessier wants him to say it again because he feels Brooks' "freaking" sounded too much like "friggin'."

"That's the way I talk," Brooks, who's from Australia, says.

Brooks said that he made his way onto the show directly from MIT after having done a little work for Discovery Channel there.

"I didn't know what to expect" after getting his Ph.D., Brooks said, "but (if) I'd had to predict, (being a TV host) would have been low on the list."

For his part, Sandin seemed like he was still getting used to be on the other side of the camera after so many years helping other people make movies, commercials, and TV shows.

"It's odd to go from being behind the camera for 17 years to in front of the camera," said Sandin. "It's a totally different experience. Now I get to do this, and this is my life."

Sandin explained that for someone like him, who has so many years of experience building things for other people's projects, "this is like playing in a toy store for me."

I asked Sandin where the ideas for show's episodes come from, and he said that it tends to be a very organic process, often resulting from the team musing on what it would be like to solve some problem they saw on the street.

And along the way, as the hosts work on creating the prototypes for the show, it often involves some of what Sandin calls "TV drama."

"(We) see if anybody is going to get hurt, which typically is me," Sandin joked. "'Oh, I needed that part of my thumb.' But little parts grow back."

Click for gallery

It's not entirely clear, in watching the filming of the show how much is natural and how much is scripted.

That's especially true when you watch the hosts re-shooting something over and over, speaking the same lines each time. But much of what they're doing seems spur-of-the-moment.

At one point, for example, as they're filming the sequence where the hosts inspect the pyro pack, North asked Grand if he's still working on the pack's electronics.

Grand responded that, yes, he still was.

"I thought you just waved a magic wand and it was done," North joked.

"According to TV standards it does," Grand deadpanned, "but in the real world, someone has to design it."

As they're filming, Summit, the industrial designer, is also in the scene, and he's excited by the results of what came back from the company in Carlsbad that built the pyro pack parts.

He repeats his line again and again as well, trying to describe his excitement at seeing the parts for the first time.

"This is why you go into design in the first place," Summit finally says. "Something that really moves and articulates the way it should. This is the payback for all the hard work."

Later, Summit was talking about his experience being involved in the show.

"It's a wild ride," Summit told me. "The brainpower (of the four hosts), it's fun to be on a team where the other four guys on the team are so bright and focused."

He also explained that he had been teaching design at Carnegie-Mellon last year and that he had told his students to watch Prototype This when it finally airs.

"'This will be as valuable as anything you'll take in this class,'" he said he told the students.

For the episode of Prototype This that centers on prototype gear for firefighters, the team conceived of and built a robot that could carry gear up stairs, allowing one firefighter to do what three have been needed to do before. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Back in Sandin's workshop, he's been working hard on the stair-climbing robot. Over the previous weeks, the team had been trying to get the robot right, and had been failing. Finally, it seems, Sandin made it clear that he knew how to solve the problems and that they should just let him do it.

Sure enough, over the course of the day, I watched as Sandin, with the help of a couple of crew members, crafted the plates that made up the side of the robot's tracks, and put it all together.

Clearly, this was not something that he created in a day, but it does look like it came together awfully quick.

For much of the day, the production crew was talking about the possibility that the robot might be ready to once again tackle the stairs after several previous failures. But, being TV production, "controlled chaos," as someone put it, there was no promise that the robot would be ready.

Co-host Mike North vaults himself over the top of the robot as it climbs the stair outside Beyond Productions, the company that is making Prototype This for the Discovery Channel. Click the photo for a full photo gallery of my day on the set. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

But finally, as the day drew long and the sun began to sink lower and lower in the sky, dropping down over downtown San Francisco to the west, word came that they were ready to try again.

And sure, enough, with Sandin wielding a remote control system, the robot, with the new tread system he designed, did just what it was supposed to: it took on the stairs and conquered them. And it did so making it look effortless and quiet and with the strength to, at one point, carry North on its back.

As the gathered crew broke up, a feeling of excitement in the air, Summit came over to Sandin, a wide grin on his face, and clapped him on the back.

"That kicked ass," Summit said.