On Robots, Homelessness, and Clothing Swaps: An Afternoon at [freespace]

Creating community comes in countless forms.

Clothing swaps rank high with budget- and fashion-conscious moms, grad students and early-stage professionals. Yesterday’s clothing swap at [freespace] was the first I’ve seen, where men and women appeared in equal numbers to collaborate on funky, freebie finds.

It’s also the first clothing swap, where I learned about innovation in homelessness, Matterport 3D cameras, which are still in beta, and the challenges of commercializing robotics technology.

“Enginerds have a hard time explaining the benefits of the robots they build,” said clothing swap hostess Erin Rapacki, who is originally from the Boston area. “Clear communication is important in any industry. It’s essential for selling the capabilities of robots.”

A product manager with a graduate degree in mechanical engineering, Rapacki moved to San Francisco four years ago. Over beers at the bar, Rapacki’s friends discovered her aptitude for communicating the business applications of robots.  Now she gets paid to talk on the topic, and will soon venture to Sweden to do so. Rapacki currently works at Industrial Perception on a product that gives 3D computer vision to massive robot arms.

In contrast, Hand Up seeks to solve a more human problem: How to donate to the homeless without harming them. The Hand Up approach will arm panhandlers with business cards and Internet profiles. Would-be donors can give via text message, and ensure that their contribution goes to goods and services such as food, shelter, hygiene and job training.

“We will all do better in a society where people have enough to eat, a place to sleep, and a chance to learn,” explained Hand Up founder, Rose Broome. “The government can’t solve these problems. The system is already broken. So we have to re-engineer the system.”

Hand Up’s new mobile platform is still being tested. The fledgling organization will partner with Project Homeless Connect, as its service provider. Anyone in San Francisco interested in the issue can join the Homeless Innovation Meetup started by Broome.

As Broome wrapped up her impassioned explanation of the problem, her friend, Matt Bell decided against a vintage button-up shirt in Navy blue. (Too baggy.) Then, he gave me a virtual tour of the spaces his Matterport camera transforms for online visitors.

In a corner by a window pouring natural light, a photo shoot took place. Yellow rose petals and golden hair blew in the wind, captured in a frame suspended from the ceiling. Three friends having fun.

Ten feet away, a mother and son played foosball.

These are just a few of the people you might meet, and a few of the topics you might discuss, when you stop by [freespace] on a Saturday afternoon. What is your community doing to bring people together to share talents and ideas?

Where’s your [freespace]?

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