Welcome to the world of Sparkfun.com—an online community of people who like to build things by hand. If given the choice, these people would rather build something than buy it, and they often do. In fact, many of the things they build could only have been created by hand, since their visions are so imaginative that they don’t exist for sale at stores. These people call themselves Makers. Maker projects include everything from mechanical works of art to functional gadgets. In this article, we’ll introduce you to some of the makers and their projects that involve consumer electronics.
Sparkfun.com is a place for Makers to share their projects and learn from each other in the forums and chat rooms, but it is also a place to buy supplies—everything from simple circuit boards to preprogrammed microcontrollers. The site also sells basic kits for beginners.
Together with Sparkfun.com’s managers, who keep close tabs on the Makers’ projects, we selected some of the most interesting Maker inventions and concepts to highlight in this article. Some of them are funny and whimsical and will make you ask the question “why?” Others have true potential to change the gadget world and affect the products we buy in the future. Tell us which ones you think are most impressive.
Created by Ryan Baker
Sometimes it is possible to use your wit to come up with an elegant solution for a problem in a relationship. Such was the case with Ryan and his girlfriend. She, having adverse feelings towards the dark, preferred to sleep with the television on, but he, being a light sleeper and easily distracted by the flickering lights, couldn't sleep with it on. Of course, a cheap nightlight would remedy the issue, but Ryan had a better and much more graceful plan that he called the “girlfriend nightlight.”
He took an empty CD spindle and fitted a small LED circuit into it. His project's stylish yet simple nature made it a very good starting point for someone who is interested in getting into the maker scene. Ryan even took the extra step to document the process of building his LED nightlight in a detailed, step-by-step instructional guide. If you would like to see how his nightlight works or build one for yourself, his instructional guide can be found here.
Created by Paul Boardman
Like Ryan's LED nightlight, Paul's Duplo Traffic Light also deals with relatively simple circuitry, with the added complexity of a programmable microcontroller. As a Christmas present for his children, Paul modified a previous traffic light project of his to create this elegant Duplo-sized result. It has the same widely adaptable microchip, the Atiny13, that his previous project did, so he was able to use the exact same programming code. This Atiny13 chip is what cycles the lights from green, to yellow, to red. He managed to squeeze it all into a hollowed-out Duplo block, with just a little on/off switch sticking out. You can see the results and additional photographs on Paul's blog page here.
Created by Aki Korhonen
Similar to the previous two projects, this one too is centered on the use of LED lights, but it takes yet another step towards complexity. The project is based on the concept of Persistence of Vision (known in the maker scene as POV), which takes advantage of the way our eyes work. When we see an object, especially a bright one, it lingers in our vision momentarily, even after it is gone. Because of this, it is possible to make a single column of lights appear as a plane of lights by moving it across the field of vision. A POV display, like Aki's, rotates a column of lights to keep it constantly moving across our field of vision, and with a microchip controlling the lights with careful timing, a solid image can be formed. Aki has more information about how he built his POV display, including photos and videos, on his site.
Created by Dwight Eppinger
Dwight helps manage the Copper Mountain Ski Resort and he wanted to build a better and easier way of keeping the ski-run signs up to date. He came up with the idea to use Arduino Mega boards along with the Xbee wireless shield. With this combination of hardware, Dwight was able to add an LED matrix display and create a system that he could update wirelessly from a single location. Now, whenever a run is groomed, opened, or closed; the sign is automatically updated when the ski patrol makes any changes to their central snow-reporting database. It is also used to update the resort's Facebook page, Website, and mobile site. It is a pretty respectable feat considering he's driving quite a few LED displays from a single Arduino board, and even more respectable that it is coming along so cleanly. You can check out the entire system on his blog.
Created by John Peterson
Every now and then, a project comes along in the maker community that is truly original and years ahead of its time. John's Puzzlemation is exactly this. It uses a set of 8x8 LED displays that are individually powered and drive their own animations, allowing them to be picked up and re-arranged freely. A special docking tray allows you to load images and animated routines onto the individual displays and synchronizes them together. Once synchronized, the displays can be removed and positioned freely, lasting several hours before needing to be recharged. With the affordable prices and power requirements of new OLED displays and RF technology, John's project has a lot of potential to be adapted into a realistic product in the near future. It will be interesting to see how his idea might progress. You can see more details on Puzzlemation, including video, on his Website.
Created by Ravi Gaddipati
Just about every physics geek in the world has considered building a rail gun at some point. Ravi not only built one already, but is in the process of fine-tuning his second. His first was powered by 5,600 joules of electricity, yielding projectile speeds of around 500 feet per second (340 miles per hour). With his most recent version, he has upped the total energy to 12,000 joules, which should be capable of breaking the sound barrier when operating at optimum efficiency. A rail gun works by turning two metallic rails into massive capacitors, one positively charged and the other negative. These two rails create a strong magnetic field between them, and when a conductive material connects the two, extreme amounts of electrical current pass from one rail to the other. This is where the magic happens. When a current flows through a magnetic field, it generates force. It's this force that propels the projectile out of the rail gun. You can see more on Ravi's rail gun as well as a video of it in action on his blog.
Created by Victor Laynez
This is another one of those projects that has the potential to define a new era in future products. Victor always liked to relax to some music when he got home from work, but turning on his HTPC, logging in, and selecting a playlist felt just a bit too clumsy for his liking. He came up with an extremely elegant solution using picture-frame coasters and RFID chips. RFID is a type of wireless technology that utilizes ultra-low power usage to allow for very short distance wireless communications. Victor combined the RFID chips with the coasters to be used with a specialized RFID reading table. Each coaster can be paired to represent things like a radio station, playlist, or album. The end result is that Victor comes home, chooses a coaster, and sets it on the table to start playing his music. For more information on RFiDJ and videos of it in action, you can see Victor's Website.