Maker Faire is a two-day celebration of hardware hacking, extreme DIY, robotics, fire art and a touch of steampunk held every year in Silicon Valley. Think Burning man meets a high school science fair. Steve Wozniak and Adam Savage from Mythbusters are regular speakers. One year OK Go played a concert underwater. You can learn to solder, enjoy the giant Diet-Coke-and-Mentos fountain, ride around on a robot giraffe or a giant dalek, try out 3D printers and computer-controlled laser cutters or meet R2D2. Some of what you see will make its way into Kickstarter projects and products you can buy; some will stay as quirky and improbable fun. Here’s our pick of this year’s top Maker Faire exhibits.
Design site Quirky teamed up with GE to brainstorm and prototype a milk jug with weight, temperature and Ph. sensors that can let you know when you’re running out of milk, text you if the jug has been out of the refrigerator so long it’s starting to get warm and warn you if the milk has gone sour before you take a mouthful. No more sniffing the carton or finding there’s no milk left for your coffee. By the end of the weekend, Quirky had a design to work on manufacturing; you can look at several possible finishes on the Quirky site.
Some equipment, like computer-controlled milling machines, is very expensive and not really suitable for home use. Join TechShop the way you would a gym and you get to use those expensive machines and get training. Startups working on new products, like the Square iOS credit card readers, can design and refine their ideas before they go into production. This set of injection molds for an iPhone case with a built-in Square holder was milled at Maker Faire using TechShop equipment. Formed under 16 tons of force, injection molding from pieces like this makes accurate, hard-wearing products, which are more durable than 3D printing.
Robots are easier and easier to build. Software tools like Microsoft Robotics Studio simplify writing control software, while kits of parts give you motors, bases, servos and sensors that come together to make a robot – even using Kinect for tracking and 3D depth perception. Microsoft announced the winners of the Robotics @ Home competition at Maker Faire; first prize went to the SmartTripod robot. It’s a mobile video camera tripod that follows you around, shooting smooth tracking shots and using a tilting, panning camera that keeps the presenter in view.
Kinect has turned out to be an ideal piece of equipment for hardware hackers, and was everywhere at Maker Faire. Here it’s being used to add sensors to the SmartTripod robot, pinpointing a user to follow and film. You can see the overlay of dots on the body of its current target, giving the robot the ability to focus on one person, and to calculate how to aim a camera. It’s not just tracking a body – it can also see where left and right hands are. If you’re using the robot to film a presentation, or a tutorial, it’s important for it to follow just what the presenter is doing, not just where they are. Following the hands makes it easier to automatically track what’s being done, not who is doing it.
Kinect’s body tracking is also used by the next winner, KEMODO. This small robot is designed to keep an eye on an elderly person; it can tell the difference between somebody sleeping in bed or napping on the coach and someone who has fallen on the floor. If it sees you’ve fallen over it will send a message to your emergency contact, navigate its way to you and start a video conference with them so you can tell them what’s going on.
Maybe your house sitter will remember to water your plants, and manage not to overwater them. Or you could show PlantSitter, the third-prize winner, where all your plants are. Show it a bucket of water as well, set the days and times you want each plant watered and PlantSitter will suck water into the syringe on its robotic arm, trundle up to each plant at the right time and give it just enough water.
Microsoft’s .NET Gadgeteer platform is an alternative to technologies like Arduino that’s easier to connect up. <http://www.netmf.com/gadgeteer/> You can quickly build devices by plugging together modules and writing code using the free .NET Micro Framework. You connect modules to a mainboard, adding sensors, storage, connectivity and displays with standard cables. That means you can mix and match the components you need to build the device you want without needing to solder things together, and they’re available from several different suppliers. Many of these components were used in the robots that won the competition.