Robots, fire sculptures, 3D printers and the wacky side of hardware
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.
Milk jugs that tell you when the milk is bad
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.
Mold an iPhone case with a Square holder
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.
Robot camera tripod
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.
Robot plant waterer
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.
Become a gadgeteer
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.
Circuit boards you can draw
Don’t want to solder wires? You can just paint or draw with this conductive paint from Bare Conductive which comes as a pen or a pot of paint. Draw a circuit, connect a battery and an LED and you have a design that also conducts the electricity you need to power it and turns on the light when you touch it. Bare Paint is flexible enough to paint on fabric; if it cracks you can just touch it up. And if you want to reuse components you can pull them off far more easily than if they were soldered down.
Screens you can print like a T-shirt
The glowing wires in the Tron: Legacy costumes and Nike’s Back To The Future sneakers are electroluminescent; when you plug the wire in, the ink inside lights up but it’s flexible and bendy and uses very little power. Soon you’ll be able to buy this kit from Sparkfun with ink that you can roll onto a transparent, flexible screen – like screen printing a logo on a T shirt. You can’t animate the image but it can flash on and off.
Making DNA from Lego
There’s plenty of Lego at Maker Faire, from a truck entirely covered in Legos to a huge model railroad and trains: the engines, tracks and buildings are all made from bricks. But some of the most intricate models are made by Dr Dawei Lin, the director of Bioinformatics at the University of California Davis Genome Center, and his family – he started to teach his daughter about DNA but he says he’s always impressed by the models that Maker Faire visitors to his stand come up with.
3D printing simple enough for kids
3D printers used to be either very expensive or a system you had to assemble yourself from a kit. Now there are several ready-made units you can buy. Cubify’s new $1,299 Cube is one of the neatest and most stylish. The colored tank holds a spool of wire (in a range of ten colors) made from the same kind of ABS plastic as Lego bricks that it melts and prints into objects up to the size of a 5.5” cube. It comes with 25 free designs for bowls, shoes, bracelets, doorknobs and other objects, plus you can create your own designs on a computer or even using a Kinect as well as downloading designs for objects, and transfer them to the Cube by Wi-Fi.
New materials for buildings
3D printing lets you make amazing and beautiful shapes as well as practical objects, but you don’t want to make everything from plastic. The most expensive 3D printers can sinter metal dust, but what if you want something cheaper? This university team is developing new materials that can be printed out to use in buildings and structures, like powered wood and powdered concrete.
Trash Amps: music from old cans
Ridiculously loud and recycled too; Trash Amps collects used aluminum cans, cuts off the top and slaps a speaker and music jack in the top to turn it into battery powered amplifier. The inserts come in different colours so you can match them to the can. The sound is pretty good for something so small and portable, and it’s a fun way of recycling.
Strange musical instruments: Slaperoo
There’s plenty of music at Maker Faire, like the bands playing on the pedal-powered stage (the audience has to ride an exercise bike) and you won’t recognize all the instruments. A bass guitar made out of a Commodore 64 is impressive; even more so when the player is on roller skates. The aluminum Slaperoo is a combination of a didgeridoo and a bass that you can blow into and slap with your hands or play with a bow, inspired by the sounds of a steel strap on a shipping container. But you can play almost anything; Trash Amps had a stretched out Slinky attached to an amplifier.
Play some game history
The Digital Game Museum is, appropriately enough, a virtual museum because it doesn’t have a building yet so shows like Maker Faire and the Penny Arcade Expo are the best place to see and play this collection of games and game memorabilia. The Maker Faire stand was full of games and exhibits illustrating the history of adventure games, starting from text adventures to the rise - and fall - of Sierra and LucasArts. You could read a program listing for an early game or Sissy's Magical Ponycorn Adventure but we wouldn’t resist this real-life adventure game.
From a hobby to a Kickstarter
If you want to build your own music controller, a weather sensor, a system that turns on your hot tub automatically when you get home or any other kind of controller or DIY home automation system, the most popular system for these kinds of projects are open hardware Arduino controllers. If you want to take your design and turn it into a project you sell – through a crowdfunding site like Kickstarter or in full-scale production – the Arduino boards Atmel introduced at Maker Faire are a good way to do it. You can choose from a basic board or a board with USB keyboard and mouse ports, and you can add a Wi-Fi board too. Once you’ve made your prototype with Arduino, you can work with Atmel to make a custom board with just the features you need for the final product. It’s a stepping stone from DIY hardware to making and selling products.