Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Makers Revolution

"We are obsessed with rapid prototyping," said Bre Pattis. On the table in front of us sat a CupCake CNC- a wood framed box filled with all manner of wiring and miniature motors. The conglomeration of parts came together in a surprisingly aesthetically pleasing manner. Inside the box, a plastic extruder was literally printing a three dimensional miniature airplane wing. Rapid prototyping was right. Bre added that they had shown up that morning without the tweezers they needed to complete setup of their display, so they had the CupCake make a new pair for them. He said it had taken less than three minutes.

Talk about resourcefulness.

But then- resourcefulness is the name of the game at this weekend's Maker Revolution, a two day event focusing on Do-It-Yourself (DIY) technology. It's the brainchild of local hackerspace Willoughby and Baltic, and is held at the Microsoft Startup Labs in Cambridge.

The entire eleventh floor of the Microsoft building was packed with all manner of gadgetry for the event- a rather schizophrenic looking sound station stocked with modified toys, a laser triggered art installation, a low frequency sound listening box, and my favorite- a hardware hacker station.

Over at the hardware station I ran into Mitch Altman, who had been somewhat of an idol of mine ever since I read about his TV-B-Gone in the AdBusters magazine about a million years ago. It's a key chain remote control that can turn off any TV. This is the gadget I've wished I had countless times at the bar when subjected to FOX News or some lame sports show (sorry sports fans).

Mitch's greying hair had been died a deep neon blue and purple and he wore a shirt from NoiseBridge- a hackerspace in San Fransisco that he founded last year. He was in Boston teach people to solder. "The TV-B-Gone provides me with enough money to do this full time," he said, "my goal is to make this stuff intriguing enough that even if someone has never made anything before they want to become involved."

Well, they succeeded with me. Within 45 minutes I was seated at a table with four other tentative beginners in what was my first ever circuit bending workshop. We were deconstructing a Staples "Easy Button" to modify the sounds it makes. Armed with soldering irons and an endless supply of electronic components, instructor Jimmie Rodgers guided us through the creation of our very own noisemakers.

I have to confess that initially, I was pretty apprehensive about handling the soldering iron. Visions of third degree burns ran through my head. Luckily, Jimmie put me at ease and soon I was well on my way to my first ever circuit bended toy. I outfitted it with two contact distortion points made from a penny and a Mexican 20 centavo piece, and I attached a pretty nifty looking red knob.

Immediately after completing my project, I decided that circuit bending is positively amazing and I needed to do more of it ASAP. I was one of those kids that used to take apart all of my toys, and it really appealed to that geeky part of me that liked to see how things work.

As I left the Microsoft building that evening with modified easy button in hand, I couldn't help but feel like I had just discovered a very empowered community of people. Willoughby and Baltic could certainly judge the success of their event by the substantial crowds, but I think a more important gauge would be the amount of DIY spirit and philosophy that permeated everything and everyone in the space.

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