A man-size mousetrap, giant metal flowers that shoot fire, and robot dance competitions. The beauty of Maker Faire is that nobody asks why, only how. Making is a sort of religion here in the Bay Area, and Maker Faire is apparently Mecca. I went to see for myself.
For a little more than an hour now, author and entrepreneur Chris Anderson has been talking to a sold out audience at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, situated in the heart of San Francisco. I admire how passionately he speaks about the new industrial revolution and how 3D printing will change manufacturing forever.
“How many of you have been to a Maker Faire?” he asks. Without a second thought, all hands rush into the air. “Everyone” seems to be the obvious answer. But one hand is missing: Mine.
Anderson clears his throat and even in the darkness I can see sparkles in his eyes: “Every real Californian needs to witness the Maker Movement at least one time and catch the Maker Fever.”
As a Swiss citizen doing an internship in San Francisco for just eight-months, I want to belong to this elite club, too, and call myself a real Californian if only for a short while. So I start doing research online. I quickly find that the Bay Area Maker Faire is coming up in San Mateo, only a few miles south of San Francisco. By the looks of the photos and videos from past years, it promises to provide a crash course in Maker culture. Please enter credit card number, security code and expiration date—all done. San Mateo, here I come!
After entering the main gates, it doesn’t take long to spot something spectacular. In front of me is a fully functioning, man-size mousetrap standing 15 meters tall (that’s about 50 feet for my dear American reader). The unfortunate role of the mouse is played by an old SUV, which gets crushed to pieces. Next to me, a man dressed as R2D2 shouts, “Did my rocket come down here?” But before I can respond, I am almost run over by two cupcake mobiles.
There are banana-pianos, singing lobsters, giant metal flowers that shoot fire, and robot dance competitions. I learn about Ninjaneering, a new wave of art using high technology to produce something beautiful. The band Arcattack plays Peer Gynt’s “Morning Mood” except with every note, the guitarist gets struck by lightning. That’s what I call AC/DC.
The beauty of Maker Faire is that nobody asks why these projects are built. Instead, people ask—and share—how they are made. Maker Faire attendees blur together with exhibitors. There are artists, urban farmers, computer programmers, physicists, engineers, and designers. Or simply: 65,000 nerds and geeks who like to get their hands dirty. Making, it seems, is a sort of religion here, a way of life. And Maker Faire is apparently Mecca.
Now that I think about it, a huge portion of the people I’ve met in the Bay Area really do seem to take special pride in do-it-yourself (DIY) solutions, from where they get their honey (back yard bees, of course) to creating their own records out of wood. Thank you, laser cutter.
This movement has its own magazine, Make, based just north of San Francisco in Sebastopol. There’s also Make TV dedicated to DIY. There are local think-tanks, hackathons, NerdNites and even workshops and conferences that all celebrate the idea of building and creating, just for the fun of it.
The Maker virus is highly contagious. For example, the Robogames, where hobby engineers let their creations compete against each other, sometimes even to death, were formerly part of Maker Faire. It became so popular that nowadays 48 countries (including Switzerland) send their brightest minds to win at the annual World Cup of Robotics.
Don’t have the tools or skills you need for a given project? No problem. These days, you can learn how to make a radio antenna out of ordinary hangers on YouTube or design like a pro with Google SketchUp, a simplified version of CAD.
For a monthly fee, institutions like TechShop in San Francisco and Silicon Valley offer training and access to industrial sewing machines, welding equipment, table saws, 3D printers, laser cutters, and much more so that nothing stands in the way of producing virtually anything from scratch.
What strikes me the most about the Californian Maker Movement I see around me is that it goes way further than a simple hobby. People are proud of their designs, share them for free on Instructables, GrabCAD, etc. They are willing to spend a little more money and create something unique, rather than buying the new Ikea coffee table, serial number XYZ. A real revolution is taking place, born right here and armed with circuit boards and soldering irons, science and creativity.
I just have one question. What should I build first?