Why is this festival of fun worth a serious look? The 2014 highlights reveal that innovation lurks at every corner, and everywhere you set your gaze the next great pioneer might just be staring back at you—even if he’s not in high school yet.
You’d be wrong to approach Maker Faire as solely a hi-tech-themed gathering, which is not to say that hi-tech isn’t there; it definitely is. It simply isn’t just technology that’s celebrated at Maker Faire, it’s attitude. An attitude growing and spreading so fast that 2014 has been dubbed the “Year of the Maker,” with more than 100 Maker Faires taking place around the globe. An attitude with such gravity and influence in the expanding hardware scene of the Bay Area that no self-respecting tech blog could look away. So here we are, returning after our 2013 coverage to see what the Makers have in store this year.
A Faire isn’t a Faire without (big) toys
The first thing that catches your eye beyond the entrance of the San Mateo County Event Center is El Pulpo Mecanico, the 25-foot-tall, fire-spewing, propane-devouring mechanical octopus. It won’t be the last absurd creation you’ll see you see at the festival, attended by 120,000 people and billed as the greatest show (and tell) on Earth.
There’s also the crowd-infested Game of Drones, where proprietary DIY quadrocopters engage in aerial battles to the death. There’s the familiar figure of Russell, the 10,000-pound, steel-welded giraffe and, of course, the Coke Zero & Mentos fountain extravaganza. It’s no secret what ensues when you drop a Mentos into Coke, but a Maker couldn’t possibly let all the marvelous scaling potential go unexploited. Back on that very same, now sticky stage, ginger-haired perennial Mythbuster and Maker icon Adam Savage delivers his Ten Commandments of Making.
Not all fun & games
Savage was not the only “child” in attendance. The Maker movement is very conscious of its potential impact on our education system and, though there were numerous education-themed keynotes, the exhibition floor spoke for itself: a youthful crowd accommodated, in turn, by Makers of all ages.
Twelve-year-old Saurabh Narain, for example, wowed everyone by presenting his two LegoEV3-based toy robots: one that can solve any scrambled Rubik’s cube “in less than two minutes and in fewer than 30 moves” and a multilingual printer that can transcribe into Braille.
Roy the Robot, Brian Roe’s life-like mechanical companion with the laser-cut, Terminator-esque exoskeleton, drew the most attention in an Expo Hall crawling with imaginative AI, ridiculously innovative electronics, and gleams of a brave new world: bionics.
Hanging around Roy, a gentleman from France generously gave out 3D-printed handshakes. To replace his right limb, severed at the elbow, he fashioned himself a bionic hand with some Arduino magic and 3D-printed parts he designed and built himself. The complicated contraption draws on three electrodes attached to the skin above the elbow to capture signals from the brain, in charge of the motion in the wrist and palm.
This DIY marvel, which cost him around $250 to build, is a constant work-in-progress, but its proud wearer and inventor is happy to openly share his planned tweaks and blueprints with anyone who asks.
And more 3D printing
As for 3D-printing in general, it is now firmly a staple of the Maker movement. The machines are getting bigger and smaller, sharper, more consistent, and the choice of materials is exploding as is the selection of printers available for any intent and any budget.
Formlabs’ Form 1, arguably the industry standard for high-performance desktop printers, was present alongside many contenders of the material extrusion or stereolithography type. Shapeways was there, too. The fast-growing online marketplace has brought 3D-printing’s offering to consumers, hobbyists, tinkerers, and early-stage startups much more efficiently and affordably than desktop printer companies have managed thus far.
The surging trend in 3D-printing is seamless connectivity and incorporation of the cloud. Andrew Rutter of Type A Machines proudly demonstrated his company’s very well-reviewed, award-winning wireless Series 1 (still in beta) and discussed open standards in printer firmware, a much debated necessity in the 3D-printing ecosystem.
Thankfully, open-source software in 3D-printing is now backed by a giant: a few booths down the hall, the people from Autodesk were introducing the crowd to discuss the brand-new Spark platform, announced earlier in the week. Spark, which will soon be complemented by a commercial Autodesk 3D printer, is a comprehensive platform that aims to be what Java was to app developers and Android to smartphones: the next dominant, albeit wide-open standard.
Ticking down to next year
The greatest of all Maker Faires globally, and where it all started, this vibrant weekend get-together in San Mateo has established itself as a highlight in the Bay Area’s technology-inspired calendar and as a hallmark of Californian DIY culture. We’ll return next year to check out the latest in democratized hi-tech and witness more wondrous home-made machines.