This past weekend, my home city of San Diego hosted a Maker Faire event as part of Balboa Park’s Centennial celebrations. Created by “Make” magazine, these events aim to celebrate the coming together of arts, crafts, engineering and science for hobbyists, educators and professionals.
Opened jointly by the mayors of San Diego and Tijuana, this year’s event was the largest faire of its kind in the area. The spectacle was arranged into fourteen activity zones in and around ten of the park’s permanent museums. The focus was on creating and doing, with the majority of exhibits having a hands on “please touch” flavor to them.
Exhibitors included: hardware and software engineers, musicians, artists and educators representing themselves, clubs, schools and employers.
Getting My Hands “Dirty”
As a Software Architect, I’ve always found software that interacts with some physical object more engaging to work with and approachable to others as it’s no longer an abstract concept stuck inside a computer. For those of us who like our code to be able to get out and about in the physical world, the last few years have seen an explosion in the availability of affordable hardware and components to experiment with.
Hardware (Arduino, Raspberry Pi), component manufacturers (Adafruit, Sparkfun) and collaborative makerspaces (Fab Labs, TechShop) now provide cost effective access to everything needed to build and test projects without having to worry too much about the cost of tooling or breaking a few things along the way. Whilst not quite as cheap as pure software, the hardware cost of failure has tumbled, opening up a lot more room for experimentation to a wider audience.
Having completed some fun projects (that may become future blog posts) using single board computers, soldering iron and consumer electronics, I went along looking for ideas for future experiments. I also wanted to enjoy work that others had brought to what’s essentially “Show and Tell” on a grand scale.
Exploring the Faire
The faire was split up into themed zones: Robots, Electronics, Modeling, Costumes, Transportation and Crafts being some of them. There was also a huge “Battle Pond” for model boat gun battles. Visitors were greeted by Star Wars cosplayers and a huge animatronic robot that periodically spat fire from its hands and mouth.
There were hundreds of exhibits which were a mix of “build one yourself” (Pinewood Derby car racers, model planes, bridge structures, basic electronic circuits), “meet an inventor” (talk to a maker about his or her creation), and “watch us work” projects that were actively being worked on during the event.
One group was building a scale model rollercoaster, others showcased guitars, skateboards, robots, drones and go-karts). Several local schools ran booths demonstrating some of their STEM curriculum activities, and after school student projects such as the ever popular battling robots.
Trike Writer Project
One “full stack” project that seemed to encompass all that the event was about was Qualcomm’s “Trike Writer”.
Inspired by the Skytypers (formation aircraft that type out short lived messages using synchronized puffs of smoke), an inventor created a similar system using water nozzles, a tank of water and a single board computer to receive messages wirelessly then spray them onto the sidewalk. A camera on the trike takes pictures of the message, uploads them to the project’s website and emails them to the original message’s author.
Cutting through the domains of software, hardware, art and custom fabrication, this project shows how you can develop skills across a range of disciplines to produce something that’s a completely unique and fun product.
In this case, an engineer at a large corporation’s Innovation Lab was the inventor. Thanks to the cost of components falling, open source knowledge sharing and specialized tooling becoming available to more people, schools, universities and hobbyists are able to complete similar undertakings in class, at home using facilities provided by a makerspace.
These events are hugely fun to attend, and it is very positive for those of us in software to get involved, build some hardware and apply our problem solving skills to a wider domain. As the code we write becomes usable on more and more devices, themselves becoming components of bigger projects, now is a great time to consider experimenting with hardware in the same way we might try out a new front end web framework, programming language or database.
I would encourage you to go get yourself an Arduino, Raspberry Pi, Beaglebone or similar board, wire it up some to buttons, LEDs or motors and see what you can do. These devices have (relatively) limited resources – working with them can be good practice for efficient back to basics software design. Debugging their interaction with hardware is great for developing system wide thinking patterns that employers look for and encourage in software engineers. The odd solder burn or fried circuit is a small price to pay, and making something work is very satisfying. Additionally, working with and building connected devices is likely to become part of our everyday professional lives: Cisco has estimated that the coming wave of connected products could be a $19 trillion opportunity.
I returned home from the event (by locating an internet connected electric car sharing car using an app on my phone – exciting times!) with renewed enthusiasm for getting the soldering iron out and building some sort of connected gizmo. Hopefully I’ll have something new of my own to show and tell soon. I look forwards to adding more blog entries here that explore the intersection of software, hardware and crafts.
Maker Faires are held around the world, to find, start or advocate for one near you, check out makerfaire.com.