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Computing At Chaos Manor:
Special Report

Maker Faire Auditions at TechShop
Peter N. Glaskowsky,
Copyright 2007 Peter N. Glaskowsky and Jerry Pournelle

I'm attending an event at TechShop in Menlo Park, CA, where the folks who run Make Magazine are auditioning people who want to exhibit at the magazine's Maker Faire in May.

I got here a little late, but so far I've seen a fellow who made a side-by-side tandem bicycle (two complete bicycles linked at the frame and steering) and a fellow who puts blinking LEDs behind translucent plastic to create dynamic abstract art.

There was also a fellow who claims to have discovered that single photons in gamma rays of a certain energy go both ways at once through a beamsplitter, violating the otherwise well-verified theory of wave/particle duality. He was very emotionally invested in his claims, and I think his experiment falls into that vast gulf between "rigorous enough for Physics Today" and "entertaining enough for the Maker Faire", so I doubt we'll be seeing him again in May.

Next up was a couple displaying a 3D printer (this process is also known as stereolithography) designed to make sugar sculptures! It has a working envelope of about 12x18x8 inches and a resolution of "two to five millimeters" — not impressive statistics vs. commercial machines that work in plastic, metal, or other materials — but being a completely homebrewed item it would cost well under $1,000 to duplicate.

Following that, a fellow who had a computer equipped with a microphone and speakers. The microphone listens to ambient sounds, the computer analyzes the sounds, and sends interesting new sounds out through the speakers. So in effect the computer is responding to what it hears. I've been seeing acoustic "installation art" at Siggraph for many years, but usually much more sophisticated; in this case, cause and effect were not so clearly linked, diminishing the dramatic effect.

Another guy made a giant margarita-making machine from a (new, clean) garbage disposal unit. He also offered to bring a low-cost CNC milling machine, but didn't have it with him.

We then heard about HatManDo, a physical multiplayer game based on LED-equipped headgear, an overhead camera, and computer-vision processing. Interesting, but the presentation failed to give me a feeling for how it would be to play it.

Another installation artist had a machine that inflates small... well, I don't know what to call them. They're the size of small pillows, but made of woven bicycle inner tubes. Anyway, the machine is attached to a dozen or so of these and inflates them in random patterns. It reminded me of black rubber tribbles.

A more practical kind of sculpture was up next, a very talented fellow who makes rideable motorcycles and other things out of found objects, from metal scrap to computer parts. He said he's been doing this at Burning Man for a while. (There's a lot of overlap between Burning Man participants and people involved with Make Magazine and the Maker Faire.) He only brought pictures, but they looked very good, and he promised to actually make a motorcycle at the Faire.

On of the better exhibits from the Maker Faire last year was here at the auditions-- a group of folks who make wooden bicycles. See Wooden Bikes for more information. They aren't all wood; they reuse metal wheels, rubber tires, etc. I remember last year being tempted to engineer a whole bicycle, including wheels, bearings, and power transmission, out of wood.

A woman showed how she makes picture pendants, another past Burning Man participant demonstrated how to use a multi-touch sensor not unlike the trackpad on a MacBook Pro or the screen of the forthcoming iPhone (but with the ability to detect ten fingers at a time) to generate music, and a fellow showed a variety of small electronic gizmos such as a side-scrolling LED sign and a voice-memo device.

I couldn't hang around for the rest of the auditions, but it was definitely a fun afternoon and I'm looking forward to the Maker Faire.