The Big Think

October 22, 2007

Maker Faire Austin 2007

Filed under: Mad Science — jasony @ 4:43 pm

This past weekend Austin hosted Maker Faire 2007. While there are plenty of places online where you can go and see pics of the event, I wanted to add my pixels to the bit bucket.

Maker Faire is sponsored by Make Magazine, a slightly off-kilter quarterly celebrating the Mad Scientist citizen who enjoys the self-expression of homemade craziness. You have to love a magazine where the slogan is:

Void your warranty, violate a user agreement, fry a circuit, blow a fuse, poke an eye out…

Last year Make sponsored Maker Faire in California, and I thought briefly about catching a cheap flight and going out there, but common sense and bank balances won out and I contented myself with looking at pictures online. However a few months ago, to my great joy, Make announced Maker Faire Austin. It took place at the Travis County Expo Center on Saturday and Sunday.

When I first got there I was a little dismayed at the size of the Faire. I had pictured a massive sprawling complex spread across 200+ acres (the size of the Expo Center). It turned out that there were 300 exhibitors over about 4-6 acres, including one air conditioned building, one covered building (think: large 4H club display place), and several outdoor spaces. In reality, there was so much to see and do there that I just barely managed to see everything in one day. I could probably have seen it all much quicker, but being alone and dedicated to a 9 hour walk, I was able to stop and meet the Makers, talk about their contraptions, and delve deeply into whatever struck my fancy. These people were absolutely fantastic. It was unlike any other expo I’ve been to in that there were very few booths there that existed to sell anything. The happy result of this was that there was no pressure or fear of a sales pitch. Many times I would hang out at a booth looking at stuff until the traffic lightened up, then approach the Maker and just say “so tell me about this”. He or she would launch into a long explanation of what the thing was, how it was created, what they learned and how they’d do it differently, and even tear part of their invention apart to show me the guts of the thing. In the course of the day I spoke with electronics geeks, HAM radio nuts, roboticists, rocket scientists, auto mechanics, welders, woodworkers, a guy in the NASA program, bike mechanics/hackers, and real live Mad Scientists (if building a 13 foot tall robot that spews ping pong balls out of an air cannon doesn’t qualify you as a Mad Scientist I don’t know what does). Everyone was tremendously gracious and friendly and I couldn’t have had a better time. Best $25 entry fee evar.

Here’s some pictures (I try to post to an article or more information after the relevant snaps):

Awesome Danger Expo Ahead.

Theremin’s abounded, although I question the positioning of this particular one as it was right next to the main speaker’s stage. I’d hate to be giving a lecture on catapults and trebuchets and have to compete with this thing. Good thing there was a volume control on the side.

Plastic blinky LED bicycle frame (you’re welcome for posting this, Tim)

The one-of-a-kind Mouse Mouse. The unholy marriage of taxidermy and high technology. That thing on the back? A scroll wheel.

“I shouldn’t be!” More disturbing taxidermy.

This guy was on hand to demonstrate his liquid nitrogen ice cream. It’s regular ice cream ingredients made into the cold stuff in about 30 seconds. Very cool (rimshot). Actually, it was surprisingly tasty with an extremely smooth texture, almost like yogurt. I talked with him a bit and was surprised to find out that anybody can procure liquid nitrogen from a welding store. Evil laugh.

Home brew sonar mapping system. This little device sent out 50khz sound pulses, analyzed the reflections, and plotted the results on an attached computer. The guy at this booth was really enthusiastic and helpful. Made me want to learn electronics even more.

Underwater ROV. It’s a frickin’ remote controlled submarine made from PVC pipe. Awesome.

All hail the Pleo. This thing is supposed to be the must-have item whenever it gets released. I’ve seen as much hype about it online and in magazines as I saw for the Segway, but after seeing it up close and playing with it I don’t think it’s justified. It’s supposed to be Furby Mk. II (and is made by the same guy). Yes, it’s cute and everything, but at $350 I don’t think there are going to be many buyers. I hope I’m wrong, but I left the table thinking “meh”.

This thing may not look like much, but it was a blast to play with. See that little pink dot in the water? That’s a magnet “submarine”. If you look closely you’ll see that the plastic tupperware container is held in place by tape-wrapped coils of wiring. Each coil is attached to a switch and charged by a battery. There is another set of coils under the container in the black box. When you push any of the red or black buttons the coils get charged and the submarine scoots around in the water with perfect controllability and full X/Y/Z axis control. It was tremendously fun to drive the tiny dot.

The Ponginator, a 13 foot ping pong spewing machine of death, destruction, and loud air horns.

Easily one of my favorite booths of the show, the North Texas Battle Group had several tables with their home made battle ship models. The guys at the table described their hobby of building scale R/C models of historic ships out of balsa and fiberglass, rigging them with CO2 powered BB guns, and then staging massive miniature naval battles. They routinely shoot up and sink their little creations, recover them with scuba gear, dry them out, and fight again. Totally awesome. It made me want to try my hand at fiberglassing a model ship hull. Oh, and I happen to have an R/C radio, servos, and receiver… hmmm….

This little beast was a hilarious art project. The vacuum cleaner had a proximity sensor attached so whenever anyone walked past it the motor would send it scurrying toward you, teeth chomping in a horrific racket. It was only contained by its bungee cord leash. It was so funny to see people yelp and scurry away from it when it went off.

Home made Sterling engine. The guy who makes them was really interesting to talk to. He described his building techniques, how long it took him to make each one, and what he plans on doing with them.

A home grown multi-touch table PC. It might not do everything this one does, but it was pretty fun to spin the Google Earth globe and zoom in/out of satellite pictures using two fingers.

Human Powered Ferrous Wheel (get it?) of Death.

People riding the HPFWoD

I got to meet Mark Fraunfelder, Make Magazine’s chief editor. He was walking around taking pictures of the displays. Nice guy who took a minute to ask me what I thought of the magazine, how I used/hacked/changed the plans therein, and what I’d do to change it. Any guy who practices Kaisen is a friend of mine.

Trebuchet! This sucker sent a watermelon a good 250 feet downrange and probably almost the same distance in the air. It was pretty spectacular to see the splat.

World’s Fastest Barstool. 100mph. You sit between the handle grips and face forward. Insane.

Tesla Coil! The only thing better than a Tesla Coil is…

A Tesla Coil with a Midi controller attached! I got to play funky single-finger monophonic riffs on the Tesla coil. How awesome is that?

Amazing artwork done in dust. Sean actually knows this guy.

There were more CNC machines there than you could shake a stick at, and most of them came with plans on how to build your own with common workshop tools. There were hacky looking ones and some really beautiful high precision ones. All of them could be made for a few hundred dollars, which is pocket change compared to the Shop Bot also on display. The Shop Bot is industrial size/strength and runs about $10,000.

Next up, the Kavalcade of Krazy Kars!

What do give someone who lives in a Brick…House. Yeah.

Yarn car! totally covered in… wait for it… yarn.

Tiki car! Bamboo covered with a tiki bar in the back.

And finally, the Camera Van. I like the irony in taking a picture of someone taking a picture of this.

Yes, the life-sized Mousetrap game was there, to the delight of thousands. I even got picked out of the crowd to help lift the 4 ton safe off the ground. It turned out to be a lot of work, but it was worth it since I got to go inside the barricade and take some pictures I couldn’t get otherwise. The mousetrap worked and when that safe smooshed the pumpkin you could feel the ground shake. There’s a video of the mousetrap in operation here.

I also got to meet and talk with Bre Pettis, one of the regular contributors to Make Magazine.

At the end of the day the R2 cake had to sacrifice for the crowds. I decided to not take a bite since it had been sitting out all day.

Something I don’t have a picture of is the Google booth (or rather, the Google fenced in area. They sectioned off their booth with hurricane fencing. Whether for looks or security, I don’t know, but the result was pretty neat looking). These Googleites were from the Sketchup division. If you don’t know Sketchup, it’s an incredible design tool that lets users make anything they want to on the computer. It helped me tremendously in the studio design phase of my recent remodel. They had Google Sketchup experts on hand to teach people how to use the program. This was another great time where I could corner one of the experts and ask him or her to show me something that I didn’t know (which is a lot). I got 2 separate 20 minute tutorials on how to use different parts of the program. Speaking with one of the reps, I was told that Google’s ultimate goal is to seamlessly integrate Sketchup with soon-to-be-inexpensive desktop 3D printers. When that happens (5 years or so?), you’ll be able to design something in Sketchup, hit “make”, and the 3D printer will spit out a copy of your design in resin or some other substance. I can’t wait! It’s possible now, but the printers are in the $5,000 range. They won’t be considered mass market until they break the 1K mark.

Speaking of 3D printers, I spent about an hour talking with the guys from MIT’s Fab Lab. The Fab Lab exists to get all sorts of production and fabrication machines to talk to each other. They had various printers, 3d lathes (CNC controlled), computer controlled mills, extruders, and even a circuit board prototyping machine. Right now there’s not a common way for all these different machines to interconnect/intercommunicate. The MIT gang is pushing for a common language/communication protocol that will let the machines talk to each other. They’ve done it with their own machines and tour the country pushing the benefits. At Maker Faire they had about a dozen machines in a lineup. At one end was a design station where you could get your idea into a computer (say, a blinking LED nightlight). The computer split the necessary fabrication duties among the different largeish machines and each one built, printed, extruded, whatevered the part. Once they were done you had your product. It’s pretty basic now, but light years beyond where it was only a few years ago. MIT’s ultimate goal is to produce a machine that will be able to replicate anything that you’d like to produce. “Star Trek Replicator in 15 years” is how one of the booth guys talked about it. While I doubt we’ll get quite that far, it’s thrilling to me to envision a single machine that can produce a vast number of products using only raw materials and plans off the internet. Cellphones, PDA’s, consumer goods, customized stuff, even the parts to make a second replicator. We should see this within our lifetimes.

Towards the end of the day I hit a few of my favorite booths again to ask a few more questions, spent some money at the Maker Store on a pair of books, and got a subscription to the magazine at a 60% discount. I still have a big bag of cool schwag to go through.

I can’t emphasize enough what a great day it was. I spent hours talking with like-minded Makers and left with tired feet and a heady buzz that’s sure to last a long, long time. Afterwards I went down to visit my friend and fellow mad scientist Sean. As a way of celebrating my Maker day we set about building a hovercraft. It was a raging success (though more fun for the kids since the thing wouldn’t move very well with us on it). It only cost us $15 in materials, too. We had fun pushing his kids down the hilly street next to his house on the air powered device. I’ll write about it in another post soon.

If anything, my trip to MakerFaire showed me again that there are lots of creative, quirky inventor-types out there. I kept having a feeling of these are my people as I walked around the fair grounds. Can’t wait for next year!


  1. There were two more Tesla coils on the ground behind those that were built by Scott Coppersmith and were able to act as guitar/mic amplifiers in addition to MIDI players.

    When he brought them down from Illinois they broke. I felt really bad for him.

    Comment by shbazjinkens — October 23, 2007 @ 11:24 pm

  2. Looks like you were in heaven. I would like to go next year, as long as you don’t make me hold Mouse Mouse…

    Comment by jasony — October 25, 2007 @ 9:28 am

  3. (above comment was made by Erin on Jason’s log in. Silly cookies.)

    Comment by jasony — October 25, 2007 @ 11:18 am

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