Arduinos, DeLoreans, and vintage computers: All the fun of the Maker Faire

The biggest show-and-tell on earth is still fun, but it also has a professional edge.
Written by Mary Branscombe, Contributor
At the Maker Faire: Not one but two Back to the Future-style DeLoreans ready to travel through time.
Image: Mary Branscombe
This year's Maker Faire in Silicon Valley was the tenth since the fairs began, sprawling over more of the San Mateo, California fairgrounds than ever.

Fire sculptures and steampunk bazaars, a life-size robotic giraffe, robot demolition derbies, lock-picking lessons, a bicycle-powered amplifier for the musicians entertaining the lunch crowd, a recreation of the fountains from the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas using bottles of Diet Coke and mint sweets, and not just one but two Back To The Future-styled DeLoreans: Maker Faire remains a geek playground for the 145,000 people who showed up for the event.

The 'making' side includes beekeepers, kombucha brewers, and people using sound waves to make water flow in patterns, as well as a home electroplating system (ideal for gold-plating things you create on the ubiquitous 3D printers), DJ turntables that control a Tesla coil, replicas of vintage home computer systems (including the Altair 800), a USB-connected multimeter, and Ricoh's Theta 360 camera, which captures an all-around-you image you can see on your phone or a VR headset.

Also ubiquitous are the maker boards used to build many of the projects on show at the fair.

Arduino is only the best-known of these - and that's about to get more complicated as Arduino.cc co-founder Massimo Banzi announced at the fair that he was getting together with Adafruit to have them manufacture Arduino boards under the name Genuino. At the same time the Italian Arduino.org brand is working with the designers of the Arduino Yun board to bring out two new boards. These two new boards, as Federico Musto, CEO of Arduino.org, told me in an interview during the Maker Faire are the Yun Mini, which is a smaller version with pins for USB and RJ45 connections, and the Tian which adds wifi, Bluetooth Low Energy, and a USB 2 bus.

None of this is slowing down Arduino and the many Arduino-compatible boards and sensors: the 12-year-old on the Atmel stand who had hacked a thermal receipt printer and a webcam to connect to an Arduino board so he could grab a photo and print it out also sells Arduino kits and teaches classes.

LittleBits were connecting their educational magnetic Arduino blocks into a giant game system. They've added new blocks to their range, including a potentiometer, and a power block with an LED that shows how much battery power you have.

Maker Faire in pictures: Arduino pianos, future cars, 360-degree photos, Edison robots, and more

Over on the ARM stand, a coffee machine was using a sensor to recognise the colours of the different coffee pods used to make espresso, totting up the total caffeine consumption over the weekend by visitors asking questions about ARM chips in boards from Arduino, BeagleBone, Electric Imp, Raspberry Pi, and Spark.

Microsoft showed off the Intel Galileo-driven piano from Build 2014 (which didn't survive thousands of children dancing on it over the weekend), and a much tinier piano built with Arduino and an MP3 shield, running exactly the same code.

Once tired of wearing out the piano, children could use a Lumia phone as a virtual Arduino shield to light up the LEDs on a screen behind their drawings, or drive an Arduino remote control car, using a Lumia connecting over Bluetooth serial to the Arduino board. That was built by a member of the Windows 10 IoT team who had worked on Windows Phone and on Windows Embedded before that; he joked that the acronym should really stand for Internet of Toys.

The Windows IoT team member was also showing off remote debugging from Visual Studio 2015 with a Raspberry Pi weather station using the Sparkfun weather shield. Another member of the team mentioned that he'd used it to find a bug in a library he was using to hook into his garage door opener. That was quickly overshadowed by a developer from NASA dragging a colleague to the stand to find out if they could use it for debugging on the ISS or the Mars Rover.

British company Imagination was showing off the redesigned version of its (Rapsberry Pi-compatible) MIPS-based Creator CI20 dev board. This moves the wi-fi antenna closer to the baseband chip to improve performance, is easier to mount in cases and devices, and supports Android today and will support Linux in a couple of months.

It also comes ready for Imagination's own FlowCloud API for building IoT systems. We saw a system with temperature and humidity sensors controlling a heater and a fan, not directly but by sending the readings to the cloud - so you can run the algorithm that decides whether to turn on the fan or the heater on a system where you don't have to worry about memory and processor load.

A lot of the most interesting maker boards at the show were designed not just for making, but for making into products. As ARM's Dominic Pajak put it, the beauty of maker boards is that "you can prototype with one board but you can go to manufacturing with different compatible parts".

Atmel has been pushing this angle for a while and it's now working with Zmbit, which has an integrated motherboard called Orange for IoT devices that has the power supply, power management, wi-fi, and cryptography chip for security already included (which means it can handle authentication through Zymbit's Connect software, making management at scale easier).

You can connect it to a Raspberry Pi if you want to run Linux on it, or attach the Zymbit Iris OLED touch screen to use it as a secure PIN pad entry system. "Think of it an exoskeleton," Zymbit's CEO Phil Strong told us. "It's a way to get people from prototype to market more quickly - you can save six or nine months of work. You do the app and this gives you the hardware platform."

Intel brought along several companies and makers who were using its Edison boards: "The big thing for me is the startups actually bringing stuff to market on our platform," Intel's Jay Melican told us.

Dennybike, a design agency that works for Boeing, has made a commuter bike with an Edison-based web server built-in. Robodub is selling robots you can drive on racetracks to venues that want them for gaming. And Thud Rumble, the scratch DJs who design decks for Pioneer, were scratching on decks powered by Edison. They use time-coded vinyl to control a digital file system with their music on and they're tracking the turntable moments with Edison boards.

DJ Rich from Thud Rumble enthused about being able to code in assembly language and building a synthesizer in six weeks using Edison; his preferred reverb convolution plugin is open source, but written in x86 assembly and he was able to work with it directly. "It's overkill, but it sounds so much better than the others," he said.

Makers who want to create finished products they could sell will be keen on Cypress's new developer board, which is a programmable SoC with Bluetooth and USB connections and Arduino compatibility.

This gives makers huge flexibility at a fraction of the cost of an FPGA: you can reprogram parts of the SoC to do different things on the fly, using embedded C and the Varilog system used to control FPGAs. That means you can keep experimenting with your design, and end up with a design where the same hardware block can do different things at different times.

Once you're happy with your design, you can order more boards for $10 each, or you can go back to Cypress and have them sell you thousands of the same board, in a much smaller form factor (just 10mm square), the way they do for Apple and Samsung.

"We're reducing the barrier to get into programmable SoCs," said Gagan Luthra from Cypress. "It used to be you needed software that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars; our software is free and the kits are compatible with Arduino. You can start with Arduino and move over [to a finished product]."

And if you're looking for more interesting components to build into those products, Texas Instruments - which has a huge library of licences for technology from energy harvesting to polymers that can act as both touch sensors and speakers (think flat keyboards that bump up under your fingers and give a familiar click as you type) - is going to be offering them for its $13 Launchpad board. It has forked Arduino and has an online IDE based on Cloud 9 that lets you run multiple tasks, bringing Arduino a little closer to a real-time operating system, but the really interesting thing is the way developers will get access to the company's treasure chest of components at pretty low prices. For example, the $30 Sensortag board has multiple sensors, runs on a coin battery for a year and comes with the files you need to 3D print a case for it.

Maker boards have always been about making hardware accessible to software developers. But this new generation makes building finished products, rather than just projects, with these boards a lot easier too.

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