Worlds delightfully collide at Maker Faire

At the DIY bacchanalia, a reporter finds all his professional and social worlds coming together. Photos: Tech makes magic at Maker FairePhotos: Reinventing the (hamster) wheel
Written by Daniel Terdiman, Contributor
SAN MATEO, Calif.--I'm standing in the turret of the Neverwas Haul, a self-propelled, steam-powered three-story Victorian house on wheels. And I couldn't be happier.

In part that's because the Neverwas Haul, a truly stunning example of artistry and engineering, was one of the most talked-about pieces at Burning Man 2006, and I never got a chance to go inside it there.

But it's also because this odd contraption is the first thing I've gone to see at this year's Maker Faire, the two-day celebration of do-it-yourself engineering, hacking, crafting and oddball science that is happening all weekend here, not far south of San Francisco.

And as I look out the window of the Neverwas Haul, I see so much more to make me happy: just across the path I see the display by the Flaming Lotus Girls, a troupe of men and women that for years has been making incredible fire art sculptures for Burning Man and other events. Beyond that is the track for the Power Tool Drag Races, a crazy and not-altogether-safe exhibition of just how fast a power saw or sander can go if properly motivated.

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In fact, for me, Maker Faire is the nexus of just about everything I'm interested in, both personally and professionally. And I'll be honest. I'm in the fortunate position that so much of what I'm interested in personally is what I get to write about professionally.

I write about Burning Man and its art and community. On display in spades. I write about Lego. Check. Survival Research Labs? Yup. Second Life? Uh-huh. Do-it-yourself hacking? For God's sake, that's what this whole festival is about. And my friends and people that I work with and have worked with in the past? They're everywhere.

I remember that last year, when I was covering Maker Faire, I felt like it was hard to get any work done because I couldn't go more than 10 feet without running into someone I knew. So this time I decided to see if that would be true again.

Well, it was. It took all of seven minutes from when I walked in the gates before I ran into someone I knew. And then there were five or six people in a row.

By the time I'd left hours later, I'd run into 34 friends and co-workers, including people who I've gotten to know over the years by writing about them or their work. Average it out over the number of hours I was at Maker Faire Saturday, and sure enough, it was hard to get anything done.

But I persevered and pushed forward, trying to find things to write about.

'Robots, hackers and fire'
Holy cow. Where does one start at Maker Faire? As far as the eye can see, there's cool, crazy things going on, and there's just no way one person could experience it all in an entire weekend, let alone one day.

"Robots, hackers and fire, oh my," is how Andy Baio, who founded Upcoming.org and later sold it to Yahoo, and who blogs at Waxy.org, put it.

Reinventing the (hamster) wheel

And my friend Frank Bonita--who was visiting Maker Faire with his wife, Marilyn, on their 20th wedding anniversary, put it even better: "This (whole thing) is a master's degree in technology in a box."

Sure enough.

I look over at one point and I notice that Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine and the author of the hit book The Long Tail, is demonstrating a GPS-enabled model airplane he made with his kids using a Lego Mindstorms base. And Anderson looked like just any other exhibitor here.

He was talking about flying his plane--and another one like it--around urban areas, using the camera mounted on its underside to take video of the surroundings. And in this post-September 11 era, the obvious question is whether this type of DIY aerial robotics activity is legal.

"It's ridiculous to crack down on people weaponizing Lego," Anderson said. "If they want to come after me for weaponizing Lego, they're welcome to. But that would make a great story for Wired."

Nearby, I wandered into an Airstream trailer, inside of which a bunch of people were happily playing pinball.

This was the "Lil JuJu" Mobile Pinball Museum, a traveling celebration of the iconic arcade game. Its creator, Michael Schiess, was on hand to show it off and promote the Neptune Beach Amusement Museum, a proposed pinball museum that would be opened in Alameda, Calif.

A table finally opened up, and I played a quick game of Gottleib's 2001, a very old pinball machine. I scored 2,523 points, which I am certain was in the bottom 1 percent of players Saturday. Yet I walked away grinning.

Later, I happened upon the "3D sugar printer," a contraption that builds 3D models made out of pure sugar. On display were an 8-pound mobius strip, a slightly smaller wood screw and several dodecahedrons. All made of pure sugar.

Why would someone build a device to do such things? Why not? That's the beauty of Maker Faire.

Nor is there much explanation for Mitch Altman's brain wave synchronizer, a pair of glasses a friend told me to put on that has a couple of LEDs in the middle of the lenses linked to a little computer. I closed my eyes, and for several minutes, the LEDs flashed in various sequences, filling my mind with exploding images.

My friend said it was just like being on acid. And while I have no comment about that, I can definitely say that it felt like I was having hallucinations. Good ones.

Soon, it was time to leave. I was tired, hungry, dehydrated, and I still had to come home and write.

I walked out of the gates and headed back to my car. I got in and began to drive toward the exit.

But then I had to turn around. I'd seen another friend, No. 35, walking to his car and I had to say hi.

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