Hackerspaces at Maker Faire Show and Tell How to Build a Better Detroit

8/2/10

Nate Bezanson sits at a table beneath the i3Detroit hackerspace tent at last weekend’s Detroit Maker Faire in Dearborn, MI. In front of him are two flashlights—one labeled “stock” and the other labeled “hacked.”

The “stock” flashlight is your normal store-bought halogen model, the “hacked” one looks very much like it’s been, well, hacked to pieces and then put back together. Instead of the normal bulb, this one features LEDs.

“I’m not a big fan of the incandescent bulb,” says Bezanson. “It’s been around for a century and it hasn’t done us any favors.”

Bezanson has this simple display in front of him for two reasons.

First, he really is fascinated by LEDs and their possibilities for the future. “I’m building lights you can’t get commercially,” he says. “It’s a lot of fun.”

The second reason, though, gets at the heart of what hackerspaces like i3Detroit are trying to accomplish—to spark the imagination of people who might at first be intimidated by the whole “maker” culture that’s burgeoning around Detroit. Flashlights are easy to understand, so adding LEDs are relatively easy, Bezanson says. You simply need to know how to connect a few wires and put the thing together. So, within that, you can get creative and “the sky’s the limit as far as what shape you want the light to be. It’s an easy thing for people to get into.”

Plus, you have a friend or someone else in your hackerspace who is a designer? An artist? Let them have a go at a new flashlight design. The result is a final product that is new, brighter, cleaner, and something that nobody else has created before. See? It’s easy to become a maker.

Representatives of Detroit-area hackerspaces came out in force for the Maker Faire, sponsored by O’Reilly Media’s MAKE Magazine. Most of them will tell you that their main mission is education and outreach to the community. These are not introverted geeks who just like to be alone with their toys. They recognize that they are part of a larger movement of hope for an improved entrepreneurial culture of inventors—one that holds the best chance of rescuing the city they love.

It’s why Bezanson first got together with some like-minded friends at a coffee shop a little more than a year ago. He had all the stuff he needed in his own garage to tinker to his heart’s content. But something was missing.

“Even if you have all the same tools in your own garage, what you have here is the social aspect,” Bezanson says. “People to talk to, to show off to, to bounce ideas off of. No matter what skill level you are, there’s someone you can teach stuff to and someone who can teach you stuff.”

Bezanson places the appeal of the hackerspace into three main categories. Eighty percent of it is simply tool sharing. I’ll use your table saw and you can use my welding equipment. You get to the “90 percent level of understanding,” he says, and you see the excitement building, “a lot of passion, and let’s do classes, let’s teach each other, let’s teach the general public, let’s show off and have fun and play around with this stuff.”

What’s that final 10 percent? Benanson gets a little gleam in his eye. “There’s an element to it that you just can’t explain, that you feel as soon as you walk into the space. You start to feel the possibilities turning over in your head.” You just have to experience it to understand it, he says.

The “maker” movement has reached far beyond the level of garage tinkerer, and large corporations are beginning to see the wisdom of allowing this type of experimentation and collaboration. Ford Motor recently announced it is launching a maker space with Silicon Valley-based TechShop. But, just to illustrate the remaining gulf between the cultures, Ford late last week was not yet ready to tell me where the physical space will be located because they were giving it a “final evaluation.” A TechShop representative I approached at Maker Faire on Sunday laughed a little when he heard this, and told me where exactly it will be: 800 Republic Drive, in Allen Park, MI, near Dearborn.

It’s the old, top-down automotive culture that Andrew Sliwinski, a cofounder of hackerspace OmniCorp Detroit, is working against. OmniCorp, which just opened up 7,500 square feet of workshop space in the Eastern Market section of Detroit, does not have a hierarchical structure. “We do things based on passion,” Sliwinski says. And a lot of that passion involves not just getting together to make things, but focusing on reaching out to young people and others with an interest in technology.

At Maker Faire, Sliwinski is instructing a young boy on the art of “circuit bending,” or experimental short-circuiting of low-power electronic devices to create new “bent” sounds. The circuit-bending music provides a background soundtrack to our interview.

I ask him what it is about Detroit, right now, that has prompted a hackerspace movement.

“I think the biggest thing about Detroit, and ‘making’ in general, is just the availability of parts, the availability of tools and the availability of people with really diverse, crazy skillsets that are kind of catered to making things,” he says.

Bezanson, of i3Detroit, believes that these kinds of collaborations have been in the works for at least 10 years, but until the recent national hackerspace explosion happened, nobody really knew what to do with it, or even what to call it.

“It’s always been the right place,” Bezanson says. “It just hasn’t been the right time. Everyone I’ve talked to has wanted precisely this for at least a decade. And it’s just now coming together.”

To Sliwinski, it’s about not speaking in absolutes regarding what direction technology and entrepreneurship in Detroit should go. It’s about being flexible, open and, most important, “engaged” with what is happening at the grass-roots level.

Wandering around i3Detroit members’ projects at Maker Faire, it’s easy to see what he means. One member built an open-source remote control quadcopter. Another has a “Steampunked, RFID-driven globe and tablet PC.” The Steampunk parts of it, I suppose, were the Victorian-style goggles the inventor wore, and the old-fashioned looking globe he used. Stick a tag anywhere on the globe, and a Google map of the area pops up on the tablet.

And, yes, Steampunk style was in abundance at the Maker Faire. In a way, it fits in with the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, where you are surrounded by the spirit of past inventions, ones that eventually evolved into today’s automobiles. However, Steampunk is also, in the words of one of the Maker Faire peddlers selling $100 Steampunk-style goggles, nostalgia for a “time that never was and [you] wish there had been.”

As much as I enjoy the kitschy fantasy of Steampunk, I personally reveled in what is really happening today in terms of using available technology and tools to create experimental contraptions. While they may or may not have practical use, these machines still show that entrepreneurship is alive and well—and has a future— in Detroit.

For example, I met Harish Chander, an 11-year-old boy going into the sixth grade in Canton, MI. He built an automatic toilet roll dispenser using parts he raided from his own toy box, including sensors from a Lego Mindstorms kit. But that’s only the beginning, he told me. When he grows up, he wants to be a pediatric oncologist. So, his next project is a medical robot.

“I’ve already started the medical robot,” Chander says. “But I had to break it apart to build this [he points to his toilet paper dispenser]. It has four-wheel drive, carries a first-aid kit and follows the nurse.”

Steampunk, hell. I’ll bet my money on this 11-year-old punk who just might change the real world. Like Bezanson’s hacked LED flashlight, Chander, too, used the available materials of his own time, hacked together from his own toy box.

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