Chattanooga’s Mini Maker Faire Celebrates the Inner Geek
What the heck is a Maker Faire?
I’d call it the blissfully happy marriage of geekdom, shop class, the arts, and good old-fashioned crafts. This union was blessed with children and grandchildren who grew up to be all those single things—geek, artist, crafter, etc.— but also funky hybrids like a welder who makes art bikes, a geek who writes computer code that powers interactive (but not stuffy) art installations, a graphic designer that makes authentic R2-D2 replicas, or a librarian that makes pocket-sized web servers. Maker Faire is this bunch’s family reunion.
And don’t forget the robots. As surely as night follows day and seven dwarves follow Snow White, it wouldn’t be Maker Faire without robot battles.
Chattanooga’s first Mini Maker Faire is Oct. 11 at First Tennessee Pavilion. I got a preview from the Faire-Maker-in-Chief, Graham Bredemeyer. (Full disclosure: That’s a made-up title. Graham did not call himself that.)
Bredemeyer was a 3D printing technology consultant for last summer’s Gig Tank. He also works remotely for Shapeways, a national 3D printing service bureau. As director of Maker Faire, he led the team that recruited 60 interactive exhibits.
“It’s everything from glass art and metal pouring to micro controller projects, like drones and R2-D2,” he says. “We cover the full spectrum of making, from arts and craft to technical development. Anything you can create from nothing or from pieces of something else.”
The spectrum is so broad that it’s hard to define, but he says, “The key thing that Maker Faire tries to hone in on is the fact that you have a connection with the things you make and you’re sharing that with people. It’s about sharing, not about buying. That doesn’t necessarily mean sharing goods. It can be, but it’s more about sharing knowledge and passion.”
Maker Faire is part of Chattanooga Startup Week, he says, because, “The more people feel like they can make, the more people will make. And the more people make, the more they might eventually want to start businesses with things they’re making.”
Here are a few of the makers and projects that will be at Maker Faire.
R2-D2 Builders Club
If you’ve ever heard of “Star Wars,” you have a pretty good idea what this international group does. It was created in 1999 as a Yahoo group by an Australian who wanted a way to collaborate and share ideas about this specialized and sometimes very technical hobby.
“We share ideas, sometimes put together part runs within the group of any individual piece,” says local member Dan Baker. “There are people who are focused more on the building of the prop itself as an art piece. We have actual engineers, actors, programmers. Some people build robots to have fun with or because they like the character. Others build them as a platform to program robots with.”
Although there is a faction of the group working on making the Artoo autonomous, most are directly controlled by an operator using a model aircraft controller. Baker can operate his from as far as a quarter mile away but always keeps it in sight.
“That lets us inject a little bit of personality,” he says. “We get to take what we know of the character of R2-D2 and not just drive him like a remote-controlled car but play and interact with the crowd as we think R2-D2 would.”
Baker says people usually want to know four questions.
What’s it made of? “Our droids are made out of everything from plastic to wood to all aluminum.”
How much does it cost? “Depending on what it’s made out of and how much you have it do—how many gadgets pop out—it can range anywhere from $2,000 to $35,000.”
Where can I buy one? “These are all scratch built. We’re not allowed to sell them. The R2-D2 Builders Club is a group that facilitates people building their own droids.”
How long did it take to make? “My droid is completely scratch built from nothing. It took me about four years, from 2006 to 2010.”
Is that a library in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?
How cool would it be if you could make your own web server? And if it were smaller than a cell phone so you could take it anywhere? And it had its own power source and wireless broadcast capability?
That’s what Jason Griffey has done. At Maker Faire, he will show how to make Library Box, a 3-inch-by-2-1/2-inch box that’s about 3/4 inches thick. It’s essentially a wi-fi transmitter. Plug a thumb drive into the side, and whatever content you have on the thumb drive can be downloaded by anyone within 100-150 feet of you.
“It’s like an island that doesn’t connect to the broader Internet,” says Griffey, a technology consultant for libraries across the country. “It allows you to share things privately in what I call a hyper-local fashion. The original idea was a tool for libraries to get out of their buildings and still proved digital files in areas that don’t have good Internet access.”
The lineage of the project is very open source, very “maker.” The original software code was a battery-powered server called Pirate Box created by NYU art professor David Darts as an artistic critique of copyright law. Anyone could connect to the server and upload or download anything they wanted outside the control of copyright law. Griffey saw the potential for libraries.
“In the build recipe on the web site there are links directly to all of the hardware you need,” says Griffey. “It’s all open source. It’s all designed so you can build one yourself if you want for about $60. If you can bake a cake this is much easier than that.”
He says the hardware will run about $60 and 20 minutes to assemble. He’ll also sell a ready-to-use unit for $150.
The two-year-old Library Box project has gotten a lot of attention. Griffey’s 2013 Kickstarter campaign was funded at 1,000 percent of his goal, and helped him receive a Knight Foundation grant this year that has paid for code upgrades and the addition of automatic translation software for 12 languages.
On his website, he asks people who build or buy a Library Box to put a dot on a map for their location. He recently counted 27 states, 28 countries, and six continents.
“Two years ago, I couldn’t have imagined it was going to spread that rapidly,” he says. “It’s a pretty humbling thing for me to see exactly where and how many people have been interested in this thing.”
A 10-foot flame and thou beside me, pedaling hard
Kate Warren is the poster child for the intricate web of connections among the many types of things one can make. As the director of nonprofit Art 120, she does relatively normal things like work with school kids who don’t have art in their classrooms, teaching them marketable skills like welding in the course of customizing old bicycles to look like ladybugs and butterflies.
Turns out it’s a slippery slope from making art bikes to making a fire tornado.
What, you might ask, is a fire tornado? Don’t try this at home, kids, but Warren and an elite crew of trained professionals—seriously—have devised a bike-powered interactive flame sculpture for Maker Faire.
Imagine a flame source at the bottom of an 10-foot tall mesh cylinder. The cylinder rests on a turntable, which is powered by bicycles. When the flame is lit, it’s 6-to-12 inches high. But once the bikes start powering the turntable, the rotating mesh cylinder moves the air mass inside it, creating a vortex that stretches the flame as tall as the cylinder.
The fire tornado will be outside the back of the First Tennessee Pavilion, right past the battling robot arena. Visitors at the front of the pavilion will be greeted by an Art Bike Rodeo, featuring bikes modified by 18 kids from the Bethlehem Center who participated in a summer program, and the Swing Bike, a double bike with a swing in the middle.
The Water Assault Bike—it launches water balloons off the back—also will be there for the next installment of the Flying Donut Incident.
While teachers were building the Water Assault Bike in a training workshop, they watched as the now-famous donut mural was painted on the wall of Koch’s Bakery on Broad Street and then became embroiled in a sign ordinance controversy.
“We thought if the Battle of Chickamauga can have a mural to commemorate it, then maybe this donut mural needs a battle” to give it legitimacy, says Warren. For the most recent Parking Day, and again for GoFest, bike provocateurs riding the Water Assault Bike instigated the Flying Donut Incident, launching rubber donuts at the crowd instead of water balloons. Since most of the donuts were dog toys, there was some canine fetching involved, too.