7 Nov 2007 steve   » (Master)

I went to the Austin Maker Faire October 19-21. I've been promising various people I'd write about it for a while but events have conspired to prevent it until now. The short version is that it was fun, interesting, worth the trip, and I'll be returning next year. It was interesting to compare this to my Marfa trip a couple of weeks ago for the Chinati Open House art festival. I'm even more convinced of a growing convergence between DIY/homebrew technology geeks and artists. I even ran into a guy in the Maker Store wearing a Chinati 2007 T-shirt, so there were at least two of us who attended both events and probably more.

I drove down to Austin from Dallas and stayed in a Holiday Inn Express. Despite having four lamps, my hotel room was strangely dim. Rather than complain, I tried to get into the spirit of the Maker Faire by driving to a nearby Home Depot and purchasing a box of 100 Watt light bulbs, which I used to upgrade all the lamps. While hanging around the hotel, I met a cat in the hotel parking lot. The hotel's main entrance had automatic doors which relied on motion sensors. The cat had learned that it could enter the hotel any time it wanted by walking up to the doors. It frequently walked into the lobby, where it caged treats off the hotel guests. The daytime hotel clerks chased the cat away but I noticed the nightshift guy feeding and playing with the little cat.

Susan wasn't able to go with me. Actually, I think she was afraid it was just going to be another boring robot event. She's patiently attended more than her share of robot-related events. It's always more interesting to view art and technology when you can share the experience with someone. Fortunately I met Alix, a local Austin blogger, and we hung out together during the Maker Faire. Hopefully she enjoyed it as much as I did.

Maker Faire was too full of interesting experiences to describe them all in a short blog entry. Maybe I can get across the general idea. Unlike most conferences, fairs, and similar events, people attending the Maker Faire are not idle spectators. Participation is allowed or even required for nearly everything there. If there's a ride, you can bet you'll have to pedal. If you buy an electronics kit, you'll be provided with tools, test equipment and space to assemble it. Stand too close to the girl building synth gear out of salvaged medical equipment and she'll put you to work disassembling equipment. If you go to the Swap-O-Rama to trade clothes, you'll be cutting, sewing, and silk-screening them yourself, with expert help if needed. Maker Faire is very much a DIY event in every sense.

There are a few exceptions. You'll have to keep your distance from noisy machines belching flame and sparks, for example. And while you may be asked to help turn the cranks to hoist the 4,000 lbs safe into the air during the execution of the Life-Size Mousetrap game, you'll have to stand behind the fence when it plummets to the ground with an impact that can be felt a hundred yards away.

Everywhere you look at Makers Faire you'll see interesting people who are always willing to stop and explain how their creation works, how they made it, why they made it, who did their tattoos, or answer any other question you might have for them.

I suppose I should at least give you a quick sampling of the things you might see at a Makers Faire: art cars, dirty art cars, biped robots, robots on wheels, robotic toys, robot art, robots that make art, cute girls who drive all the way from Iowa to show off the art-making robots they built, strange musical instruments, stranger musical instruments, tesla coils, tesla coils that are musical instruments, drummers who knit, free-roaming ferris wheels, working medeviel siege weapons, strange fire-breathing machines, homebrew supercomputers, stirling engines, fur-bearing dinosaurs, girls with tattoos, girls with hula hoops, girls with 5-inch plastic heels, the amazing mouse girl, the cigarette-smoking bee girl, scary insectoid robotic things, Dalek pumpkins, photovores, things that spin around until you get dizzy (unless it snaps your feet off like twigs first), things that I don't even know what they are but if you pump them full of gas, pressurize them, and apply high voltage, they glow purple. And I should point out that I hardly saw half of what was there. For more weird stuff, check out my Maker Faire flickr gallery.

Those who got tired of looking at mind-blowingly strange things could stop to listen to mind-blowingly strange music playing on any one of the three stages. There were also several talks and tutorials going on at any given time. Wendy Tremayne, the founder of the Swap-O-Rama, gave an interesting talk entitled The Maker as Revolutionary. For me that talk tied together some of the loose threads between art, DIY geeks, and the free software movement that I'd been pondering since my trip to Marfa.

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