Most of us are complacent. We accept things the way they come, without question, and we prefer our gadgets to remain intact and under warranty. With each new toy that finds its way into our homes or, dearer still, our pockets, the focus is on what it does or, more importantly, what it can do for you. But for others, innovation is not to be collected or consumed – it's to be explored. These are the types whose first instinct after using new technology is to take it apart, driven by a compulsion and motivated by sincere curiosity to find out: How. Does. It. Work. These are the makers. And they're assembling their latest toys and technologies to showcase at Orlando's first-ever Mini Maker Faire.
On Saturday, May 26, walking around the Central Florida Fairgrounds will be somewhat akin to wandering onto the pages of Wired magazine. Close to 100 exhibitors, the vast majority from Orlando, will display gadgets and creations that form the pulse of a certain sector of geek culture, ranging from robotics to kinetic sculptures, constructed from the kind of odds and ends you'd find at SkyCraft Parts & Surplus.
The original Maker Faire was put together in San Mateo, Calif., by the people behind Make magazine, who advertised it as “The Greatest Show (and Tell) on Earth.” That element of “telling” will not be lost at the Orlando Mini Maker Faire, as one of the community event's organizers, Ian Cole, explains:
“It's a hands-on operation,” Cole says about the way the show will be presented on Saturday. “We've actually turned away people who only want to show and who don't want to explain their craft. Actually what makes Maker Faire what it is, is when I took my son to the one out West, he could ask anything of anyone, and nobody treated him like a kid. They're all there to talk about the process, to go through it, which means it's not just that there's art and science and technology and craft, it's kind of about understanding how they bump up against each other.”
Cole is one of nine organizers who petitioned Make tirelessly to allow their version of the event to take place in Orlando. Make that 10 organizers, if you count Cole's 12-year-old son Adam, who is as big a part of Orlando's maker community as his tinkering father. All of the organizers met through a local “hackerspace” called FamiLAB in Longwood and include: Dave Casey, Jen Casey, Ian Cole, Tom Long, Amber Whitmer, Aaron Cunningham, Mack Hooper, Matt Armstrong and John Soucy.
So what, exactly, is a hackerspace? It's a community lab where makers meet to collaborate, build and socialize, working toward the common goal of creating and learning. They can be found in many major cities, and not surprisingly, many of the members who discovered FamiLAB did so by actively searching online for a hackerspace in the Orlando area. What they found does not disappoint: a 4,000-square-foot open workshop, filled (but not cluttered) with tools, computers, lasers, electronics, cable and, of course, electrical tape. Lots of electrical tape.
“I try to stress at FamiLAB that it's OK to go and learn by yourself, but you also have the opportunity to draw from the skill sets of different people and put them together to make something better,” says Mack Hooper, one of FamiLAB's founding members.
In one corner of the lab, you'll find 16-year-old Liam Starkweather laying out his plans for a strandbeest (a self-propelling “animal” that walks along the beach) built from PVC pipes. At the other end, college student and artist John Bent Cope explains the code he's written for his own booth at the weekend's show, where he'll display his original drawbot, a robotic graffiti artist. Along the back wall are multiple 3-D printers where, at the moment, strings of plastic are being transformed into cat toys. In between are workstations, transportable cabinets and lockers. Each member of FamiLAB gets a free membership card that grants that person 24-hour access to the facility, which Cole describes as kind of like a gym membership, only with tools.
Perhaps the grandest thing to come out of FamiLAB so far, though, is the Orlando Mini Maker Faire itself, which is being touted as a family-friendly celebration of DIY science, technology, rockets, robotics, crafts and music. All day, showgoers will be treated to air-conditioned exhibitions, educational talks, hands-on workshops, live music and even a power racing car event, pitting maker against maker on the track. And in the spirit of the fair, questions are more than just welcomed, they are encouraged.
“Just an example: I went up to the Hoverfly office, and they got out all their toys and we played,” Cole says about one maker who will be displaying on Saturday. “Those are the types of booths that excite me, because those people are going to come out from behind the desk and have a really amazing experience showing what they know.”
Most of the original makers added to the fair were obvious choices that the FamiLAB crew had encountered over time through shared interests and networking. But Cole also came across an alternative method of discovering new talents, by tailoring his searches on the popular DIY community Etsy. By looking for vendors in his area under the category “Geekery,” Cole uncovered the buried whimsies of some of Orlando's crafty elite, many of whom you'll see showing and selling at the event. Some you may even recognize from other community events, like circuit-bent instrument builder Max Schwartz (aka Dr. Moonstien), whose work has been featured at Urban ReThink, Grandma Party Bazaar and countless shows around town.
The term “maker” at this point may seem too general for those who are still struggling to understand what to expect this Saturday. Any creative could be viewed as a maker, but the distinction that Cole and all the makers want to communicate is that a maker doesn't simply invent or create. A good maker takes the time to educate himself or herself on every aspect of the creative process, often including complicated mathematics, physics, science or other studies, resulting in two outcomes: innovation and education. For most makers, the education is the true addiction.
“I think you'll find that, like most of us, I have to take a thing apart to find out how does it work, the ‘why is it,'” Cole says. “Even today, I tend to learn my way through hobbies – and then, of course, it's time to move on to the next thing.”
The Orlando Mini Maker Faire promises a wide range of experiences for those who are brave enough to give in to their fascinations and pry into the how and why of what they're seeing. Makers come in all different ages, with different levels of education and experience, but what's interesting to note is that these all come from Florida, meaning all of this innovation will continue to thrive within the local community and the state. For a complete list of makers, visit orlando minimakerfaire.com/makers. Below, find a small sample of the many makers who will be attending and showcasing this Saturday.
Artists and Scientists
Monster Art Studio
WHO: Jeff Riggan, artist, perhaps best recognized as the muralist for Tijuana Flats
WHAT: Artist Jeff Riggan will be showing his skills in body paint at the Maker Faire while also displaying and selling needle-felt dolls similar in style and character to the murals familiar to most Floridians from Tijuana Flats restaurants. Riggan is responsible for the wall art in 30 different Tijuana Flats locations.
WHO: Brian Johnson, creator of Johnson Arms
WHAT: Nerf guns are fun, but they aren't always very stylish. Johnson Arms specializes in customized Nerf guns, as in: Imagine your favorite weapon from a movie or video game, and artist Brian Johnson can create the Nerf version for you. View all his customizations at johnsonarms.wordpress.com.
WHO: Astronomy-based technology developers
WHAT: Procyon Systems is currently concluding construction on the Kissimmee Park Observatory, where they will offer opportunities for casual astronomers to observe and study the night sky. At the fair, Procyon will be displaying their 18-inch Newtonian reflecting telescope as well as demonstrating their Sky Sentinel Drive system, which allows astronomers to automatically locate any celestial object.
WHO: Justin Peterson and Lee Bretschneider, graphic novelists and creators of Very Near Mint
WHERE: Orlando; Tallahassee
WHAT: Adventuring Company is the combined effort of two artists who work together to create prints, T-shirts and, most notably, web comics. ComicBooked.com recognized their Kickstarter-funded graphic novel about two comic shop owners, Very Near Mint, as “Indie Comic of the Year.”
TagBot, the Spray Paint Photo Booth
WHO: John Bent Cope, “artist resident” at FamiLAB
WHAT: There are many executions of drawbots (robots that use markers or paint to recreate digital images), but what artist John Bent Cope envisioned was a TagBot, essentially a robotic graffiti artist. He posted a Kickstarter video to fund the project and garnered more than three times the amount he asked for. TagBot will debut at the Orlando Mini Maker Faire, but you can track the progress of Cope's creation at tagbot.tumblr.com.
Power Racing Series
WHO: Individuals and teams racing modified Power Wheels
WHAT: Disassembling the engines of the popular children's toy Power Wheels, individuals and teams reconstruct the vehicles to race against one another on the Power Racing Track at the Central Florida Fairgrounds. Teams are limited to four adults each, and no team may invest more than $500 in modifications. The race itself is more a demonstration of the teams' engineering feats than a competition.
WHO: Asher Adams, Boy Scout working on his Inventing Merit Badge
WHAT: Motivated to earn the Inventing Merit Badge and possessed of a knack for musical engineering, Boy Scout Asher Adams will display a custom-built xylophone made out of 3-inch PVC pipe. Diligently absorbing the mathematics necessary to get the tones and pitch correct to execute his creation, Adams' project goes beyond trial and error and extends into skilled craftsmanship. You can see a preview video on the Orlando Mini Maker Faire website.
WHO: Jamie Cunningham, software developer and musician
WHAT: Jamie Cunningham is a dug-in hobbyist with diverse interests in metalworking, woodworking, electronics and more from his home workshop. He will exhibit a selection of his creations and be on hand to discuss how you can build out your dream backyard workshop.
WHO: Christine Betow Seerveld, creator of metal art and mathematician
WHAT: Blending her passions for nature, structure and geometry, this Orlando newcomer will be displaying “Propolis,” a sculpture/lighting installation comprised of lit-up hexagons originally created for Burning Man and inspired by the fire installations Seerveld experienced there.
WHO: Students in the robotics program at Lyman High School
WHAT: This savvy team of high- schoolers will be displaying and explaining their latest robotic creations, including athletic robots who can bowl and even play basketball. The team has shown previously at Otronicon and regularly enters their designs and builds into competitions to successful results.