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Glory in the garage inventions of Maker Faire

Christian Ristow brought his 12-foot mechanical art exhibit "Face Forward" to this year's Maker Faire. "We have an interesting musculature in our faces that serves no other purpose than communication," he said. Ristow's piece took three months to build, and has 12 different facial features that can be controlled individually by users with joysticks.

matthew braga The Globe and Mail

As a part of the concept handset group at Research In Motion Ltd., James Bastow says he's used to seeing innovation. But every few months, he looks forward to innovation of a different sort.

Both Mr. Bastow, and friend Agnes Niewiadomski, live in Kitchener-Waterloo – Bastow as the co-founder and director of local-area hackerspace called Kwartzlab, and Ms. Niewiadomski as the space's most recent artist in residence. But the pair spent last weekend on the west coast, just south of San Francisco, at the Bay Area Maker Faire instead.

It was Ms. Niewiadomski's seventh, and Mr. Bastow's eighth visit to Maker Faires across the country, including past events in Detroit, New York and so-called Mini Maker Faires here in Canada.

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Now in its seventh year, the Bay Area Maker Faire is one of North America's biggest mad science fair and exhibition, attracting over 100,000 attendees in previous years for a weekend of technology, art, crafting and more. The sheer number of exhibits is almost overwhelming – but that scope is exactly what makes the event so unique.

"I was expecting sort of the same thing every time, but there's always something new," Mr. Bastow said. "And it just keeps bringing us back."

The event was spawned out of the so-called maker movement of DIY technology enthusiasts – programmers and hardware engineers like Mr. Bastow with an interest in building new and exciting things from new or repurposed parts, and sharing their results with the community at large to be remixed and improved.

"It's amazing what people can do with limited resources and a lot of creativity in their backyards," he explains.

Case in point, one of Maker Faire's most popular attractions – a 360° rotational flight simulator, modeled after a ship from the popular television series Battlestar Galactica called The Viper – was designed and built by a group of high school students in a garage.

Team members John Boyer, Alex Jacobson, Joseph DeRose, Sam Frank, and Sam DeRose have been working on the project since last October, raising funds through Kickstarter and corporate sponsors, and were just one of many Young Makers exhibiting at the Faire.

"We worked with our parents and found mentors," explained Mr. Boyer. "But a lot of it was actually self-driven. We knew what the problem was, and wanted to find a solution ourselves."

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He says that anyone can build their own version of The Viper, assuming they have the time, skill and estimated $20,000 in parts. As with most Maker Faire projects, the team will be open sourcing all of the schematics and instructions for the vehicle online.

That same open source spirit is what has spurred the massive popularity of 3D printers in recent years. These devices, made by companies such as MakerBot Industries and 3D Systems, extrudes a spool of thin plastic through a computer-controlled heating element to make physical copies of virtual models. The designs for many of these printers are open source, which means that practically anyone can remix and build their own device. According to the Maker Faire blog, this year's expo featured 23 unique designs.

But the journey to Maker Faire is no small feat, a months long process that – in The Viper team's case – often sees projects prove successful mere days in advance. And of course, there is the challenge for organizers in combining what often appears to be a very diverse and disparate group of exhibits. Past the entrance to the San Mateo Event Center, there is a signpost. In one direction, an arrow points towards geysers of Coke and Mentos. In another, robots and 3D printers.

"It's an assault on the senses at first. There's so much going on," says James Bastow. "There's so much cool stuff. It's hard to describe, actually. And you can't really capture it with words and pictures and video – you have to be there."

Maker Faire was first founded by MAKE Magazine and publisher O'Reilly Media in California, where both are based, and has since been held in other cities across the U.S., including Detroit, New York City, and Austin, Texas. It is billed as "the greatest show (and tell) on Earth – a family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness."

However, its scope has since grown to include more than just MAKE's traditional audience of hardware hackers and software engineers.

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A brief walk through the event grounds reveals many things, from lock picking demonstrations to Frankenstein bikes with deformed wheels and elongated frames. Kids play with giant stackable boxes, like cardboard Lincoln Logs, while dragons, big and small, shoot flames from an endless supply of propane tanks. There are stations where visitors can learn to solder, giant Tesla Coils that play booming music with the power of electricity, and painstaking robotic recreations of R2-D2s and WALL-Es that roam the show floor.

A large tent in Maker Faire's west lot, meanwhile, houses artists and makers selling everything from quirky t-shirts to artisanal soaps in the shape of food. At Kwartzlab, Ms. Niewiadomski makes fake plants from laser-cut felt, and so she talks with other makers about their designs.

"It's actually the perfect faire for both of us, because we go together, but we go see different things," Ms. Niewiadomski says. "I tend to gravitate towards the arts and crafts stuff, but I do take a look at all of the engineering stuff as well."

Mythbusters star Adam Savage believes that the popularity of these Faires indicate a generational shift back to making – one where kids, and even adults, have unprecedented access to the tools and technologies required to make their wildest imaginations a reality, be it a functional Star Wars droid or a replica Iron Man suit.

On the festival's second day, Mr. Savage. gave a talk in which he praised the social and educational value of the event. Mr. Savage told the story of a Raiders of the Lost Ark fan named Marc Kitter, who taught himself millinery – the art of hat-making – in order to produce an exact copy of Harrison Ford's iconic hat, and eventually sold his reproductions back to George Lucas for use in the fourth Indiana Jones film.

"So I hold this as kind of a manifesto. It doesn't matter what you make, and it doesn't matter why. The importance is that you are making something," Mr. Savage told the crowd.

In the case of Mr. Kitter, his making paid off, turning him from mere fan into a Raiders authority.

Elsewhere on the Maker Faire grounds, Todd Barricklow busies himself with his fleet of old-timey bikes and human-powered kinetic vehicles. They're the type you might see in the late 1800s – large, with turn-of-the-century extravagance.

His group, the Fun Bike Unicorn Club, was formed in late 2010 as a loose collective of likeminded makers. But like many of Maker Faire's ever-growing roster of exhibitors, Mr. Barricklow doesn't have any technical training; keeping with the weekend's DIY ethos, he's self-taught and here to learn.

"I like to say I'm not an engineer," he says. "I'm just determined."

Here, in the shadow of an eight-foot bike based on a century-old design, Mr. Bastow's words ring true; it's amazing what determined people with limited resources and a lot of creativity can do in their backyards.

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