PALO ALTO, Calif.--Since 2006, Maker Faire has offered tens of thousands of people an annual celebration of the best and brightest in the do-it-yourself movement.
But while everyone from individual tinkerers who have built small rockets to two people doing amazing things with Diet Coke and Mentos to paper airplane masters and crafters making magic out of felt has had a venue for the last five years to showcase their innovative projects, there's never been a forum for the growing number of people and companies that are developing the new business platforms that are merging manufacturing and making. Until now.
Over the last two days, several hundred of the people behind many of the most impressive businesses to emerge from the maker movement, as well as investors and those interested in the future of digital hardware came together at the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) here for the inaugural Hardware Innovation Workshop. Billed as a both an "inspired conversation and curated tour of the unique culture, enabling technologies, and innovations of the maker movement" and a "hands-on showcase of compelling devices, products, and platforms that are shaping the future of manufacturing and the global economy," the event -- put on by Make magazine and Maker Faire -- was the likely beginning of a new ecosystem that will tie many of these companies and people together for years to come, and which could help impact the development of entire new industries and businesses.
Featuring keynote addresses by people like Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, Local Motors CEO Jay Rogers, Arduino co-founder Massimo Banzi, and Adafruit Industries co-founders Limor Fried and Phillip Torrone, the event gave those in attendance an intense look at what has worked for some of the most high-profile companies in the field.
And while some on hand worried that the event was too much preaching to the choir -- in the sense that most people there already knew each other and worked together in some fashion -- it seems clear that the event will likely be just the first step in a focused attempt to build a new community around the blossoming ecosystem.
Also speaking -- and sharing their wisdom -- were Nathan Seidle, CEO of SparkFun Electronics, John Dimatos of MakerBot Industries, Greg Borenstein, author of "Making Things See: 3D Vision with Kinect," Eric Gradman of Monkeys & Robots, Ayah Bdeir, founder of littleBits, and many others. Tim O'Reilly, the CEO of O'Reilly Media, which publishes Make magazine, and Dale Dougherty, founder and publisher of Make, also spoke, as did Steve Hoover, CEO of PARC in a welcome address.
Another element of the event was a showcase of 23 companies (and their products) in the maker movement. Their wares ranged from a fold-up kayak to a working tricorder to multiple consumer-friendly 3D printers, and much more:
Gradman, who is part of the Los Angeles-based Syyn Labs -- which produces multimedia projects for clients like OK Go, DieHard batteries, Google, and others -- was on hand showing off his own effort, Monkeys & Robots, through which he builds "hardware prototypes that make others see technology as magic." One of the technologies Gradman brought with him was the Bracelink, a prototype bracelet that allows the wearer to get instant alerts when they receive anything from new Twitter @-replies to Facebook messages, or when they want to check in somewhere on Foursquare. The bracelet features buttons that can be configured to connect to a wide variety of Internet-based services, and it connects via Bluetooth to a smartphone and an app.
Another interesting item on display was Tim Malcolm's eChanter, an electronic bagpipe. Designed to work through capacitive touch, the device plays bagpipe music -- thankfully, through earphones -- that is played by touching small screws on what looks like a flute. Built on an Arduino platform, the device is entirely open source, costs less than $50 to make, and was Malcolm's first attempt at building an open source hardware project.
Although not exactly a digital project -- at least in its final implementation -- Anton Willis' Oru Kayak is a terrific example of how technology can impact non-technical products. The Oru Kayak is essentially a folding kayak that weighs just 20 pounds, can be folded in just five minutes, and costs about $500. The idea is that someone could put their kayak in the trunk of their car, or even on their back and hike to lakes they'd never be able to get a normal kayak to.
For his part, inspired by the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, Peter Jansen built a working tricorder that is designed with a range of built-in sensors and that can give a user instant information on atmospheric, electromagnetic, and spatial dynamics around them. Among other things, it gives data on things like magnetic fields, light, distance, temperature, and more, and can even tell you what pocket someone's iPhone is in. Jansen said he built the device -- which is currently in a fairly rough form -- because he wanted to do something about the fact that there's "so much you can't directly sense with your senses. I really want us to be able to see them as intuitively and as naturally as colors. I want to put them in the hands of kids, and I want to see kids with a basic conceptual knowledge of science."