Meet Your Makers

By Christine Delsol

Adam Savage with his creation, Rabid Transit, at Maker Faire. (Becca Henry)

May 17: Maker Faire BayArea tickets start at $35, with weekend and special-access passes available. May 17–19, San Mateo County Event Center, 1346 Saratoga Dr., San Mateo.

In the 20th century, “maker” meant manufacturers, machines and divine beings. A few creative types, such as filmmakers and cabinetmakers, had their place, but the meaning of the word today has expanded by orders of magnitude — makers are children building villages out of cardboard, ladies making home-brewed kombucha, and tech heads designing such fantastical devices as a hovercraft time machine or virtual-reality sculpting tool. The springboard of the modern maker movement was the 2006 debut of Maker Faire, which has since spread to 44 countries with 200 local fairs.

Next month, it will return to its birthplace at the San Mateo County Event Center for its 14th run. Part county fair, part science exposition and part tech convention, it defies definition but guarantees an explosion of creativity and delightful surprises. “Most people have something [specific] they come to see,” says Sabrina Merlo, director of Maker Faire, “but they’ll find something they’ve never seen before.”

Although technology distinguishes Maker Faire from traditional crafts fairs, it’s about half family-oriented and half business and technology. Technology is just one tool among many; science, engineering, art, performance and crafts all play a part. Visitors to the 2018 fair, for example, found traditional bobbin lace, a Victorian-era harmonograph, paper airplanes, a balloon mural, animal sculptures formed with scrap metal and found materials, a city built of Legos and aboard game for the visually impaired.

But there were also telephone frequency detectors, interactive light sculptures, flying machines, geometrical circuit boards and solar-powered cars. Additionally, 3-D printers played a big role— producing jewelry, a tactile Rubik’s Cube and an interactive owl, to name a few. One of the stars in 2018 was Vancouver maker Jonathan Tippett’s “anti-robot” Prosthesis, a 14-foot-high exoskeleton piloted by ahuman whose arms, elbows, knees and feet translatetheir movements to motion in the machine.

Visitors can count on a phalanx of droids, drones and bots, too. (One of the latter, equipped with artificial intelligence, was created by a 10-year-old last year.) And, of course, robots. Tiny robots made of paper tubes, spider robots, R2D2-inspired robots, customizable robot kits, toy robots, robot backpacks— if you can conceive of it, someone’s probably made it or is working on it.

While there’s no telling what will turn up at Maker Faire 2019, Merlo does promise new and larger hands-on making experiences, more paid workshops, and newly affordable digital fabrication tools to try out. Established Maker Faire luminaries will share ideas, and last year’s cosplay contest for costumed performance artists will return. According to Merlo, the former Robo Games, now called Robo Jam, is on the boards. Think of it as the robot Olympics, with competitions in different classes and different “sports.”

Besides unveiling their projects, many of which are still in experimental stages, makers are committed to teaching. And not just in workshops. “You can play with a laser cutter, have conversations and get peer-to-peer training,” Merlo says. “Just be aware: You might be learning from a 10-year-old.”

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