A newbie's take on Maker Faire

CNET's Ina Fried goes to her first Maker Faire. She took a pass on a giant bowl of paella, but said yes to on-demand poetry and to a giant cupcake costume.

SAN MATEO, Calif.--I'm probably the last of my co-workers to discover Maker Faire .

For those that don't know, the annual San Francisco Bay Area event is kind of like what would happen if one turned over the county fair to the A.V. club instead of the folks from 4-H.

The event is a do-it-yourself paradise, with all that one needs to build everything from model rocket kits to remote-control robots. Mind you, I usually don't do anything more ambitious than upgrade my computer's memory or hard drive, but on Sunday I decided to give it a go.

It was a blast from the moment I entered, and was nearly run over by a giant giraffe robot, until my final moment at the fair, posing for a picture inside a giant cupcake.

Like a parade of geeks before me, I marveled at the spacecraft, Lego jeeps, crawling robot bugs, and other moving conveyances. I gawked at the fire-throwing sculpture and jealously eyed the youngsters riding a swing set that somehow sprayed water just as the rider passed by the center point.

I had fun talking with Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh, the Irish woman who invented Sugru, a silicone substance that can be molded as easily as Silly Putty but eventually hardens and bonds to just about any substance. "Hack things better," is the motto of the young venture marketing her creation. The first 3,000 packs of the stuff sold out in less than 18 hours last year, but there was plenty of the stuff on hand for buyers at Maker Faire.

Of course, I noshed as well, though I passed up both the funnel cakes and ice cream as well as a giant vat of paella that was bigger than some hot tubs. I ran into co-workers there with their families and compared notes on what was cool to make sure I wasn't missing anything.

In addition to taking a gander at all the robots and rockets, I spent some time in the crafts section, waiting in line to make my own bag at the booth from Provo Crafts, makers of the YuDu silkscreen kit and the Cricut cutter. As I queued up--it was a 20-minute wait--I had a chance to see that company's newest product, a food-safe version of the Cricut that can be used for everything from decorating cakes to making custom-shape quesadillas.

I also checked out a couple of projects from Microsoft. Clint Rutkas was there with the Windows Phone-controlled T-shirt cannon he showed at Mix. Meanwhile, Microsoft, Ford, and Intel were showing off a series of cars that had traveled across the country with a specialized onboard computer with software written by a team of students from the University of Michigan. In addition to the standard GPS features, the software allowed each car to also track the other three vehicles in the caravan.

Collin Hockey, a recent Michigan grad and member of the team, said that after so many months of working on a simulator, it was great to see their program in action. The group took the pack of Fords to Chicago, Omaha, Salt Lake City, and Reno before arriving at their final stop at Maker Faire.

My only actual purchase of the day--aside from a spinach and potato knish--was a little something for my partner, AJ, who opted to skip the Maker Faire crowd. Although there were lots of tangible goodies I know he would have liked, I opted for a poem, bought from Silvi. Using a Royal typewriter, she was offering a poetic creation on the subject of one's choice in three minutes or less.

After years of just writing about technology, it's kind of nice to be at an event that lets you really get your hands dirty, even if you don't have an electrical-engineering degree. And I'll be back next year for sure, only with more time to spend. There's a "learn-to-solder" station I particularly had my eye on.

 

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