Behind the scenes as Maker Faire gets ready

On Maker Day, the day before the gates open to the public at Maker Faire, there is still plenty to see, and you can watch it being put together. Plus the crowds are manageable.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
This drivable cupcake sits idle while getting a charge at Maker Day--the set-up day for Maker Faire--on Friday at the San Mateo Fairgrounds in San Mateo, Calif. Maker Faire begins Saturday morning and goes all weekend. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN MATEO, CALIF.--One of the great things about being at Maker Day, the day before the gates officially open at Maker Faire, is that every time you walk around the fairgrounds here, everything looks different.

That's because, of course, in the time it takes to make a circuit around the San Mateo Fairgrounds during Maker Day, the annual home of the do-it-yourself (DIY) celebration that is Maker Faire, a whole bunch of new "makers" have arrived and others have added a great deal to the projects they had only just started at the beginning of the circuit.

I was on hand for Maker Day on Friday because I find it's always refreshing to get a chance to see things in process. Also, with more than 80,000 people expected at this year's Maker Faire, I wanted to get a chance to see what some of the makers--the people behind the hundreds and thousands of DIY projects on display here--had worked on, without having to navigate unbelievable masses of people.

That's especially true if you see a really popular project and you want to find out something about it.

For me, that didn't take long. Only a couple minutes after I walked through the gates of the fairgrounds, I encountered a very familiar looking robotic structure. It looked very much like the "Rave 'Raff," a robotic giraffe I had first seen at Burning Man in 2005 and which I had seen several times since then at Maker Faire.

But the Rave 'Raff was white, so this couldn't be it. Yet when I walked over to see what it was, it was indeed the 'Raff, only with an entirely new paint job, it seemed.

In fact, it wasn't just a new paint job (which was now pearl sunset orange). The giraffe's creator, Lindsay Lawlor, told me that he and his crew had completely rebuilt the robot, and it was now well on its way to being an entirely interactive robot. (See video below.)

"We changed everything," said Lawlor. "We basically got out the cutting torch."

He explained that he and his team, with the help of some sponsors, had put about $10,000 worth of work into the redesign, and the end result was a giraffe with all-new hardware, hydraulic pumps made out of acrylic plastic sheets, shock-absorbing struts, and that new paint job. It also has a new hydraulic neck that is operated by a single piston.

It even has 32 "teeth," little rectangular pieces of plastic with embedded LEDs, that mirror the exact number, spacing, and setting of real giraffe teeth.

In other words, when the Rave 'Raff gets going, it's one high-tech giraffe.

Lawlor said that the giraffe also has touch sensors in its ears, eyes, head, and mouth, and that by next year, he expects to have it speaking.

"The idea is to bring it to life like a real giraffe," Lawlor said. "It will follow me around like he's my pet giraffe."

Lindsay Lawlor with his completely redesigned Rave 'Raff, a robotic giraffe. Daniel Terdiman/CNET Networks

Not far away, some folks from a group called Lightning Temple were setting up "Interactivation," a musical instrument with a musical tesla coil in the center.

Evonne Heyning, of Lightning Temple, told me that the tesla coil in Interactivation is designed to sound more like music coming from a speaker than the traditional sharp, electronic-sounding devices. She also told me that at Burning Man this summer, Lightning Temple, among other things, will be running a tesla coil repair station in case any of the many artists with the huge electronic devices need such services.

Some people have called Maker Faire "Burning Man on cement," but that's not quite fair. To be sure, much of the art seen at Maker Faire has also or will be seen at Burning Man. But Maker Faire has a somewhat different spirit. While it celebrates the DIY spirit, it is much more about showcasing the work of the many makers who trek to the Faire. Burning Man, while also about showcasing DIY art, has a more party-like feel, and is also intended to be for "participants only."

By contrast, Maker Faire is intended to instill the participatory spirit in people, but in a way that they take it with them when they go home. In other words, to turn people into DIYers once they leave.

Back in the Lightning Temple area, Heyning told me that she and her crew are taking some of the things they've done with Interactivation and are working on an iPhone application that would give people a way to experience a collaboration of music composition and energetic research.

Only at Maker Faire
One thing is for sure at Maker Faire--or Maker Day as the case may be. And that's that whimsy is king.

I ran into a couple of friends who told me a story about someone they'd just talked to. The person had had his hand inside a plastic bag in the way that dog owners sometimes do when they take their pooches for a walk. But instead of keeping hold of some dog waste, this person told my friends that, in fact, he was holding onto some condensed moisture from New York State. And that he had to run and give it to someone.


What may seem like whimsy today, however, was once pure practicality.

That much was clear in an extremely beautiful, classic machine I saw sitting quietly on one side of the fairgrounds.

This was a 1917 Case Traction Engine which, I was told by Zachary Rukstela, the chief engineer of a group called Kinetic Steam Works, was the very first model of tractor.

A 1917 Case Traction Engine, the first model of tractor, on display at Maker Faire. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

Rukstela's group had purchased the traction engine from a defunct Yuma, Ariz., museum, and was working to completely restore it. He said they were about 90 percent along. And to be sure, this thing was absolutely gorgeous, and looked brand new. But entirely out of place in the 21st century.

That makes sense, however. One thing abundantly evident at Maker Faire the last couple of years has been an overpowering steampunk look and feel. Evidenced by rustic coloring, lots of rivets, brass and leather, steampunk seems to be the official aesthetic of Maker Faire.

And that was definitely true at Maker Day on Friday.

Much the same, some different
Maker Faire is growing, as organizer Sherry Huss told me, and one of the major components of the festival this year is DIY robotics. There are expected to be at least 24 different groups showing off such projects.

But while there is always a great deal that's new at Maker Faire, it's also clear that many of the biggest projects on display are ones that have been to the fair many times before. And that makes sense, I suppose, since things like the Lifesized Mousetrap are huge crowd favorites. The same goes for the Neverwas Haul, a steam-powered Victorian house.

Still, I'd like to see more new big art at Maker Faire than I think I saw.

I guess I need to get working on doing some serious DIY myself.

If you go to Maker Faire: Be prepared for giant crowds, slow traffic, and having to park a ways away from the fairgrounds. Maker Faire is running a Twitter feed that should give steady updates about the traffic situation.

Also be prepared with a hat and sunscreen, and remember to drink lots of water.

On June 22, Geek Gestalt will kick off Road Trip 2009. After driving more than 12,000 miles in the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest, and the Southeast over the last three years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation, and more in Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana, and South and North Dakota. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. And in the meantime, join the Road Trip 2009 Facebook page and follow my Twitter feed.