Watching the makers make Maker Faire

This weekend at least 100,000 people are expected to descend on the sixth annual Maker Faire. But on Friday, the countless DIY projects were still being put in place. CNET was on hand to check out the setup.

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
4 min read
Two singing Tesla coils from the performance group Arc Attack delight kids during setup day at Maker Faire. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

SAN MATEO, Calif.--"They're putting Josh in the cage!"

It was early this afternoon, and a group of school kids were excitedly screaming those words over and over. And it was true. A kid called Josh was being put inside a cage that was part of a performance by a group called Arc Attack. Soon, the cage would be bombarded with electricity from two of Arc Attack's signing Tesla coils. No Joshes would be harmed in this experiment. But an awful lot of grinning would be done.

This is Maker Faire. Well, almost. The famous DIY festival begins in earnest tomorrow morning, and over the course of the weekend, in excess of 100,000 people may well get themselves to the San Mateo County Event Center here to see countless examples of do-it-yourself robotics; 3D printing; steampunk kinetic sculptures; and much, much more.

But today was setup day, the day the thousands of so-called "makers" arrive, drop their gear, and start building the projects they'll show the tens of thousands of visitors over the next two days. Being at Maker Faire on setup day is both a treat--it's always great to see the process behind something as cool as Maker Faire, and it's nice not to have to compete with 50,000 people to see something--and a curse: Only about half the projects are finished.

Setting up a DIY extravaganza at Maker Faire (photos)

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One thing that's definitely cool about being on hand for setup day is that each and every time you return to a specific spot, there's more there than there was the last time you went by. Even if that was just 30 minutes ago. A steady stream of trucks, vans, cars, and other conveyances arrive, and with them, the festival comes to life.

Maker Faire started here in 2006, and is now a worldwide phenomenon. From 20,000 visitors that first year to 80,000-plus last year, attendance figures are now expected to hit six figures. At the same time, the festival has planted its flag in other cities, such as Austin and New York.

But at its heart, no matter how many people there are, and no matter if the projects are new to the event or have been featured at several of the fairs, the idea behind the festival is simple: show visitors that it's not so hard to make things yourself, and inspire them to give it a try. And it works. Many return for their second or third years with a project.

Education day
Of course, the best way to kick that dynamic into high gear is to start with kids. So today was, in addition to being setup day, also Maker Faire Education Day. And more than 1,300 school kids were on hand to check out what the festival has to offer. According to Michelle Hlubinka, who coordinates Education Day, 90 percent of the kids who showed up today came from disadvantaged communities, so this might have been the first time many of them had ever seen projects like the ones that proliferate here.

Hlubinka is also involved with the Young Makers program, which was featuring nearly 100 kids who had brought about 40 of their own projects along. Those projects ranged from the Water Totter--a see-saw that pumps water to a fountain--to the FireJam, a guitar with exploding fire jets.

And everywhere today you'd run into the kids. Whether they were watching with the widest of eyes as Arc Attack did its thing, or sitting by trying to stay dry as General Electric Research, which brought several projects from its base in Niskayuna, N.Y.

One was the InBody electrical impedence scanner, which Jeff Ashe, an electrical engineer in the biomedial electronics group at GE Research, said was about coming up with new measurements to replace the body mass index (BMI) used for so long to tell people about whether they're overweight.

The InBody system is designed, Ashe explained, to measure someone's lean mass, water content, and fat mass, which together produce a body fat percentage figure that means much more than the BMI, he said.

The device doesn't offer recommendations, only data. But Ashe said doctors are beginning to use it as a replacement for a BMI measurement.

Another GE medical project on display was what Ashe said is called a medical monitor system. Based on a simple GE home-security motion-detector system, the device has been hacked by GE researchers who discovered it can also measure someone's breathing and heartbeat.

That means, Ashe said, that sleeping patients can be monitored without being hooked up to anything, and doctors or nurses can determine if they're breathing properly, or if their hearts are beating as they should. Oddly, while this clearly has applications throughout the medical and nursing fields, the funding for the project came from the prison system, which Ashe said is concerned with monitoring potentially suicidal inmates who refuse to be hooked up to any wires. If the system detects abnormal breathing or heart rates, it can trigger an alert.

General Electric, of course, wasn't the only large company with exhibits here. Google was also present, with a team from Sketchup, and with robotics and Android projects to show off.

Yet the heart of Maker Faire is almost certainly the thousands of individual makers who toil away in their garages working on projects that may only see the light here. Some, like Arc Attack, come from hundreds, or thousands, of miles away, and all because they're bound to make a lot of people happy.

Like Josh. How could any kid not love the idea of being inside a cage while two Tesla coils blast it with lightning bolts in time to the Imperial Death March music from "Star Wars"? I didn't get a chance to be inside the cage. But if I had, I know I would have been smiling from ear to ear.

If you visit Maker Faire this weekend, expect to see a lot of that.