The weird, wonderful world of tinkerers: Maker Faire 2014 (pictures)

Every year, lifehackers everywhere gather together in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York to peddle their own special brand of DIY genius.

Jessica Dolcourt
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Meet your Makers

Giant bots, soldering irons, and fire-breathing dragons, oh my! Twice a year, the two-day Maker Faire festival crops up in the San Francisco Bay Area and in New York as a nexus for home-brew projects thought up by tinkerers of all stripes. From propane-fueled robotics and Kickstarter campaigns to interactive crowd-pleasers, these were the fantastical, whimsical, and breathtaking exhibits that caught our eye this year.

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Fire-breathing cephalopod

Duane Flatmo built this gigantic fire-breathing steampunk-style octopus, officially known as El Pulpo Mecánico, over a period of three and a half months, on the base of a 1973 Ford 250 4x4. Its bulging eyes and pulsing tentacles are driven by a giant cam through the center, not hydraulics or computers.

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Pulpo's revenge

The towering El Pulpo mostly minds his tentacled manners, steadily warming the crowd with his bright beacons of flame, fueled by 200 gallons of propane each day. But keep your distance -- even if you're a sucker for robotic aquaculture, not enough water in the fairgrounds can douse these righteous flames.

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Gimme some skin

Plenty of cardboard "robots" lumbered around the Maker Faire, but none were as committed as "Dennis," who hails from Los Angeles. He dons his wooden soldier as he made it, piece by painstaking piece. The layers of plywood, soaked in water and adhered with Gorilla Glue, took months to build; Dennis spent a week on just the pipe wrench attachment alone. Each arm weighs about 10 pounds -- the hands weigh at least 5.5 apiece -- and the torso adds another 12 pounds. Dennis' voice barely squeaks out through his heavy crown. Is it easy to ambulate in such heavy-duty armor? I wood-n't count on it.

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Smart handlebars

Tony Belmontes and his friends were tired of getting the lights stolen from their bikes. So the trio created Drop Bar, a line of Bluetooth-connected handlebars with a Cycloptic 500-lumen LED in the front and lower-powered endcap lights that act as both turn signals and speedometers.

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The bike brain within

Drop Bar's companion apps for iOS and Android help you track down a stolen bike. You can tweak the color spectrum all you want, but expect to recharge the handlebars -- via an 18mm-long 2.5 mm monojack-to-USB connector -- after two weeks of active run time. Drop Bar costs $280 apiece.

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Dragon quest

Most people traveled the Faire on two feet, but El Pulpo's maker, Duane Flatmo, prefers dragonback. He built this fire-breather in six months

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A fire within

Flatmo hewed his prized mechanical beast from recovered junk he found in strip shops and salvaged from the junkyard. It's as they say: one man's junk is another man's dragon.

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Larger-than-life Mousetrap

A bathtub, bowling balls, and colorful wooden crates mark this remarkable 16-piece, Rube Goldberg-like puzzle -- called The Mousetrap -- which dazzles with dizzying kinetic fury every hour at the Faire, set to a soundtrack of haunting vaudevillian tunes.

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Details matter

Its precisely, constantly tuned physics are eye-boggling for sure, but the 50,000-pound Mousetrap's charm comes in its colorful and humorous details, like the license plates that add a functional role shaping the sides of this curve as well as decorative personality.

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Circuit training

Kids of all ages are passed a pair of safety goggles, a short instruction book, and a soldering gun as they create a miniature version of the popular 1980s electronic game Simon.

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Simon says

A project of Htink, an educational cooperative out of New York, participants get to pack up their light-up LED board to go.

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Unnecessarily High Five

The name of this interactive installation says it all. Five hanging mannequin hands dangle as revelers leap up to make contact.

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Dismembered mannequins

The Alameda, Calif., makers dismember mannequins that they find at a local surplus shop (who knew?) Apparently, flat-handed ones are the hardest to find, and "taller people make the worst jumpers."

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Cook stove charges your phone

BioLite's camp stove, introduced in 2012, channels surplus electricity into extra charge for your electronics. The new, larger BaseCamp model recently launched on Kickstarter and promises to create 5 watts of electricity as it burns a cleaner fire. The company will sell the stove globally and is in pilot projects to roll it out in India and countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where indoor smoke inhalation causes major health concerns.

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Sleight of hand

Its designer drafted the robotic hand you see here using SketchUp and manufactured it from polycarbonate material. The hand can move fingers singly or in a group, and can perform functions like pinching fingers shut. "I'm afraid isn't very elegant," the maker demurred. "Don't kid yourself," a bystander replied, "this is elegant."

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Light it up

This interactive LED table was the brainchild of a group of third-year university students at California's UC Davis.

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LED and me

Built for a school project, 25 circuit boards nestled beneath the surface each throw out infrared and measure its reflection through four receivers.

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Lunar landing

Evoking both underwater serenity and outerworldly wonderment, Astro Botanical's gently glowing, color-shifting inflatable lamps form a mesmerizing landscape.

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Magnolia Starship

Most faire-going rugrats run through the arches of the lit-up "botanical" known as Magnolia Starship. But peering up from the center brings a more relaxing treat of ever-changing colors from pale yellow to rich, deep purples and blues.

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Meet Russell

A Maker Faire and Burning Man staple since 2006, this walking giraffe is 10,200 pounds of hand-welded steel.

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Laptop heart

Russell may have a laptop heart, but for his throngs of fans, it's his glittery tail, horns, and bright LED spots that leave their mark.

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Tesla coils

The performance group ArcAttack holds the attention of a large crowd with their musical Tesla coils.

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We all float on

Costumed folks on stilts and wafting bubbles form a backdrop of the Faire.

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Who doesn't love bubbles?

Oversize nets dipped into tubs of bubble solution paint the crowd in soapy honeycombs.

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Lego Jeep

Kids love Lego. This is a fact. So what better way to quietly draw them in than this jeep you can decorate anyway you want with the tiny builder bricks?

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Piles and piles

There is no order. There is no reason. There is only brickwork to be done.

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Pinball wizard

Inside one of the exhibition halls, a transparent pinball machine lights up from within.

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Belly of the beast

It offers a rare glimpse into the inner workings of this arcade mainstay.

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R2 among us

The love for Star Wars culture is strong among us. Bay Area R2 Builders happily showcased functional replicas of the beloved Star Wars Astromech droid.

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Pixel art

The love of tech isn't always high tech. Case in point: this endearing wall art based on the early days of pixels.

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Maker's vendo

You won't find candy bars or bags of chips in this Maker Faire vending machine, just screwdrivers, LEDs, conductive thread, and plenty of tape.

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Printed rover

The body of this remote-controlled vehicle was made almost entirely from 3D-printed parts.

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Say cheese

A good, old-fashioned photo booth offers faire-goers a chance to get silly with hats and boas. In the mirror, the booth's handlers prepare for their charges.

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DIY rockets

A little paper and some tape are all you need to fire "rockets" in the fairgrounds parking lot.

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Away it goes

After fashioning their missiles, kids slam down on the red button to launch their creations into the sky.

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You could always flop down on the grass to take a rest, or climb into one of these structures for a seat and a different view.

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Zen Gardener

Professional designer Jared Ficklin contemplates the point of zen relaxation with this automated robot. If the robot fulfills the raking action for you, he asks, does the viewer then meditate on the robot?

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That's one sweet ride

"I want to eat you!" a young boy screams as he chases a cupcake on wheels. There's nothing robotic about these sweet rides, which are built from a sturdy wooden round before being decorated with faux frosting.

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Friendly Dalek

A remote-controlled Dalek, constructed mostly of painted cardboard, approaches two curious Maker Faire attendees.

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Make it small

The MakerBot Replicator Mini we first saw in January crops up with other 3D printers at the faire, slowly, but steadily building up tiny figurines from drippings of hot plastic goo.

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One such keepsake? This multicolored MakerBot, a shrunken take on the show's towering red mascot.

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