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Maker Faire a geek's dream

Hundreds of technophiles, robotics freaks and crafters descend on do-it-yourself fair. Photos: A magical Maker Faire

SAN MATEO, Calif.--It's a good thing I don't have much hair, because the huge plume of fire that just blasted out of the top of the fire engine a few feet in front of me would likely have burned off a real mane.

I'm at the , and the brainchild of Make Magazine, the do-it-yourself quarterly that's like a Web 2.0-era Popular Mechanics.

Maker Faire, which is taking place all weekend in this city about halfway between San Francisco and San Jose, has drawn many hundreds or even thousands of the types for whom the insides of a torn apart computer are something to smile over.

Befitting a celebration of the do-it-yourself spirit, everyone in attendance is invited to get up close and personal with the projects. And that's why, as I'm talking to a woman from The Crucible--the Berkeley, Calif.-based nonprofit that teaches fire art, welding and all kinds of metal art--the organization's fire-spewing fire truck, known as the "Educational Response Vehicle" is shooting fireball after fireball into the air, heedless of the blasts of heat that are overwhelming anyone in the area.

Freshly baked, I make my way into one of the exposition halls at the San Mateo Fairgrounds, and I'm greeted by wall-to-wall stimuli. On one side is a gorgeous white metalwork giraffe, known as the "Rave 'Raff," which is spewing out electronica and attracting kids left and right who walk right up and touch its head.

On the far side is a life-size Simon, the '70s-era machine from Milton Bradley, which tasks players with punching one of its four colored bars in the same order that they lit up. And now, at the urging of a friend, I'm bouncing up and down on its red, yellow, green and blue trampolines, trying on the one hand to repeat the proper order the lights flashed and on the other not to make a complete fool of myself.

But the truth is it's too much fun to worry about how it looks. So I forget about being bashful and concentrate instead on getting the sequence right. And I relish in the occasional compliments I hear from the gathered crowd when I stick a particularly hard combination.

Just outside this hall is the one thing that everyone at Maker Faire seems to want to try, but can't: Segway polo. Just as it sounds, Segway polo is polo played on, well, Segways, the super-cool, gyro-stabilized two-wheelers invented by Dean Kamen. And right out here, in front of everyone, a team from the Bay Area Segway Enthusiasts Group is holding exhibitions every half hour or so.

Art and industry heavyweights
Hidden amid the group of players, wearing what looks like a bicycle helmet and a blue shirt with black short sleeves, is none other than Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak, and it's heart-warming to be at an event where such an influential and famous man can go fairly unnoticed.

Indeed, Maker Faire has attracted a significant number of tech industry and art world heavyweights. Among them, Google co-founder Larry Page--or so I was told by someone who claimed to have been standing in front of the megabillionaire in a food line, as well as some of the biggest names in the world of Burning Man art. And that's not even to mention the Make Magazine crew, among them Mark Frauenfelder, Dale Dougherty and Phillip Torrone, who are heroes in this crowd.

In fact, the crowd is a fantastic mix of Burners (Burning Man attendees), crafters and robotics geeks, Aaron Muszalski, a visual effects instructor at San Francisco's Academy of Art University suggested to me. He imagined Maker Faire, with a delighted gleam in his eye, as a breeding ground for the many kids here who he sees as the do-it-yourselfers and hackers of the future.

"I didn't get to see stuff like this until I was in my 20s," said Muszalski. "What if you get to see this stuff when you're five? We're recruiting (them)."

It's hard to disagree with him. A little earlier, someone had been riding around the central lawn area on a bicycle tricked out with a broom for a frame so it resembled something Harry Potter would ride in a quidditch match.

And as people grinned and laughed at the sight, an attendee named Nifer Fahrion called out the real truth of the situation.

"I mean," Fahrion said, "tell me how many kids would love that."

In truth, Maker Faire is what anyone who loves science or computers or robots or welding or fire art or high-tech crafting or Lego should come to.

To be sure, not everything at the event was noteworthy. In truth, much of the exhibits were rather mundane and easily slipped past. But every few minutes, as one wandered around, something would appear that would make you stop and stare in wonder.

Some of those, of course, were entirely simple. For example, I talked with Thomas Zimmerman, an IBM researcher whose "Z's Stop-Frame Animation" table was a big hit with kids. The idea, he explained, was to provide an after-school program that would teach little kids the art of stop-motion animation and photography.

So he would provide them with index cards and pens and pencils and show them how to draw on each card, a single frame in a multi-frame animated story. Kind of like the books of images you used to flip to reveal a rudimentary cartoon. In this case, the kids would draw the cards and then photograph them using a home-made camera built into a piece of PVC pipe. And then a piece of software would blend the pictures together into a short animated film.

Nearby was a self-fencing machine, in which two robot arms controlled battling swords. No robots were harmed in the making of this machine.

And perhaps the most fun I saw people having in the course of the day was in one large room where hundreds of kids and parents were eagerly ripping apart old computers and trying to put them back together again.

The sounds of breaking plastic, metal and glass dominated the room, as did laughter, shouting and a feeling that if this wasn't geek bliss, what is?