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Maker Faire attracts tech heroes and kids alike

Thousands come to get their hands dirty with the best in do-it-yourself geekery. Photos: Faire days

SAN MATEO, Calif.--In the middle of the field, No. 64, a stocky man with a graying beard, bears down towards the goal. He feints left and then lets go with a shot that sails just a little too far to the left. The crowd, such as it is, groans.

To those who recognize him in his bike helmet and dark sunglasses, No. 64 is Apple Computer co-founder and geek hero Steve Wozniak. He's roaming the field at the Maker Faire here as a fierce ambassador for the relatively new sport of Segway polo, in which well-heeled techies riding the gyro-stabilized two-wheel transporters compete in a very 2000s version of the ancient game.

And in between matches, Wozniak is all too happy to promote the sport, and to explain his philosophies about being one with his Segway.

"You have to think offensively and defensively and see where your opponent is going to go," said Wozniak, who explains that he and his teammates have been playing Segway polo for more than two years--longer than any other team. "Your mind has to be totally aware of the whole situation. That doesn't come the first time you play."

Segway polo was just one of the main attractions here at the Maker Faire, the all-weekend do-it-yourself-o-rama hosted by Make Magazine. Among the hundreds of exhibitors on hand Saturday and Sunday at the San Mateo Fairgrounds, there was no shortage of delights for fans of all ages of science, computers, fire art, robotics, Lego, crafting and wooden bicycles.

Indeed, the fair was a haven for thousands of boys and girls and men and women, perhaps one of the few times when such a smorgasbord of geek fare attracted such a diverse crowd. And a big part of it was that almost all the exhibits allowed attendees, especially kids, to get their hands on them and play with them.

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Video: From the floor of the Maker Faire
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"Kids (got in) free, and to see the kids and see the gears turning and (to think) that maybe this will have a profound influence on them" is rewarding, said Phillip Torrone, a senior editor at Make Magazine and one of the organizers of Maker Faire. "Where can you bring your kids where you can go, 'Oh, let's go home and build something'?"

Robert Kavaler, a Maker Faire attendee from Kensington, Calif. and parent of a 5-year-old son, agreed. As his son jumped up and down with excitement at the thought of all he'd done Sunday, Kavaler talked about the particular appeal of the event.

"What appeals to (kids) is very different than what appeals to an adult, but they have both here," Kavaler said. "He liked the rubber chickens, and they didn't really float my boat. I'm an electronics guys. I think it was interesting to see what other people are doing with electronics stuff. And I like being able to have fun with my kid here."

To be sure, Maker Faire was jammed full of attractions for all ages. One that was mobbed was Tom Noddy's demonstrations of soap-bubble blowing.

As hundreds gathered to watch, Noddy presented a comical series of bubble tricks, including one where he filled one large bubble with smoke and then pushed it against a second empty bubble. As he pushed, the two bubbles slowly merged until, suddenly, they became a single bubble half filled with smoke and half empty.

But perhaps his most popular trick involved blowing one big bubble and then a ring of several small ones inside it. Then, with a small pipe, he blew air into the main bubble, causing the ring of bubbles to spin inside the bigger one without it breaking. The crowd cheered enthusiastically.

Another popular demonstration showed hundreds how to fold very effective paper airplanes.

Stacks of paper had been made available and as the speaker showed how to fold the planes, most of the people in the audience folded along with him.

And when he finished, there commenced about 15 minutes of pure paper airplane pleasure: a steady stream of planes flying around the hall, landing, and being picked up and thrown again. And even as the crowd slowly thinned, several kids stayed around and continued throwing their planes, over and over and over again.

"It was fascinating and intriguing," said Kyle Douglas, a 12-year-old from San Rafael, Calif., speaking of what he'd thought of the paper airplane demonstration. "Just all the other types of airplanes and how they flew and the physics behind it.

Douglas said he'd particularly enjoyed two models the presenter had showed called the F-14 and the "Eggbeater."

"The F-14 had a very cool design, and the 'Eggbeater' had a very interesting way...of flying. He took a piece of cardboard and pushed it forward, and it kept tumbling in front of the pieces of cardboard while it was in the air and stayed aloft for a long time."

Robots, magnets and steam
The Maker Faire brought together hundreds of exhibitors from around the world. The exhibits were spread throughout a series of buildings and on a central lawn at the fairgrounds. Exhibits ranged from Jim Mason's Power Tool Drag Races to a demonstration of Lego's Mindstorms NXT programmable robots to the Graffiti Research Lab's throwable LED magnets to Tim Robinson's Computing by Steam.

Robinson explained that his project, which looked something like an abacus on crack mixed with an erector set, is what he called a "difference engine."

Based on the 1848 design by the Brit Charles Babbage, the machine is a homemade manual calculator involving more than 25,000 parts and which can, with many turns of a crank, perform all manner of mathematical calculations.

"It's a glorified adding machine," joked Robinson, who estimated he spent 2,000 hours over 18 months building the machine. He said he built it "just for fun. I've been interested in the history of computers and old mechanical stuff for a long time."

In some ways, Maker Faire was reminiscent of

Torrone said he'd been asked to compare the two events several times during the weekend and that he thought there were some similarities. But he also said he believes Maker Faire is more democratic and more accessible to real people than NextFest.

"You can have a future car no one can even afford or Mr. Jalopy" that you built yourself, Torrone said. "There (are) times when you want to see the future, but what I say is: If you want to see the future, you can build it yourself."