Raspberry Pi telescopes and toy hackers: Maker Faire is an inventor’s dream

Newcastle’s Centre for Life has hosted the UK’s portion of the global Maker Faire phenomenon since 2014. Previously I’ve arrived to be greeted by a giant purple robot, a fire-breathing mechanical dragon and a musical traction engine. This year there’s just a man in a hat blowing bubbles. Behind him, though, is a Bake-Off-sized marquee extending the show floor to a packed sixth hall, where even more folk are doing more than ever with readily available technology.

Raspberry Pi telescopes and toy hackers: Maker Faire is an inventor’s dream

Maker Faire is always a collision of high and low tech, and low is resurgent this year. In the dimly lit main hall (the better to show off everyone’s LEDs), there’s a smell of hot sawdust. Axminster Tools & Machinery has stores across the country, but this is its first Maker Faire, and it’s drawing a crowd. A patient chap in a woodworking apron shows newbies how to operate a scroll saw.

It takes more skill than sending a file to one of the CO2 cutters displayed elsewhere, but looks more rewarding. Still, there’s something irresistible about sheets of plywood lasered into intricate shapes, from Oomlout’s OOBB construction system for Arduino projects to Modpod, a 1/6-scale prototype for a modular home.

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Yes, that’s a T Rex wandering the Maker Faire floor, and what of it?

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Modpod is a 1/6-scale prototype for a self-build modular home

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What goes up must come down… unless it’s a drone

Around the corner, Nathan Hopkins of GWK Woodshed is doing it old school, inviting showgoers to make their own recycled joinery. A little girl and her mum are working out a colour scheme with a pile of paint samples. Two boys on the floor are nailing planks into cubes. “They’ve been here hours,” says Nathan, whose Gateshead-based social enterprise offers the unemployed a place to get creative and constructive. “The paint’s from Homebase’s skips.”

“The paint’s from Homebase’s skips”

Manual labour gets more intricate on Suzanne Tweddle’s stand, to which she’s imported her jewellery-making workshop. I daren’t interrupt what she’s doing with wires, glass and a hot flame behind a protective glass screen, but the finely wrought results speak for themselves. This technology, lampworking, hasn’t changed much in 2,500 years.

It’s a far cry from 3D printing, which continues to haunt the maker scene like the ghost of Linux on the desktop. Fused-deposition modelling machines are chuntering away on many stands, but the idea that they belong in every home has given way to a more realistic picture, of a workshop tool for prototyping and short-run manufacturing.

Jun Da-eun, aka Eunny, uses hers to print a growing menagerie of slot-together animals – “I want to make them all. Every kind!” – which she’s come all the way from Korea to show, mounted on an astroturfed polyhedron constructed from wooden rods with plastic connectors of her own design. Visitors are colouring them in.

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Nathan Hopkins shows off GWK’s recycled creations

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Suzanne Tweddle in her temporary lampworking studio

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Jun Da-eun’s animals are created using a variety of methods

On the RD4 stand, Guy Raynes’s prototype fluid-injection printer can do the colouring for you, combining three different filaments plus a UV-cured clear layer. Electronic components can be sandwiched in between, producing anything from a smartwatch with integral ‘glass’ to a prosthetic hand with sensors in the fingers. The fluid concept reminds me of technology I’ve seen at HP Labs in Palo Alto, but this is the Wallace and Gromit to their Tony Stark. And that’s why it’s here. Guy, one of the maker community’s few born salesmen, hopes to release a commercial product by the end of the year.

Mark Wrigley’s PiKon telescope uses bespoke parts that users can 3D print themselves from open-sourced plans, but are also shipping to order. The webcam from a Raspberry Pi is mounted at the focal point of a basic Newtonian reflector, capturing decent astrophotos for peanuts. The key was “bringing different fields together”, explains Mark, who chairs the Yorkshire branch of the Institute of Physics. Imaging, computing, CAD and manufacturing are now accessible; just add astronomy.

Just down the road from here, the Grubb Parsons factory made optics for several of the world’s great telescopes between 1925 and 1985, some of which are still in use. Artist Helen Schell’s stained-glass kaleidoscopes celebrate the exploration of space from there to the upcoming missions of the European Space Agency, for which she’s an education ambassador. Squint through their eyepieces and what you see reflected is as much about you as the cosmos.

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Mark Wrigley demonstrates his PiKon 3D-printed digital telescope

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Helen Schell’s optical art pieces reflect the study of space

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Cefn Hoile demonstrates ShrimpingIt’s Micropython controller

Also playing with light is Cefn Hoile of Morecambe’s ShrimpingIt, which introduces electronics to beginners through workshops and simple packaged kits. A wall of programmable ‘mini-illuminations’ is part of the new Cockle project, which opens up the Internet of Things via the NodeMCUv2, a Micropython-powered microcontroller.

‘Toy hacker’ John Walton’s more down-to-earth pieces fuse chopped-up dolls with Meccano and electronics into dystopian push-button automata. A monkey skull chatters; a dinosaur springs through barn doors. They may look crazily random, but “it’s all fully documented”, he tells a visitor as I pass. “Because they break, and then I have to know how to repair them.” This may be the most Maker Faire thing I hear all day.

On the same stand, Margaret Walton is showing her mixed-media embroidery work and demonstrating stitches. “We came here last year, too. They look after you very well!” The Centre for Life puts some money into the show, as do sponsors like Cooler Master, the Reece Foundation and Northumbria University, so amateur exhibitors can participate free of charge and get practical help.

Beside the Waltons, Brian McSwiney of PaperPetShop is selling substantial cardboard kits that fold into giraffes, penguins, sharks, owls and more. Designed in Blender, the open-source 3D package, each has 150 to 200 polygons, he tells me, enough to make assembly a few hours’ work without getting too complicated. The latest models are pre-printed with photorealistic graphics, and, driven by his engineering background, Brian’s next target is to add moving parts.

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John Watson makes mechanical amusements from toy parts

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Margaret Watson’s textile pieces combine craft techniques

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Centre for Life’s permanent displays provide a dramatic backdrop

Raspberry Pis are the basis of much self-built tech, but there’s also a cottage industry here turning them into something more prêt-a-booter, including the modular pi-top and the dinky Tingbot. Sukhvir Dhillon and Jason Frame’s Nuro is a handheld Pi that users can program from a PC, then pop in their pocket. I play Space Invaders, and Sukhvir changes their shape with five seconds’ code-tweaking. They’re aiming for a £140 price point, and the open, hackable format, inspired by the days of the 8-bit micro, promises more than passive personal entertainment.

While these consumer cases all emphasise the screen, Bare Conductive, founded by four RCA and Imperial College graduates, enables new kinds of interaction through products like Electric Paint, with which makers can quickly turn any surface into a sensor. The Arduino-based Touch Board adds the brains. Users include “artists, engineers and everyone in between”, Isabel Lizardi tells me. Interfaces can invite touching or record interactions passively, for example counting footfall within a floor area.

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Nuro is a handheld Raspberry Pi console with hackable I/O

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Showgoers watch robot versus Dr Pepper on the Cooler Master stand

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Electric Paint lets you draw a working circuit with sensors

Before I go, I check in on the Heart of Maker Faire, completed just hours earlier by Jonathan Sanderson and Joe Shimwell of Northumbria University’s science outreach project, NUSTEM. Three racks, arranged radially, provide 420 spaces for glass jars underlit by RGB LEDs that pulse at the heart rate of each volunteer who steps up to the measuring stations. They write ‘what’s in their heart’ on tracing paper and crumple it inside the jar. “It’s a combination of our work and you,” explains Joe.

“Some people question if it has a point”

Powered by six Fadecandy controllers, two Raspberry Pi 3 Model Bs, a Pi Zero W as network and MySQL host, and a slew of code that the creators cheerfully describe as “a bit of a mess,” it’s all working flawlessly.

“Some people question if it has a point,” says Jonathan. It doesn’t, but the random oscillations are mesmerising, inviting your brain to find patterns. Without any organisation imposed on them, the individual elements, all working at their own pace, add up to something inspiring.

I’m not sure if they planned that Maker Faire metaphor, but I’ll leave it there anyway.

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Joe Shimwell supervises the Heart of Maker Faire

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Cefn Hoile hangs a Python-controlled ‘minillumination’

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The soldering benches are a Maker Faire staple

Images: Adam Banks

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