Todd Williams and his Landsharks head to the Maker Faire May 21-22. (Chip Scheuer)

The Makers are getting ready. From basements and scattered warehouses in the Oakland hills all the way down to garages in Santa Cruz, they’re putting the finishing touches on their projects for the fast-approaching Maker Faire 2011. Once described as “Burning man without the nudity,” the extravaganza of invention and self-expression poised to erupt on the San Mateo County Fairgrounds May 21-22 is the largest do-it-yourself fair in the world. Underwater robots, colossal sculptures you can climb inside and control, land sharks—the possibilities are mind-blowing when the number of crafters, engineers and inventors participating is over 600.

The Maker Faire’s hands-on playground atmosphere provides multigenerational entertainment, but it’s also a giant pool of knowledge where the most creative minds in the Bay Area meet—and in a forum with a new set of rules. The open source philosophy of the Maker Faire means that all the Makers are sharing their designs with the world. There are no copyrights. There are no profits. As Sherry Huss, general manager and founder of the Maker Faire, puts it, “You can take something from the big pot and work on it, and if you add to it then you should put it back into the community so other people can work on it. It’s not proprietary.”

Although our cultural tradition is to buy new things made by private corporations, the emerging open source DIY movement is spreading through our regional hotbed of innovation and technology.

“DIY is so important to the creation of technology. It’s unconstrained by bureaucracy and it’s fueled by passion instead of profit,” says Eric Stackpole, a mechanical engineer who’s bringing his telerobotic submarine to the faire. “When people follow their passion, they try things businesses that rely on market research never would, and the kind communities passionate people end up networking and collaborating with are all like-minded.”

Part playground, part science fair, part workshop, part county fair, the Maker Faire is also famously a catalyst where disparate elements meet and new forms of art and technology are born. “When the knitters start talking to the folks from the Grafitti Research Labs, that’s when the magic happens,” says Huss, referring to the “yarn bombs,” or knitted graffiti, that came out of a Maker Faire in New York. Six years after Sebastopol-based O’Reilly Media threw the first Maker Faire, the movement has caught fire, and as Maker Faires pop up around the country, the possibilities are endless.

Jaws of Light
Santa Cruz artist and sculptor Todd Williams was in the middle of Nevada’s Black Rock Desert when he saw a tumbleweed float by suspended above a remote-controlled truck. It was 1998, his first year at Burning Man, and the hovering bundle—one of thousands of strangely beautiful and absurdly creative works of art he would see that week—planted a seed of inspiration that would come to fruition years later.

“There’s just something so elegant and ridiculous about seeing a tumbleweed floating by instead of tumbling around,” says Williams. “I never really thought about putting art on a remote-controlled car before that.”

Captivated by another floating object in the desert that week—this one a two-dimensional neon horse “galloping” over the black sand—he found his fascination with floating art deepening, and he began thinking about other possibilities. The horse had been fashioned from electroluminescent wire, or “el wire,” a new material that was at that time coming out of Israel. Basically copper wire coated in phosphorescent material, it required only a low voltage charge to glow as if it were red-hot.

Williams began experimenting with el wire projects, returning to Burning Man in subsequent years with various art projects—horses, UFOs and “alien bug things,” all strapped to remote-controlled monster trucks, and all received with great enthusiasm by his peers. It wasn’t until the underwater-themed year of Burning Man, though, that a swimming shark began to take form in the shadows of Williams’s mind, and six years after he began working with el wire, he crafted his most popular and intriguing piece of work to date: a 4-foot neon shark named Sparky.

Williams crafted Sparky working overtime—over 250 hours to be exact—in a sculpting class he was taking at Cabrillo College.

“The first time I drove it was better than I had dreamed,” says Williams, his eyes aglow with the memory. Sparky’s skeleton was crafted with wire, welded into a shark-shaped basket, then covered with a scaly aluminum screen, papier-mache and paint. The result, should you catch sight of it in daylight, is a realistic-looking shark skin. The final touch is outlining the whole shape in el wire, with segmented jaws, gills and tails lit in succession to create the illusion of biting, breathing and swimming. Perched on long metal rods above her remote-controlled vehicle, Sparky swims a couple feet off the ground—the perfect height for nibbling at the calves of unsuspecting festivalgoers.

“What started as a toy to play with in the desert for a week turned into a cult favorite,” says Williams, who is coming to be known as “the shark guy” and now has four “Festival–durable” sharks, two of the average great white body type (Sparky and Betty) and two hammerheads (a.k.a. “glamorheads”), Hammie and Stella. When Santa Cruz Weekly caught up with Williams he had just returned from Coachella, where he had been commissioned to troll the fields with the neon creatures each night of the three-day festival.

“You never know what people will do. I’ve had people run up and tackle them,” says Williams. “Every night there’s usually one incident.” And since most people have never seen a neon shark swimming towards them in the dark, there are thousands of different reactions to be had.

Williams says a few people are scared by the sharks. He’s also noticed how people behave depending on the sharks’ genders. “If I bring two males, people say ‘Fight! Fight!’ and when I bring Hammie and Betty they say ‘Kiss!’”

Williams will be bringing all four of his sharks, as well as el wire clothing he’s been working on, to the Maker Faire this year, while a life-sized 12-foot-shark prowls the far reaches of his imagination—one large enough to ride, he says. “It would require finances and a truck with a trailer. I’m just waiting for everything to line up,” he says.

Landsharks are Exhibit 415 in the Dark Room of the Fiesta Building. Williams will be running the sharks for 20 minutes on the hour every hour except 12pm. Get a preview at toddwilliamsdesign.com.

No Bull
Gabriel Elkaim was watching a bullfight in Portugal last year when the final project for this year’s Introduction to Mechatronics course came to him. Elkaim, associate professor of computer engineering at UC–Santa Cruz, teaches the basics of building and programming robots that can “think” for themselves, or act autonomously.

The class, modeled after a Stanford course and condensed into a single quarter, is a grueling one: students must build a “cockroach” robot within the first week, programming it to flee from light and “hide” in patches of darkness and to respond to bumps by spinning and fleeing in the opposite direction. These reactions are written into a software interface that works off of “bump” and “light” sensors. The bullfighting droids of this year’s final project not only employ these bump and light sensors, they must also be programmed to act as both matador and bull in a two-minute simulated bullfight, with absolutely no help from their makers.

“The idea is to make a fun project the kids can work on and synthesize all of the skills I’m trying to teach them,” says Elkaim.

The bull’s task is to sense the matador and “gore” it by making contact for five seconds. Three gores and the matador is considered dead. The matador must avoid being gored while attempting to drop ping-pong balls into the bull’s “basket.” Three ping-pong balls and the bull is dead. All this is made possible by programming the droids to react to infrared sensors.

As Maker Faire ringside fans will learn, the student engineers are less concerned about form than function. The eight droids, or “bots,” which resulted from countless hours and all-nighters in the lab—sometimes with Elkaim showing up at 2am to help iron out kinks—do not resemble actual “bulls” or “matadors” but compact little gizmos that seem like they could actually come to life after the lights go out in the lab and everyone goes home.

“Our bot was made out of a kind of particle board, but one group actually used a transparent plastic so you can actually see into the guts of the bot,” says Andrew Patterson, a senior double majoring in computer science and computer engineering. (He also happens to be working on a glove-based computer mouse that controls the cursor through movements of the hand.)

What do autonomous robots have to do with technology today? According to Professor Elkaim, everything.

“This underlies everything from your vacuum cleaner to your toaster to your cell phone to the new cars that park themselves. The sense of automation has made such amazing progress possible at a societal level,” says professor Elkaim. “Robots help people be good at what they are good at—being people. A machine doesn’t forget, doesn’t get grumpy or have off days. It’s an absolute consistency.”

Bullfighting Droids will be battling all day at Exhibit 37 in the Expo Building.


Search Engine

Adventurer Eric Stackpole has been burning the candle at both ends. Designing his second Remotely Operated Vehicle for underwater exploration is “just a work of passion,” he says—a passion he somehow finds time for when not working on his senior thesis at the University of Santa Clara’s School of Mechanical Engineering.

But dividing his time between school and building robots is one of Stackpole’s talents. While an undergrad at San Jose State, he once built a robot named ESTR that he outfitted with a web cam and sent to attend lectures in his stead, controlling her from his dorm room. “It could access anything a wheelchair could access,” says Stackpole.

ESTR is one name on an impressive little list of robots Stackpole has been tinkering with since high school, and the drive behind his passion is clear: exploration.
“In the last 10 years alone, some of the greatest exploration that has been done—missions to the deepest parts of Earth’s oceans and the highest latitudes of Mars’ poles, and many places in between—has been with telerobots,” says Stackpole.

His latest Remotely Operated Vehicle—we’ll call it the second OpenRov for now—was inspired by his desire to delve into the mysterious depths of Hall City Cave, a cavern in the mountains of Northern California with a seemingly bottomless water-filled shaft rumored to contain a stash of stolen gold. Although many people have attempted to explore the shaft, no one has ever reached its end.

“Using a home-built OpenROV submarine, I intend to telerobotically explore the parts of this submerged labyrinth that have never been seen by human eyes before,” says Stackpole, whose OpenROV features a high-resolution camera on board—part of its mobile device “brain”—and magnetic thrusters that allow it to go to more extreme depths than ROV-1.

But the most notable aspect of Stackpole’s new OpenROV is that it is an “open hardware project,” meaning that it will be built from “everyday parts,” or materials that can be obtained at tech and hardware stores (rather than commissioned by special companies), and the entire blueprint will be open and free to the public.

“The open hardware movement is just emerging now, but it has huge potential,” he says. “The advantages to keeping it open is that the design work is transferable, the cost of development is spread among users and it’s shared within a community of people—a lot of times the most brilliant and capable engineers happen to like open hardware stuff too. The one stipulation for the open hardware project is that it always remain in the public domain—all subsequent modifications and improvements in design are to be shared with the community, just as the first design was.

So: a project motivated by an altruistic desire to share the ability to explore the world’s mysterious places and not by patents, copyrights or profits? It’s almost too awesome to believe. But listening to Stackpole’s animated breakdown of the project, it becomes apparent that this is exactly what the OpenROV project is about.

“Imagine what we could do if the average person had access to serious telerobotic exploration equipment and could conduct expeditions to unknown places on his or her own with the same ease as playing a video game. That’s what I envision for OpenROV,” says Stackpole.


OpenROV debuts at Exhibit 38 in the Expo Building and is aiming to impress. Get updates at openROV.com.

THE MAKER FAIRE runs Saturday, May 21, 10am-8pm and Sunday, May 22, 10am-6pm at the San Mateo County Fairgrounds, 1346 Saratoga Dr., San Mateo. Tickets $5–$25 (children under 3 years are free) at http://makerfaire-marketwire.eventbrite.com.