Page last updated at 11:28 GMT, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Makers meet up in Newcastle

By Mark Ward
Technology correspondent, BBC News

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Ellie Gibson meets a flaming horse, a singing humanoid and fighting machines at Newcastle's Maker Faire.

A remotely-controlled horse that breathes fire, programmable home robots, one of the UK's first ever case mods and some DIY multi-touch interfaces.

All these and more were on show at the UK's first Maker Faire in Newcastle towards the end of the city's 10-day ScienceFest that celebrated creativity and innovation.

The event, already well-established in the US, brings together home hardware hackers, artists and crafters together to show off what they have built and to swap tips about how to go about making and creating stuff.

Make magazine, which dreams up and details projects people can do at home, helped re-start the movement for home hackery and has now been joined by many other groups.

Robot horse, Science Fest
The Faire featured many different kinds of robots

"It's about the delight of seeing human ingenuity at work," Mark Frauenfelder, editor-in-chief of Make told the BBC.

The net, he said, had been instrumental in letting isolated makers and tinkerers get in touch with other like-minded individuals and get help with whatever they were working on.

UK Maker groups, such as Dorkbot, Makers and Hackers, Folksy, Craft Mafia, Howduino, Oomlout and others all had a presence at the show.

Old iron

The Faire featured some entirely scratch-built projects, such as Simon Rafferty's motorised skateboard, and Iain Sharp's physical realisation of the old Lunar Lander computer game.

Separately two attendees, including the BBC's RAD department, showed off low-cost multi-touch displays that cost only a few hundred pounds, rather than the many thousands Microsoft charges for its Surface computer.

At the gathering, veteran computer enthusiast John Honnibal said the modern Maker movement had a lot in common with the days when computers came in kit form.

"If you build it yourself, you understand how it works," he said.

Mr Honnibal said his experiences with building the £228.85 Compukit UK101 in 1980 stayed with him.

"The experiences set me up for my career," he added.

Mr Honnibal showed off modified cases he had made in 1980 to hold the kit computer and one model that he overclocked to double the speed at which it processed data.

He speculated that they were among the oldest overclocked and case modded computers in the UK.

Standard issue

One of the makers at the event Adrian McEwen said the advent of many standard parts was helping home hardware hackers get going.

Puppet, Science Fest
The Faire brought crafters together with hardware hackers

No longer did they have to scavenge for the bits to get them going. Instead, he said, they could turn to kits based around microcontrollers, such as the Arduino, and put them to work.

"It makes it a lot easier to do interesting things," he said.

Mr McEwen showed off a smart energy meter, which could be hooked up to a web display, to give people a greater sense of their electricity use.

"Typically people only find out about their power use once every three months, when they get a bill," he said.

Greater use of such devices could cut the bills of those that use them and even help utility firms smooth out the peaks in power generation.

Home robotics was also getting a boost from the advent of standard bits, said Paul Foster, a technology evangelist for Microsoft.

In 2009, said Mr Foster, home robots were at the same place Windows was in the 1980s - poised to become ubiquitous.

Basic robot platforms, such as the iRobot Create, were starting to emerge that people could develop on and then swap their creations with others - such a standard platform had been absent before now, he said.

Control software for robots was now much simpler, said Mr Foster. Many of the parts that connect to a computer or game console, such as the Xbox, can be plugged into robots or used to control them.

"Now you can get on with the good stuff and have success early on," he said.



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