At Maker Faire 2014, a mix of ideology and aimlessness

By James Robinson , written on May 19, 2014

From The News Desk

The first lesson of my first Maker Faire: you can’t 3D print a parking space. Arriving at midday, even for an event that goes until 8 p.m., puts me thick in an abyss of cars, crawling in gridlock around the edge of the San Mateo County Events Center. It’s a sure sign the movement is mainstream when it brings with it its own traffic jam.

Viewed from my vehicle, and for an event that had been billed to me by one hardware type as “Burning Man with no nudity, but just as much bad art,” this crowd is as regular as they come. The odd tie-dyed t-shirt stands out of the crowd and there’s a few grizzled sorts to be seen, looking like they just rolled off work as a roadie for ZZ Top. Mostly, it’s families and couples just out for a day of it. This feels far from San Francisco, too. Over the next few hours I saw only one pair of Google Glass and that was on a young boy.

I pull up over a mile away from the venue and stroll back. “You’re going to start by making your own press pass,” the woman at the press tent says to me. I roll my eyes at her in jest, thinking that this is her attempt at humor. It’s not. She hands me a Sharpie pen and I write my name up on a Maker Faire laminate that was already very well made, long before my input was needed.

This is the ninth Maker Faire in San Mateo, although mini-Maker Faires have started to crop up as far afield as Africa. It is a tradition begun and maintained by Make Magazine. In 2006, year one, 20,000 people came. Last year, 120,000 people were here. There are 900 exhibitors set for 2014.

The Maker Faire hits me first like a county fair, or a slightly low-rent music festival, or some sort of other bad junk-food delivery system. It is hot, dusty and crowded. Looking a little closer, I get a taste of the Maker Faire flavor: a stage dedicated to mad scientists making Coke bottles explode by mixing in Mentos, a car remade to resemble a giant rusted metallic octopus. Why is this happening? It doesn’t matter. It just is. The sights have my attention. But this is still a tough place to kill a couple of hours in. Each attraction is really only set up to hold your gaze for a few minutes at a time. It is absorbing, but decentralized and scattered, as much the prevailing domain of amateur hobbyists as it is the hardware industry.

One of the two main pavilions (there’s a raft of ancillary tents and displays away from these) is entirely in the dark. There’s a giant glowing face, a dancing robot with a decapitated mannequin head for a face lit creepily from below and a glowing brain made entirely of light bulbs.

Outside, a group of Bay Area Star Wars nerds show off their fleet of R2D2 clones they’ve made. I walk past a man dressed in the most expensive looking replica Iron Man suit I’ve ever seen. John Collins has a stand to himself, talking about his world record paper airplane with the glee of a man who has cheated death. There are an abundance of robots: one that can pick up balls and throw them around, a robotic arm that can play chess with a human and actually move the pieces. A fenced in cage advertises drone wars. Every Bay Area Lego-affiliated group is on proud display. There’s a whole stand of 3D images laid out with glasses to look at them, which seem to be popular with the early 20s, possibly stoned crowd. I see perhaps my favorite installation of the day from artist Rodwin Pabello, who has restored old Philco Predicta TVs (the design inspiration for the iMac) with LED computer screens and is playing old movies on them.

The second of the two main halls is more business like: Autodesk, Oracle, every 3D printing company under the sun is there, cashing in on the foot traffic for a little brand positioning. But just when I think things have gotten corporate, I step outside to see a potbellied man showing off Beer2D2, a small Heineken keg that he’s turned into a robot that can do chalk drawings on the ground.

An Asian man in a kimono shows off his homemade drone to me. In broken English he says it is his third Maker Faire. The big change for him each year is how many more drone hobbyists there are. He won’t fly his machine for me. It’s too valuable to actually use. The young guy manning ShopBot’s stall -- a company that makes CNC mills -- says he’s come to Maker Faire every year with his Dad. There’s been no great change to it, attendance just slowly ticks up each year. This is a movement growing unchecked.

It’s all fun and nice, but missing a meaning somehow. Or not. Is Maker Faire’s essential point only to show off the collected wares of this nation’s most devoted hobbyists? As a driving motif for an event, “we made this just because we could,” feels both noble and lackluster. Maker Faire is infused with the joy of people who enjoy their hobbies and the collected “ooohs” of the tens of thousands of people that get to appreciate these strange curiosities for a weekend.

But taken against the notion of the maker revolution, or the hardware revolution, which people like to discuss so often, the event feels like another reminder that these movements have many acolytes and have gotten our attention, but they don’t yet have a prevailing focus. Or maybe this whole thing is just an elaborate seed, planted so today's children can one day take up the charge.

A gang of homemade R2D2s is fun to look at, but it’s not going to change the world. Not that it’s trying anyway, which makes the Maker Faire all the more strange and earnest and cryptic.

[image via Maker Faire]