Monday, June 27, 2011

Field Trip: Vancouver Mini-Maker Faire

This past weekend saw the first Vancouver Mini-Maker Faire down at the Great Northern Way Campus. Both of these noun strings might be of interest to you Free Geek types, so read on to find out a little about each.

Post Contains At Least Two Giant Mechanical Spiders.

The Maker Faire Phenomenon

The Vancouver Mini-Maker Faire is the first Maker Faire event in Vancouver. Hopefully more will follow. The Maker Faire concept itself comes from O'Reilly Media and is closely knit with Make magazine. The events and the magazine are centerpieces of a burgeoning homegrown DIY movement, particularly involving technology, as espoused by numerous websites such as,, and of course the aforementioned Make magazine, but also exploring low-tech crafting and trends such as yarnbombing.

O'Reilly licenses out the Maker Faire name to anyone who can put on an event and meet their requirements. The first Maker Faire took place in California (predictably) in 2006 -- since then it's spread to several cities in North America and several in the UK.

Great Northern Way Campus

2011 has been the kind of year to inspire nostalgia for the perfect summers of a misremembered childhood. On Commercial Drive we nearly had hail on Saturday morning; the rain bucketed down. However, I packed up an umbrella and walked down to the Great Northern Way campus, 20 acres of land hidden in the no-man's-land of railyards and warehousing between Clark Drive and Main Street.

This land used to belong to Finning Tractor, but in 2000 was donated to SFU, ECIAD (now ECUAD), UBC, and BCIT. The site was and remains an urban brownfield, with a long history of industrial use making the redevelopment of the contaminated site a risky and expensive proposal.

In 2002 or so I participated in the inaugural Undergraduate Semester in Dialogue at SFU, and as part of that program we broke into small groups, each representing one of the institutions, to envision what would happen with this newly-donated chunk of land. My group drew UBC and came up with this report, brimming with undergraduate optimism and sprinkled with contemporary clich├ęs -- synergy, vision, sustainability, community. We proposed an undergraduate program mixing art, design and technology, mixed with industry presence and hitting the cornerstones of on-site day care, sustainable transportation, green buildings, and integrated residential space.

Nearly a decade later, the site is almost unchanged. The original Peter Busby plan for the site included a Skytrain stop, and although the VCC-Clark station inched closer in 2006, the 2020 plan to extend service to UBC -- passing right past the Great Northern Way Campus, though it's not clear whether it will stop there -- is a dot on the horizon. Shabby warehouse space still prevails, though bike racks do give it a modern, if post-apocalyptic, look.

There is an academic program on site -- the Masters of Digital Media program, launched in 2007, continues today, in the only building that's received visible attention this century (it has a colourful facade).

One can't help but feel that the site, once a frontier for cooperation between dynamic institutions, is stagnant; the breathless enthusiasm of each press release on GNWC's website is dulled by their volume and seeming lack of progress over the years.

Fortunately the land isn't unused. In additional to commercial tenancy, they offer much-needed production and rehearsal space. Periodically they host interesting events, like 2008's Junkyard Wars competition to make music with machines. (These guys look interesting, but unfortunately their website appears to be moribund.) Lancouver will be held there shortly. And, winding finally back to the subject, the Vancouver Mini-Maker Faire was held there as well.

The Event Itself

The Faire announced its presence at a distance thanks to the omnipresent and excellent Carnival Band and some kind of fire-belching vehicle:

Fire-belching vehicle, photographed unfortunately while dormant
The biggest crowd-pleasers were the two giant mechanical spiders (it's not often that I can pluralize that), one pedal-powered:

...the other electric:

And frankly it's hard to compete with giant spiders if you're trying to win the affection of a 13-year-old attendee (or the rest of us, older nerds with 13-year-old hearts). But there were a lot of great large-scale exhibits outside, best viewed between showers:

Also from the "I don't know what it is but I like it" department:

Inside were two and a half warehouses of tables putting somewhere around a hundred nerds' private obsessions on display -- knitting, robotics, steampunk and software all cheek-by-jowl.

The big winners in the nerd-meme world were clearly Arduino -- the open-source microcontroller platform that has swept the maker world -- and computer-controlled fabrication, including homebrew CNC and 3D printing. You couldn't throw a rock in the place without hitting an Arduino -- and on its way there it would bounce off a 3D printer.

VHS's Thing-O-Matic
Many friends of Free Geek Vancouver were also present -- many of you will be familiar with Vancouver Hack Space (VHS).

The CNC gear on display came courtesy of Army of Evil Robots, staffed by Derek and Helen.

They were displaying the smaller of their two CNC machines, each part home-brew, part commercial setup. CNC, for the uninitiated, is basically a computer-controlled fabrication tool. Drop something appropriately sharp into its grasp, give it a chunk of material to work with -- wood, or brass, or whatever -- and a design that it understands, and it'll transform numbers into something tangible. These are being used to fabricate everything from car parts to collectibles, and have only very recently entered the hobbyist realm. Derek had just discovered that a Sharpie marker would fit into the chuck and was churning out business cards:

Luke C, former Free Geek director and VHS regular, demonstrated his cycEL glow wire kits for bikes:

And of course The Hackery had a table set up, staffed in part by Free Geek volunteer Brian:

I also spotted Joe (prior Free Geek director), Jordan (current Free Geek director), and Ifny (Free Geek founder and also one of the organizing powers behind the event). And too much else to mention -- the soon-to-open Vancouver Tool Library, crafts for kids, things that make noises when you walk past.

Nude, pouting Furbies.

Some great anthropomorphic robots, navigating with ultrasonic eyes.

All in all, a satisfying event, and hopefully a stepping-stone towards future events (held under a more benevolent sky).

I hope some of you made it out this weekend. It's a shame Free Geek Vancouver didn't have a table -- but here's an idea. The Culture Crawl is coming up in November, and they recently changed their boundaries such that the region now includes Free Geek. Anyone interested in putting something together? Who knows, it might not be too late...

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