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June 2012

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An Advertiser's Perspective on Maker Faire 2012

by Glen Emerson Morris

The 2012 Maker Faire in San Mateo was easily the most impressive of the Maker events to date. For many in Silicon Valley the annual event, sponsored by Make magazine, has replaced Macworld as *the* yearly event to look forward to. Maker Faire has also replaced Macworld as the annual event most likely to indicate the immediate future of the advertising industry, which is why I attended it.

For those not familiar with it, the Maker Faire is the do-it-yourself equivalent of the Consumer Electronics Show. In just a few years the Maker movement has gone from zero impact to become one of the driving forces in the development of consumer oriented technologies. While it is true that anyone familiar with Hollywood special effects technology would find little new at Maker Faire, they would likely be shocked at the low prices. Technology that only Lucas Film or Disneyworld could afford a few years is now within the reach of the average SMB advertiser.

Want to make a window display with lighting effects resembling a Michael Jackson concert? Want a robot to make your sales pitch? Want an animatronic display with more action than a Lionel train set with all the accessories? No problem. This year's Maker Faire could provide them, and a lot more.

In the future, 2012 will likely be seen as the year the interactive displays really took off. This year the digital world broke out into the real 3D. Instead of using 3D goggles to join a virtual world within the computer, new affordable technology is allowing computers to break into the real world, through control of lighting, 3D printing, robots and animatronics.

At the heart of this revolution is a small computer called the Arduino microcontroller. Developed a few years ago as an open standard by a small group in Italy, the Arduino is designed to provide artists and engineers with an easy way to program elaborate lighting artwork, animatronics and robotics.

One of the coolest things about the Arduino is that it's designed to allow a wide variety of additional expansion boards to plug into it, greatly extending its capability to sense and control what is going on in its environment. It's the best erector set an interactive display designer ever had.

March of the Robots

Nothing seems to show off the capability of the Arduino more than the many robots based on it. Robots were so pervasive at this year's Maker Faire one had to be on constant alert to avoid stepping on small robots scurrying along the floor, or running into larger ones that might step on you,

The robots tended to fall into two categories. The most common were small, four wheeled, robots that wandered the floor automatically avoiding any objects they randomly encountered, with price varying according to size. The other type of robots were larger, and offered varying degrees of useful functionality. Some even had the ability to speak, and one could make a pretty good presentation.

Meet Roy the Robot

Roy the Robot is our Editor's Pick for Best of Show. It was easily the most impressive robot displayed at Maker Faire 2012. Even though Roy is still under development, it made the best sales pitch I ever saw an animatronic make. Roy is capable of basic facial expressions, a mouth synched to recorded vocal tracks, and two arms capable of making a wide variety of gestures with articulate fingers. And it's got personality people can't take their eyes off of.

One of the most attention grabbing things about Roy the Robert is that it's primarily made out of wood. To keep costs down, Roy is made of pieces cut using a computer controlled laser cutter. The servos and other mechanical components are low cost, off the shelf, items.

Roy's creator, Brian Roe, is funding Roy's development through the Kickstarter website. So far, he's attracted 66 backers raising $5577 of of $8000 needed to complete development. If he doesn't reach the $8000 goal by July 3, 2012 he says he'll stop development.

Currently, Roe is offering Roy component kits as a thank you for donations. For a $100 donation, you get a complete hand kit. For $850 you get, “Roy's Ultimate Arm Display fully assembled, including everything in Roy's Arm Display pledge plus all the control electronics, powers supply and animation software. Everything you need to pull the arm out of the box and be up and running in no time.”

Roe's project is worth funding. Over the next week the members the Colorado Business Marketing Association will likely spend more than $4000 on lunches they could probably manage to do without. That money, donated to Brian Roe's project, would open a new era in interactive advertising. Skip lunch. Invest in our industry's future instread. Contribute to Roy's development instead at

Lighting Displays Without Limits

Almost as impressive as the robots at Maker Faire were the different lighting technologies on display. In fact, there we so many lighting projects on display this year that one of the fairground's biggest halls was just dedicated to lighting projects. The main lights were kept turned off to make the light projects stand out, and they definitely did.

Since the development of the variable color LED, the potential to create elaborate lighting presentations has become enormous. All that was missing was a way to program the lights to create elaborate lighting effects. Not surprisingly the Arduino turned out to be perfect for the job. All you need now is an Arduino, a few of the right expansion boards and lots of cheap vairable color LEDs (think eBay).


LEDs weren't the only lighting technology shown evolving at Maker Faire. Jon Beck from CLUE, the Columbia Laboratory for Unconventional Electronics, demonstrated a technique to silk-screen EL displays with electroluminescent ink manufactured by Dupont. A few hundred dollars worth of raw material could make dozens of 8 ½ x 11 inch EL displays. Likely we'll see ink jet printers that can make EL displays within a few years.

Bicycle wheel advertising – a well spoken case

One of the booths at the Maker Faire demonstrated a bicycle light that can be programed spell words, and form simple images like logos, as the wheel turns. The trick is a small gadget about the size of Bic lighter that clips to a wheel spoke. It contains a string of different colored LEDs a microprocessor and a replaceable battery. The microprocessor has built in light, orientation and motion detectors so it can be programmed to automatically come on only at night, and only when the wheel is in motion. Once activated, the microprocessor creates the illusion of words by displaying a sequence of LED patterns. The human eye remembers the lights briefly so the sequence of LED patterns is perceived as an image or word. Amazingly, you can buy the non-customizable versions of the lights for dollars on eBay (from China of course). The programmable versions will cost a bit more, but will be well worth it.

While designed for bicycles, the lights can be adapted to window and in-store displays by attaching them to a motor driven rod or stick. With a licensed electrician, an outdoor display for night time could easily be created.

Electrically conductive paint & Thread

One of the more “popular with teenagers” exhibits at Maker was an electrically conductive paint that allows you to place LEDs and other light devices in places never possible before, like all over the human body. It's low cost, and it's used just like normal paint. There's also a daisywheel Arduino model designed to be woven into clothing, using conductive thread.

Quad copter cameras

One of the hottest toys at Maker Faire was the quad coptor, the latest incarnation of the popular remote controlled helicopter. The quad copter is driven by four motors independently driving four propellers. Direction is determined by varying the speed of the motors. Slightly slowing the speed of one or motors will cause that side of the copter to drop, causing the copter to move in that direction. The result is a very stable and precisely controllable platform that, I believe, will inevitably be adapted to serve as a remote controlled camera platform.

The emphasis is on “remote controlled.” It will be possible to program quad copter cameras to automatically move, following the action live, much as a live cameraman would. In the three camera shoot, requiring three different cameramen, could be replaced by the “dozen camera” shoot requiring one computer operator. The equipment costs would be marginal. The quad copter platform could sell for under $150 each, including a HD remote controlled digital camera. Quad copters are available that use the Arduino combined with a shield (expansion board) that can calculate air speed, altitude, 3 axis acceleration, magnetic orientation, and many other data points.

3D Printing for under $1400

3D printing systems were back with record low prices. A team from 3D Objects led by industry veteren Cathy Lewis demonstrated the new Cubify 3D printer, with prices starting at $1350. The Cubify is designed to be a civilized 3D printer fit for the living room and not the garage. It has an elegant design, and looks good next to a Mac

Printing objects with powdered wood

Unusual objects tend to get attention and a team at Berkeley has figured out how to print some very unusual objects with powdered wood in a 3D printer. The resulting objects could not be created economically any other way. The team has also figured out how to print building components. This could be the dawn of truly low cost housing. And that would be some real revolution.

Lessons from the Maker Movement

It's no accident that Silicon Valley, cradle of the movement that made computing power available to the masses, is also the home of the movement that is making manufacturing available to the masses. It's a revolution happening just in time, too. Digital manufacturing is rapidly eliminating manufacturing jobs, much as automation replaced over 96% of all farm labor. It worked then because out of work farm laborers became factory workers. The problem now is out of factory workers don't have any place to go. The Maker revolution takes the digital revolution to its logical conclusion, self-sufficiency. Everyone personally owns all the manufacturing hardware and software to make everything they need to survive. SMBs will be able to provide the rest; the luxuries, the entertainment, the fashion, travel and everything else that makes going outside your front door worthwhile.

The SMB community can learn a lot from the Maker movement. The most important lesson is one of empowerment. All of a sudden we have the ability create interactive 3D real-world advertising like no one has ever seen before. And we won't owe Apple, or Adobe, or anyone else a fortune for the privilege of creating it. We just have to decide to start using the new tools available to us. Based on what the Makers are already doing with them, it shouldn't be that hard for us.

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It's Time to Let
A Robot
Make Your Sales Pitch!
Roy the Robot
Funded by Kickstarter