This one’s for the makers (part 1)
Fabulous Beasts wouldn’t exist without the maker community; no word of lie. This post may get quite techy but I really just want to convey some of the love and appreciation we have for this global band of free-thinkers and tinkerers.
(This post isn’t an advert for the Fabulous Beasts Maker edition either; that will be part 2).
So what is the maker community?
The best answers come by not dissecting the question too much. It’s simply all the people around the world that like making things and sharing what they do with others.
It’s massively cross-discipline and includes artists, engineers and anyone with a bag of tools and a creative spirit. It ranges from people using algorithms & 3D printing to make cool low-fi vinyl records to those reverse-engineering hundreds of iPod LCDs for giant displays.
It’s also a completely international affair. There are loud Australians brandishing Crocodile Dundee knives as they teardown electronics through to methodical Germans blogging about marathon sessions of toy train repairs.
When Fabulous Beasts went to a MakerFaire
There are also hundreds of MakerFaire events across the globe making the whole movement more influential than ever. Fabulous Beasts was lucky enough to showcase at a huge MakerFaire in Shenzhen, China in August 2015. This was our first time in China and, my word, it was amazing…
We ate lots of strange and delicious things. We gasped at the enormity of SEG, the famous multi-story electronics market. I watched with surreal bemusement as our CEO, Alex, transformed into a 20 year old throwing shapes on a dance floor with a group of UK trade officials. (There is video evidence, but maybe I shouldn’t link that… maybe…)
At the MakerFaire we sweated ourselves thin in the humid China heat demoing Fabulous Beasts inside a mock-up of a London underground train. We panicked as a flood of overly excited Chinese children poured into our booth to play the game without a shred of shyness.
The maker folks we met kept us in one piece throughout the trip. Special thanks go to our amazing friends at Chinwag and Tina Tu from the UKTI’s China-branch for keeping us on-track and safe. A man in a bright pink t-shirt, Aaron from Oomlout who incidentally sold me my first Arduino kit, also showed us the ropes of WeChat, emoji stickers and importantly, Taoboa, where one can purchase a lamp in the shape of a dog doing a poop.
Without the endless support and goodwill from other crazy people like us, Alex & I would have had a far less useful and enjoyable visit. We might even have been left stranded, slowly dying of thirst inside a fake tube carriage.
Some companies are cooler than others…
As well as awesome individuals the community relies on a special number of organisations that do things right. It’s an odd chicken-and-egg thing with technology, especially for makers and small companies.
Creative people can only use what technical folks provide and the technical folks can only afford to make what the creative people need… This results in some companies having a way more maker-friendly mindset than others.
Case and point, we use Bluetooth to allow the platform to talk to a tablet or smartphone running the app. With this piece of the puzzle comes a shout-out to two enlightened maker-friendly companies: Adafruit & Nordic Semiconductor. (Disclaimer: no-one is sponsoring this article).
Adafruit are a group of wizards that design, manufacture and support maker-friendly electronics. Their documentation is made by humans for humans and their firmware is (usually) commented.
Nordic are an edge-case of a semiconductor company that actually make their chips accessible to small companies and individuals. In-order to develop a Bluetooth product you may need to shell-out £1,000s for development tools; Nordic give it all away for £50.
Our prototypes have always used Adafruit Bluetooth modules that use Nordic chips. Our production design uses a China-sourced Nordic-based module; one of the easiest design decisions I’ve had to make in all this.
As I’ve learned more about electronics and maker culture it’s been fascinating to see how this kind of symbiotic relationship is subtly crucial to the health and creative output of the community. Makers in league with Adafruit can supply endless creativity, but it all kind-of hinges on semiconductor manufacturers, like Nordic, being friendly to the cause (many aren’t).
To the Adafruits & Nordics of the world, thanks for being cool!
Now time for a short story:
One day, about a year ago, the Fabulous Beasts prototype wasn’t working. Chris discovered that the Bluetooth and NFC electronics were both talking at the same time and the poor Arduino was getting very confused. Chris had 7 days left to solve the problem before Alex took the prototype to America.
Chris couldn’t solve the problem and so Fabulous Beasts was no-more and everyone went their separate ways… the end.
No wait! Enter Paul Stoffregen, electronics superhero and lord of the oscilloscope!
As it turns out the way a communications protocol, called SPI, was implemented in Arduino meant that everything was talking at the same time and information was getting lost. In my darkest hour (slightly OTT) in a thread on Paul’s excellent site, PJRC, I discovered a valiant effort by the man himself to solve the problem.
He’d spent days staring at oscilloscope traces and patching-up lots of code in Arduino. As I read through the thread, implemented my own changes and finally got everything working, I had this overwhelming feeling of gratefulness for this mystical man telepathically doing all this for me.
Obviously he wasn’t doing it for me. I doubt he even knows that Fabulous Beasts exists. He does make and sell a very popular Arduino offshoot so was clearly encouraged to do this for business reasons. But if you ever glance at the thread, and see the wonderful back and forth of other users encouraging and trying to help out, you’ll see a little snippet of who “makers” really are.
So, there you have it. That’s the end of my homage to makers. In part 2 I’ll be talking more about how we want to do something great in the spirit of making and, ideally, to encourage the next generation of makers in some small way.
Thanks for reading, Chris out.