The 3 Problems with MakerFaire

It’s nice to see the Maker “movement” arrive at a grand stage of its own, well, design. Out there in deep Queens, where the Mets and Men in Black play, the Maker community gathered this September to showcase their craft spirit and the do-it-yourself tools that power it.

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There are arduinos, robots, quadcopters, wearables, e-textiles, and endless 3D printers. Around them is the hurried chatter of eager nerds and home hackers – people who want to tell you what they’ve learned and how you could go further.

I’ve always wanted to go.

But in attendance this year, I was disappointed by three overabundances. Corporate branding, feral families, and miles of 3D printing all suggested that the Maker spirit has slipped into predictability and showing-not-doing. I didn’t want to visit a well-branded kid’s science fair, I was looking for something with more… chops.

Innovate, Don’t Assimilate 

Corporate sponsorship is never something I find repugnant. How could I? My work routinely brings me to partnerships between brand and event or organization, and I labor to ensure we get activations right for all parties. Sponsorships are worth $50 Billion dollars annually. They represent one of the most sizeable parts of the marketing world. And everytime an event/community gains enough visibility to be interesting, brands will look for ways to share values or assist the nascent organization.

This means that seeing RadioShack teach soldering was fucking awesome. They supplied the equipment, the instruction, the materials, and the inspiration. Over the past few years, I’ve seen RadioShack practice what they preach by stocking arduinos at every store, then providing books and phsyical computing assistance in a dedicated retail section. These guys belong at MakerFaire.

Microsoft was equally well-positioned. They showed off big toys and little home projects. They staffed their tent with charismatic researchers from around the world. In place of hobbyists, Microsoft showed its impressive yet human tech credentials. Each staffer was a Neil deGrasse Tyson of nanoparticles or computer sensors or 3D modeling.

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But what were Kix, Disney, Coke Zero, and Ford doing? This co-optation showed me the event had become more about its demographics than its substance. As young families dominated attendees these brands were looking for new, innovative ways to renew their presence in city households. But each failed to show off credentials for being at something called a “Maker” fair. The latest Ford model was simply plopped among booths of quadcopters and underwater robots like it was progressive hacker design. Kix sponsored a low-imagination update of the Pinewood Derby. Disney provided the title sponsorship but nothing discernible to add. At the very least, I would hope Disney could be inspired by the event to create programming about Maker projects in the average American home. Don’t just slap your label on innovation, make your brand innovative and earn your booth.

Catering to 10,000 Families 

When I was younger, nothing held the thrills of Boston’s Science Museum. My dad secured us an annual membership that we used constantly. So with New York’s Hall of Science as the MakerFaire hosts, it makes a ton of sense that families would be in ample attendance. What was less clear was just how watered down the entire event would be to accommodate this audience.

In place of adult tools, useful projects, and helpful workshops, everything became about toys. The 3D Printers worked on oozing out playful tchotchkes. Robot demonstrations became simple games. One tent promised passerbys a t-shirt if they could catapult a rock into a small hole 10 feet away.

The tragedy here was the lose of ability and purpose. Hobbyist creators are already maligned as kids-who-won’t-grow-up and amateur technologists who cannot create meaningful hardware projects. So while each kid-oriented demo briefly showed kids and parents how a few lines of code worked, or how easy robot controls are, they also lowered the entire event’s IQ.

My solution: adult swim. Find a way to partition the MakerFaire so that adults who are looking for more fidelity can avoid the watered down presentations. Add a beer sponsor for this three hour session from 5:30 – 8:30 on Saturday and Sunday, and I think MakerFaire would be better off.

3D Printing Needs to Grow Up

The problem with consumer 3D Printing is that the printers remain more interesting than the printed. Looking at the sleek additive manufacturing tools rolling out of start-ups, it’s exciting to imagine the world of things one could do with one. Then the machine whirrs to life and prints a simple tchotchke – the ‘hello world’ of 3D Printing. The limitless horizon of imagination shortens considerably.

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At MakerFaire, there were dozens of new 3D Printers given an entire “village” at the event’s north end. But as one wove down the corridors, they were churning out the same neon polymer models. They were quick to compare features (linear vs. vector, level of infill detailing) but none had imagined the top consumer priority: a use case.

3D Printing has spent the past two years celebrating its arrival and none of that time seems to have been applied to what the hype is about. Even for folks who want 3D Printing to become something of a revolution, there’s no clear target for disruption. Will this print 3M products so we don’t need to go to the hardware store? Or will it be for modeling Warhammer pieces? Both are current use cases. Neither are compelling.

The sublime silver lining

Three frustrations don’t define an outing. I was impressed, and I mean really impressed, by the Arduino Yún and the work of Temboo to support it with native APIs. With an Arduino unit like this, I could have made my Social Hearth A LOT simpler. So after speaking with some of the folks at Temboo, I’ve set my eyes on getting one.

In general, I like the Maker movement and the related periodicals, hardware projects, and partners it’s assembled. But if it wants to be serious – think Kickstarter not Draw Something – it will move beyond entertaining folks with the cheap wows of novel gadgets. When you teach someone how to make, you teach them how to think and advocate for thinking. That’s what brought me to Maker culture and it’s a core message I hope will not be lost.

This entry was posted in Culture, culture studies, free culture, ideas, Internet, internet of things, new york, programming, technology and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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