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Making It in Memphis

The DIY technology maker movement is hacking it in the Mid-South.

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A GYM FOR GEEKS

The would-be burglar counts himself lucky that he saw an interior light switch on and immediately spotted your shadow moving across the window curtain, giving him time to flee.

Not that anyone was home. The burglar is frightened away by a cheap motion-detector you plugged into a hobby microcontroller that turned on the electric motor that slowly waved a plastic fin in front of a lamp.

No, it's not that scene from Home Alone but a practical example of the many kinds of devices people can hack together with like-minded tinkerers thanks to the "maker movement" — inventors, hackers, and artists forming local groups around the world — that is now also emerging in Memphis.

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"It's a gym for geeks," said Brett Henley of the MidSouth Makers, describing the three-year-old group's community workshop (or "maker space") tucked away in the light-industrial south end of Bartlett's historic district. The facility is bristling with tools and technology ranging from a glass kiln to a sandblasting booth to cutting-edge 3D printers that Henley's colleagues built from parts they made on other 3D printers.

Much of what the group produces seems to be more tools for making other things, but it's a normal pattern of incremental development in the maker movement. Educating and encouraging each other is as important to the MidSouth Makers as building cool stuff. "We collect hobbies," explained another member. "We do a lot of different things; it's like 'hobby ADHD.'"

A GLOBAL MOVEMENT

Makers love to tweak, disassemble, re-create, and invent new uses for technology.

Designing a stencil to be sandblasted onto a pint glass - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Designing a stencil to be sandblasted onto a pint glass

When they work or goof around together — pooling their money and tools — their most interesting projects bridge the gap between digital and physical, creating practical or quirky devices normally beyond the capabilities of basement inventors.

The maker movement got its name and its flagship publication in 2005 when tech publishing executive Dale Dougherty launched MAKE magazine shortly before organizing the movement's first expo, Maker Faire, in San Francisco. Dougherty coined the term "maker" to replace or rebrand "hacker," a term too intertwined with cyber crime.

Dougherty's first issue of MAKE showed readers how to make a $14 video camera stabilizer from household items, how to take professional-quality aerial photos using a kite, how to tame a jumble of wires into a 5-in-1 network cable, and how to read the magnetic stripe on a credit card "to find out what your credit card company really knows about you."

Since then, more than 200 local maker groups have set up "maker spaces" — many holdouts prefer "hacker spaces" — all over North America, and an additional 250-plus groups have set up collective project spaces throughout the world.

THE ARDUINO MICROCONTROLLER

Many makers are fond of simple robotic and automation projects, and the Arduino is at the heart of many of these inventions. The Arduino is a dirt-cheap, flexible, open-source microcontroller — essentially, the brain of a computer — that enables artists, designers, hobbyists, and (mostly) hackers to create interactive objects or environments. Running on free software, an Arduino board can sense the environment around it by receiving input from a variety of available plug-in sensors and can, in turn, affect its own surroundings by turning on lights and motors.

Donndelinger's quad helicopter - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Donndelinger's quad helicopter

Examples of Arduino-controlled projects:

• Flame-throwing jack-o'-lantern

• Secret knock-detecting door lock

• LED turn-signal for cyclists, sewn into a jacket

• Tree-climbing robot

• Enable a houseplant to post a tweet when it needs watering

• Web-based controllers for home appliances, HVAC, and security

(pro tip: change the password often)

• Radio-controlled quadcopter with sonar anti-collision/crash protection

• Greenhouse automation

• RFID access control system

[via Instructables.com]

REMAKING THE ECONOMY

While the maker movement attracts many members from the tech sector, its attraction is rooted in more old-fashioned impulses, analogous to the DIY urban homesteading culture. And like urban homesteading practices (canning, back-yard chickens, front-yard vegetables, knitting), maker practices can either save time and money or suck time and money away, albeit in entertaining ways.

"My grandfathers and great-grandfathers were lodge members," explained Joe Ferguson, the volunteer facility director for MidSouth Makers and organizer of the recent HackMemphis event. "It's that kind of community: small, localized groups of men and women. It's more of a lifestyle or a mentality than anything else."

Claudio Donndelinger's quad helicopter has attracted questions from Bartlett police. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Claudio Donndelinger's quad helicopter has attracted questions from Bartlett police.

Until well into the 20th century, many Americans were still accustomed to mending their own clothing, repairing machinery, making toys for their children and building or expanding their own homes. As MAKE's editor-in-chief, Mark Frauenfelder, wrote, "What we've gained in terms of convenience is offset by a diminishing understanding of how things work. It's hard to learn anything by simply consuming someone else's products all the time."

As this tech-influenced DIY community gained momentum, makers began to evolve from hobbyists into entrepreneurs, spawning their own markets and creating new products and services. Despite the movement's grass-roots, anarchic vibe, these bands of inventive makers equipped with open-source technologies have begun to inspire new innovations in manufacturing, engineering, industrial design, hardware technology, and education.

Robby Grant, a web developer with archer>malmo by day and half of the experimental/avant-garde music duo >mancontrol< by night, has participated in MidSouth Makers events.

"The maker movement parallels where advertising is headed, where we are moving from building web sites for clients to building products for clients," Grant said.

While the Memphis group has not sparked a new industrial revolution here (yet), it fosters innovation via events like the HackMemphis programming marathons while maintaining contact with the business incubator Start Co. (formerly Launch Memphis), the University of Memphis, and Hacker Scouts Guild 017.

Midsouth Makers member Danny Chamberlin shows off the Lego head he made. - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • Midsouth Makers member Danny Chamberlin shows off the Lego head he made.

HACKER SCOUTS

Operating from its first core value, "the unrelenting pursuit of knowledge," the Hacker Scouts is a national organization that teaches boys and girls how to use both soldering irons and computers to build tech projects.

The Hacker Scouts even award merit badges, but the resemblance to the Boy Scouts of America has caused a big problem for them. The BSA sent the national organization a cease and desist order this summer, demanding that they drop "scouts" from the name.

The hackers' legal outlook for using the word "scouts" is doubtful, as the Boy Scouts successfully pressured the new gay-averse Catholic Scouts of St. George to change its name to the "Catholic Troops of St. George," while the much larger evangelical scouting spinoff, Trail Life USA, didn't bother trying to use the S-word.

Organized by Maurrean Barger, the local Hacker Scouts "guild" starts its kids on a "Hackerling Circuit" project using an Arduino controller. With that experience behind them, the kids are able to design their own projects.

"Young people are voracious consumers of technology, and their experience is enhanced when they are able to exercise control over this technology," said Richie Trenthem, associate director of IT services at Rhodes College.

"The micro-computer era started in basements and garages. As teenagers, Bill Gates and Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak were instigating the consumerization of technology that had only been accessible to hobbyists."

JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks

MAKING THE MID-SOUTH MAKERS

The first three MidSouth Makers were Daniel Hess (the current president), John Wood, and Kevin Dunn. In 2010, they tapped into the loose global network of maker spaces via the site hackerspaces.org and found mentors in the Chicago, Nashville, and Huntsville maker groups. (They have subsequently mentored startup maker groups in Little Rock and Knoxville.)

At first, the group met every week at Republic Coffee to recruit members and plan their programs. By the end of 2010, they raised enough money to rent workshop space adjacent to the old Defense Depot facility off Airways. After 18 months, the group moved to the more accessible space in Bartlett.

"Bartlett wasn't the preferred location, but it serves our needs, and it's worked out really well for us," said Ferguson, who is not surprised that the group is outgrowing its space once again, despite stereotypes equating hackers with loners.

"The community has a certain dynamic," Ferguson said. "Maker groups tend to pull in very introverted, socially awkward people. I used to be like that and didn't want to go meet new people. It's a bad stigma, like, 'Oh well, that guy's a geek; he was shunned in school." And the thing is, that's becoming the new normal. People are pretending to be geeks to be cool. Meanwhile, our target audience doesn't identify themselves as nerds or geeks because they are just 'them' ... they have their quirky interests, and they do things their own way."

3D printer making parts to build another 3D printer - JUSTIN FOX BURKS
  • Justin Fox Burks
  • 3D printer making parts to build another 3D printer

Everyone at MidSouth Makers seems to have a passion. Claudio Donndelinger's is 3D printing. When he joined MidSouth Makers, he was a repair technician with a cell phone company. After mastering 3D printing technology, he found a new job with Aleph Objects, Inc., manufacturer of the Lulzbot 3D printer, working remotely as a tech-support representative. But 3D printing doesn't dominate Donndelinger's attention at MidSouth Makers. He's very interested in his fellow members' plans to build a "go-kart couch" hybrid this winter.

For the local group, learning is a two-way transaction. Rick Mayfield, assistant technical director with the University of Memphis' theater and dance department, approached MidSouth Makers to learn more about recent innovations with LED lights, small robotics, and embedded Arduino systems.

"In turn, Rick has been a great resource to the group, because he has a lot of that old-school small-electronics knowledge — like how to set up an electric motor to turn a certain way — that a lot of our members don't have," Ferguson said.

The group's membership trends to white middle-class technologists, but that is not by design. The most obvious common trait is curiosity and personal development.

"We try to be diverse and very encouraging," Ferguson said. "A lot of the draw is 'young white dudes,' and that's fine, but we want to be diverse and open to new ideas. We're here to serve our members, whatever they want to learn how to do — programming, welding, glass, etc. If you are capable or motivated to do something for yourself, we typically have somebody who can help you get started."

Gary Bridgman is a Memphis freelance writer. Learn more at garybridgman.com.

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