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At HackJam, great minds tinker alike

From 3-D printers to a mood-changing eye mask, creative mash-up HackJam helps inventors turn ideas into reality as the maker movement reaches Hong Kong, writes Charley Lanyon

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 June, 2013, 9:21am
 

It's a quiet Tuesday night, but Dim Sum Labs - a workspace shared by a motley crowd of tinkerers - is a hive of activity. Located in a nondescript building in Sheung Wan, the small room is taken up by a large desk, a couch, a refrigerator stocked with beer and a large work table. One end is full of equipment: what looks like a drill press and other large tools.

While most people are hunched over laptops, one man is turning over in his hands a spotlight made from LEDs; another person is straightening wires running from a circuit board to what looks like a sleep mask. The room goes quiet as one man gingerly lifts a large box onto the work table and pulls out its contents. First is a life-like paper mask of Bill Clinton's face, which draws laughs all round. Then out comes the large torso of a robot.

Welcome to HackJam, a meeting of craftspeople, hobbyists, designers, programmers, engineers and do-it-yourselfers held weekly at Dim Sum Labs.

The maker movement is a way to push society forward
Andy Kong, co-founder, Mini Maker Faire

The initiative got its start two years ago when tech entrepreneur John Buford noticed a lack of communal workspaces here compared to the West, where they have proliferated in recent years. Drawing inspiration from Tech Shop, a chain of spaces in the US where people can go to use specialised, cutting-edge tools, he gathered a group of people who now share the Sheung Wan space.

They may be pursuing different projects and come from disparate backgrounds (there is even a recently retired British lawyer), but everyone is united in their identity. They are all makers.

Not unlike the hobbyists building early computers in Silicon Valley garages, makers are a tech-based extension of a DIY culture that first emerged in the US West Coast. Their ethos is captured by US Make magazine, which launched in 2005 as a publication that "celebrates your right to tweak, hack and bend any technology to your will".

Since then, they have grown into a global movement, with tens of thousands of enthusiasts gathering to show off their creations and share new techniques or hacks at "Maker Faires" held in cities from San Francisco to New York, and Taipei to Shenzhen.

The movement has also taken hold in Asia, and nearby Shenzhen is now known to makers all over the world. "The world centre of maker culture right now, other than the [San Francisco] Bay Area, is Shenzhen," says Dim Sum Labs member Tom Grec. "Everybody who is involved in making knows the electronics markets in Shenzhen. They are nirvana to makers."

Despite Hong Kong's proximity to this hub, the local movement has been slow to grow. The community here is small and Dim Sum Labs is the city's only "hack space", where like-minded people can share ideas, expertise, tools and costs. But that situation is starting to change.

"What we've seen in the past 10 years is a revival in valuing the ability to create or modify things yourself," says Buford.

The city's second Mini Maker Faire in August gives a hint of its developing momentum: in recent weeks, local makers have been frenetically tweaking their inventions in preparation for the event and the excitement is palpable.

Ex-lawyer Grec, for example, has combined his interests in electronics and hypnotism to create an eye mask with embedded LED lights. The mask reads your brainwaves and changes the lights accordingly. Depending on the program Grec feeds the machine, the wearer will feel relaxed, experience lucid dreams or even see hallucinations.

Fellow maker Arnold Wu King-lok made his first robot when he was nine years old, and his machines have grown in size and sophistication since. A self-employed interior designer, he went on to start the Hong Kong Robot Union, which meets monthly at a KFC outlet "to talk about robots". At last year's fair, he showed a two-wheeled electric vehicle, based on the Segway, that he built from scratch and this year he plans to unveil a new and improved version. In the long-term, he is exploring ways to apply the technology to wheelchairs for the disabled.

Some inventions may seem more the purview of science fiction than amateur tinkerers. Brian Ho Yuk-kwong, another robot enthusiast, brought a fully functional humanoid robot arm to last year's fair. This year, he hopes to unveil a flying machine controlled using glasses which give him a view from the cockpit.

Robots and flying machines tend to get the most media attention, but makers aren't confined to hi-tech pursuits. One member is focused on developing an efficient hydroponics system that can provide a steady supply of homegrown vegetables to his family. And while Andy Kong Chung-to also has a background in robotics, he now works entirely in paper: creating large paper models (the Clinton mask, for example) based on objects that he models on the computer.

A co-founder of Hong Kong's first Maker Faire, Kong says he became involved in the scene because he doesn't want the city to just be a commercial market. "If I want something and just go out and buy it, that cannot sustain society. The maker movement is a way to push society forward."

Some advocates, such as Chris Anderson, the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine, go so far as to suggest that makers will fuel a new kind of industrial revolution. With greater access to technological tools from software to laser-cutters and 3-D printers - which allow prototypes to be made more quickly and cheaply - creative individuals are seizing the opportunity realise their ideas, and put them into production.

At this year's Maker Faire, much of the attention will be on Buford and his latest venture - a personal desktop 3-D printer called the MakiBox, which has had the local maker community buzzing.

Buford studied mechanical engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, where he explored his interest in electronics, robotics and biomedical engineering. He left after five years without graduating but found work with toy companies, designing engines and solving technical problems, and later piloted several failed start-ups. His work assignments often brought him to Asia, and he eventually settled in Hong Kong.

Finding fertile ground for start-ups, he launched his company, Makible.com as a crowd-sourcing platform for small production projects. While developing prototypes, however, he discovered a real demand for a dependable, affordable, easy to use 3-D printer. Enter the MakiBox. While typical 3-D printers can take up to 80 hours to set up, the MakiBox can be operational in four. It is quiet, efficient and costs only US$300.

The cool factor aside, Buford is careful to stress it will take at least another generation before his desktop printer it is ready to use out of the box, and the fairly cheap plastic it uses to build up solid objects is not suitable for many applications. But what it represents is the ability for people to make what they need affordably, and at home.

Wholly created in Hong Kong, the MakiBox is also a source of pride - and a sign local makers are stepping up their game.

Already the organisers of this summer's Mini Maker Faire are expecting a huge boost in turn out. "This year the space is four times larger," says co-founder Mike Li. "We had 20 makers at the last fair and this year we will have 50. The audience last time was 600, and this year we expect 2,500."

The growth is impressive, but Li is in no hurry.

"We are taking it slowly and we want it to grow slowly each year. It's a long-term project. We want to build up the community."

charley.lanyon@scmp.com

Hong Kong Mini Maker Faire, Aug 17, 10am-6pm, Hong Kong Polytechnic University. For details, go to hkmakerfaire.wordpress.com

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