Thursday, July 31, 2014

"Build First, Plan Later"

"This is you know..."
"I am trying to..."

These are some of the responses from some makers when I asked them "what are you working on mate?". I was puzzled at first. They develop stuff - but they don't know what they are doing??? Then David filled me in when I visited Gold Coast Techspace once.
"We build first, plan later"
That is what they do in makerspaces. They scavenge for gadgets - some they get as donations, some they seek out. One of the guys brought in a box full of computer casing fans. David asked:

"Can we control the speed of them?"
The other guy replied
"Yes you will have to alter the voltage"

I would never have thought about changing the speed of a fan. Breaking stuff creates new affordances that were hidden before. New affordances leads to new designs.

Looking out for things inspires creativity. You begin to think of appropriating them to your purpose. But, you don't have a manual to do so. You need to challenge your own mind. Makers make a mess of objects around them. And they find a way out of the mess. They become naturally creative. Why as humans we are distancing from creativity? We are not messy enough! We use calendars, notepads and planners to plan stuff. In fact we plan too much. In a planned world we don't need to find new paths. Path is written. We just need to follow the script. Makers differ from this. They standout.

How do they improve creativity? They make errors. They are not afraid of doing things wrong. This is not something unfamiliar.
    "Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep"
    - Scott Adams
It's just that we don't use them in our lives, let alone design. We are so used to manuals and how-to videos. Makers like to take risks. They allow themselves to be challenged. Results are awesome - techs that are useful yet aesthetic. Why aesthetic? Because they let some of their mistakes be. That is in fact the whole idea of a hack. Useful and unique to the context.

Makers make errors, they make a mess. So, how do they come out of it? They don't waste time planning. They start 'making'. They accept the challenges and come out on the winning side. They build first which leads to errors. They solve errors using creative thinking - plan. They continue to do this. They harvest ripe fruits in the end. Intrinsic satisfactions of building something valuable to serve you and others. Extrinsic satisfaction of possibly reaching out new markets. 
“When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success.”
J. Robert Oppenheimer
Some of their 'fruits' will be showcased on 16th August in a Science and Tech fair. I will volunteer there! Makers inspire me. And will continue to do so. Can we adopt their practices not only in design, but also in everyday life?
"There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting"
-Lord Buddha

Monday, July 21, 2014

Meeting Makers

In the quest for acquainting with makers and makerspaces I was able to attend another couple of meetings. One of them was centered at a makerspace in a location little far from Brisbane (I won't mind, I like traveling). The other was a casual meet up at Brisbane CBD for people who are interested in accessible designs.


The makerspace in focus here is a community with around 15 members who develop mini-projects mostly as hobbies. This makerspace is located in Gold Coast. Travel time nearly 1.5 hours. I hopped onto a train after work and began reading couple of papers on makerspaces. After a little hassle I was able to find the place. I was surprised to see the room which was small, unlike the other makerspaces I have been. As meeting host - Mike welcomed me to the discussion he noted:

"Little more space will be much helpful here!" 

However, the room was filled with all sorts of 'techie' gadgets like 3D printers, laser cutters, Arduino kits, which have been mostly donated by people and scavenged from discarded items.  There was another person who was a high school teacher at the meeting. Mike walked us through some of the projects and prototypes.

I felt that each member in the community was specialized in a certain area such as robotics, Arduinos, toys and so forth (something I read in one of the papers - makerspaces and makers are often defined by the stuff they develop). Most of the members are experts in "techi-stuff". They like to get on with the development without worrying too much about a proper design. They add or remove features as they go on - this is also called 'opportunistic design' (something I have read on the way). They change the design on the go! Mike told me that although the members are techos, they lack knowledge in other aspects of development. As an example even a person is good with Arduinos, he is not much capable of printing a 3D design on his own. This makes the design efforts little difficult.

"Our members develop stuff in pet steps"

I was excited to know there are couple of current projects on people with disabilities. A member who suffers from quadriplegia have attempted to build a prosthetic hand for himself using resources in the makerspace. However, according to mike he was not much successful in developing anything usable because of the lack of knowledge and difficulty to operate a 3D printer. The other project was aimed at developing accessible wheelchair, but I could not gain further information on that.

This particular makerspace maintains connections with couple of other makerspaces around the Brisbane region. But, I could not find any information regarding any long term and large scale collaborations amongst these communities. I felt such collaborations can benefit all the parties especially in sharing of knowledge and resources. Mike also mentioned that children in particular are interested in developing gadgets with the makerspace. He noted they are not only enthusiastic to develop 'new stuff' but also are quite knowledgeable on technical aspects. As I left the place to catch the train back to the city, I remembered one important thing Mike said:

"Developing something useful for you on your own can mean the world to you!"


The casual meeting group was held on a misty morning of Brisbane winter. A software developer interested in accessibility (Nick) and two ladies who are working in a university to help students with disabilities (Kate and Alice) were the others in the group. The key point raised in the discussion was the need of individualized technologies for people with disabilities. Even if two people have the same disability, they may have very different requirements in terms of both hardware and software. Both Kate and Alice mentioned that lack of awareness amongst the people about technology advancements excludes them from benefits. Kate noted that while technology making things easier for many, it also creates barriers for people with disabilities. As an example while more graphical items in a web interface is good for a typical user, a person with visual impairments will be disadvantaged.

"Technology ease stuff, but at the same time creates barriers for people with disabilities"

Kate said that often students she work with like to try out new technologies even if they are prototypes. They have some prototype level applications running in their labs at the university as well. But, surprisingly involvement of other students in developing these prototypes is low according to both Kate and Alice. Although there are number of students who require customized technologies, it is often difficult to find help to realize those requirements. I feel this is where makerspaces can be of a huge help. With my previous visits I feel that there is an intrinsic motivation to develop gadgets. The problem is that these gadgets are mostly outcomes of their hobbies. There, are not many examples of makers reaching beyond the boundaries of their makerspace to collaborate with external parties to help people in need. I think as makers are not driven by financial return, there is a huge potential of such collaborations. The challenge is to finding ways in motivating them to take part in such collaborations.

Nick was particularly interested about incorporating accessibility in software design. It seems that although there are number of design guidelines out there, designers are often not aware and consider them negligible. Nick said that accessible interfaces ensure not only the basic right of access to information, but also provides opportunities for improved financial gain.

All of the group members were interested in my undergraduate project where a prototype social networking desktop application was developed for people with visual impairments.

Kate and Alice said that most of the projects are dissolved after initial prototypes because of reasons such as financial issues, time concerns, etc.

"Brilliant ideas die right after they are born!"


I am hoping to keep in touch with this makerspace and discussion group as I see there is a potential where I can contribute for something useful. The next step in my research is to compile a comprehensive literature review of maker communities and work closely with the identified makerspaces in search for potential collaborations.