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.

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