Issue 17.4: August/September 2014

Rebel Tech

Story By: Sonny Ganaden & Lindsea Kemp-Wilbur
Photos By: Olivier Koning

A few weeks shy of graduation, Janice Evans strums her red Fender Stratocaster at a booth during a youth science fair at Kahala Mall, testing the amplifier she just made using an Altoids tin. “It’s powered by a nine-volt battery. It even has an output, so I can listen to myself practice. I only know a few chords, though,” she says. “I saw one on Etsy and figured I could just build it myself.” She figured right; her tin mini-amp is clear and surprisingly loud, as good as anything of similar size you might buy at a music store.

While Evans plays, her classmates Seiga Ogi and Raymond Chang show off their invention: Sitting in front of a trifold display that reads “dance for music,” a motion-activated radio connected to an array of wires and circuit boards comes intermittently to life. (You don’t need to actually dance to trigger it; the motion sensor works with a wave. The dancing’s solely for Ogi and Chang’s amusement.) Ogi and Chang not only built it, but they coded the software to operate it. “We first learned how to program the Arduino for a competition in March as part of the Future Farmers of America,” Ogi tells me. When my expression belies a neo-Luddite’s ignorance, Chang explains, “The Arduino is a micro-controller; it’s an open-source piece of hardware that we can do almost anything with. We learned how to use it after school and first programmed it to water plants.” When the radio cuts out, Ogi and Chang tinker with the wires and wave their arms in front of the sensor. “Ack, it takes a second to relay, so it’s sputtering,” Ogi says. “Your Force is weak, padawan!” jokes Evans.

Evans, Ogi and Chang are all young “makers” and all members of the Kalani High School Maker Club. “Makery” is a recent coinage in tech and entrepreneurship, an update to the antiquated “inventor.” Makers are people who use technology to create objects, and they typically do their work outside of the usual means of production—that is, corporations developing new products for market. They are the latest in autodidactic DIY culture, an arts-and-crafts movement for the digital age. Often they work out of their houses and garages or, as with the students here today, in school-sponsored clubs. They make do with what they have and find ingenious uses for everyday objects like, say, a tin of Altoids.

Hawai‘i, it turns, out, is a little makery hotbed, and its makers are organizing. In March the Kalani students, in addition to dozens of other makers, convened at Hawai‘i’s first Mini Maker Faire, held at ‘Iolani School’s new state-of-the-art Sullivan Center for Innovation and Leadership. It was dubbed “mini” because as Maker Faires go, Hawai‘i’s was dwarfed by massive maker events taking place all across the Mainland.

Makers, it’s been said, are the new hackers, the type of people who’ll open the back of a toaster and retool it, or they’ll build their own devices instead of buying them. As the availability of computing tools, 3D printers and the information necessary to use them has proliferated online, anyone can become a maker—makery is high technology democratized. Though the definition of what a maker is remains open, makery is a bona fide global movement supported by the periodical Make Magazine (which sponsors many of the US Maker Faires). There are innumerable books, web sites, brick-and-mortar “makerspaces” and independent events aiming to repopularize handmade stuff, something that hasn’t been in vogue since the arts-and-crafts movement a century ago. Unlike hacking, though, makery is being embraced by governments and private institutions as a means to encourage the technological creativity of youth, and Maker Faires have been popping up across the world, from the White House to China.

Hawai‘i’s first Maker Faire had an everything-at-once feel, like the Internet come to life, as if someone Googled “hackers hawaii” or “local techies” and real-life results sprang into existence. There were more than three dozen booths representing maker subsets, subgroups and classes: hobbyists who replicate their own movie props (1980s sci-fi is a primary maker fascination, à la Ghostbusters, Star Wars and Blade Runner), high school clubs, people flying (and crashing) drones, startup companies teaching courses in coding, virtual reality gaming, a portable can and bottle sorting machine shaped like a human body and even engineers working for the government and corporations.

“We’ve been watching the maker and geek movements for going on seven years now,” says Bert Lum, who helped organize the Mini Maker Faire along with Ross Mukai, who heads the O‘ahu Makerspace, Alan Solidum of the HI Capacity makerspace and others. (Makerspaces are community workshops where a would-be maker can take classes in welding, woodwork or coding, for example.) Lum co-hosts the weekly show Bytemarks Cafe on Hawaii Public Radio with Ryan Ozawa, on which they discuss the latest in local tech. They dedicated a month’s worth of programming to the buildup, happening and post-event reporting for the Mini Maker Faire. Lum was also involved in organizing Geek Meet, a kind of a precursor to the Maker Faire. “When we started the Geek Meet at Magic Island several years ago, it was to have kind of a geek picnic,” Lum says. “Back then we put the word out to the ham radio guys—the original maker types, if you ask me—to astronomers, to the Lego people ... anybody who was interested, really.” And they came out of the woodwork, just as they did at the Mini Maker Faire, organizing, sharing, cross-pollinating. “A lot of times these guys are sitting in their little hobby shop in their own little zone. You may never run across these tinkerers unless you’re at an event,” Lum says.

Russ Ogi (no relation to Seiga) could be considered a tinkerer, but he’s hardly an unknown. Ogi’s one of only a handful of small business owners in the Islands doing the Next Big Thing: 3D printing. “Not that many people know about it or how it works yet. It’s not good for large-scale manufacturing, but it’s great for other things,” Ogi says. Scattered around his apartment and home office in Salt Lake are the creations of a designer raised on 1980s science fiction: 3D-printed helmets in the style of Robocop and Kikaida, and samurai armor that looks less traditional warrior and more Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles—all objects he created using Autodesk Maya, a program used to do computer modeling for movies and web sites, and then output with a 3D printer.

3D printers have been around for a while, but they’ve only recently become cheap enough and accessible enough for individual makers to use. They’re somewhat magical in that they use an additive process to create something from nothing by “printing” successive layers of plastic or other material (instead of a subtractive process like milling or sanding a pre-existing object). Ogi can craft a variety of objects using only his laptop and a printer that takes up half his desk space, and in far less time than it would take him to sculpt a piece of clay or wood, for example. But the printer doesn’t do everything. “For my samurai costumes I printed each piece, then hand-finished and painted them,” Ogi says. “Since they were all created digitally, I knew the parts would fit together.”

The growing popularity of 3D printing could have major implications for global technology: Futurists are predicting alterations in intellectual property, global freight, medicine, clothing and even weaponry (“The Liberator,” the world’s first 3D-printed gun, was unveiled in May 2013). Most home 3D printer users don’t have such aspirations; they prefer making objects for personal use and enjoyment. Ogi’s a little unusual even within the maker movement in that he’s not a geek or a techie, really, even though he knows his tech. “I think of these things as sculpture and myself as an artist,” he says. Ogi recently designed and printed a 3D maneki neko—the waving cat that local businesses put on a shelf or in a window for good luck—for a local insurance company’s TV commercial. And he’s finding an audience beyond the Islands, too. “My samurai costumes are going on tour,” he says proudly. “They’ll be at Maker Faires in London and New York this year. And at the booth, everybody loves putting on the Robocop helmet for selfies.”

In addition to independent makers, the movement banner is being taken up in academia, with universities starting to include themselves in the maker ethos. The University of Hawai‘i is no exception; in fact, it’s something of a pioneer. “Organizations brag about their enterprise systems, then we try to break them,” says Brian Chee, director of the University of Hawai‘i’s Advanced Network Computing Laboratory (ANCL), housed in the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology. Last year Chee directed the ANCL to attempt to break into several commercial and government systems to test their cyber- security. They succeeded: Chee hacked into a local bank.

Acknowledged as one of the world’s top five independent network research labs, the ANCL buzzes with servers, Ethernet cables and computers in various states of disrepair next to a couch where sleeping graduate students crash after all-nighters. The space supports a number of research projects with a variety of governmental institutions, including the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the agency that helped to develop ARPANET, a predecessor to the Internet, GPS and faster wireless communications, all of which began as logistical projects for the US military.

“Free exploration is central to the maker ethos, and it’s part of what makes our lab one of the best in the world,” says Chee. But UH still has work to do if it’s going to compete with the biggest institutions in innovation like MIT. “The biggest difference between MIT and the University of Hawai‘i is attitude,” says Chee. “MIT has a maker attitude.” It would be an improvement, Chee says, if the University of Hawai‘i had a publicly accessible makerspace. “We could be hosting an interdisciplinary cooperative research space and education center,” he says. As makerspaces often have trouble paying for rent, Chee thinks UH could become a critical hub for a community of local innovators.

The movement is growing: Plans are in the works for a second annual Honolulu Maker Faire, with the possibility of events on neighbor islands. And it isn’t limited to gadgetry or programming. “It’s not just 3D printing and coding,” Lum says. “At the Maker Faire there were folks knitting, making their own toys and instruments—everything, really. Anybody that’s doing something with their hands can be called a maker.” With such an inclusive definition, much of human creation could arguably have a booth at the next Maker Faire.

Even if the maker moniker is little more than a hip appellation, Hawai‘i’s Maker Faire had its share of legitimate creators working at the forefront of local technological innovation: Next to the Kalani Maker Club were university graduate students explaining PhD theses on nanotechnology, and the largest booth was manned by OceanIT, an O‘ahu-based engineering firm that has developed products for application in astronomy, medicine and structural engineering. The professionals were just as eager to spend a Saturday discussing their work as the high school students and propmakers. “One of the organizers wanted to bring his beer-brewing stuff but couldn’t because it was at a school,” says Lum. “Next year we’ll have bakers, too. They’re making food with their hands. The whole community of people that makes stuff has been there all along, so part of it is just getting folks together.”

That knitters, bakers and PhD engineers are all considered part of the movement doesn’t bother the students of the Kalani Maker Club. I ask whether they feel like they’re a part of a new form of creating. “I guess so,” says Raymond Chang. “We value the stuff we make over the stuff we buy. I see this and I know I made this with my mind. Eventually we could program the Arduino to control a car.” He pauses, then backpedals while tinkering with the wires to the spluttering radio. “I mean, they shouldn’t trust us with cars just yet. We’d totally crash right now.”