Alt.CES: Robots for Makers?

Zigurd Mednieks checks in from CES

It’s the Consumer Electronics Show, so there are a lot more gadgets for consuming than for making, but I did see a number of robots in the Robotics and Emerging Technologies Tech Zones. The robots could be categorized as: Roomba clones, none of which were readily hackable, big robots, several of which were oriented toward providing telepresence, small robots controlled by on-board smartphones communicating with other smartphones, and even smaller, simpler robots for kids.

My favorite robot at CES is actually a kit that enables even very your children to build sophisticated robots and program their behavior by way of how the blocks in the kit are put together. These robot blocks are made by Modular Robotics and are called “Cubelets.” You can find out more on the Modular Robotics site and here’s a little video report I did from their booth:

The smartphone bots were, not surprisingly, programmable, and mostly iPhone-driven. The Romo robot is controlled via a smartphone’s audio output, and so is compatible with iPhone and Android. My video report on Romo is here:

More robot video reports after the jump:

Returning for 2011 is the least expensive among these robots, the JS Robotics Ladybug which propels itself with vibrating brushes, a la a Bristlebot/Brushbot:

Zigurd Mednieks is an author and consultant specializing in mobile devices and telecommunications product development. He is the co-author of Programming Android and Android Application Development.


DON’T MISS IT! Make: Live is Broadcasting

We’re broadcasting shortly! It’s our season two premiere, and we’ll take a peek at projects from the new MAKE Volume 29, learn about an innovative dog toy, and hang out together live in the chat.

We also give away a fabulous prize to one chat member who can solve our photo challenge. This week it’s a prize package from Maker Shed! This week one of you will win:

Make: Live 24
Wednesday January 11th, 9pm ET/6pm PT
Watch at or on UStream
Please join us in the UStream chat or mark tweets with #makelive to interact live with the show.

Want to show us your project? Email and you could be featured on an upcoming episode!


Powell’s 2 store in Portland: Maker heaven

Bob Knetzger, who writes the Toy Inventor’s Notebook column for MAKE says:

In Portland yesterday I wandered in to Powell’s Books. No, not the big, main Powell’s Books, but the small satellite Powell’s 2 store across the street. Ever been? It’s just the technical book selection and, boy, is it Maker heaven in there!

Computer and electronic books, sure, but a fantastic offering of new and used books and technical manuals hard to find elsewhere: vacuum tube amp design schematics, pyrotechnic journals, every Chilton’s ever, machinist’s handbooks, scientific theory, statistics, explosives, evolution, kinematics, manufacturing, prototyping, aircraft design, plastics and material goes on and on. Where else can you peruse books like “Anvils in America,” ” “Moving Heavy Things” or “Keep Your Lathe in Trim?” It passes the acid test by having a vintage copy of my favorite, Ingenious Mechanisms for Designers and Inventors. Oh, yeah, and a nice offering of individual back issues of MAKE!

Skip the crowds in the main store and instead go to Powell’s Books 2, pull up a Eames chair and geek out in the lounge with your fave tech books!






Why Are We Crazy for Kits?

Supercap Racer Kit from Maker Shed

While we were working on our Make: Ultimate Kit Guide, we had an interesting thread of conversation on the merit of kits. Projects Editor Keith Hammond had some great, well-put points that we all agreed with. He ended up shaping his thoughts into the Welcome column of this special issue, and we wanted to share his words here. What do you think are the merits of kits? Add your thoughts to the conversation by posting up in the comments! (Note: The page references in this piece are meant to accompany the print issue.)

Kits are the gateway DIY project. Words can’t describe the pride a 9-year-old feels when he glues the final piece atop the enormous Apollo Saturn V moon rocket model he built with his dad (Thanks, Dad!) and takes it to show-and-tell at school. I made this!

For many of us, a kit is the first thing we remember making — whether Lego or Erector sets, needlepoint or paint-by-number, or model planes and cars from Testors and Revell. The excitement can be enough to set us on a path of creative making for life. Who knows what doors you’re opening when you put a kit in the hands of a beginner?

Kits teach skills. When you make a kit, somebody has done you a great service — designed it, gathered parts, illustrated instructions — so you can focus on the good stuff: mastering the skills required to make the thing, and understanding how it works.

Handmade beats store-bought. Pink Snuggie blankets come and go, but Grandma’s crocheted afghan is forever. Psychologists call this the Ikea Effect — adding our personal labor just makes the thing more valuable.

Making something is more fun than buying it. Kits quick-start the fun.

Kits are exciting and mysterious. If you don’t know how to make it from scratch, then the kit is your path into the unknown, to new knowledge that’s empowering, maybe even dangerous (just ask Wile E. Coyote about ACME kits).

Like Alice’s “Drink Me” bottle or Neo’s red pill, the kit is a portal to an experience you may or may not be ready for. And if it’s mysterious to you, imagine how deliciously mystifying it must be to those around you. What is he building in there?

Kits are great for sharing. Kids and parents can build a starter kit on an equally clueless footing, learning together.

Kits open up community. Build a kit and you’re joining a group of people who’ve built it too, and are no doubt trading tips and showing off their builds online. You’re smarter thanks to the pack, and you’re meeting makers who share your excitement.

Kits drive innovation. When a kit sells well, suddenly there are people in every town building newfangled TV sets (remember Heathkit? They’re back!) or aerial Arduino robots (check out DIY Drones). Like seeds in the wind, those kits switch on thousands of new makers, who become a community of innovators, excited and hungry for more advanced kits and products, in an upward spiral.

MIT’s Michael Schrage looks into the phenomenon and finds that kit-makers have driven the great technology upheavals, from Boulton & Watt’s steam kits in the Industrial Revolution, to Woz and Jobs’ Apple I kits in the computer revolution.

I remember my dad’s excitement building kit computers in the 1970s, little boxes programmed in hex code via a 10-key pad, no video, just 7-segment red LEDs for a readout. A kit in the mail challenged him to build his skills, raised his expectations of computers, and fired his imagination about what could be done with them. Once he’d mastered a kit, he wanted the next most advanced kit, and then the first home computers (Apples, Ataris, Commodores), and so on.

Multiply that fired-up kit maker by thousands and you’ve got a smart, skilled, hungry community experimenting with new technology, and bringing along their friends (and their kids — my sibs and I were 10, 11, and 13, programming in BASIC).

History repeats. Today we’re watching the same innovation explosion unfold in 3D printing, DIY robotics, and microcontrollers, as skilled amateurs build kits and hack them, egg each other on, and teach those around them.

The next Steve Jobs is out there, building kits.

Make: Ultimate Kit Guide

To read the articles that Keith references and to get over 175 kit reviews along with ratings of complexity, component quality, documentation, community, and completeness, pick up a copy of the Make: Ultimate Kit Guide. Also, check out our new Kit Reviews site for lots more where that came from.


News From The Future – McDonalds Sprays You With DNA

Pt 424

News From The Future – McDonalds Sprays You With DNA Spray (if you McSteal something)… “DNA McSpray to foil thieves – McDonalds to use new anti-theft spray” @ That guy above took 1 extra too many nugget sauce packets!

McDONALD’S restaurants are fighting back against thieves by blasting suspected robbers with an invisible DNA spray as they attempt to flee. The spray, which remains on the suspect’s skin for two weeks and on clothes for up to six months, has been introduced in some of the chain’s busiest NSW stores, including those at Parramatta, Granville, Auburn, Lidcome, Kingsford and Wollongong, reported The Daily Telegraph. If the SelectaDNA “forensic marking” spray proves successful in apprehending bandits, McDonald’s will introduce the system across all its 780 Australian outlets.

Upon hearing the news (and getting McSprayed) The Hamburglar said “This is clearly another example of Mayor McCheese abusing his power, McDonaldland has turned in to a police state”.

On a serious note, is the total cost of theft for every McDonalds in AU that huge? This reminds me of a visit to a large company awhile ago, they developed multi-million dollar system to potentially catch a few people stealing razor blades in a drug store. It did pattern matching, profiling, costs millions, took years to develop, all for $0.39 cents of stuff. Many of these systems are looking for other buyers…


Alt.CES: Parrot AR.Drone 2.0

One of the more exciting things to come out of CES so far is the upgraded version of the Parrot AR.Drone. This quadcopter made a splash at last year’s show, with its on-board camera, WiFi connectivity, smartphone control, open source software, and under $300 price point.

This year, the Drone is back and it’s now sporting an updated 720p camera, HD recording, geo-location tech, automatable fly and record capability, and much improved flight control software and hardware improvements for better auto-stabilization and flying. The AR.Drone can be controlled from both Android and iPhones. The Drone is sold as a flying game platform — as a toy — but with these changes, this becomes a serious device and fits right in with PT’s prediction about 2012 being the year of the drone. The AR.Drone 2.0 will retail for the same price as the original and is expected to be available in Q2 2012.

To see some of the cool things that people are doing with AR.Drones, see Dronehacks.



Foam Carving Robot

We have covered at least one DIY CNC hot wire cutter before, and commercial versions are manufactured by several companies including Hotwire Direct, Streamline Automation, and FoamLinx. This machine, built in 2006 by students under Dr. René Straßnick at the Technical University of Berlin, has two translational axes and a third, rotational axis consisting of a turntable to which the foam substrate is attached. Parts from an old dot-matrix printer were used to make the Cartesian robot. The project has four credited authors, one of whom (Jonas Pfeil) was later involved in the throwable panoramic ball camera project John Baichtal recently covered. [via nerdstink]



Lumarca on Display at Eyebeam

Lumarca is a projection-based 3D volumetric display, which is collaboration between Albert Hwang, Matt Parker, and Elliot Woods. In 2010, they were the winners of Red Bull’s “Create the Future” contest at World Maker Faire New York. With a height of fifteen feet, the latest iteration of the Lumarca concept is the tallest yet and will be on display at Eyebeam in New York City starting tomorrow night.

Lumarca at Eyebeam
Thursday, January 12, 2012 – Saturday, February 4, 2012
Opening party Thursday, January 12, 6pm – 8pm
540 West 21st Street, NYC


MAKE Interviews MakeIt Labs’ Adam and Joe About Shutdown

Hackerspaces have been flying under the radar for a few years, but now it seems as if they’re starting to encroach on the public consciousness in both good and bad ways. In the latter category, recently Nashua, NH’s MakeIt Labs was shut down for code violations. Recently I emailed Adam Shrey and Joe Schlesinger of MakeIt Labs to find out what was going on.

If you’d like to help out the space, you can make a tax deductible donation via the link on on their website.

JB: Why do you think you were inspected? Was it just a routine peek or was there something else?

Adam: We had an article done on us in the Lifestyle section of the Sunday paper from a neighboring town that caught the attention of the inspectors. We’ve been featured in multiple front page articles in the local paper without incident, so I don’t know why this one was different, all the articles have been favorable.

Joe: The inspectors noticed several things in the photos of the shop that caused them concern, and more when they went to the website, and thought they needed to act quickly before anything happened, as if something did happen before they inspected the place it would have been a liability both for them and us.

JB: What specifically did the inspectors want fixed?

Adam: A variety of things. They wanted a layout plan to better understand what we would be doing in the space, and so the fire department would know where any potential hazards might be if they ever needed to deal with an emergency. We had one for our own use, they just didn’t have a copy of it. The bathroom was probably the biggest issue. Since the bathroom was considered “New Construction”, we had to re-build it to meet ADA standards. The electrical issues were by and large simple fixes to problems that existed before we leased the building – things like plugging open holes in junction boxes and installing missing covers. There were no faulty wires sparking all over the place or anything like that. We’re also taking advantage of the closure to install some extra circuits and outlets in areas that could use them. Additionally they required us to have lighted exit signs and emergency lighting.

JB: Do you have any suggestions for new groups looking at renting space? What would you have done differently if you could do it over?

Adam: The main problem the city inspectors had with us was that we didn’t have an occupancy permit. Up until this incident, we weren’t even aware we needed one, and we have since come to find that this is something that is often handled by the property owner. My advice would be that any groups looking at a perspective rental ask that the town officials (building inspector, fire marshal, etc.) be brought in to review the facility before signing the lease. That way if it has a lot of problems you can have the landlord fix it before you move in, or just walk away from the deal. I’d also recommend that anyone thinking about starting a hackerspace get in touch with their local Chamber of Commerce and Economic Development Committee. These two groups have been an immense help to us and they understand the value a hackerspace can bring to a city. They know the way the local government works and can help you efficiently navigate the system. It’s easy to blame the city for forcing us to close temporarily, but it’s not their fault. The inspectors’ job is to make sure everything is safe and up to code, and they have been extremely accommodating in expediting things like the permit process so that we can reopen as soon as possible.

JB: What about ways existing hackerspaces could “scrub” their spaces to ensure they’re in the good graces of inspectors?

Adam: Find a few local tradesmen (architects, electricians, plumbers, etc.) willing to come in and take a look around. They know the building code and can point out anything that might raise an eyebrow or two on the inspector. Don’t build any new infrastructure or wire any electrical unless you pull a permit first. Also, fire departments HATE extension cords, so if you have any being used for permanent wiring rather than temporary extensions, those need to go and get replaced with proper outlets.

Joe: Get the place checked out ahead of time, but then don’t assume you won’t need inspections, either. Any non-residential building needs an occupancy permit, and as we learned, the inspectors will find out that you exist sooner or later. It may hurt to have to do the required work, but its a lot easier to address these issues from a position of “we want to make this place safe, please help us” than through a surprise inspection and getting shut down. The city has been positive, recognizes our value, and can be a helpful partner if you work with them rather than against them. “fight the bureaucracy” attitudes are only going to hurt you.

JB: I kind of got the impression that you were shut down immediately after the inspection. Normally an entity failing an inspection get a period of time to fix things. How much lead time did you get and why weren’t you able to fix stuff in that time?

Adam: 8am on the day of the inspection we were informed by our landlord’s head facilities person that city inspectors would be there at 10am. This was on a weekday, so most of us had to be at our 9-5 jobs and there was no time to so much as empty a trashcan before they got there. Because we did not have an occupancy permit, we were told that we could not use the space, effective immediately. Since then we have filed for and received a building permit that allows us to be in the space to work on renovations. Once those have been inspected and signed off, we can apply for our occupancy permit, and once we have that we can resume semi-normal operations. A few of our more industrial activities may still be unavailable until additional changes are made, but the city is allowing us to reopen first and add those in as we’re able.

Joe: It was also closed because of immediate concerns since they faced as much liability as we did. If inspectors know about a potential problem and it happens, they’re at fault and can get sued, too. It’s absolutely not a case of “those bureaucrats wanted their due”.

JB: How much do you have left to do before you reopen?

Adam: We’re making great progress. The new ADA compliant bathroom has been framed and the plumbing roughed in with initial inspections scheduled for Thursday. We’ve been addressing the electrical issues and started work on the new circuits last night, which includes adding emergency lighting and exit signs. We’ve also done a lot of clean up and organization, gotten rid of some accumulated junk, and increased our storage capacity.

Joe: We should be able to re-open the simpler (from a regulations and permit perspective) parts of the space quickly and resume making (things like electronics, programing) while re-opening the more complicated parts (welding, metalwork) as fast as we can provide approved areas to do such.

JB: Thanks! (and feel free to add anything based on what you wanted to tell readers.)

Adam: I will add that this closure hasn’t been entirely a bad thing. There were a lot of infrastructure related projects we have been wanting to do for quite some time now, and this gave us the perfect opportunity to do them. For instance we’ve wanted to paint the floor under the lift, but it’s such a popular feature that we hadn’t been able to block off the area for a week to let the paint cure. We can also wrap up a multitude of things that were started then stalled when they were “good enough”, like drywall that was repaired but never painted. We’ve always been safety conscious and require members to be trained before they use any potentially dangerous equipment. We’ve gained a ton of supporters and friends, and while we’ve lost a few members due to the closure, I think we’ll have a net positive with all the people who have said they want to join as soon as we reopen. Some of our hardest working helpers have been people that weren’t even members before this happened. We have no employees (directors pay dues like everyone else), everything is done by volunteers, and we couldn’t do it without them. Once this is all done we’ll have a much better organized and impressive looking facility than we did before.

Joe: Although there are a lot of positives, it has been a drain on our finances. We’re not charging members dues during the closure (though several have graciously volunteered to pay anyway), and we have a lot of costs associated with the construction on top of still making rent. We could really use help through donations and want to give a shout out to Space Federation, a non-profit we’ve been involved with that is set up to help hackerspace-like groups throughout the world. Paypal donations sent via the link on our web page are handled by them, and thus are tax deductible. They’ve also been extremely helpful in providing advice and guidance.


Open Source PID Controller

I used a PID (proportional–integral–derivative) controller to regulate the temperature of my espresso maker. I wrote about it in my book, Made by Hand: My Adventures in the World of Do-It-Yourself. (You can read an except from the chapter on Gizmodo.)

PIDs are often used in Sous Vide cookers, too. (Here’s how to make one). If you are looking for a reasonably priced PID controller, here’s a new source: Brett Beauregard’s open source PID controller, for $85.

Brett’s pal, 3ric Johanson (author of Beam Weapon for Bad Bugs in Make Vol 23), says:

My friend Brett Beauregard has been working on this sweet open source PID controller.. and he’s finally published information online about it here.

A PID (proportional–integral–derivative) controller is a device which use hardware feedback with an algorithm; this allows the operator to maintain a target value (temp). Cruise control in car is the classic example: Set it at 60mph, and it will increase the accelerator until you hit 60. There are all sorts of things which can go wrong with closed-loop control systems – – overshoot, ringing, bias, etc. As this device is all open source, as it will make debugging these devices much easier.

It’s currently on “presale” for $85. I think this is a sweet deal. If you want to make your own Sous-vide cooker, this is the ticket. Go buy one, as I want to make sure this type of hardware is available to the masses. I’m excited to get mine.


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