Among the IRL Hackers: Snapshots from the World Maker Faire

As the Maker Revolution gathers speed, there's still plenty of time for kidding around.

This weekend, Betabeat braved the utter and complete nightmare that was the subway situation–seriously, no 7 trains into Manhattan? No N trains into Manhattan? The R running on the F line?–to check out the third annual World Maker Faire. Nothing would stand between us and the robots.

The highly appropriate setting was the New York Hall of Science, which is located on the site of the 1964 World’s Fair. Rockets loomed above the check-in area, and talks were located in a refurbished pavilion that clearly showed its Jet Age origins.  The crowd seemed composed of equal parts tinkering geeks, respectable parents with tots in tow, and tatted-up hipsters who’d ventured northward in search of a DIY fix.

As you might expect from such a crowd, the line-up veered towards the whimsical. Large crowds of kids gathered around the aptly named PancakeBot. Outside, there was a life-sized mousestrap, and we’re pretty sure we caught sight of a tiny Go Cart track.

But it wasn’t all play, even of the educational kind. Attracting a packed house was a keynote with the rather weighty title of “Going Big: From Maker Movement to New Industrial Revolution,” featuring Wired editor Chris Anderson and Makerbot CEO Bre Pettis.

Speaking of Messers. Anderson and Pettis: In person, the pair (who collaborated for the cover of this month’s issue) are something of a mismatch. Mr. Anderson is the human embodiment of the TED talk–the man can sell an idea like he’s the William Jennings Bryant of futurism. On the other hand, everything about Mr. Pettis makes more sense once you learn he was once a puppeteer. He’s just got that gawky, Kermit-like excitability about him.

Mr. Anderson seemed to be previewing the contents of his new book Makers: The New Industrial Revolution, due on sale Tuesday and excerpted in Wired‘s Makerbot story (which also features Mr. Pettis’s smiling mug on the cover). After opening with a brief gloss on the rise of the factory–“It’s the ultimate amplification of human potential, but it comes at a certain cost, which is that you need to move to the factory”–he proceeded to explain just why it was Maker Faire warranted such grand contextualizing.

His argument was pretty simple: 3D printers are to manufacturing what the personal computer was to publishing. Now there’s a machine on your desktop, ready to facilitate all kinds of experiments in democratic distribution. “Just as publishing turned into a button to press, now ‘machining’ turns into a button press,” Mr. Anderson said, arguing that the combination of design tools (such as Autodesk 123D and 3D printers like the Replicator 2) and the advent of crowdfunding (perhaps you’ve heard of Kickstarter?) “lowers the barrier to entry to realizing an idea.”

In the brave new future, the only filter left will be taste. If the mixed bag that was the Bust Craftacular happening outside the auditorium was any indication, taste and taste alone will still be plenty to help stem the firehose effect.

Mr. Pettis was a bit more off the cuff, reminiscing about the trials and travails of Makerbot’s early days. “That first year, I didn’t pay rent on my apartment,” he confessed. “We weren’t getting much, and all the money had to go to robot parts, because it was more important to get [the company’s kits] out into the world.”

If Makerbot’s prominence at the festival was any indication, Mr. Pettis must now be in a much better place with his landlord. He said, “A good chunk of [Maker Faire] is, like, 3D Printer Faire.” He estimated that probably 35 percent of the event was either people either making 3D printers, or using 3D printers to make cool things. Many of those devices, according to Betabeat’s highly unscientific anecdotal ballpark estimates? Makerbot-made.

However, Mr. Pettis admitted that the mainstreaming of Makerbot had come with a certain emotional cost. Nowadays the company’s machines are shipped fully assembled, because it reached a point where the market had grown beyond the hardcore hobbyists who’re delighted at the prospect of a box of screws and assorted parts. “It’s a crushing reality when you realize that there’s something that’s learned when you’re fixing a bicycle, which is sort of like a commitment to doing it until it works, that not everybody in the world has.”

“Some people think that you should just be able to buy it and it should just work,” he added, sounding slightly aghast at the notion.

But if the crowds checking out the selection of robots, kits, and printers were any indication, there’s still plenty of people with a ken for tinkering. For a closer look at the DIY divas, scroll back up to check out our slidehow.

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