What do you want to Make?

By Karen Tanenbaum

Karen Tanenbaum

Karen Tanenbaum, Maker and Ph.D. candidate

I am a Maker. I’ve been making things all my life, but only started considering myself a “Maker” recently, as part of the burgeoning Make movement. Since I was young, I have been creating costumes, props, and jewelry. I considered this my hobby, a little side project that was vaguely embarassing but that I loved nonetheless. I spent hours..days..weeks…working to recreate costumes from tv, film and comic books in the “real world”, trying to identify all the little details of a look from screenshots and partial views. I played around with technology to create special effects, like electrolumiscent wire and sound activated power supplies.

It wasn’t until I started my PhD in Interactive Arts & Technology that I realized what this “hobby” could contribute to my professional life. Developing costumes had taught me a great deal about creativity and improvisation: How do I mimic this particular look? What cheap materials can I get that will look the same as these more expensive ones? What kind of structural engineering is required to make that prop or that set of wings? It turned out it had all been a valuable lesson in reverse engineering and experimentation. Prototyping is a key skill in technology design, and going down to the dollar store in the mall to get a cartload of foam, wood blocks and stickers to fashion into a new interface mockup was an activity that made sense to me. I even got to put my costuming skills to direct use when one of the conferences in my field held a superhero design competition.

In the last 6 years, a whole global community has coalesced around the practice of Making. The Make movement is a loose collective of backyard tinkerers, amateur scientists, hobbyist craftsmen, and DIYers. It is embodied in the Maker Faire, “The World’s Greatest Show and Tell”, a set of multi-day Faires that take place across America and bring together artists, technologists, performers and more to exhibit their creations and encourage hands-on engagement with art, science and design. The Make movement celebrates creativity and innovation, prizing originality and resourcefulness and promoting hands-on learning and exploration.

In 2011, I exhibited at the Vancouver mini-Maker Faire with my husband, where we showed some of our recent collaborations on Steampunk props and Captain Chronomek, the Steampunk superhero that we had designed for the previously mentioned competition. We also demo’d the research prototype that forms the core of my dissertation work, an interactive storytelling system. It was a great synthesis of my “embarassing” hobby and my “serious” professional work, and it drove home how little difference there was between the two types of work.

Shortly thereafter, I took an internship with the design lab at the Interactioin & Experience Research group at Intel Labs, at least partially on the strength of my Making related activities. One of the projects I just wrapped up there was to help coordinate Intel Labs’ presence at the 2012 Maker Faire Bay Area, where we were a major sponsor. We sponsored a booth where kids could learn about basic concepts of interactivity: inputs & outputs of various kinds. We ran workshops to create simple switches out of foamcore and tinfoil, which could then be used to control different fun outputs in the space: music, light, motors and more. It was amazing to see kids make the connection between the simple switch they had made and the effect that had on the technology-enhanced environment.

One of the best things about the Maker movement is how inclusive its definition of technology is, ranging from modern high-tech like robots and 3D printers down to the original technologies of sewing, cooking and brewing beer. It draws in girls and others who might not naturally consider themselves science and technology oriented, and gets them engaged and excited with hands-on learning.

Making is about passion. As we’re growing up, we’re often told “Do what you love!”; “Do what you feel passionate about!” Not everyone is lucky enough to have a paying job that fills that role, though. I’m fortunate that my research work shades into Making type activites. But your Making activities and your “real job” don’t have to be so tightly coupled to benefit each other. Making teaches you problem solving skills, creative expression, and experimentation through iteration. Getting involved in the Maker movement puts you in touch with new networks of people-experts you can learn from, kids you can teach or mentor, and folks who can help just by brainstorming with you. The Make movement provides a support structure for encouraging people to follow their passions in their leisure time. Platforms like Kickstarter show that sometimes these off-hour projects can become financially sound as well, which is an amazing thing.

So, what do you want to Make, and who can help you Make it?

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