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Project Profile: Maker Robots Mural

Triple Cities Makerspace has been established on the premises at State Street in Binghamton for over a year now. A number of people have devoted an enormous amount of time, effort, materials, and money towards fixing up the building and grounds, and outfitting the facilities with everything it would need to allow people to work on lots of different kinds of projects, from woodworking and welding to electronics and sewing. One important part of this process which has sometimes been overlooked is the furnishing and decorating of the premises; as the success of the Makerspace depends on its forming a dedicated community of enthusiastic creative people, it is important to have the building feel like a safe, comfortable, and welcoming place to be. To that end, Makers have made a concerted effort to paint parts of the Makerspace in warm and vibrant colors, and to donate artistic works or decorations to its rooms.

One of the most prominent artistic projects at the Makerspace to date is the large mural in the main room featuring two robots on a background of several dozen floppy disks. This artistic piece was the brainchild of Leslie-Morgan Frederick, a long-time contributor to and past board member of Triple Cities Makerspace. She was originally asked to create the mural by Drew Lacock, one of the founding members of the Makerspace, as a showpiece highlighting the artistic talent and potential of the TCMS community; he suggested a fan art painting of “Rock’em Sock’em” robots, which Leslie-Morgan extended to the idea of “makerbots”. The intent of this project was to highlight the idea of having a diverse set of people from all walks of life and with different levels of creative experience meet at the Makerspace to work on various projects and to share ideas, knowledge, and creative techniques with one another. As such, Leslie-Morgan’s idea was to have the mural feature two robots reaching out towards one another, not with fists, but with tools to make things – together. The floppy disks were used as a base for the mural to add the idea of the use of technology in making, both old and new.

With the basic idea of the mural conceived, work on it had to wait until the main room’s walls were drywalled and painted, which was done in the final months of 2015 and beginning months of 2016. At that point, the floppy disks were selected by color from a large cache of disks that had been donated to the Makerspace, and were then installed using liquid cement on a wall in the main room chosen for its proximity to the Makerspace’s main entrance and visibility throughout the room. As the rectangular mural base comprised some ~200 disks, arranged from black into progressively lighter and brighter shades of primary colors, this work took a couple of evenings and a lot of work on the part of Leslie-Morgan and a dedicated group of Makers to complete.

She then enlisted the help of her friend and fellow artist Amanda Truin, whose work can be seen on the 2016 Makersgiving potluck dinner invitations. The two artists collected paintbrushes, paints, and a stepladder from the Makerspace’s existing supplies, and set aside a Saturday just after the New Year to create the mural. After a quick discussion with Amanda regarding the intended purpose of the work, Leslie-Morgan quickly sketched out a basic draft of the mural with a pen on a piece of scrap paper, and they set to work together.

The resulting mural took shape as a completely collaborative and organic effort of Leslie and Amanda, whose artistic training and close friendship made the process of working on the project together very easy and fun. They were able to freely communicate various ideas and inspirations for the piece as a whole or in part on the fly, and to criticize and praise each other’s contributions respectfully. They each painted one of the robots after Amanda drew an outline of the entire project, with Leslie-Morgan’s robot (on the left of the piece) having a more illustrative style while Amanda’s robot (on the right of the piece) took on more of a cartoonish, 3-D appearance. Their different artistic styles ended up merging very well throughout the daylong marathon of painting, which was broken up by munching on crepes prepared by fellow Maker Ethan Bexley and the occasional dancing to background music! Room was also made for instantaneous or future additions to the project, such as the golden cube between the robots which is suggestive of a “Mario box”.

The completed mural is a highlight of the Makerspace facilities which makes the building feel much more homelike and comfortable, and is frequently commented favorably on by visitors to the Space. Hopefully it will serve as inspiration for many future artistic creations and collaborations by the local Makerspace membership, and will long serve to commemorate the spirit of communal Making!

Project Profile: Erik Leonard’s Electric Motorcycle

Probably the largest and most significant project to have been developed at TCMS since its inception is founding member Erik Leonard’s electric motorcycle project. Erik has long been interested in alternative energy sources and projects, and after reading about various homegrown electric vehicle (EV) projects online, decided that he wanted to make his own. Due to cost, complexity, and physical size restraints, he decided to try building an electric motorcycle rather than a car. This was still a very challenging project for him in a number of ways, however, as he then had no motorcycle license or riding experience, and despite an extensive background in robotics had never attempted to build or significantly modify any kind of vehicle before.

Erik chose the fundamental components for the first iteration of his motorcycle based on a combination of practical, convenience, and aesthetic reasons. A close friend was willing to sell him a sport bike (Kawasaki Ninja) which he could use as a base platform for a reasonable price; this particular bike has a wide aftermarket for mechanical replacement and upgradeable components, and appealed to Erik’s aesthetic tastes. The Ninja also happened to have a spine or ‘backbone’ frame, which made swapping out the existing gasoline powertrain a relatively easy task and provided lots of flexibility for mounting EV components in different spatial configurations for optimal weight balance, ease of installation / maintenance, and overall design effectiveness. Erik’s online research into other EV projects provided him with a set of equations for calculating how powerful of a motor would be needed to drive the bike, based on the projected weight of the bike + rider, desired top speed, and overall performance characteristics, among other things; after running through the calculations and double-checking his work, he was able to easily obtain a suitable motor from an eBay vendor. His research also put him in direct contact with many other EV creators, one of whom sold him a motor controller sourced from another EV manufacturer (Zero Motorcycles). Finally, the first iteration of the motorcycle made use of secondhand lead-acid batteries purchased from Craigslist for the power source, for reasons of cost and easy maintenance (in terms of swapping individual cells out as needed).

After acquiring all of these major components and putting a lot of time and effort into creating electrical and mechanical designs / layouts for the motorcycle based on these components, Erik started assembling it at the Makerspace’s old facilities in Johnson City. He was able to assemble the motorcycle with relatively few problems due to the extensive design preparation performed ahead of time, although installation of the batteries proved problematic due to their weight and to tight spatial constraints within the square-stock metal frame he’d welded and installed within the Ninja’s existing frame to hold the new powertrain components. He also found that the motor’s wiring was reversed with respect to his expectations, causing the motorcycle to only work in reverse when first turned on. After correcting this and replacing a few defective battery cells, however, he had a working electric motorcycle which he could legally drive around town!

Following an initial shakedown period and a growing enthusiasm for the project, Erik elected to make several improvements to his motorcycle. First, the lead-acid batteries were replaced with lithium-iron-phosphate units, which provided a lot more energy storage and transmission capacity as well as a significant weight advantage, albeit with a considerably higher up-front cost than the lead-acid cells. He chose this battery technology over the more commonly known lithium-ion batteries for reasons of safety, as the phosphate units are less volatile in the event of a crash. These upgrades increased the effective top speed of the motorcycle from 45mph to 70mph, and provided a far greater operating range of 60 miles from the original’s range of 15 miles. Second, he replaced the relatively crude square-stock frame with one designed in CAD software and created with laser-cut panels, which gave more room for the powertrain components and was far better tailored to the Ninja’s existing frame, as well as providing significant weight savings over the old frame. These upgrades were performed at the Makerspace’s current facilities on State Street in downtown Binghamton.

Erik continues to ride this motorcycle whenever weather permits, and gets a great deal of satisfaction from the experience as well as from being able to apply the knowledge and skillset acquired from this project into many others! He is also turning this project into a business venture, working with a fellow TCMS member (Stephen Musok) to launch a “plug and play” EV powertrain module for use in other electric motorcycle retrofit projects. All of the digital design files associated with this project are open-source, so any Makers with the tools, skillset, and ambition can use them to make their own electric motorcycle if they want to; however, given the complexity and level of resources needed to build your own electric motorcycle from scratch, this may be very difficult for the average Maker. Erik wants to make the electric motorcycle retrofit process a relatively simple and more accessible one! He is currently exploring packaging options for the powertrain module to make it compatible with the frames of various other popular motorcycles, and (with Stephen) speaking with various local organizations regarding manufacturing and selling a few motorcycles based on his current designs. His project looks to have a bright future, and the Makerspace is proud to have provided it with a home during its genesis and subsequent modifications, and to have Erik as a member!

Based on an interview conducted with Erik Leonard on 3/10/2017. All photos in this blog post are the exclusive property of Erik Leonard, and are used here with his permission. For more information on the electric motorcycle powertrain retrofit kits, please visit http://www.nextwavemotors.com.

Drinkbot DIY project!

Hello!

One of the coolest projects yet to emerge from the Triple Cities Makerspace is the Drinkbot, a Raspberry Pi-controlled fluids pump and mixing system which allows you to create a beverage from up to six different sources of fluid, as set up by its web server-hosted frontend. You can read all about it in the website linked below, including schematics and parts information:

Drinkbot

Keep on making! 😀

 

The Basics of Cryptography, part 1

Encryption has been a buzzword in the technical world for the past few decades; but in light of recent events, such as the San Bernardino terrorism case, encryption has become important to the average person as well. Encryption is a procedure for taking ordinary information (known as plaintext) and converting it into an unrecognizable format (known as ciphertext). The history of encryption can be traced back as far as Julius Caesar, who used a substitution cipher (as shown in picture 1, below). A cipher is a pair of algorithms used to encrypt and decrypt data, like an equation. In a substitution cipher, you substitute characters in your message with other characters using some sort of scheme. In this way, Caesar would send encrypted messages to his army. For example, let’s say the substitution key is 3, so each letter is shifted to the right by 3. Using this key, “hello reader” becomes “fcjjm pcybcp”.

As you may be able to tell, this cipher is vulnerable to an attack known as frequency analysis or pattern words. In this attack, the most frequent letters are tallied and matched up with the most frequently used letters in the alphabet; with enough pattern-matching, the substitution key can usually be derived.

Another classical cipher used was the transposition cipher, where the letters are rearranged somehow to jumble the plaintext. A modern example of this which you may know is “pig latin”, where you take the first syllable of a word and move it to the back to form a new word.

The Greek military is also thought to have used stenography, which is hiding a message in plain sight. They did this using something called a scytale: they would wrap a parchment around a wooden rod, write their message on the parchment, then unwrap the parchment and add letters in between those already written (see picture 2, below). Only someone with an identical wooden rod would be able to decipher the message. Another example of early stenography was tattooing a message on a slave’s shaved head and waiting for the hair to grow back to cover up the message.

Skytala
Skytala

Stenographic methods have become increasingly complex over the past couple of millennia, with forms like invisible ink, microdots, and hiding information in the compressed space of music files (as seen in the tv show Mr. Robot) becoming popular. Another common method is to store your secret information in a photo file, since these files are also compressed and do not require all the bits to recreate the photo.

These methods of concealing information for secure communications are apart of a larger family of study called cryptography, which in Greek translates to hidden or secret writing. A fairly famous example of cryptography is the Enigma device, used by the German military during WWII to send secret messages. The large computer systems developed to help crack the Enigma code helped usher in the modern age of computers. Fast forward to today, and cryptography is used every day by ordinary people, not just spies and military personnel. Online banking and credit card transactions, email, electronic voting, anonymous web surfing, regular web surfing and social media are all areas where modern cryptography is used without many people ever realizing it.

In the information security world, there is a principle known as the C.I.A. triad, which stands for Confidentiality, Integrity, and Availability. Confidentiality is the ability to keep your information safe and secure from unauthorized entities, which can be equated with privacy. Integrity deals with the consistency, accuracy, and confidentiality of your data. Availability is just what it sounds like: having your data or services available to you and whoever else needs access at all times.  Cryptography can aid in confidentiality and integrity. As we have discussed earlier, encryption supports confidentiality by ensuring your message/data is not readable by an unauthorized party. Integrity is supported by using various cryptographic algorithms to ensure data has not been tampered with or altered; i.e., the original data is put through an equation to derive an ‘answer’, which you receive a copy of. If you then receive a copy of the data, put it through the same equation, and receive a different ‘answer’, your integrity check fails. These checks are sometimes known as hashes, of which there are various types depending on the algorithm used. They are used in a wide variety of applications, e.g. proving the integrity (lack of tampering or file corruption) of files downloaded from the Internet by checking them against their authenticated hashes or checksums.

Modern cryptography for confidentiality can be divided into two categories: symmetric key cryptography and public key cryptography. Symmetric key cryptography uses the same password or passcode to encrypt and to decrypt the data. This can be a security concern because of low confidence regarding secure sharing of the password. It may be a decent algorithm / scheme to use to encrypt data for your own use, which is what most full-disk or file system encryption systems use, but it’s not recommended for use when sharing data among multiple users. This scheme may be used to encrypt multiple kinds of devices: laptop hard drives, phones, tablets, flash/thumb drives, individual files, and so on.

The preferred method used to encrypt data shared among multiple users is public key encryption, which uses two different keys: a public key and a private key. The public key is just that, public; it’s the key you give to any other user, and can be publicly known. The private key is also just that, private, and is related to the public key in a way such that it can decrypt something encrypted with the public key. Anyone can encrypt a message for you using your public key, which you can then decrypt with your private key, which nobody should know except for you. Public keys can be also digitally signed by other users with their private keys, which means the people that have signed the key have verified the key owner’s identity. This creates a web of trust. Let’s say Don trusts/knows Bob but not Alice; since Bob trusts/knows Alice, Don inherently trusts Alice’s key/identity due to his trust of Bob.

A good example of a public key encryption system is GPG (GNU Privacy Guard), a free replacement for PGP (Pretty Good Privacy), as PGP used to be free but was bought by Symantec. GPG public key encryption can be used to encrypt email messages and files, and also has some built in features for integrity (verification of user identity). For example, let’s say Alice wants to email Bob a secure message. Alice could look up Bob’s public key from a public key server, or get it directly from Bob and use it to encrypt her email to Bob. She then digitally signs her message using her private key. When Bob receives the email, he decrypts the message using his private key, and verifies her digital signature using Alice’s public key.

Thank you for joining me for a brief history and overview of cryptography and encryption! Stay tuned for future blog posts where I hope you will join me as we explore cryptography and encryption in more detail. You will learn how to better protect yourself and your data in today’s computer age.

 

Text References and Resources:

“Cryptography: History of cryptography and cryptanalysis.” Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia, 25 July 2016. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

“GNU Privacy Guard.” Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia, 15 Aug. 2016. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

“Outline of cryptography.” Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia, 21 July 2016. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

 

Picture References:

Skytala. Digital Image. Wikimedia Commons. Wikimedia Commons. 16 Feb. 2007. Web. 1 Sept. 2016.

 

Resources:

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, https://www.eff.org.

TCMS at the Rochester Mini MakerFaire!

On Saturday, November 19, 2016, the New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education presented Rochester Mini Maker Faire at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center.  A few of us from Triple Cities Makerspace were lucky enough to be in attendance.


As we entered down the escalator, we were greeted with a large display announcing that the Mini Maker Faire was taking place and showing rotating lists of presentations.  We quickly entered the convention floor and were greeted by interactive exhibits from the Rochester Museum and Science Center.  Working our way towards the main exhibit hall, we came across the Snowbelt Morris dance group performing, followed by a number of FIRST Robotics groups showing off their projects.

We entered the main exhibit hall and were greeted by a large room teaming with artisans, crafters, and makers of all kinds.  In front of us was a group of artisans that built their own thematic miniatures out of pipe cleaners.  We continued to walk through to a side room, passing the Recorder Society recital. In the side room was a guitar pick manufacturer laser cutting picks while visitors waited, a music education product, and a number of hands-on activities for children.

We made our way back to the main exhibit hall and saw a few artisans with hand-made soaps, walked past a portable screen-printing system (with free takeaways!).  As we continued to wade through the amazing group of makers that had assembled to view and present, we discovered the myriad of makerspaces and university-affiliated programs from the Rochester area showing off their projects and wares.
The faire brought the spirit of making to those in attendance and we saw more than one group of children excited about what some may consider ‘little things’ or everyday items. Some groups showed what could be made with model trains and K’Nex, others were showing new software approaches to problem solving, and others were showing what talent can do when combined with basic artistic materials. In all, it was a wonderful event and we thank The New York State Association for Computers and Technologies in Education for putting it on. 

A History of Aircraft Simulators in the Triple Cities

Link’s “Blue Box” – the first aircraft training simulator

Many people who live in Binghamton are aware of the long history of technological research, development, and manufacturing work done locally by companies like IBM, General Electric, BAE, and Lockheed Martin, with many cool products in the computing and military realms being developed here. It is often forgotten, however, that some of the first aircraft simulators ever created were developed here by a local entrepreneur named Edwin Link!

The son of a pipe organ manufacturer, Link developed an interest in flying in the 1910’s, and began taking flying lessons around 1920 or so. Frustrated by the lack of any devices that could provide training for potential fliers before stepping into a cockpit, Link worked with engineers and mechanical assemblers from the Link organ factory in the late 1920’s to design and build a mockup of a then-contemporary airplane cockpit with controls operated by air pressure from a bellows adapted from those used in the Link pipe organs! This cockpit was mounted on a platform which could move in three dimensions – tilting forward or back with the pitch control, rolling left or right with the roll control, or yawing horizontally left or right with the pedals. This motion of the platform, tied with input from the pilot into the corresponding controls, provided a simulation of the motion of an aircraft in flight, in three dimensions; this concept is still key to realistic (FAA-certified) flight simulators in use today by commercial or military pilot training schools.

Link initially manufactured a few for use at amusement parks or for training at local airports (including Endicott and Cortland), but saw the potential for widespread commercial application as the market for airplanes outside of the military and stunt/barnstorming markets increased; and he began promoting his simulators around the country. His commercial breakthrough came when the U.S. Army Air Corps (which would become the Air Force after WWII) began transporting air mail for the U.S. Post Office in 1934, and experienced many fatal accidents when new pilots encountered inclement weather or other unfamiliar flying conditions. Link demonstrated his simulator to officials from the Air Corps, and they were sufficiently impressed by it – as well as by Link’s ability to fly in hazardous weather using instruments and training acquired through use of his simulator – to place an order for 6 trainers. When the pilots who trained using these simulators demonstrated remarkably improved abilities compared with their peers, the Air Corps ordered more, and Link’s fledgling Link Aviation Devices company began producing the little “Blue Box” simulators (as they were nicknamed) from their factory in Hillcrest, just north of the city of Binghamton. The onset of WWII and the success of the Air Corps’ training using these simulators convinced the U.S. and U.K. militaries to order thousands of them, and Link’s simulators were soon seen as essential for use in training military pilots. As the commercial aviation industry expanded after the second World War, initially using some of the same aircraft used by the Allied forces and flown by ex-military pilots, Link expanded into this field as well, and became the preeminent aircraft simulator manufacturer for the next three decades, providing training equipment for governments and corporations around the world and even supporting special projects like Lockheed’s SR-71 Blackbird and NASA’s Apollo program.

After corporate mismanagement, international competition, and a hostile takeover resulted in the dismantling of Singer-Link (the successor to Link Aviation Devices) in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, several companies picked up the pieces and continued the legacy of aircraft simulator design and manufacturing, including L-3 Communications, which still has a presence in the Binghamton area today and is responsible for the creation and maintenance of aircraft simulators for programs like the United States Air Force’s C-17 cargo planes. Several other companies in Binghamton also thrive on the legacy of Link’s simulators, including KRATOS Technology and Training Solutions and Simulation and Control Technologies – both of whom design and manufacture aircraft simulators in the Binghamton area – and BAE and Lockheed Martin, who use aircraft simulators created by companies like these to develop avionics hardware and software for commercial and military applications in Endicott and Owego. Decades after Edwin Link was inspired to find a better way to teach himself how to fly, the technological field he pioneered is still a vital part of the training processes for thousands of pilots around the world, and is still a major component of the Triple Cities’ economy.

Sources:

“Link, Edwin Albert”. Nationalaviation.org. The National Aviation Hall of Fame, 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.

“L-3 Link Simulation & Training: History.” Link.com. L-3 Link Simulation & Training, 31 Dec. 2012. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.

Tomayko, James E. “Crew-training simulators.” NASA.gov NASA April 1987. Web. 3 Nov. 2016.

Triple Cities Makerspace at the World Maker Faire!

Maker Faires are “all-ages gathering[s] of tech enthusiasts, crafters, educators, tinkerers, hobbyists, engineers, science clubs, authors, artists, students, and commercial exhibitors”, organized by Maker Media (who also publish Make: magazine) to promote the creativity of these individuals and organizations at specific venues around the world. One of the largest of these gatherings is held in New York City every year in the fall, typically at Flushing Meadows Corona Park in the Hall of Science. Triple Cities Makerspace has had an active presence at the NYC World Maker Faire for the past three years, hosting a booth in the Makerspaces compound at the Faire to promote the activities and projects of individual TCMS members and the organization as  whole. The Events Committee is responsible for this booth and the projects featured inside it which, this year, consisted of Cliff’s 3D printer, Eric’s “Doctor Who” chess set, Adam’s “Drink Bot” (upgraded with an aluminum frame and a Raspberry Pi 3 controlling all of the hardware), and Leslie’s geometric piece building set). The booth was manned by various members of the Committee throughout the entire weekend of the Faire, rotating through several shifts to allow everyone to appreciate all of the other exhibits at the Faire. Several other members of the Makerspace came down for the weekend to check out all of the awesome stuff at the Faire as well, and their photos of the booth and other exhibits at the Faire are featured in the Google Photos album linked at the bottom of this blog post, along with photos taken by the members of the Committee. We look forward to attending 2017’s Faire!

Faire photos are available here, c/o Kris Brown.

Sources:

“Maker Faire: A Bit of History.” Makerfaire.com. Maker Media, 1 Jan. 2017. Web. 3 Jan. 2017.

Ready Player One: Exploring the tech of Virtual Reality

One of the most popular science-fiction novels of recent years is Ready Player One, a dystopian adventure story with an archetypal “hero from humble origins” protagonist named Wade Watts who, like most of the other people in his poverty-stricken and socially dysfunctional world, spends most of his waking hours in a ‘Matrix’-like virtual universe called the OASIS. Infinitely vast and incredibly rich in sensual details, the OASIS provides simulations or substitutions of almost every real life experience from K-12 education and white-collar work to recreation and travel, as well as facsimiles of physically impossible situations. For example, in one chapter Wade goes to a party where his avatar dances in midair before morphing into a blob of light! The mad genius who created this virtual universe has died and left his multibillion-dollar fortune, and ultimate control over the OASIS, to the first person who can solve a cryptic puzzle using clues hidden deep within the simulation. Wade is eager to solve this puzzle, but so is every other OASIS user, along with a telecommunications company which is seeking to gain control over the OASIS to monetize it. When Wade starts making progress solving the puzzle, he comes under pressure to give up his secrets and becomes a literal as well as a virtual target for assassination.

Besides presenting a variation of a very familiar narrative structure in a compelling way, Ready Player One also provides one of the most thoughtful descriptions of virtual reality I’ve ever encountered, going beyond the usual “do everything you’ve ever dreamed of” and “escaping from reality” tropes to describing in great detail how this simulated society works in terms of economics, culture, and real-world ramifications. For example, Wade is initially limited in making progress within the OASIS because he doesn’t have enough virtual money to be able to travel far within the simulation, which he needs to do in order to complete quests to earn money and raise the status of his avatar. The technology which people use to interact with the OASIS is also described in a fair amount of detail – from features of the virtual reality software which Wade uses to interact with the virtual universe and other avatars within it (e.g., chat rooms that are 3-D representations of real-life rooms with various objects inside that can be physically manipulated) to the physical hardware which people use to access the OASIS, which can be a basic set of goggles and haptic gloves to form-fitting immersion suits/cockpits and machines which produce detailed sounds and smells to go with the audio-visual and tactile sensations the user is experiencing inside the simulation.

Some of the virtual or augmented/mixed reality concepts described in this book are starting to be developed in real life! For example, several companies are releasing software/hardware packages designed to place the user in either a completely virtual environment (e.g., the Oculus Rift project, now owned by Facebook), or to place virtual objects that you can physically interact with in the real world (e.g., the Magic Leap project, funded by Google and several V.C. firms). With the rapid development over the past ten years or so of small, powerful electronic hardware used in smartphones – high-resolution and color-accurate displays, fast and efficient CPUs, and lighter, higher-density batteries – several of these projects can now develop products that can be used without requiring tethers or cords of any kind to provide data or electricity, and which produce audio-visual and tactile effects that cannot be easily distinguished from interactions with the real world. These virtual (V.R.) or augmented / mixed reality (A.R., M.R.) devices have great potential for use with a wide variety of applications, from fully immersive gaming and tourism to interactive worldwide news feeds and business transactions.

For example, imagine being able to play an advanced version of Pokémon Go where you can physically feel the Poké Ball you’re throwing at a given character, or be able to reach out and touch a Pokémon that you’ve captured! Using the appropriate sensory hardware, you could climb an active volcano and feel the heat of the magma inside it; or catch a live performance of your favorite band from the front row, and see and hear the musicians playing right in front of you! Customer representatives could take a simulated tour of a factory production line to witness in person how a product they are interested in buying is created; car shoppers could take virtual test drives of a vehicle they like at their favorite racetrack; and history teachers could take students to the Moon with the Apollo astronauts or invade the beaches of France with Allied troops in World War II!

Everyday life could be made more productive or interesting with digital representations of useful data or physical objects/experiences, too! For example, a version of Google Maps could be created to take advantage of someone wearing A.R. goggles to give them directions to a given location with virtual signs that appear while they’re physically walking or driving, instructing them to follow a particular route and informing them of their projected arrival times and potential disturbances from weather or traffic. Business presentations could involve data projections or physically interactive objects which each attendee could personally manipulate, and people could experience live news events firsthand with reporters around the world. The possibilities for information generation, sharing, and consumption are virtually endless, and many of these possibilities are explored in depth in Ready Player One.

Of course, as with any great technological developments, there are potential downsides, both in the novel and in reality. The possibility for the information generated by users of these platforms to be collected, analyzed, and used in various ways which could compromise those users’ privacy is both realistic and far more extensive in nature than what is typically done with tracking of Internet and smartphone usage. For example, when the identities of some of Wade’s friends – including their childhood and adolescent histories, personal habits, and geographical locations – are linked with their OASIS avatars, attempts are made on their lives. It is not hard to imagine many realistic scenarios where someone may not want their V.R. avatar(s) linked with their personal identity and activities. The medical, psychological, and cultural/societal effects which long-term usage of V.R./A.R./M.R. products have on the average person are also currently unknown; indeed, one of the major plot points of Ready Player One, albeit a plot point common to many pieces of V.R. fiction, is that many people would prefer to spend their time escaping from reality and indulging themselves in simulations of their fantasies instead of putting substantial effort into resolving their personal and societal problems. This is obviously hugely detrimental to their physical and mental health, and to the health of the environment and other people whom they share reality with. Finally, although preliminary versions of the software and hardware described in this blog post can currently be purchased, consumer-friendly goggles, gloves, and suits will probably not be available for another 5-10 years, as many of them are limited in scope and applications for reasons of cost, aesthetics, content and infrastructure limitations, or inadequately developed software or hardware interfaces.

Still, the appeal of virtual reality and the idea of experiencing many heretofore impractical or impossible activities or events with all of our senses in a way that makes us feel as though we’re really present there remains as bright as ever. With the technologies being developed today by many different companies, the possibility of making many of these concepts parts of our daily lives, and of them enriching us in many ways, seems more plausible than ever before. Indeed, in a final ironic twist, a film adaptation of Ready Player One is currently in development with Steven Spielberg at the helm; and not only has the studio invited people to create avatars of themselves for use as background characters in the film, but they are also considering developing a real version of the OASIS to be released alongside the film adaptation! We could very soon be following Wade in questing through an infinitude of worlds and experiences ourselves, and sharing these experiences with friends, family, and acquaintances in a deeper and more enriching way than ever before.

Sources:

Cline, Ernest. Ready Player One. New York: Broadway Books, 2011. Print.

Kelly, Kevin. “Hypervision: Magic Leap and the Future of VR.” Wired May 2016: 74-87, 112.

Packwood, Lewis. “How Far Away is the Technology of Ready Player One?” Kotaku.co.uk. Future plc, 5 May 2016. Web. 6 Aug. 2016.

“Create a 3D avatar for the upcoming film Ready Player One.” Talenthouse.com. Warner Brothers, 19 May 2016. Web. 6 Aug. 2016.

Where did the makerspace movement come from?

Erik Leonard addresses the question: “Where did the maker movement come from? Why is it happening now?” This is a complex question… and to answer it we need to make a leap back in time. Let’s think about technology prior to circa 1980. 

BY ERIK LEONARD

As the co-founder of a makerspace, I end up at a lot of events or social engagements where I’m talking to the public or people that are otherwise unfamiliar with makerspaces and the maker movement. A question that comes up time after time is “Where did the maker movement come from? Why is it happening now?”

This is a complex question with no one good answer and I am by no means a philosopher or a historian so my answer is going to be neither authoritative nor definitive. That being said I will attempt to answer this. The simplest answer to the question of where makerspaces came from is, Europe. Like chiptunes and tea based energy drinks, the makerspace movement is an offshoot of the hackerspace movement. Hackerspaces can be thought of as the lungfish ancestors of modern makerspaces. They share a lot of traits, they are shared spaces where people with similar ideas and goals can meet, they are a means of cost sharing to acquire expensive equipment, and they have a collaborative and communal mindset. But while makerspaces tend to focus on building physical objects, hackerspaces operated in the ethereal realm of software, encryption, and pure mathematics. Hackerspaces helped birth a lot of the tools and software that we take for granted nowadays in the maker ecosystem.

Before we go any further down this path, we need to make a leap back in time. Let’s think about technology prior to circa 1980. If you owned a television in the 1950’s it was a purely analog device, meaning that there was no onboard computer or microprocessor that helped it run, it was a creature of vacuum tubes and dials. It also included something that most devices today lack, if you popped off the back cover you’d find a schematic that outlines how the TV was wired. This is a treasure-trove of information for anyone that wanted to make their TV do something it didn’t do from the factory, or for someone that wanted to repair their own TV. This era of analog electronics that had user serviceable parts spawned a 3-4 decade long era of electronics experimentation. HAM radio, CB radio, early video game systems, and the first mini-computers that industrious proto-makers could assemble from mail order kits were all results of this. In the end though cheap computers would help put a damper on the maker movement for many years.

Let’s flash forward to the three decades spanning the 80’s to the mid 2000’s. There was a massive change in electronics of both the industrial and consumer varieties. Microcontrollers (essentially low power computers on a single chip) were cheap and easy for industrial designers to use, they also offered more reliability over older analog systems. This led to a new methodology in design, why take all the time to design an analog circuit to do something when you could throw a microprocessor in it, and program it to do the task at hand?

We went from having a device that was designed to do a single function to a general purpose minicomputer that happened to have a single function. Everything from video game consoles, to microwave ovens and automobile control systems became general purpose computers with some application specific hardware to help it function. This was a deathblow in the maker community. How do you tinker with something that has zero documentation and inside is nothing more than a few support components and a microprocessor under a blob of epoxy? You could go out and get a good oscilloscope, a logic analyzer, a reflow oven, a decent solder station, and some industrial microcontroller development hardware, and after you mortgaged your house you might be able to try and muck about with tweaking that shiny new DVD player you dropped $200 on at Circuit City. But for most people it wasn’t worth the effort, so many makers turned to software and the web, and thus hackerspaces we born.

However as we well know the maker movement, much like punk rock, wasn’t dead, it just smelled like it. The late 2000’s to present has seen a renaissance in hardware design, the cost of computers is at an all time low, there is a buffet of cheap tools that only a decade before would have cost more than a Camry. So the makers turned software developers have an slew of code tricks up their sleeve that when combined with their hardware knowledge gave us Arduino’s, cheap 3D printers, and all sorts of other amazing open source hardware. We live in a time where the average makerspace has gear that only 30 years ago even the largest companies didn’t have

So back to the question at hand, where did the makerspace/maker movement come from, and why is it so big right now? In my opinion the makers never went anywhere, they’ve always been around, from the early pioneers of electricity to the guy down the street that spends long nights in his garage restoring a vintage car, the makers are everywhere. We had a brief period in the early days of the internet and personal computing where making phase changed into web development and software. But the bar for making is so low that we’ve reached a wonderful time when anyone who wants to can make something truly fantastic.