Global Observer

If you build it, they will come: Hong Kong's first Maker Faire

Posting in Design

HONG KONG -- A small show that stretches the possibilities of doing it yourself.

HONG KONG -- In a university building, down two flights of stairs, through two doors, tucked into a black box studio is an unexpected flurry of activity -- of both humans and robots.

A packed crowd, mostly young and male, is milling about, peering at tiny circuit boards and moving parts, and discussing them with curiosity and admiration. It is Hong Kong’s first Mini Maker Faire, a spinoff of the original of San Mateo, Calif., just called Maker Faire, which began in 2006 and attracts tens of thousands.

Spread out on tables here were a variety of 3-D printers demonstrating their magic, a slew of programmable robotic toys with their moving limbs and homemade computer games that had cables sticking out every which way.

One was plugged into gobs of Play-Doh that became controller buttons to a digital Etch-a-Sketch game. “It’s for kids, for them to learn about electronics,” said Tom Grek, who put together the device, which was based on a design by engineers at M.I.T.'s media lab.

Modeled after the original Maker Faire, this one is similarly less preoccupied with commercial inventions than showing the sheer possibilities if D.I.Y.

“We want Hong Kong people to realize you don’t have to buy everything -- that they can be made,” said one of the organizers, Andy Kong. “It’s like a movement against capitalism, which encourages you to spend money. You don’t have to spend money to be fulfilled.”

Jonathan Buford brought his invention: a 3-D printer he designed to be more user friendly and cost friendly. “I’m probably the only person in the world who designed a 3-D printer from top to bottom,” he said.

He said he tried to “start over” with all the components. The most noticeable difference with his printer, which is called Makibox and will be sold as a kit (assembly required), are the plastic pellets it uses instead of the more common strands of injection molding. The pellets cost less partly because they do not require the precise shape and size of traditional injection molding.

“We can sell it [the pellet material] for $10 a kilo. Makerbot sells their plastic for $40 per kilo,” referring to a popular 3-D printer’s manufacturer. He said that if you needed to make a plastic shower curtain ring, at $40 a kilo for plastic, it would cost more than the trouble to run down to the store.

Throughout the four-hour event on Saturday, various makers were scheduled to give brief presentations in the middle of the room about their creations. Arnold Wu’s was a show stealer, a “Segway” he built from scratch that little girls and adult men alike took spins on. He explained how the wheels had previously belonged to a wheelchair, which electronic parts he used and what he picked out from the hardware store.

Andy Comic, who hosts magic shows for children, showed a couple of high-tech projects he made to use on stage, like a white jump suit covered in a blinking network of programmable LED lights -- made unforgettable after one visitor volunteered to do a dance in it.

Comic said the suit was originally designed to be worn for a dance routine, but the plan got scrapped. He said it was a copy of one he saw on YouTube, which was what he had originally envisioned. “He had an iPhone controlling it and a beat going as well,” Comic said, referring to the maker on YouTube.

While the visiting crowd was more diverse and included many children, it appeared that the only woman showing her work was Rita Huang, who displayed hand-crafted decorative balls with patterns intricately woven out of threads.

But Kong, one of the organizers, said he hopes next year’s Maker Faire will have more such handicraft makers and even people like chefs. He also hopes to drop the word “mini” and host a much larger, carnival-style event that will include participants from other countries.

In Asia, Maker Faires have been held in Seoul, Singapore and Shenzhen, China, among other places.

Do all the makers have day jobs? “Of course!” said Kong, who is in the advertising industry and was displaying a homemade cardboard helmet he could wear over his head that portrayed the robot of the Japanese comic book series Gundam.

“It’s like this: In the 24 hours of each day, eight hours are spent sleeping, eight hours are spent making a living,” he said, “and what do you do with the remaining eight hours? A person’s life is defined by how those remaining eight hours are used.”

Photos: Chianly Sze (top, center) and Vanessa Ko (bottom)

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure