Maker Store Stories: Kit makers

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I got home late afternoon Tuesday, and I’ve had a few days to reflect on the fun I had at Maker Faire. This was my third Maker Faire, but only the second one that I really worked at (at the first one, I had an exhibit, but I didn’t participate in the setup/teardown). At the 2007 San Mateo Maker Faire, I spent nearly all my time in the Maker Store, where we sell books, issues of Make, t-shirts, and my favorite, electronics kits. Make is nothing without its community, so we have a voracious appetite for kits from independent makers, and we sell these kits online and at events. These include kits like Adafruit’s MintyBoost, MiniPOV, electronic game kits from Grand Design and XGameStation.com, and a whole lot more. (The above photo shows Mark Frauenfelder trying out the Critter and Guitari cellular automata kit.)

At the Austin show, I worked in the store again. But this time, we had added a lot of new kits, and among the breakout sellers were the Arduino and Arduino-compatible boards. Arduino is generally described as a platform for physical computing (you can sense and control the physical world with them). It’s open source (both the hardware and software can be studied, modified, and passed on to others), and it’s very easy to program because it was designed by and for artists and designers. The board is based on the 8-bit Atmel AVR microcontroller, and the programming language is similar to Java.

One of the reasons that the Arduino did so well (we sold out of the pre-assembled boards fairly early the second day of the show) is that we also had a new book for sale: Tom Igoe’s Making Things Talk, which is a full-color book with projects showing how to create amazing things with Arduino. It was a no-brainer for someone who wanted to play with Arduino to buy one or two Arduino boards along with the book. All they need to get to the Arduino equivalent of “Hello, World” is a USB cable, a computer (Mac, Windows, or Linux) to program the board, and a red LED to blink.

If it sounds like I’m shilling for product, well, I probably am, but my enthusiasm for it exceeds my desire to sell things to you. When I edited Tom’s book, I got the Arduino fever, and now my office is filled with sensors, displays, solar panels, passive components, LEDs, and Arduino boards. When I was a kid, I played with electronics and home computers whose capabilities were similar to Arduino’s. One of my big thrills at Maker Faire was setting up a ZigBee-based demo using a couple of Arduino boards that I put out and let people play with.

One of the cool things about working in the store was that we had a section reserved for the independent makers who build the kits we sell. Limor Fried of Adafruit spent a lot of time there talking about the MintyBoost and MiniPOV. Dave and Cheryl Hrynkiw of Solarbotics had a permanent crowd of kids, which led to us selling out of Mousebot kits really fast. Karl Papadantonakis of LEDKit.biz was showing off his amazing no-solder LED digital clock. Andre LaMothe of XGameStation.com demoed the 8-core Hydra game console and the XGameStation Pico. Jed Berk, maker of the Blubberbot autonomous/semi-domesticated blimp robot was also there. Raphael Abrams set up a great demo for the Daisy MP3 player and answered questions about it from attendees. And from my own neck of the woods, Paul Badger of ModernDevice was joined by David Fowler from uC Hobby to show off Paul’s Bare Bones Board, an Arduino-compatible microcontroller board that you build yourself! What’s more, all these folks gave talks and did workshops on their kits (more on that later).

So even though I was deep in the belly of a commercial enterprise for most of the faire, my responsibility was to connect these small independent kit makers with a community of people who are enthusiastic about their creations. What really blew me away was that there’s a growing market around people who take a cool idea, find a way to produce it in modest quantities, and maybe make a living selling them to enthusiastic fans who are going to learn a LOT from building and playing with their kits!

P.S. if anyone knows of a good, small Newtonian reflector telescope kit (or wants to design and manufacture one), let me know in the comments!

12 thoughts on “Maker Store Stories: Kit makers

  1. I’ve had my eye on a number of the kits in the Make Store and I’m really excited to see so many people creating innovative kits that are so open and hackable. I’ve got a couple questions based on this article:

    – I’ve noticed in some of the Maker Faire photos that the prices for some kits are discounted. Is there any chance of a kit discount or sale for Make subscribers? I’d love to be able to buy a number of kits as gifts (and a few for myself).

    – The “Making Things Talk” book looks really interesting, but I’ve not been able to find much information on it, not even a table of contents at the O’Reilly site. It would be really nice to know what kind of budget I’m going to need to be able to make some of the projects in the book. It sounds like I’d need at least an Arduino and some sensors, then maybe Xbee, ethernet and GPS modules for later experiments? I’ve got this book in my Amazon wish list just waiting for an in depth review before I make the purchase.

  2. Thanks, cairn. I don’t know about the discounts, but I’ll pass that suggestion on. If ever we do run any specials, we’ll definitely announce them on the Make blog.

    I’ve posted the sample chapter for the book as well as the TOC. We’ll have them linked to the book’s catalog page soon, but here are the direct links for now:

    As far as getting started with the book and Arduino, what you mention sounds about right. However, the book lists part numbers and suppliers, so you can hold off on buying those things until you check it out and determine which projects you might tackle. For getting started, one LED will do nicely.

    Thanks for the pointer to the astroshop.de folks. I’ve taken a look at that kit, and it looks very cool. We’re looking for something a little more rugged for outdoor use and with a big more aperture (at least 4.5 inches). But it would be neat to carry a papercraft telescope kit.

  3. Thanks for the ToC and Chapter 1! I read through them last night and ordered the book this morning. Don’t worry, I’ve already got a couple of monkeys :)

  4. I would love to see the Maker Store in action. I checked YouTube and found nothing, but if anyone has photos or video of the store in action, please post the URLs, I’d love to see it.

    -nfo

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I'm a tinkerer and finally reached the point where I fix more things than I break. When I'm not tinkering, I'm probably editing a book for Maker Media.

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