A breadboard baked as a cookie or a cracker. A wheelchair controlled by clenching your teeth. A musician whose fingers on the keys of an electric piano generate a colorful rainbow or a cluster of stars. A mechanical soybean sorter. A motorcycle so tiny it fits in your hand yet the Maker shows himself in a video riding it. A hand-carved, miniature marble machine that never fails to throw the marble into the air and into the tiny bucket. And of course, robots like Pepper and more robots in costume doing battle or playing music. Japanese Makers are very playful yet also very serious, and they came out to Maker Faire Tokyo on the first weekend in August.
Maker Faire Tokyo 2015 got started on Saturday at Tokyo Big Sight’s convention hall. With over 350 Makers, and 40% more space that the previous year, the event had over 6,000 attendees on its first day, according to organizer Hideo Tamura of O’Reilly Japan.
Wonderfully offbeat, carefully considered, and thoughtfully detailed, the projects of Japanese Makers filled Maker Faire Tokyo. Music. Robotics. Digital Fabrication. Food. Internet of Things. Early on, I heard people saying that there was so much to see here that they weren’t going to be able to experience it all in one day. There was so much good stuff, so much that was new and fresh and wonderful that I had to decide to pace myself.
Like Japan itself, Maker Faire Tokyo isn’t as large as other Faires in terms of physical space or footprint, but this Maker Faire made the most of the space it had. The Makers were densely packed together and every inch of their tables was filled. Part of the genius was that many of the Makers seemed to exemplify the idea that “small is beautiful.”
Baking a breadboard is the creative idea of artist Elico Suzuki and partner Kasiwagi Emiko. It’s a fun breakthrough in electronics, if not in cooking. These confections, be they cookies, crackers, or cupcakes, were wired up and the circuits were working. Elico showed me how she took the baked cookie, pushed wires through it, and connected to aluminum foil underneath.
You can follow them on BreadBoardBaking on Facebook.
Piano Interactive Projection
Takuma Shinsuke’s Piano Interactive Projection was beautiful to see. He told me that he loved to play the piano but worried that he would never be a very good musician so he came up with his projection show to enhance his performance. The piano was connected to his computer, running a program that generated images as he played and which were projected from above onto a table in front of his piano.
Akhira Sato works for an electronics measurement company by day. He built a mechanical soybean sorter as an experiment in DIY agriculture. The soybeans are dropped into a hopper, and they fall onto a screen that directs them into chutes that sort them into separate buckets for large, medium, and small.
New Way to Control a Wheelchair
Yoshimi Sugimoto runs Assistech Design Labs. He demonstrated a wheelchair that I originally thought was controlled by “brain waves” because he was wearing a headband and pointing to it. Yet when he asked me to try it out, he told me to use my teeth. If I touch my top front teeth to my bottom front teeth, the wheelchair moves forward. Close your teeth on the right side of your mouth and the wheel chair will move right. It works surprisingly well.
Haseck runs Hasegawa’s Factory. His MicroBikes are tiny motorcycles that are so small, it is surprising that they actually run and manage to awkwardly support an adult rider. The craftsmanship is amazing.
While Hasegawa did not demonstrate the tiny bikes at Maker Faire, he showed the following video of him riding one of them.
It really sounds like a motorcycle, too.
Really Tiny Drones
There were a lot of drones but mostly very small ones, and even those were hiding inside of plastic food containers. Here is the flight of a drone inside a potato chip canister.
Who ever thinks about how you might use a mattress to play a video game? This could be the next big thing. Forget Oculus Rift. Its Makers think that you might play video games as you go to sleep or as you wake up in the morning. How many people would like to lie in bed and have their own movements control an avatar in a video game? Who knows? This is one of those playful things that looks silly but should also be taken very seriously. What would it mean to instrument a bed for sensing and interaction? How would it help people who are bedridden or otherwise confined to a bed?
To learn more about the interactive bed, visit entermaker.com.
Many Musical Instruments
I was happy to see Kimura, whom I met at Maker Faire Shenzhen where he performed with Maywa Denki. Here he had brought his musical mechanical instruments (MMI).
Then there are any number of robot buskers, playing music and trying to get your attention, like this drummer.
This was pretty unusual, a CRT installation called the Braun Tube Jazz Band by Electronicos Fantasticos. (The Braun Tube is named after the German inventor of the Cathode Ray Tube, Karl Ferdinand Braun.) There were three screens and a person behind them who wanted to hold your hand. If you touched her hand and then one of the screens, you completed a circuit and made some noise.
A Maker named Airphony had a beautiful darkroom exhibit that she called “The Flame Manipulator.” There is a projection of a flame on to the fog that is emitted slowly from several tubes. Interaction changes the shapes and colors of the effect.
“If it wasn’t for Maker Faire, I wouldn’t have had the inspiration to do this,” said Richard Inoue, standing in front of his R2D2 Robot. He was joined by Jonathan Reinfelds, who built his own R2D2 and helped Richard with his. He was also inspired by seeing R2D2 robots in videos of Maker Faire Bay Area. He said that his kids loved Star Wars and he thought it would be fun to build an R2D2 for them. “We want to put Japan on the map in the R2D2 builder community,” said Richard.
I liked this simple strobe animation of a cat walking. There were four lights, two on the top and two on the bottom inside the box along with four different outlines of a cat in various stages of walking. The effect was a wonderful shadowplay.
Is that all there is? No, of course not. Here’s a Maker, Michael Cohen, who thinks your car’s windshield wipers should synchronize with the music you are playing.
In a way the things that seem crazy, even preposterous, get you to think. They wake up your imagination, as Michael did here, asking what might happen if your car radio was connected to your windshield wipers. Making us think of things we haven’t thought of, and taking them seriously, is a special kind of genius. It’s crazy smart. And it’s also just funny.
Futuristic Styled Earphones
These earphones are a great example of a Japanese Maker putting the fun in functional. I wasn’t sure what this woman was wearing on her head. I learned that these are highly functional earphones but with a futuristic style. They will certainly get you noticed in some fashion circles.
It seems to me that you have all these examples of incredibly creative Makers in Japan but relatively few examples of Makers who have commercial success. Making the transition from project to product is perhaps harder to do in Japan than elsewhere — or Japanese Makers are content to make without having commercial goals. Yet, I can’t help but think that perhaps Japan’s Makers need greater encouragement to take risks and pursue the challenges of putting a product into production.
Is it possible that what we see at Maker Faire Tokyo is transforming the world, or changing the future for Japan? That belief was expressed by Shigeru Kobayashi, professor at IAMAS and longtime proponent of the Maker Movement in Japan. Kobayashi organized a panel on Hardware Startups with Shota Ishiwatari, developer of the Rapiro robot; Masakazu Ohtsuka who developed an open source, Wi-Fi enabled IR remote controller called IRKit; and Shiratori who developed Fun’iki Ambient Glasses, which notify you of changes by flashing colors in the lens. Shiratori worked with an eyewear company on the project. These were three Makers who had designed and manufactured real products.
Ishiwatari said that the biggest challenge in developing a humanoid robot was manufacturing. It was expensive. His robot had 30 parts, and each one required a different mold, and molds cost money. He used Kickstarter to raise 17M Yen and 10M was spent on molds. He was grateful to work with a Japanese injection mold company, however. Ohtsuka said that he self-funded his IRKit project, and cost was not his biggest challenge. He said that his device only had two parts and a circuit board. He found that the challenge was doing it all by himself. “So many things I had to think about, so many decisions to make, I found it mentally exhausting.” Shiratori said that one challenge was convincing eyewear experts that his design, which incorporated electronics, could still be regarded as an attractive design. He mentioned that another challenge was working with an eyewear company that is traditional and conservative except for a few key players. One of the reasons he used crowdfunding was not just to raise money but to demonstrate interest in the project from outside the company so that he could move the project forward inside.
The three Makers are pioneers in establishing a hardware startup ecosystem in Japan. “It is still difficult to develop a project,” said Shiratori. “But there are more choices and we’ve already established a path. Ohtsuka said “I’m doing things that anyone can do. You don’t have to be a superhero. This way of making things can be widespread in our society.”
Shigeru Kanemoto started Switch Science 7 years ago to import Arduino boards from Italy. “My company was a small box in my room,” recalled Kanemoto. Now he has become a company that helps distribute products from Japanese Makers such as Ishiwatari’s Rapiro robot. He has 11 employees and 20 part-time employees.
Sure, there was more at Maker Faire Tokyo. Maker Faire Tokyo also had a good list of commercial sponsors, showcasing IoT products. Japanese companies such as NTT, Toshiba, Fujitsu, and Sony were present. Lots of digital fabrication tools from 3D printers to laser cutters. I particularly liked KitMill mini-CNC machines line from Original Mind. I met Law Yee Ping and others from the Hong Kong 3D Printer Association. One of the members was showing a unique 3D printer design.
One big change I saw from last year’s Maker Faire Tokyo, one that really matters to me, is there were more families, more kids running around having fun by interacting with Makers and their exhibits.
Hitomi Mizuno wrote me on Facebook to say that he and his son, Yuki, and his friends loved being part of Maker Faire Tokyo. “We had a very exciting time! Little Makers enjoy!”
Seeing the curiosity and joy of kids helps us realize the spirit of Maker Faire and fully appreciate the incredible creative talent that inspires us all.