Maker Store Stories: Kit makers

Maker Store Stories: Kit makers


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, 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 was showing off his amazing no-solder LED digital clock. Andre LaMothe of 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!

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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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