Meet the Makers, MAKE Volume 28: Adam Wolf

Meet the Makers, MAKE Volume 28: Adam Wolf

Meet Adam Wolf, co-founder of Wayne and Layne, a company that makes open source nerdery. In MAKE Volume 28, Adam wrote about making a Van de Graaff generator from a soda can and co-wrote (along with MAKE’s John Baichtal) an article on making a wireless arcade-quality joystick-and-button-panel for playing video games. I asked Adam my standard get-to-know-a-geek questions. Here’s what he had to say:

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I live in Minneapolis, MN.  I recently switched from working at a large defense contractor to a small engineering design services company.  I get to do a lot of fun stuff with Linux and microcontrollers.

On nights and weekends, I’m half of Wayne and Layne, LLC, an open source hardware electronics kit business.  We’ve done a few jobs on commission, but mostly we just think of cool things, make them, and then sell them for enough money to slowly grow while sending us to Maker Faires around the United States and letting us buy new tools and things to experiment with.

When I’m not doing that, I’m usually reading or watching improv at our friendly local community theater with my wife.

Why do you like making things?

It’s easy to be philosophical about this, and talk about “the manifestation of human will outside the body” but pragmatically, making things is full of joy.  It’s enjoyable to have an idea and then go through with it, in any creative form.  There’s a sense of success after overcoming obstacles encountered during the practice of a skill.  It’s fun to see yourself getting better at something.

I like making toys, and it’s fun to see someone’s eyes light up when they “get it” working with an exhibit or toy you made.

Can you tell us something about the two projects you made for MAKE?

I made two projects for MAKE Volume 28.  The first is a Bluetooth Arcade Controller.  This project has a long, long history.

I shared a dorm with Matthew, the other half of Wayne and Layne, during college and we had a Gauntlet arcade cabinet.  We made a new control panel with more buttons and cup holders, and put a computer on the inside.  Don’t worry folks, the electronics were toast — no working cabinets were harmed!  The cabinet was huge, like a big refrigerator. I still live in an apartment, and there’s no room for a huge arcade cabinet, but there’s nothing like playing old video games on big arcade-style controls that you can really beat up. Matthew had done some experiments with Bluetooth keyboards for Wayne and Layne, to create the heart of a wireless, apartment-friendly arcade console.  This project was on our list for years and years, without really going anywhere.

Jeff Rowberg ran into his post and had us do some work for him related to his Keyglove Kickstarter project.  Jeff later pointed us towards a nicer Bluetooth keyboard module.  At the same time, John Baichtal was kicking around ideas with me to do an article for an upcoming issue of MAKE. This provided the impetus for Matthew and I to finish the electronics, and John did a bang up job making a cool enclosure out of MicroRAX and acrylic.

Matthew and I sourced parts and had some PCBs produced, so folks can buy a Bluetooth Arcade Controller kit from Maker Shed, put it on their Arduino Mega, attach a bunch of buttons and joysticks, and build their own wireless arcade controller.  It connects to your computer and looks like a regular wireless keyboard, so there’s no drivers to mess around with.  The only configuration is to configure the games to take the appropriate keypresses.

We brought one to World Maker Faire in New York this year and paired it with an Android tablet.  People had tons of fun playing games with it.

The second project is a simple electrostatic generator.  While I’m pretty confident with my electronics skills, I don’t really have much mechanical know-how.  I’ve been deliberately doing stretch projects to help learn and practice these skills.  One wintry weekend in Minneapolis, I ran across a picture online of a Van De Graaff machine with a pop can for the top collector.  They claimed they were able to get sparks out of it, and I was instantly taken back to childhood electrostatic projects in my parents’ basement.  Pretty much all of those ended without any sparks due to a lack of funding and hands-on experience.

After picking up a variety of parts at Ax-Man, a local surplus store, my wife and I started working on an improvised Van De Graaff machine.  I took it to a hackerspace, and it drew enough of a crowd I decided to document the build.  It’s definitely a step in a new direction for me–there isn’t a single chip in the whole project!

What kind of thing do you dream of making?

I have a long list of projects where the only thing stopping me from doing them is time, but they’re relatively grounded.

I went through a few years where I had to consciously avoid thinking about wearable computing or risk spending the rest of that week daydreaming and writing prose and code about how enabling wearable computing would be.

The “quantified self” movement is intensely interesting to me and I know I’ll be making something awesome in that area, eventually.

However, right now, my biggest dream is to make a toy that’s fun and inspirational. It should occasionally surprise the person playing with it, and help inspire people to make things themselves.  I have a pet theory that if enough people practice the skills, become capable, and think of themselves as makers, it’ll have a beneficial “herd immunity” effect across society.  I’d like to help that.

Oh, and space.  I’d love to build something that goes into space.

Can you tell us about one of your favorite tools?

Excluding computers, Linux, Python, and the Internet, I’m going to say checklists and tables.

When I’m in the thick of it, and really struggling with a problem, I like to make a table of all the possibilities and work through them.  I need a framework to be methodical, and tables and checklists seem to do the trick.  The New Yorker ran an article a few years ago called “The Checklist” that made me try incorporating more checklists into my life.

There was one time I was working with a tricky bootloader that used to fit just fine in 2k, but the compiler had changed since then, and there were some small changes I wanted to make.  On top of that, there were different fuse settings to use.  I floundered for a while, and really started to despair about the success of the project.

I opened up a Google doc, made a spreadsheet, listed out all the options I knew of for each of the variables, and started compiling and flashing.  It wasn’t long before I had found a working combination that did what it should.

What are you working on now?

Img 1399

The photo above is what I’ve been working on this week, a version of our latest kits, the “Blinky POV” and “Blinky Grid” which are simple reprogrammable LED toys.  The grid is 56 LEDs in a rectangle, and it can scroll text or simple graphics and animations, and the Blinky POV is a persistence of vision toy that you swing through the air, and the LEDs blink fast enough that it paints an image through the air.  The cool part about these kits is that they are reprogrammed by going to our website, entering the text or drawing the graphic in our webpage, holding the light sensors to your monitor or smartphone, and pressing the program button on the webpage.  There are two squares on the website that blink black and white, and through their blinking, transmits the new program to the kit.  They’re one of my favorite things that Matthew and I have ever created — I taught a summer camp of 70 or so 12- and 13-year-old girls how to solder using the ones that we currently have available for sale.

The ones in the photo are surface mount versions of that kit.  We’ve gone through every step of the process to make it as simple as possible to surface mount solder these kits, and they’re designed to be displayed as badges.  They’ll come preprogrammed with the message “I can solder SMD!”

Photos by Amanda Nix

MAKE 28MAKE Volume 28, Toys & Games!
MAKE Volume 28 hits makers’ passion for play head-on with a 28-page special section devoted to Toys and Games, including a toy “pop-pop” steamboat made from a mint tin, an R/C helicopter eye-in-the-sky, and a classic video game console. You’ll also build a gravity-powered catapult, a plush toy that interacts with objects around it, and a machine that blows giant soap bubbles. Play time is a hallmark of more intelligent species– so go have some fun!

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Mark Frauenfelder is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Make: magazine, and the founder of the popular Boing Boing blog.

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