Exploring the Tech DIY of 'Hackerspaces'

When the humble garage workshop just isn't enough, or basement tinkerers tire of trying to go it alone, some turn to 'hackerspaces,' organizations that provide space, tools, and like-minded colleagues for unusual do it yourself projects. Kelly Maguire of NYC Resistor and Sean Auriti of Alpha One Labs discuss the 'hackerspace' movement.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

IRA FLATOW, host: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. If you're like me, you like to tinker. You love to use your hands, and maybe in your basement and your garage. But, you know, what do you do when your techie dream outweighs your garage workshop? Like when - like - let's say if I only had a - I had only a saw, and I want a plasma cutter. I want to use a 3-D printer. And I wish I knew how to weld. I want to make my space elevator, but it's just not going to happen in my, you know, my little basement.

Where do you go? Well, around the world, there are clubs for dedicated hackers that are springing up, bringing together tools, space, skills, like-minded people. They're called hackerspaces. And with the World Maker Faire in town in New York this weekend, we sought some advice from folks exhibiting there who have just the space you're looking for. And we're joined - to talk more about it, I want to introduce my first guest, Kelly Maguire. She is a member of NYC Resistor in Brooklyn, New York. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

KELLY MAGUIRE: Thanks. It's great to be here today.

FLATOW: You give people a place to do their life's dream work.

MAGUIRE: Absolutely.

FLATOW: What does it - give me an idea what it's like here (unintelligible) .

MAGUIRE: It's kind of a cross between your garage and a clubhouse. So one of the things that we provide is not only just physical space where people can get their work done, but also a sense of a community and a sense of camaraderie that you're not going to get when you're working by yourself alone, you know, in your dark basement.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So if you have a question about or an idea that you need to flesh out with somebody, someone's there to offer some advice.

MAGUIRE: Absolutely. And that's probably one of the most valuable parts of it, is when you get stuck having someone nearby who can say, hey, have you tried this?

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What kinds of things get done in your space?

MAGUIRE: Just about everything. One of our most popular projects is called BarBot. It's a bartending robot. Another one that's really - been really interesting to me lately is this guy who's doing digital archeology. He's taken these 14-inch Cray-1 platters - Cray-1 was a very early supercomputer - and actually working on ways to extract the data off of them, despite the fact that the disk drives and the original hardware is long gone.

FLATOW: So one guy is repairing computers in one spot. In another part of the room, someone's building a bar robot...

MAGUIRE: Yes.

FLATOW: ...did you say? Does it work?

MAGUIRE: It works pretty well. It makes drinks a little bit strong...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MAGUIRE: ...and sometimes things that - vodka and gin go well together. But other than that, it does work pretty well.

FLATOW: A lot of people want to try that out, don't they? They want to do quality control on the BarBot.

MAGUIRE: Yeah. We had it set up at a local bar a few months back, and it was pretty popular.

FLATOW: Also with me here now is Sean Auriti. He's co-founder and member of the Alpha One Labs, another hackerspace in Brooklyn. Brooklyn has a lot of hackerspaces.

SEAN AURITI: Yeah. It's a nice place to have one.

FLATOW: Tell us about your space.

AURITI: We are radically inclusive. We have 43 members. And we allow all ages there. And we have a lot of cool projects.

FLATOW: Name a few, then, here.

AURITI: One of the founding projects is the flying saucer that I'm working on, and that's an idea that I've had for 15 to 20 years. And I just always thought I'd need a million-dollar lab to make it happen. And these hackerspaces started popping up, and I was like, that's the way to do it. So...

FLATOW: You're actually building a flying saucer?

AURITI: Yup. It's at Maker Faire. I have the ninth or 10th prototype, and it actually is getting some lift now.

FLATOW: Wow. So you're like - your own Area 51.

AURITI: Yeah. Totally.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Now, let me ask both of you: How do you become a member of any of these workspaces, of the hackerspaces?

MAGUIRE: I mean, you know, it really varies between groups. Every group kind of has its own feel, and its own protocols for membership. Some of them are very open. Anyone can walk in. Ours, because we have a fair amount of equipment, a fair amount of space, all our members have key access. We have to be a little bit more restrictive to who we're giving the keys to, but we have public nights two nights a week where anyone can come and hang out. You know, the biggest thing is just find one in your area, find out what their public events are, and get to know the people.

FLATOW: And yours?

AURITI: Yeah. We have - at Alpha One Labs, we have a meeting every Tuesday at seven. It's open to the public at 7:10. And we also have Solder Sundays from two to three on Sunday.

FLATOW: And these are all around - they're just not in Brooklyn. They're all around the country.

MAGUIRE: All around the world.

FLATOW: All around the world. Do they have an annual meeting or a place to get together?

MAGUIRE: There's not really a central organizing principle behind hackerspaces.

AURITI: Yeah. I know that Makers Local 256 started doing some type of hackerspace meeting. I haven't heard from that lately.

MAGUIRE: Hackerspaces.org is kind of a central resource. It's sort of amorphous collection of information about hackerspaces around the world.

FLATOW: Let's go to Anne Petersen in Chicago. Hi, Anne. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

ANNE PETERSON: Hi. Thanks a lot.

FLATOW: Now, you have a make - a hackerspace there?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ANNE PETERSEN: We do. We have 90 members.

FLATOW: Ninety.

PETERSEN: Yup.

FLATOW: Wow. And what kinds of projects do they do there?

PETERSEN: We're working right now on funding next year's Power Racing Series, where we hack children's toys - mostly Power Wheels - and race them in a series of events throughout a lot of different maker faires and mini-maker faires.

FLATOW: Wow. Sounds exciting. Thanks for calling.

PETERSEN: Yeah.

FLATOW: Good luck to you.

PETERSEN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Take care. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Alex in Fort Lauderdale. Hi, Alex. How are you doing?

ALEX: Hey. Good, good. Just from my lunch break, heading back to work. But I've got a question. I heard a story about you guys before, and I looked at ideas on how to start a hackerspace. I'm in Fort Lauderdale, actually west of Fort Lauderdale, and I just don't know how to start one. I'm assuming that I could just get some warehouse space and start asking people around, but I have no idea how to go about that. I don't have the money to start, you know, rent a warehouse by myself. So how I do start one?

Kelly Maguire?

MAGUIRE: I think that's a position that every hackerspace has started, and the first thing you need is two or three people who care about it. And once you have that, you can make everything else work. The money, the space, that will come in time, but finding two or three other people who really care about it, I think, is step one.

FLATOW: Can you get a bank loan to do this?

MAGUIRE: If you call it the right thing. We actually have run into problems. Our insurance company dropped us with all of the reason hacking nonsense in the news because they said, oh, you're hackerspace. I'm like, you've been insuring us for the last three years. So be careful how you describe yourself to people who aren't in the scene.

FLATOW: Yeah, not real hackers. Sean, do you have anything to add?

AURITI: Yeah. One go-to(ph) resource for starting a hackerspace are the design patterns and they pretty list out every single step

FLATOW: But what's a design pattern?

AURITI: It's a tried and true method that works, so, you know, just sort of designing your space. And they have a lot of good pointers there, and that's what we followed pretty much to a T, except for having a shower.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Is it - do you have to screen the people who'll join so that it's sort of a fraternity of like-minded people?

MAGUIRE: To a degree.

FLATOW: I mean, to a certain degree, people who are going to fit in into the terms of the mission of what you do?

MAGUIRE: We care, you know, at our group we care less about that the person quote-unquote "fits in," you know, is cool, is not cool. And more just that it's someone that we feel safe, you know, being alone with late at night when they've got keys and we've got keys. That's, you know, safety is really the biggest thing for us when we're screening members. I mean, then, you know, they need to be a ninja at something, whether it's electronics or art or whatever.

FLATOW: Yeah. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us at scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. James in Milwaukee, hi. Hi, welcome

JAMES: Hi. How are you?

FLATOW: Hi there. Go ahead.

JAMES: So I just wanted to shout out to you fellows, like Ann(ph) and others. I run an organization called The School Factory, and we have a program called the Space Federation. We work with hacker and makerspacers around the country to help them actually get started and walk their way through the hackerspace design patterns. I just wanted to invite those listening to join us. We're actually hosting a space camp event - a global space camp to gather the people who start and run these hacker and makerspaces together to share their ideas with each other. That's coming up next year.

FLATOW: And do you have any suggestions for people who want to start their own hackerspace?

JAMES: Oh, yeah. I think the existing suggestions are awesomely right and, of course, the insurance is always a challenge. One of the biggest things we find a lot of spaces do is get started and then go and meet everybody else around them in the community that might help. So oftentimes we'll suggest, you know, get to know all the people in your community who are already hacking on stuff but don't have a place to do it, people who are, you know, meeting up once a month to talk about the Web or who are, you know, meeting up once a month to do some soldering and other work exercises and go and find those groups. They can often be a great resource to help you get your space started.

FLATOW: All right. Thanks for calling. Good luck to you. 1-800-989-8255. Now, lest people think that hackers - the hacker in hackerspace means people who want to wreck things. That's not the total idea of what you do, is it?

AURITI: Yeah, it's a mix. I mean, some people do want to take things apart and just, you know, break them, and there's also people that want to make things, so there's makers and breakers in hackerspaces.

MAGUIRE: And breaking things is often a really important part of understanding them than making them. You know, there's a difference between taking things apart and illegal activities, and that's, you know, kind of the crowbar separation that we're trying to explain to people.

FLATOW: We have a tweet coming in from a Elliptic One(ph), who says: What if I want to learn how to hack? Are there classes I can attend?

MAGUIRE: Most of the hackerspaces maybe not most, but certainly a lot of them do offer classes - Our Size(ph), you know, Across the Country, Noisebridge does. It's actually one of the ways the hackerspaces stay - keep afloat, is by offering classes to help pay their rent.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let's go to Ben in Cleveland. Hi, Ben.

BEN: Yeah, hi.

FLATOW: Go ahead. Go ahead, Ben. Ben, are you there?

BEN: Yeah, I am. I'm here.

FLATOW: OK. Go ahead.

BEN: I wanted to say that with the real estate bust, there's a lot of places around that you can find and - I mean you can also, if you're just starting a group up, you can meet in people's living room. There's a group, there's a couple of groups here in Cleveland, but in one group they have a 3-D printer. It's just, you know, like in somebody's living room. And if we have a meeting somewhere, you know, you just haul it around. And you know, some places will allow you to meet like in the back of their place, you know, like we met at a consignment store just, you know, in some empty space in the back of the store. And I mean, you just have to talk to people and be friendly, and they might be interested in having a bunch of, you know, geeks and interesting stuff going on in their location rather than, you know, like having it empty.

FLATOW: Interesting.

BEN: Always looks better to have people than have a place empty.

FLATOW: Absolutely. Thanks for calling, Ben.

BEN: Sure.

FLATOW: You're going to be showing anything off at Maker Faire?

AURITI: Yes.

FLATOW: What have you got?

AURITI: I have a flying saucer prototype.

FLATOW: Are you going to bring the flying saucer with you?

AURITI: Yeah, definitely.

MAGUIRE: A-ha. Is it going to elevate? I made sure of it.

AURITI: What is it - what's its power source?

Oh, it just has a helicopter motor, RC helicopter motor and a battery and an op(ph) that just makes it go and just wants to take off.

FLATOW: How big is it?

AURITI: Small. It's about a few inches wide.

FLATOW: It isn't something you were going to sit in yourself.

AURITI: No, no, not yet

FLATOW: Not

AURITI: but coming soon.

FLATOW: Not yet. Anything that you're going to show off in particular that you want to

MAGUIRE: We've got some, you know, pretty cool classes going on. The ones that I think are fun are the bristlebots, which are little robots made out of toothbrushes, so - and those classes that people attending Maker Faire can, you know, kind of come and check out.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, Maker Faire is a cool place all around the country. 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to John in Beaverton. Hi. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

JOHN: Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: Hey there.

JOHN: I'm a volunteer at freegeek.org. We rehabilitate corporate-donated or personally donated computers. And we've seeded(ph) are other freegeeks, but are there other special purpose PC-related organizations like that that are out there that you've heard of, other makers who are rehabilitating computers like we do for schools and nonprofits? Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Have you heard any of that?

AURITI: I know there's NYLA(ph), which is a Linux meet-up. We've been having this idea of having a computer drop-off tanker, some type of car that has a box (unintelligible) just drop laptops in it

FLATOW: Sort of a dumpster on wheels.

AURITI: Yeah, totally, and then we'll recondition them for students.

FLATOW: That's a good idea. Do people - once they find out that you're - you have a hackerspace, are they curious about seeing what goes on in there?

MAGUIRE: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Yeah.

MAGUIRE: I mean, it's fun to watch even if you aren't, you know, actively participating. There's a lot of blinking lights and whirling things, and it's just kind of a fun environment to be in.

AURITI: You know, speaking of blinking lights, the hardware hacking area of Maker Faire this year sponsored by Alpha One Labs, we gathered 30 volunteers and we'll all be there cranking out these little thinking robots and the bristlebots.

FLATOW: I was visiting one hackerspace in New York called CoLab and I was just blown away with the kinds of different things that go on there. They had, for example, a guy who was doing 3-D printing. So if you wanted that, his resources as a 3-D printer, you could do that. They had a big poster-printing spot. They had other kinds of electronics that somebody - they also had somebody who was an entrepreneur. It was a business incubator for somebody who was trying to get a patent on something.

AURITI: Yeah. We had recently - over at the labs we had Joseph Prusa to come by, who's one of the pioneers in the RepRap scene. He created his own design of a 3-D printer and very efficient. And also in our lab recently was a new startup called Buildatron, and they're making a 3-D printer that they're selling also.

FLATOW: We're talking about, well, making stuff in hackerspaces on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, here with Kelly Maguire and Sean Auriti. And I guess that is one of the great attractions, is that you can get this equipment and other stuff, and it does serve as a business incubator. Do you have anybody who's going to

MAGUIRE: Absolutely.

FLATOW: make a commercial success out of something?

MAGUIRE: Make-A-Bot Industries, which is one of the bigger players DIOY 3-D printer, they started up out of NYC Resistor. A bunch of people have started smaller ventures, you know, gotten the confidence to leave their full-time jobs and do freelance, that sort of thing.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And so you also get - you get some backing mentally, you know

AURITI: Yeah.

FLATOW: some propulsive energy that way. You can do it. You know, people will cheer for you and encourage you.

MAGUIRE: Definitely. Every few months someone says, man, I hate my job and I'm thinking about doing my own thing. And there's this big chorus of, do it, do it. Go, go, go.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AURITI: And the meetings are great for that. We have someone come by recently who does two-way speakers out of cords(ph) and he got tons of feedbacks from us.

FLATOW: Hmm. Let's see if we got a quick call in before we have to go. Let's go Rob in San Francisco. Hi, Rob.

ROB: Hi, Ira. How are you guys doing?

FLATOW: Hi. How are you?

ROB: Good. Kelly mentioned Noisebridge, which is a really impressive hackerspace we have at least in San Francisco. And I wanted to mention another makerspace called TechShop, which is popping up all over the country, and each one is about 20,000 square feet of shop. And you basically have a monthly membership when you go in. You take classes and become an expert or do your own projects.

FLATOW: Wow. Both Kelly and Sean are nodding their heads. Kelly, you want to...

MAGUIRE: Yeah. I think TechShop is a great space. It's a little bit different than, I think, how a lot of hackerspaces work, because the hackerspaces tend to be these either nonprofit or failed profitable companies that, you know, these are very loose structures, whereas TechShop has these wild ideas like a business plan to help make it (unintelligible)...

FLATOW: Do you feel like it's being co-opted?

MAGUIRE: No, no.

FLATOW: No?

MAGUIRE: I think it's great. I think that the more opportunity that people have to interact with their stuff, the better, you know, whether it's by hook or by crook.

FLATOW: You agree, Sean?

AURITI: Yeah, totally. Yeah. They're a commercial space for - you know, less commercially than other companies, but they're in it to, you know, provide equipment and make, you know, money off of it.

FLATOW: So you're not going to see these spaces at the mall yet?

MAGUIRE: I would love to.

AURITI: There's actually one that's supposed to be coming to Brooklyn soon, a TechShop.

FLATOW: At the mall?

AURITI: No, not the mall but in Brooklyn.

FLATOW: The overhead prices. The rent's a little high there probably.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MAGUIRE: We can set our sights on that.

FLATOW: You think - you do think big. You want it. You would like to grow this.

MAGUIRE: I think it's so important. I think it bridges the gap between sitting at a computer learning about science and involving art and music with it and so many exciting things. You know, we've kind of gutted our education, and I think we need to bring it back.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you, Kelly Maguire and Sean Auriti. They are going to be at Maker Faire, so we're going to see them at Maker Faire this Saturday and Sunday. Thanks for being with us.

AURITI: Thank you.

MAGUIRE: Thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: That's about all the time we have for today. I'm Ira Flatow. We'll see you next week in New York.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: