Last weekend my wife went on a short trip with some friends, leaving me home to try my hand at single fatherhood. Still, I managed to get away from my "Mr. Mom Weekend" for a few hours on Friday and Saturday nights (paid a babysitter on Friday, and cajoled my mother-in-law into service on Saturday). On Friday I attended the PAARA amateur radio club meeting in Menlo Park, and on Saturday I drove up to the Maker Faire in San Mateo. The role of wireless technology at the Maker Faire was very evident, but not in the way you might expect. For the uninitiated; the Maker Faire is a combination of Burning Man + science fair + flea market. People come to show off their contraptions and creations; robots, alternative fuel vehicles, lots of stuff which uses embedded controllers, and (especially after the sun went down on Saturday) enough fire and explosions to satisfy even the most ardent pyromaniac. The highlights for me were:
- A carriage being pullled by a walking-robot made up to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger (lower-half exposed to show Terminator endo-skeleton)
- A chamber which made hydrogen-filled soap bubbles that were detonated by electric ignitors
- A seriously huge Tesla coil display which was throwing nine-foot plasma streamers
- Some kind of pressure-sensitive podium which caused twelve-foot tongues of flame to shoot up into the air
- The "Pinbowl" - a perpetual pinball machine
If you're still reading, you might be wondering how this all relates to wireless. It does, and thanks for sticking with me as I get around to that. Wireless technology of all types was very evident and widely used at the Maker Faire, but the operating word here is "used". There were no exhibits (that I saw) which showed off anything related to innovation in the wireless space. There were a ton of people using Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, proprietary ISM data-link radios, radio-controlled servos, etc. Wireless was everywhere, but in all cases it was "user wireless"; projects created with off-the-shelf modules and in some cases chipsets. Wireless is a tool to complete projects, not the project in and of itself. I find that this echoes a growing trend I've observed at the WCA and in the wireless industry as a whole: Put plainly, wireless technology is becoming a commodity.
Some of the hams from PAARA set up an amateur radio special-event station to make 20m and 2m/70cm contacts from the Maker Faire. I never found this exhibit, but a few people on the N6NFI repeater say the station had to contend with some bad RFI; which I can imagine given that a giant Tesla generator was operating nearby. I'm quite sure that most of the Maker Faire was essentially a gigantic FCC Part 15 violation.
It's unfortunate that the hams did not have a bigger role at Maker, because amateur radio has its roots in innovation and home-brewed technology; ham radio is a great-great-granduncle of the Maker movement and should rightfully hold a place of honor and respect in the Maker community. I think that the problem is that a lot of amateur radio has become consumerized and is now ironically an example of the "culture of learned helplessness"; ironic because the technology consumerism which is the fastest growing segment of amateur radio (i.e. people who chose to buy versus make) is at odds with the hacking/creation/innovation core elements of the Maker movement.
The amateur radio community still certainly has a lot to say about innovation and technology; the huge number of hamfests, tech days, field days, DXpeditions, etc is evidence of this. The problem seems to be that amateur radio events have become somewhat insular; we're doing events for ourselves, and not reaching out as much as we should to non-hams. By way of example; this month's AM-TECH Day is on May 10th. Past proof shows that it will be popular, or at least popular with hams. Wouldn't it have been better to push AM-TECH up a week and hold it at the Maker Faire? How many Makers could we have licensed if we'd held AM-TECH and a VE test session a week earlier at the Maker Faire?
I also think that we need to seriously rethink our approach to new technologies. Hams are spending way too much energy on "maintaining the tradition" in modes of operation such as CW and voice, and not exploring how amateur radio might benefit from integration with other technology. I think radio amateurs still have a lot to offer the wider technical community, but we need to reach out and open our doors. This means far less worrying about nurturing traditions and whining about the evils of no-code HF, and a lot more mold-breaking. The concept of the Maker Faire and amateur radio is to hack, to repurpose, to change forms and function. We can learn a lot from the Maker community, and they from us. How do we make this happen?