Fuzzy-headed and inquisitive after a long night of sleep, I levitate a morning news screen to eye level.
The glowing hover-display shows little icons indicating rain; damn, I forgot an umbrella. With a slight gesture of the fingers, I slide the graphics to the left, and icons representing traffic congestion replace the weather icons, blinking yellow and red triangles that indicate how long it will take my theoretical, driver-less car to carry me to work. I rub sleep from my eyes and punch up the mood-generator screen, passing the settings for downers and relaxation. Eventually, I choose “Excited about work!”
This is the world I live in. It’s not the “real” world but a fantasy, one I have a hard time escaping. In reality, the scene above was me thumbing through my iPhone for weather and traffic information while waiting in line for a large coffee-to-go at a quick-stop coffee shop; but in my mind I live in a fantasy of science fiction, layering a dreamed-up life on top of the real life I wobble through daily. I’ve lived in this fantasy world since seeing Star Wars for the first time on VHS at my friend Ryan’s house, and wishing (oh, God, please!) that someone would invent a light saber.
Thank God no one invented a light saber. I would’ve bought one, probably wasting months of income on something entirely impractical: I’m rarely in space-adventure sword fights, and given my propensity toward clumsiness, I’d probably sizzle off a toe or open the damn thing up in my pants pocket before ever getting a chance to defend myself and a lovely space damsel against galactic evil.
The light saber is still a dream, but so much amazing technology has been invented in the past 30 years, things that fuel my sci-fi fantasy life: smart phones, scanners, flat-screen monitors and televisions, high-definition and digital cameras, portable tablet computers, music players no bigger than a pinky finger that hold every song I’ve ever heard.
Also, just up the road, in woolly Kern County, a brilliant machine, the private spaceship, is being built by a dumbly named corporation, The Spaceship Company. At this stage, space tourism is a bit of a hairball scheme dreamt up by a bit of a hairball billionaire, Sir Richard Branson of Virgin fame, and priced for other hairball billionaires’ fancies — estimated prices start at $200,000 per flight. But they’re making it: a spaceship tourism industry.
Technology is going bananas.
The guts of these slick doodads that we play with and draw information from each day — the parts, the electronic insides — are trickling down from the corporate-research and development level and becoming available for us common citizens to play around with.
When I was a kid, waiting for the next Star Wars movie to debut, science and technology was something other people did in far off places. Innovations were born in laboratories or electrical workshops then offered to regular folks for purchase. We had no idea wireless home phones or video games were being developed until we saw them displayed in the pages of the Sears Catalog and on TV commercials between segments of Knight Rider.
But now homespun technology is accessible to you and me, and it’s beginning to spread, becoming (dare I say it) a revolution. A groundswell of tinkerers, hackers, and makers is creating gadgets to automate, entertain, or beautify some part of daily life. They’re taking the tinkering of the past — small engines, electrical wiring, woodworking, and the like — and bringing it up to date, dragging the 20th-century hobby of monkeying around with gadgets into the 21st Century, the digital age, our time, now.
I was introduced to this technological tinkering and amateur tech research by my friend, Al. Last year, he and a small group of others developed a game in which the player slaps one of several tiny pods when the pods randomly light up. Think of it as a cross between Whac-A-Mole and the old memory game Simon: you set the little pods in front of you, they light up, play an electronic note, then you try to whack ’em with your palm. There’s a scoreboard, and the whole thing looks like it was created to captivate the attention of children living in the movie world of The Fifth Element. This game made by regular (but pretty smart) folks.
Al explained how. “It’s a lot of wiring,” he said. “It runs our software, those pods are ergonomic buttons that we designed and created, and we used an Arduino.” (Al lives in Sweden, so this conversation didn’t take place in person. Rather, I saw a video of the game in action that Al had posted to his Facebook page. Afterward, we video-chatted about it. He used to live here in San Diego, working at the telecom giant Qualcomm, and since he’s moved away, we’ve kept in contact through social networking and email.)
“What the hell is an Arduino?” I asked.
“An Arduino is a microcontroller,” he explained. “Y’know, you can hook up input to it and it’ll run specific tasks. It’s the tiny computer running our game here. It’s basically ‘the brain.’”
After Al and I said goodbye, I dug around on the web for more information on microcontrollers and to learn how this technology was running Al’s game.
A confession: I’ve always been a complete dork and hoped (beyond hoped) that I could someday be acquainted with an avant-garde, alternative subculture. Oh, how I wished I’d discovered Fugazi or the Pixies or Black Flag while they were still underground. But no, I was happily snapping my fingers along with a hit single from Huey Lewis and the News, “Hip to Be Square.” I wish I could say I heard Mudhoney, Green River, or even Nirvana when they were scruffy teenagers, playing a gig at the Casbah before returning to rainy Seattle, but I was content to play my Mötley Crüe Dr. Feelgood cassette so often that the magnetic tape eventually stretched and refused even one more listening. To my lament, I am a total mainstream doofus.
But this! THIS! After searching and reading more about it, I felt like I had stumbled onto an underground movement. Looking for information on the Arduino microcontroller opened up an entire community of do-it-yourself enthusiasts. There are people making lawn-mowing robots, monitors that will tell you how much energy your home consumes, seismic detectors for studying earthquakes, and about a thousand different LED light devices that interact with users (like Al’s game) or light up in different colors according to different aspects of the music: for example, blue lights come on for bass and red ones spark when a treble note hits.
It might be hard to visualize some of these things, so let me explain. An Arduino is one of many microcontrollers available on the market. A microcontroller is a small computer board, like any component of computer guts you’ve ever seen, a thin wafer with chips and diodes; the whole thing’s about the size of your palm. This small computer board can be hooked electrically to any number of devices. Using wires, you could connect one part of the microcontroller to, say, a sound sensor. Another part of the microcontroller you could wire to a small LED light. Now, when the sound sensor sends electricity up the wire to the microcontroller (the tiny brain, the little computer board), it sends electricity to that LED and the LED lights up. That seems simple enough. But now imagine this: wiring the microcontroller on one end to a small Casio musical keyboard, while the other end of the device is wired to a whole bank of lights. Instant light show, a concert trick normally reserved for huge bands like the Rolling Stones. When the player romps on the keyboard to make music, the lights go off in a brilliant color spectacle. Zinging up the keyboard, down the keyboard: the lights dazzle and sparkle in time. And all of it’s controlled by a tiny hunk of computer available for purchase and simple enough for everyday folks to program. The most popular of these commercially available and easy-to-use microcontrollers is the Arduino.
But it’s not just for lights and music or for games like Al’s. There are people connecting these things to mirrors, robots, solar paneling, anything you can think of. There’s a guy who starts his coffee pot by sending it a text message from his phone: at-home electronics development. And you don’t have to be a socially awkward gentlemen who is going bald, wears too-big glasses, and carries a scientific calculator in his fanny pack. I just watched a video of a pretty young lady sewing a microcontroller and a few LEDs into a sweater.
After my chat with Al, I ripped into the scene like a sugar-addled child on Christmas. I purchased magazines and books that contained projects, tool lists, and carefully written instructions. I pored through articles on servos, sensors, and circuit boards.
I learned that microcontrollers aren’t the beginning and end of DIY tech but a node in the great expanse of non-consumer electronics. Another incredibly neat thing that I love and — once you hear about it — sounds like it’s come to us through a wormhole from an advanced species of future beings, is the 3-D printer. It’s exactly what you’re thinking it is, a printer that builds up layers of plastic until it has created an object in three dimensions. It prints not text or graphics onto paper but things you can hold in your hand.
At night, before falling asleep, I envisioned creating things, practical things that I, and maybe other people, might use to make our lives easier. I was no longer enraptured by the light saber wielded by Luke Skywalker but interested in the droids his uncle Owen used to manage a small moisture farm in the dessert. How were those droids made? How were they charged with electricity? What was their purpose once they were set to work on the farm?
That’s the cool thing about space...
Outside the Space Emporium in South Park, I check my hover-display for the time: I’m early. The San Diego Space Society is holding their monthly meeting inside, and I’m there to listen in and talk to some members while they’re on flights to Mars. I’m thinking of traveling off-world myself, for the new colony jobs. I pace in front of the Emporium and recheck the display: still early. I swipe the screen to the time-travel controls and dial in “five minutes in the future.” Now I’m on time.
Of course, that didn’t actually happen: this isn’t the sci-fi future yet. Time travel, hover-displays, and Mars colonies don’t exist. But I did pace outside the Space Emporium, waiting for the San Diego Space Society to wrap up their meeting.
Yes — in reality, the Space Emporium exists, a storefront on the corner of 30th and Grape. Inside, littered across tables and shelves are telescopes, model rockets, and magazines about space exploration titled Ad Astra. In the large front window stands a mannequin in a spacewalk suit and another dressed in NASA-blue coveralls. Along the front of the store, bins have been stacked with T-shirts with the San Diego Space Society’s logo; other shirts commemorate Yuri Gagarin’s first manned space flight. Above a large flat-screen television on the back wall is a plaque that reads “Mission Control Center.” The storage cabinets in the corners of the room are marked “Space Activities Lab Pod 1,” and “Space Activities Lab Pod 2.” Space-nerd-tastic!
After settling in and meeting a few of the San Diego Space Society members, I’m caught up in a lively conversation about future technology, technology we can build at home: robots, satellite imaging, rocketry, sci-fi, and elevators to space. (We’re still working on that one, haven’t quite figured it out.)
“That’s the cool thing about space,” says Scott Olson, Treasurer of the San Diego Space Society. “It encompasses anything you want it to. You’re interested in robotics, terraforming, rockets, anything…you can do all that stuff in space. And we can help you with it. That’s what we’re here for.”
Scott is an engineer at General Atomics Aeronautical Systems who’s working on his thesis for a Masters in Space Studies and Aeronautics.
“We’re launching a DIY satellite pretty soon,” says Adrian Clausell, a PhD in Molecular Biology and the Society member who’s heading up the satellite project. “The first launch is going to be tethered, probably no higher than you see balloons in front of car dealerships, but after that initial launch, we’ll get one into near space, probably 100,000 feet or so. It’ll have a little parachute and a payload of recording equipment and sensors.”
“We’re rebuilding our Mars rover pretty soon,” adds Scott. The San Diego Space Society has a one-quarter-scale Mars rover that they take around to schools, conventions, and libraries, to bring science and technology to kids and adults. It’s built with remote control (RC) car technology and broadcasts images from a camera back to a flat-screen TV.
“But before we do the build on that…uh, when are we doing the Mars Rover build?” Scott stops to think. The group of guys I’m chatting with can draw you a detailed schematic of the Space Shuttle’s propulsion systems, but their adroit, scientific, supremely educated minds can also exhibit an amazing capacity to forget dates and, I’m guessing, where their car keys and simple household items reside. “Uh,” Scott says, “I think that’s in a couple weeks. I’m not sure. But!” He remembers his point. “Before that we’re doing EarthKAM.”
EarthKAM is a NASA project, a clunky acronym for Earth Knowledge Acquired by Middle school students (ignore that the last two words don’t fit, and we’ll move on, thanks). The idea is that middle-schoolers aim a digital camera up on the International Space Station and take photographs of specific parts of Earth, getting a nice “space-y” look at where they live. The San Diego Space Society has scheduled time to let local kids take some of those pictures.
“We’re doing that next week,” Scott says. “Or is it the week after?” He touches his chin, peering up and away.
Before taking my leave, the group gives me dates (I wonder if they’re approximate) for the next movie nights. As you might imagine, they play sci-fi, space-adventure films on the Mission Control Center TV screen. I told them I’d drop back by, maybe get involved in the Mars Rover project, or a DIY satellite project.
One day after visiting the San Diego Space Society, I decide that if I’m going to get the local-level, citizen’s homemade version of science and technology, I should also get the government-approved, passed-down-from-authority science for the masses. To the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center! Excelsior!
Inside the museum, I run around like an idiot. There are stations and stops and tables and cabinets, all made to engage your hands as well as your mind in science. There are cranks connected to gears that rotate inside clear boxes where you can see the inner workings of a machine. Inside glass boxes there are fans blowing sand around in little dust devils, or steam swirling up into miniature tornado vortices. You can operate the levers in one of the boxes to move a model of the Earth’s crust around on fake magma to see how plate tectonics works. There are things to strum, horns to put your ear to, and a great number of aids to teach kids the wonders of science.
And that’s it, really. While it’s fun for a science-y dork like me, the Science Museum in Balboa Park lacks any mention of technology or scientific discoveries after around the middle of the last century. There’s nothing about personal computing, cellular telephones, or robotics, and those topics haven’t been cutting edge in the worlds of science and technology since about the 1980s. The Science Museum hasn’t even hit upon discoveries of 30 years ago, let alone anything happening now.
You may think I’m confusing “science” with “technology.” You may be shouting at me through your paper or laptop screen that the two are different. And you’re right. Science and technology can be different, but they can also be linked. Medical imaging machines, DNA-sequencing, mass spectrometry, and nanotechnology are all scientific advances that rely, or are greatly aided, by computing. Wireless internet, cellular-phone networks, and those ugly little earplugs that assholes wear to talk on the phone while walking around the grocery store are all based on discoveries about the properties of radio waves made by a host of scientists and inventors, people like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, who conducted electrical experiments.
Even these things aren’t mentioned in the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center.
Outside the museum, I pull up a chair at the café and wonder, Is this the best that San Diego can do? We’re a city of telecom giants, rocket-propulsion labs, green tech companies studying biofuels created from pools of algae. And the models for science in our central museum stop at plate tectonics, a theory (noble, don’t get me wrong) that is rooted in studies from the 1920s to the 1960s?
I wander into the gift shop, not quite sure what I’m looking for, though I know I want to take home something to experiment with. Robotics, electronics, soldering, mold-making, or plastics I might create in my sink. All I find are children’s toys: ant farms, chemistry kits in cartoon colors and built for tiny hands, and owl pellets (owl barf) for picking through and reconstructing the skeletal remains of whatever unfortunate rodent lies within. While kind of cool, I picked through owl barf in the sixth grade.
This is why (adult) citizen-scientists are experimenting more with electronics. Exactly this. We’re not done experimenting and tinkering and blowing things up; we yearn for science we can perform on our own, to build things that when we touch them light up and ring a bell — just like the Science Museum, only for grownups.
I have another opinion on why there’s so much amateur science and citizen technology going on today. (Hang on because this is a doozy, but I’ll keep you tethered and reel you back in, I promise.)
My second opinion on why we’re getting tech-y at home is because of something called the Law of Accelerating Change. In 2001, Ray Kurzweil, inventor and famed futurist wrote: “An analysis of the history of technology shows that technological change is exponential, contrary to the common-sense ‘intuitive linear’ view. So we won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century — it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate). The ‘returns,’ such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially.”
He then goes on to casually mention that the acceleration of technology will be so swift at one point it will lead to a “merger of biological and nonbiological intelligence, immortal software-based humans, and ultra-high levels of intelligence that expand outward in the universe at the speed of light.”
Trippy, right? But let’s back up and reexamine the part where he says that technological advances are exponential, that we won’t have 100 years of progress in this century, more like 20,000 years of progress, and that it gets cheaper too. Think about it: technology and its cost effectiveness “increase exponentially.”
An example: We’ve all noticed, or heard, that 30 years ago computers were the size of living rooms, cost millions of dollars, were only available to a handful of nerds, and were nowhere near as capable as today’s $1000 laptop. That’s advancement. Well, I’ll see that analogy and raise you one. In the October 2010 issue of Make magazine (a publication for amateur technologists and crafts-people), technical liaison at NASA Ames Research Center, Chris Boshuizen writes:
“At NASA Ames Research Center we’re trying to discover how cheaply we can build a spacecraft. With the Lego Mindstorms NXT system and about $500 in other parts, we built a fully functioning prototype satellite.
“We’re also very interested in smart phones, which are bristling with sensors and have onboard computers more powerful than nearly every satellite ever put into space.”
Yes, they built a $500 satellite out of a Lego microcontroller, similar to an Arduino. And Boshuizen is saying the Android phone your daughter uses to text while driving is smarter than most satellites currently in orbit.
That’s why some people are wiring washing machines to send them a text message when their whites are done. Technology is now so cheap, we regular folk can afford to fool around with it.
It’s a start …
Touching the blue glow of the hover-display, I key in the address of Fab Lab San Diego and turn the driving over to the automatic chauffeur. I check the battery reserves of the car and the solar gauge: both say I’ll make it to the destination with plenty of power in reserve, no need to buy more electricity after I arrive.
In the real world, I pull my clunking old pickup to the side of El Cajon Boulevard, just west of 30th Street. I’m here to see the Fab Lab. Fab Lab (short for Fabrication Laboratory) is an MIT initiative to create workspaces for grassroots technology. There are 45 Fab Labs in 16 countries, but there’s only one on the west coast, and it’s housed in The Media Arts Center in North Park.
I must clarify. The Fab Lab and Media Arts Center are separate entities, but they share a common space. Both are in transition. The Fab Lab is a workshop of space-age tools, including a 3D printer, laser etcher, and computers. The Fab Lab conducts workshops on learning about computers, microcontrollers, and 3D printing as well, but they also offer rapid prototyping to homespun technologists. You can take an idea for a gadget to them, and they will help you whip out a rough version.
The Media Arts Center educates people on emerging audio-visual technologies, like green-screening and software-based video effects. (The Media Arts Center also famously hosts the San Diego Latino Film Festival.)
The Fab Lab used to operate at full capacity in City Heights. They were laser-cutting signs and making functional gadgets for DIY technologists. They ran workshops on how to build technology systems using microcontrollers, like the Arduino. But they lost their lease in City Heights and had to move to stay alive. Thankfully, the Media Arts Center invited them up to El Cajon and 30th. Now, with much of their equipment in boxes, the Fab Lab doesn’t create DIY-tech; they’re limited to teaching workshops in the computer lab at the Media Arts Center.
“We’re renovating,” says Morgan Sully, Labs Program Manager at the Media Arts Center. He welcomes me in and shows me around.
“Over here” — Morgan gestures to a large central area, an empty room in this midtown building — “is where we’re building a theater, probably around 50 seats. And back here” — he leads me past rows of computers and desks to a rear work room — “is where we’ll set up some parts of the Fab Lab.” The room is empty except for some workbenches and a computer.
“Fab Lab is teaching a course tonight on ‘Creative Computing,’” Morgan says. “I think in December we had a ‘Getting Started with Arduino’ workshop. We’ll have another one in spring, probably around April. It covers the basics of setting up microcontrollers to do…well, to do anything you want them to.”
Morgan continues with the tour. The Media Arts Center plans to fully incorporate the Fab Lab. After the renovation, part of the building will be used as a storefront to sell components for amateur technology and science. “We’ll have microcontrollers available, electronics, and parts of robotics for sale up here.” He leads me to where the storefront will be.
When it’s all set up, the Fab Lab will run in the back of the building, with 3D printing, vinyl plotting, and laser-cutting prototypes and thingamajigs. Up in the front, the store will offer tech-hobbyists items for their projects. That’ll be the second storefront to offer amateur science and DIY-tech in San Diego, the first being San Diego Space Society’s little shop in South Park. It’s not the giant high-tech and science industry that’s already settled into San Diego — there’s no comparison to the Qualcomm campus or Salk Institute — but it’s a start.
Leaving the Media Arts Center and the boxed, piecemeal bits of the Fab Lab in my rearview mirror, I feel sad. I had hoped to see these amazing homemade marvels and objects being printed out of thin air, and tiny computers running parts of robots, all created by amateurs. That the Fab Lab was socked away to be cracked open at a later date made me hope that this DIY-tech revolution wasn’t a fizzle and that San Diego science and electronics enthusiasts might show enough support in their community to get the Fab Lab, or another workshop like it, rolling and cranking out homemade advancements. I hope this is more like the sputtering beginnings of the internet, instead of the underdeveloped fad of CB radios.
I have one more stop on my tour of the amorphous community of grassroots technologists in San Diego. Rattling my clunker truck up 30th, and wishing I had a light, clean-energy auto-driving car, I switch my blinker for the turn onto Adams and start to hunt for a specific alleyway. East down Adams, toward the 805, I find the alley I’m looking for and ease to a stop in front of a garage door that’s rolled open halfway. Out of the truck, I cross the alley and duck into the one-car garage.
“You must be Mike,” I say. Mike shifts what he’s holding, some red plastic and tiny LEDs, to shake hands. “Mike” isn’t his real name. I’m using a false name in this article because he is a hacker (the traditional definition: one who illegally gains access to computer systems) who enjoys his privacy and is wary of promoting himself.
I met Mike through friends of friends and he invited me to look at his stuff.
“This is my studio,” he says.
“What are you working on there? I thought you’d be working on the robot or something.”
“No, I’m not working on the robot right now. This is just some LEDs for the motorcycle taillight.” There’s a dual-use motorcycle, built for the street or off-road, leaning on a kickstand in the middle of the garage.
The walls are lined with cabinets, shelves, and work benches. There are spools of multicolor wire hung on a rack along one shelf, little blue bins full of screws, nuts, caps, shrink-tubing, every possible consumable for wiring things electrically, an array of hand tools, meters, and a bank of computers and computing components all settled in their spots in an organizational system known only to its creator.
He shows me the LEDs and plastic in his hand. “I wanted a brighter taillight and brake lights for the bike, so I’m trying to work these LEDs into this plastic housing, which goes right here.” He holds the housing against a black stem on the rear of the motorcycle. “So, if you solder all these LEDs in parallel, it should be a little dimmer. That’ll be good for the taillight. If you cluster them together around the outside, it’ll be brighter and I can put that on the brake switch circuit.”
We talk about his motorcycle for a second, but teeming with anticipation, I jump normal nerd protocol.
“Can I see the robot?” I ask.
“Sure. It’s not really a robot. Not like you’d see in Star Wars or Battlestar Galactica, you know.”
I tell him I understand what it is.
“It’s back here,” he says and shows me to a tiny room behind a curtain. In the room is a bench, a stool, a computer, and a litter of aluminum parts, wires, little slick black plastic boxes, and servo motors like you’d see underneath an RC car. Bolted to the bench, geared to a little motor and wired to his slim laptop through a series of wires and two shiny black boxes, is a gray aluminum arm with an articulation, an “elbow,” in the center of it.
“Right now,” he says, “it’s basically an arm I made, and I can extend the arm with a servo. It doesn’t think or anything. It’s kind of just like an RC car.”
On the screen of his silver Macintosh laptop, he opens up a white document, with lines of alien-looking coded text, and taps out some keystrokes. He says it’s nothing impressive or important, but then something happens: the aluminum arm extends.
“That’s awesome!” I shout, probably too loud for this residential neighborhood at this time of evening.
He and I talk, and I tell him that I get it. It’s just an aluminum arm, run by little motors, and hooked to a computer through some kind of transference boxes he made. It’s definitely not elegant, but I get it. It’s a beginning. The boxes could be based in a body somewhere, the wiring bundled up and zip-tied and tucked neatly into a frame, and the computer could be a microcontroller. It could be connected to sensors. It could broadcast back to a flat-panel TV screen. It could be a robot! The only things that have to happen are the miniaturization of a few components — which the Law of Accelerating Change should take care of — more software development by Mike himself, probably some gyros and things to balance it ... but this is how someone a long time ago in a galaxy far far away started to create C3PO.
I’m amazed, and this glimpse of Mike’s computer-controlled robot arm stokes the furnace of my sci-fi fantasy life. It also inspires me to stop fantasizing and start doing. Pulling away from Mike’s hacker garage, I wish I had an auto-driving chauffeur and a hover-screen, but even without them, it’s time to start a real-life project.
My project will be simple, nothing high tech; I’m no engineer. But I’ve always liked plants, gardens, and growing things. So I’m going to work on a cheap, hydroponic farm made mostly from recycled materials and put it in my window. No, this hydroponic farm is not for growing pot (cheeky monkey), it’s going to be for vegetables. Once I get pretty good and am growing small crops of lettuce or peppers, I might incorporate an Arduino to automate the process of feeding nutrients to the plants. I want to move one step closer to Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru’s moisture farm on Tattooine that uses droids for workers.
It’s a start. It doesn’t matter that it’s still just an idea, what matters is what it might someday become. It’s Mike’s potential robot in a garage in North Park. It’s a Fabrication Laboratory that can invent new technology. It’s a Space Society in a tiny storefront in South Park, beneath the blackness and stars that they love.
It is…It could be.