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HackPittsburgh takes ‘Do-it-yourself’ to next level

By Ashley Ropar

Point Park News Service

Strewn about in a back street warehouse in the Hill District are objects including a Power Wheels Car that has been supped up to reach speeds of 30mph.

In the corner sits balled up fabric remains of a high altitude balloon launch.

Crowding around tables is a random collection of some of Pittsburgh’s innovators discussing the latest project to stem from a growing nation-wide movement involving what they call hacking.

A large back alley garage door opens to HackPittsburgh’s workshop. The non-profit organization hosts public events and classes  while providing  a space where members share resources and collaborate on innovative projects. Members vary from engineers, roboteers, and programmers but they all are excited over the possibilities of hacking and engaging the community in the process.

“It’s a really good thing to get creative minded people together. [In] Hacker spaces, in general, there have been some really good things to come out of them,” said Eli Richter, an engineer at Westinghouse and council member or HackPittsburgh.

The term “hacking” derives from understanding objects and systems to deconstruct and repurpose them for new and creative uses. HackPittsburgh is one of these “hacking” spaces springing up around the country, providing the tools for people to bring their ideas to life through collaboration and ingenuity. Their projects allow technological advances to be more accessible in everyday life, and the workshop provides a space for the community to learn and get involved; encouraging a growing population who take “Do-It-Yourself” to the next level.

Starting three years ago in a members apartment, HackPittsburgh now has close to 35 members in a workshop working with bench power supplies and a welding machine. Underneath a big projection screen lies work tables with laptops strewn about, the space is packed with storage bins, circuit boards, LED lights, used to create a range of projects such as a board with lines of Christmas lights that light up to play the classic game of Pong.

HackPittsburgh is largely focused on community involvement, hosting outside groups such as lock pick club and knot tying clubs that are sponsored by members, said Richter. They also hold classes like how to work with soft circuits, which weaves electronics into fabric. On display in the workshop is a crocheted picture that lights up and plays recorded audio. HackPittsburgh believes that even those who are not familiar with these skills are welcome.

“Honestly, this is the perfect thing for that, we have a lot of people here with different skill sets, interests, [some are] more in to crafts, there’s software people, fabricators…[if] I need some random component, somebody has it,” said Richter after a member approached him with what looked like a computer chip he was looking for.

All of this collaboration has led to some creative projects.

Their silver Power Wheels sports car named “006” recently competed in Power Wheel races at events called Makers Faires, finishing second overall in New York City. The high altitude balloon was part of a Hackerspace in Space competition and reached up to 100,000 feet, enough to see the curvature of the earth. At the Pittsburgh Mini-Maker Faire they displayed a proximity sensor that enabled the user to feel electromagnetic fields through magnets on their fingers, so even if the user’s eyes were closed they could feel, for example, that a machine was on.

“There are more makers then you would think that show up here and go to these events [the Maker Faires],” said HackPittsburgh member Anthony Cascone who worked a booth at the Pittsburgh Mini-Maker Faire.

HackPittsburgh embodies a growing maker movement, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proclaimed the last week of September “Maker Week” as NYC hosted its Maker Faire. In a broad technical sense, the term maker captures the idea that the rules of manufacturing are changing with new technology, allowing anyone to be a maker through open source methods.

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The most notable project to come out of the maker movement is the consumer level 3-D Printer created by MakerBot Industries located in Brooklyn, NY. Instead of printing on paper, the 3-D printer takes images and builds a 3-D model of them by layering biodegradable plastic material in the shape of the image. The design resulted in a hefty price drop and expanded the market for these machines.  At the Pittsburgh mini-maker faire members took a Kinnect sensor from the Xbox 360 gaming system and scanned participants from the shoulder up then a 3D printer built a model of their busts.

“These things used to cost $20,000 to $30,000 for one of these machines but a hacker space developed this low cost version of it now,” said Richter. The base model for MakerBot’s Replicator 2 is just over $2,000.

The movement prioritizes getting children involved in creative projects. The Maker Movement website sells kits to build Eskimo igloos, kayaks, robots, submarines, and even a wood fired hot tub. The Mini-Maker Faire in Pittsburgh was at the Children’s museum and next year HackPittsburgh plans on including the Hot Wheels Series.  Recognizing the educational potential of this movement, the PA Cyber Charter School is looking into setting up hacker spaces for students.

“Most kids have the mind for it, but [they] don’t know it exists,” said Luke Barry of PA Cyber Schools, who are considering ideas for the spaces that include 3-D printers, robots, and multi-media.

It is clear this movement is growing, not only bringing today’s innovators together, but spurring a new generation of young makers focused on bringing creative ideas to life and encouraging everyone to take part.

“You’re not one guy trying to do something. You’re in a community of people who complement your skill sets,” said Richter.


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