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Focus On: York Hackspace's Bob Stone

Gareth Halfacree

We recently attended the Halifax Mini Maker Faire 2015, and took freelance journalist Gareth Halfacree along for the ride. This series of Focus On features is designed to offer a sampling of who you can expect to see at a Maker Faire event, why they're there and what it is that drives them.

It's no surprise to see Bob Stone at the Halifax Mini Maker Faire, representing - as he so often does at such events - York Hackspace. "It's a loose collective of people who come together to make interesting things and learn how they're made," he explains of the group. "I started out just finding out what I could from the internet, really, and you can find out a lot from the internet, but you can find out more from other people because there's always somebody who knows something that would really help a little project that you're working on."

Those who have met Bob and his friends at previous events will be unsurprised to hear that Spacehack is dominating the collective's table in Eureka's theatre. "Spacehack, our awesome starship disaster simulator, is the main group project that we've built, and we built specifically to come to Maker Faires like this," he explains, gesturing at the impressive laser-cut and 3D printed control consoles that make up the game. "Set aboard the perpetually disaster-prone USS Guppy, the crew must operate their command consoles to flip switches, turn dials, push buttons and more according to instructions relayed by their comrades - but how long can they keep the ship safe?"

Spacehack, inspired by Henry Smith's Spaceteam mobile game, is frantic. Hidden microcomputers inside each console randomise what each control does within each round, communicating with a central hub to ensure that all controls are accounted for between the four consoles - three being operational during the interview, the fourth being locked with a password known only to a Hackspace member currently cloistered away in an exam hall, the perfect example of the last-minute technical hitches that plague any live event no matter how well-rehearsed. As instructions appear, the game becomes a communications challenge: if the control you're being asked to tweak doesn't appear on your console, shout it out and hope your crewmates are paying attention or expect the game to be over very quickly indeed.

"I think these are awesome," Bob enthuses when asked why he attends so many maker events. "This is the biggest show-and-tell that you could possibly imagine. There's a social aspect, in that we meet our buddies - the maker community is essentially held together by internet and Maker Faires. We come to these things to show what we've built, to encourage people to learn how to make things themselves, to meet other like-minded makers from other groups, and to compete for the glory of having the most awesome thing. Which, of course, we usually win with Spacehack!"

Naturally, as with other hackspaces and collaborative workshops attending the event, there's a knowledge-sharing aspect. "The maker movement is really about re-learning how to make things in the face of a tech industry that just wants you to be a consumer and buy things from them instead," explains Bob. "You may think you like gadgets and gizmos, but there’s nothing quite like inventing your own. I once made a cake alert flag for a friend: whenever an email went round the office about birthday cake it would raise a flag, play a tune and flash some lights, so he could race off and get to the kitchen before all the cake vanished. Where could you buy such a thing, if you wanted one? Nowhere.

"I got started because I was a programmer, but with no experience with electronics and hardware. It kind of looked like it would be difficult, and perhaps it used to be until the last few years, but now the movement’s really picking up speed and the amount of information available freely on the internet about how to do stuff is just exploding. You can go a long way just starting with a mail-order Arduino starter kit like oomlout’s great ARDX kit and exploring things yourself from home, but eventually you’ll want to see what others are doing too, and that means going along to your local Hackspace."

You can find out more about York Hackspace at the official website, and chat to its members - Bob included - on its Google Group.

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