Our friendly journalist Gareth Halfacree recently attended the first Liverpool MakeFest event on our behalf, talking to the thronging crowds find out what's hot in the maker world at the minute. This series of Focus On features takes a look at some of the event's exhibitors, finding out what they're up to and what makes them tick.
The Reading Room of Liverpool Central Library is unusually packed, and with good reason: the usual books and periodicals are joined by makers showing off everything from an off-the-shelf robot dancing to Gangnam Style to the latest 3D printers and virtual reality hardware. One stall, however, is capturing attention despite appearing comparatively low-tech: what seems at first glance to be little more than fabric samples soon spring to life at the touch of a visitor's fingers.
"It's tactile electronics," maker and self-described visual artist Laura Pullig explains of the material laid out across her table. "It's all different sort of interfaces that are mainly made of fabric or paper, to explore electronics creatively. I've got circuits that use thermochromic ink and when you make the connection they heat up and you can see a pattern, and I've got different types of tilt sensors, and hand-made sensors that are built using fabric and different materials."
Fabric may seem like an odd choice for building circuits, but the e-textile market is taking off in a big way. Much of the interest comes from its suitability for wearable electronics - building the electronics directly into clothing, rather than the usual watch or bracelet - but Laura is attracted to the materials for a different reason. "A lot of the techniques I use are quite cheap, they're more cost-effective for using with a large group, so for a workshop or a classroom situation," Laura, who runs workshops and teacher training sessions on the subject, explains. "It doesn't matter if it goes wrong, you can start again, because copper tape on paper is quite... You can have lots of it, whereas a lot of the kits you can buy you'd only have one between a group."
Laying out the circuit and its components by hand, whether using conductive ink, copper tape, or even conductive thread in fabric, is a key feature of Laura's educational technique - and something kids love. "They seem to enjoy it, and they seem to pick it up quite quickly," she recalls of the kids at her previous workshops. "I think the visual element helps them to understand how it works, because there's a lot of programming things to learn for other platforms but sometimes the sort of physical aspects of electronics, learning how the basics work and how a circuit works, I think, for a lot of people, learning visually by doing is helpful."
It's not just the kids who find the concepts in electronics easier to grasp when it's hands-on, either: tactile electronics has proven a winner with teachers, too. "I've been doing some CPD [Continuing Professional Development] with teachers, using different sorts of techniques like conductive play dough, paper circuits, e-textiles, all different things that are creative," Laura explains, waving at the examples attracting a constant stream of visitors and their eager fingers. "You can incorporate them into other projects, like an example would be making a hand-puppet that they were already doing, and them making it so that when the mouth closes the eyes light up. Something like that, that's quite simple, that they'd have been making anyway, they can incorporate electronics into that project. It's a sort of fun, creative way of building it into a project that they were already doing."