Our friendly journalist Gareth Halfacree recently attended the Manchester MakeFest 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.
If you're a regular Maker Faire visitor, the chances are you'll recognise the face of Tim Wappat - although perhaps not his get-up, a safari ranger's outfit complete with pith helmet. "I've been doing Maker Faires for a few years now, and do a different project every couple of years. This is the new one for this year," Tim explains from his stand in the main hall of the Manchester Museum of Science and Industry during its first MakeFest event, gesturing at a table adorned with wooden cages, snakes which point towards animal print-outs, and a collection of cuddly toys with which Bruce Forsyth would have been more than happy. This is Tim's Maker Ranger Station, and it's been responsible for plenty of smiles - and the occasional tear - during the two-day event.
"It's a project to allow kids to choose animals," Tim explains, pointing to the bins filled with stuffed toys, "and uses RFID tags and they get stickers at the end - which obviously makes a good day out!" Each toy is equipped with a low-cost radio frequency identification (RFID) tag, which is read by readers embedded in the bottom of each hand-built cage. Each animal receives a unique tag, allowing the system - powered by a combination of Arduino and Netduino hardware - to detect which animal has been placed in a cage. To turn it into a game, a pair of pointer boards - using, amusingly, plastic toy snakes as their needles - indicate which animal should be 'captured' next, with the time taken being recorded and printed out on stickers via a connected thermal printer.
"Both kids and older kids have been enjoying it," laughs Tim. "We've found that some of the adults have been enjoying it as much as the kids, so the target audience was a bit bigger than we thought! They're delighted, though there have been a few crying children when they've had to leave because they've enjoyed the soft toys that we've used. There are some quite fun-looking soft toys there and they've been quite upset when they've had to go without them. But no, everyone gets a sticker and to be honest a sticker makes a good day out!"
While the Maker Ranger Station is new, Tim's other projects have been found at similar maker-themed events across the country over the years. "There's a mixture of reasons," a thoughtful Tim replies when asked why he gives up his spare time to build and exhibit his creations. "One is it keeps me in touch professionally with what's going on in electronics, and embedded electronics particularly, which obviously is useful for the CV and because we also design embedded products at work. Though I'm not directly involved in that, it lets me understand the hardware people. The other side of it is it's great just seeing the satisfaction on people's faces when they've been doing a quiz like this or one of the other projects I've done and they've really enjoyed themselves. It just makes me feel good that I've brought a bit of pleasure to somebody like that."
As for his choice of platform, Tim is clear: use what you know. "I'm a .NET developer in the daytime, so working in the Visual Studio suite is sort of my native environment and I'm quite productive in that," he explains of his choice of Netduino as the central driving system, an Arduino derivative programmed in C# using Microsoft's .NET framework in the Visual Studio integrated development environment (IDE). "As I do this sort of after I've put the family to bed on a night I've needed to take as little time as possible to get to an end result, and hence why I stuck to Visual Studio which I find lets me get there very quickly."