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.
There's plenty to see at the Arduino Manchester table, located in the main hall of the Museum of Science and Industry over the two-day MakeFest. Although the group's primary theme of 'awkward arcade' - "games that are awkward or tricky to play," Chris Ball explains, waving with a grin towards a Pac-Man arcade game linked to a homebrew gesture-recognition controller and the guest currently sweating as he tries to convince the titular character to obey his furious gesticulations - is easily visible in most of the exhibits, the project drawing the most attention is noticeably different: a series of bowls filled with various foodstuffs.
"These are some musical bowls. So, when you dunk your hands in either the spaghetti, water, or custard, it will play a tune, which is quite fun and it's going down well today," an enthusiastic Rachael Moat explains of her pet project. A definite crowd-pleaser, the musical bowls have a more serious side to them than the mesmerised guests, plunging spoons into the bowls' contents, might expect. "I volunteer at a place called Seashell Trust, which is a school for children with very complex needs, and I actually use this sort of thing to encourage them to explore new textures and potentially, therefore, open up their diets because they'll lick their hands and actually experience new foods they would otherwise be reluctant to touch or interact with."
The bowls on display at the MakeFest event won't have anybody licking their fingers, thanks to the use of metal spoons for hygiene reasons, but it's a great example of how hobbyist technologies like the Arduino platform can be used with considerable impact in surprising areas. "In this environment, in special educational needs, the technology can be so expensive, but here you can use really low-cost kit to produce something that is specifically customised for every child and what their needs are, so it's fantastic," Rachael explains, pointing towards the Bare Conductive capacitive Touch Board which powers the system. "The kids I work with don't necessarily follow instructions in the same way that you might find in a normal school, a lot of them are very resistant to that so you just actually set things up to let them explore for themselves.
"The first time I tried it with this one child, I actually set it up with his favourite song, which is the Hello song from Mister Tumble, and he put his hand in the bowl and he was just looking at his hand in sheer amazement. He thought his hand was magic! He couldn't work it out, and he was repeatedly dunking his hand back into the bowl, and then he did lick his fingers which was fantastic to see as this was one of the children with a very restricted diet. It's incredible to see their reactions, really, and you can tailor it to the specific needs of each child."
"The Arduino platform has just made everything more accessible," adds Chris, of the project on which the unsurprisingly named Manchester Arduino group has chosen to focus. "People will no longer struggle to create things, you know: if they wanted an automatically opening door, or if they wanted to create their own musical instruments, their own digital instruments, they can now do that very easily. At Arduino Manchester we hold monthly meetings where people talk about projects they've made or we just get together and make stuff ourselves. It's just all themed around Arduino and Arduino derivatives."
Chris remembers his first introduction to the Arduino platform well, and readily admits that he was initially somewhat sceptical. "I was originally given one as a gift, and someone said 'I've seen people making a lot of stuff with this online, I think you should have a go with it,'" he says with a grin, before admitting that "I think it sat around for six months! Then I had a project in mind that I knew would be perfect for it, which was making a laser harp, and it was perfect. So I made the laser harp and I did the Maker Faire here a few years ago, and I've just not stopped with it, I've just kept learning electronics, kept getting better at programming, and yeah, it's been an incredible learning aid."
More information on the Arduino Manchester group is available on its official Facebook page, or via the Arduino Manchester Twitter account.