Authenticity

The Maker Faire was a fascinating field trip for a whole variety of reasons. We saw so many things, so many artists, so many inventors… it was really great to see so many people who were so absolutely passionate about their creations. Passion is contagious after all, and when you spend half a day wandering through multiple rooms filled with passionate people, you can’t help but be touched by it at least a little bit. It was fun, too, to see the different things that held the kids’ attention.

The motorized bat-wings on a wire frame that you could wear, thus turning yourself into a walking, flapping, bat-person, merited a “huh” and a few seconds examination of how the frame had been welded together and a quick fingering of the fabric to determine what the inventor had used.

The Lego robots got an enthusiastic “awesome!” but didn’t hold their attention very long — the idea of turning Lego into robots was not new, and so didn’t merit nearly the same amount of attention as the inaudible dog whistle noise maker and the modified speaker that allowed humans to hear it. The idea that there are sounds you cannot hear even when standing right next to them was new and rather intriguing.

The woman making felt toys merited a casual glance and an “oh! That’s so cuuuuuute!” from B, but neither of them felt the urge to make one, since we often make things from felt at home. Other kids were busily absorbed in the process, however, and the woman was doing a good business at her booth. The miniature dioramas of landscapes got a close examination, mostly because they were so realistic as to be awe-inspiring, given their small size, but there was no urge to imitate there, either.

What really turned them on was that crazy table tennis robot. You know, this one:

Table tennis robot

We went back three times. Three. Through crowds so thick you could barely walk.

Because it was just that awesome.

It was in all honesty the homliest, ugliest robot there. There were so many robots, slick and shiny and brightly coloured. Some moved around the table, others lifted things or turned things over, and some of them battled each other for dominance in tiny little round gladiator arenas. Even the Lego robots looked sexier, and the TwitterType had a huge amount of steampunk appeal, especially as it shared a booth with the dynomite detonator force meter.

But the table tennis robot? It was being held together by duct tape, for crying out loud! Blue duct tape, at that! The most sophisticated piece of it was the motor, which the inventor quickly revealed to be a cordless screwdriver stripped of its case and held in place by some metal strapping covered in a bit of foam. The cage that directed the little projectiles? Coat hangers, bent out of shape and soldered together. And the bulk of the structure? Plain old 2x4s. Not a bit of shaped plastic or carefully sanded fibreglass or machined aluminum to be found anywhere.

It was marvelous.

It was marvelous not just because it had the appearance of something cobbled together by a mad scientist who had misplaced his wallet, but because you could see the mistakes in it. You could see places where its creator had drilled holes and then changed his mind and drilled new holes somewhere else. You could see where he had to reinforce things that weren’t working, and rearrange things to work better, and cobble together bits out of whatever he had at hand, even if that was a second-hand piece of wood that had originally been used for something else, or even something as prosaic as a coat hanger.

It was marvelous because it was real. It was real in a way that all the shiny plastic and aluminum robots were not. A nine year old boy and his seven year old sister could look at that thing and think, in all honesty, I can do that! There was no mystery.

It was authentic invention, the sort that anyone can do in their garage or their basement, and because he didn’t swap out the wood for machined aluminum tubes or cover the thing in a hundred pounds of fibreglass, the kids knew it just by looking at it. And it worked anyway, despite not being pretty, or sophisticated, or covered in bright colours and blinking lights and corporate logos. It worked. And it inspired.

The pretty robots were… pretty. Interesting, in a sort of “oh look at that!” way, but they inevitably had owners who hovered over them, guarding against curious little fingers, talking down to the kids as if they couldn’t understand, not yet, not until they were that mysterious thing called “older”… the pretty robots, sexy as they were, were vain little things little different from the racks of toys at the toy store.

The table tennis robot, on the other hand, was compelling. It was so authentic, so real, that it was utterly, utterly compelling. K and B knew right from the start that this ugly thing that stood before them, that gloried in its imperfections and celebrated its successes with a wonderful pop! of sound and flash of white as each ping pong ball flew… this ugly thing was not just a window into the world of robotics but an entire doorway smiling and laughing and inviting them in.

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