Perhaps the project I’m most proud of, however, is HackPittsburgh’s Physical Pixels workshop (photos). Before our group had a shop to call its own, a few other soon-to-be members and I began teaching introductory classes focused on programming and building simple circuits. We held these events in living rooms and dining rooms and eventually at HackPittsburgh itself. In these bring-your-own-Arduino workshops, we provided attendees with a solderless breadboard and electronic components including hook-up wire, resistors, potentiometers, and a bright LED capable of displaying millions of colors. This LED served as the “physical pixel.” We led the group through building a simple circuit with the LED connected to the microcontroller, and then, starting from scratch, we walked through the process of building a program for Arduino to read the potentiometer values and modify the LED’s color in response. Along the way, we touched on coding concepts such as constants, variables, functions, loops, and conditionals. We also covered microcontroller basics like analog-to-digital converters, digital inputs and outputs, and pulse-width modulation. This was, for many attendees, a first introduction to electronic circuits and to writing code. The workshops were surprisingly popular. People came to Pittsburgh from Detroit and Cleveland to attend, local reporters dropped by , and parents brought their children for an afternoon of hacking together. I’m happy to say that every attendee left with a working project, and many continued to explore long after the workshop was over.
The projects above represent just a small slice of the opportunities I’ve had as a member of a hackerspace. In addition to them, I’ve learned distributed version control, played with Rails and Sinatra, practiced pair programming and the Pomodoro technique, and burned myself with soldering irons more times than I care to disclose. My wife and I built Halloween costumes using embroidered circuits and 800 lines of code. I worked on HackPittsburgh’s entry to the PowerWheels Racing Series, a 430-Watt monster version of the kids’ toy racer that competed in drag, road, and endurance races. I wrote a scrap of code in Python to send commands to a robot that prints words using spray cheese. I’ve traveled to Maker Faires—festivals filled with DIY projects—in Detroit and San Francisco. I served as a teaching assistant and volunteer for an Arduino workshop at Art && Code, a local symposium exploring the intersection of art and technology organized by professor Golan Levin at Carnegie Mellon University’s STUDIO for Creative Inquiry. I’ve visited other hackerspaces and have met a number of like-minded people, many of whom I now call friends.
I work as a software engineer in a regulated industry during the day, and sometimes into the night and weekends when the job requires. I love what I do. There is, however, something undeniably liberating about side projects, especially the kind I find through my hackerspace relationship. The ability to work with artists, machinists, crafters, and musicians is something I wouldn’t otherwise find. I find the loose organization, lack of milestones and schedules, and atmosphere of pure, unfettered creativity and collaboration to be refreshing and inspirational. Completing a side project—no matter how small—brings me an immediate sense of satisfaction and motivates me to keep on finishing things. Furthermore, the technology that I pick up, whether through hands-on involvement with projects or by looking over the shoulder of others, has been directly applicable to my professional work as an embedded systems developer. The people I’ve met extend my professional network, and the projects I’ve completed through the hackerspace contribute to my resume just as much as projects I do for pay. They have the additional benefit of serving as a small contribution to the open source world as well, something that is a source of pride for me. To share the code I love, teach it to others, and contribute it to the community and to art is an exhilarating opportunity, and it recharges my creative spirit in a way that extends to all aspects of my life, including my “day job.”
The maker movement is real, and it is immediate. Hackerspaces are springing up all over the world, and with them comes real innovation. If you’d like to get involved, consider finding your local hackerspace. If it doesn’t exist, consider founding it. The rewards, in my experience, are significant.