I wouldn’t describe myself as a builder. My biggest projects to date have been assembling an Ikea filing cabinet, writing a handful of AppleScripts, and swapping the hard drive in my old computer. But this past weekend at Maker Faire Tokyo I saw a glimpse of what’s possible with a little bit of hardware, a handful of inspiration, and a lot of spare time.
Maker Faire might have started in the US, but in the six years since its launch, the events have spread out over the world, including the country I currently call home. Japan’s role as a technology and research hub, along with its tradition of outrageous inventions, make it fertile ground for the kinds of weird experiments the event is known for. I was curious to see what kind of Arduino-based novelties people might come up with, and sure enough the day’s builds ranged from the purely practical to the more artistic, and from the nobly scientific to the consummately absurd.
"I just got this idea, and like an idiot I wondered if I could make it into a machine."
I arrived at the venue shortly after the 10 o’clock opening, walking past the giant 4-ton mech robot standing inside the building’s 5-storey rotunda. Across the room, hundreds of people were packed in narrow aisles between the long rows of tables, trying to get a look at standout projects like Charonix Design Works’s Audio Spectrum Analyzer. Made out of 112 Russian IN–13 bargraph Nixie tubes, the thing looked like a steampunk iTunes visualizer, and I wasn’t exactly in the market I was still a little disappointed to hear it wasn’t for sale. Nearby, I spotted a pair of soccer robots from Asagami Works’s work-in-progress of a robot soccer team. The two young men behind the table are hopeful that one day they’ll be able to compete in the RoboCup (one is a former team member), even though so far they could only afford to build three $1,200 robots. To their knowledge, they’re the only private, self-funded team — typically, the league is for university squads that can afford as much as $150,000 for a squad of six top-tier machines.
The seventh floor housed some of the Maker Faire’s music-related projects, perhaps the most interesting of which was a makeshift guitar fashioned out of a mannequin leg and a touchscreen. Playing it caused a nearby TV to emit erotic noises to the amusement of nearby attendees. Elsewhere, Kyoto Sangyo University showed off a bathtub outfitted with a Theramin-like instrument that let you make music while you soak.
Back downstairs, I noticed Yoshihiro Hyodo’s “decaying machines” — robots that are made entirely from paper, aside from a few wooden drive shafts and the rubber bands that supply the power. “In my old job I used to work in manufacturing,” Hyodo explained. “Working with machinery made me wonder if I could make a robot out of paper instead.” Frustrated that his creations walked with an unimpressive shuffle, he decided to turn to YouTube for inspiration, noticing that all the other bipedal robots’ ankles flexed laterally — the key to the success of his later models. “It was about 90 percent steady work and 10 percent inspiration,” he explained. “I just do it because it’s fun.”
Later, as I was on my way to the door I noticed one of the plastic soy sauce bottles you see in Japanese diners next to a fake plastic egg. The placard named it accurately as the “pouring too much soy sauce machine” — as I picked up a bottle and tried to pour a responsible amount of soy sauce on my egg, a motion sensor commanded the second bottle to flood my plate with the stuff. I asked its maker if he was struck by some kind of desire to have too much soy sauce. “I just got this idea, and like an idiot I wondered if I could make it into a machine,” said the builder, named Ishikawa. Not the most flattering way to put it, I thought, but we could probably all stand to be idiots a little more often.
- This project is an attempt to make the most comfortable video game chair imaginable. Aside from shrouding the player in darkness with a heavy-duty speaker system, it feeds a straw of orange juice straight to his or her mouth while keeping bananas and Calorie Mate health bars firmly in reach.
- This guitar-style instrument is fashioned from a mannequin's leg and a touchscreen that triggers erotic noises from an attached TV.
- Yoshihiro Hyodo used to work in manufacturing before deciding to build walking mechanical robots out of paper. Power from rubber bands is supplied to the robots through a wooden driveshaft and toothed paper gears.
- This quadrotor was built by Tokushima University engineering student Shinji Uemura and associate professor Masashi Miwa. It uses encased jet-style engines instead of exposed propellers, making it safer to operate, the pair said.
- Asagami Works's robot soccer team only has three players so far. The team's members save money from their part-time jobs to buy parts for the expensive machines.
- This audio spectrum analyzer from Charonix Design Works uses 112 Russian IN-13 Nixie tubes. "The supply is really limited," said its builder.
- If you don't have anything to read in the bath, why not try making music? This laser theremin projects keys, knobs, and sliders onto the porcelain. It's called Bathcratch, and was developed at Kyoto Sangyo University.
- This contraption combines a Raspberry Pi and an arcade button to let you turn off the air conditioning from your smartphone.
- These spinning tops generate light and sound when cast across a touch-sensitive surface.
- One clever inventor’s project solves the problem of how to pour a ridiculous amount of soy sauce on your food. “I just got this idea, and like an idiot I wondered if I could make it into a machine.”
Sam Byford contributed to this photo essay.