Review of the 3rd Annual New York Maker Faire


Play with giant tinker toys,
Try your hand at looming your own clothes,
Robots that don’t have to stay dry,
Robots that can learn to fly,
Robots that are made from trash,
Bicycles with wings that flash.

This weekend, I went to the World Maker Faire in Queens and I wanted to share some of the great things that I saw there. I’m not going to be able to talk about everything, but I wanted to cover two major trends that I saw that encompass several projects.

One trend that I think is interesting is the focus on making your own toys. With awesome tools like laser cutters, 3D printers, robotics toolkist, or even just scissors and tape, it is becoming more and more possible to make amazing toys without a manufacturer in the loop. Before Lego, the world was your construction toy. I think we can get back there soon, as things like laser cutters become more affordable. Online communities like letsmakerobots and aeroquad and real-life communities like hackert0wn are going to help this happen. While you wait for the hardware to get to your house, try this out — make you own marble maze roller coaster with nothing but a printer, scissors, and tape!

Biomodd uses the excess heat created by a computer to heat a small vegetable greenhouse.

The second trend that I thought was fascinating was the focus on connecting with the natural world. I often think of computing as an indoor activity that is clean and inorganic, but a number of inventors and artists at this event considered places where nature and technology intersect. As just a few examples, a project from T4D Lab uses low-cost sensors to help a grower understand and improve the production of food. Guerrilla Gardening is more a movement and community than a technology, but is a great example of leveraging technology to connect people who care about nature. But my favorite was probably Biomodd — a project focused on highlighting a symbiotic relationships between plants and computers. Cool stuff!

On a final note, his event exemplified my favorite thing about the Maker culture. It brought together artists, crafts-people, scientists, and engineers. In the process of breaking through disciplinary boundaries, it also broke through the boundaries and stereotypes of gender. It was great to see both girls and boys try their hand at making robots and weaving using a loom. I’ll definitely be coming back next year!

P.S. If I talked about your work here and you don’t think that it’s linked or discussed properly, let me know so that we can work together to make it right.

Can’t Have It Both Ways

Dating websites are a fascinating example of technology mediating an intimate area of our lives. According to the Wall Street Journal, in 2010 20% of all heterosexual couples and 60% of all same-sex couples met online. In this blog, I’ve done a review of a number of major dating sites and I’d like to point out a common “oversight” which may serve as an example of how values get encoded in technology. Namely, it is very difficult to be bisexual on a dating site.

Only one of these popular dating websites acknowledges bisexuality.

A bisexual woman (for example) might be interested in one of the following combinations of gender (the binary representation of gender is also a design decision, but I won’t discuss that in this post) and orientation: a lesbian woman, a straight man, a bisexual woman, or a bisexual man. However, Match.com, eHarmony, Chemistry.com, Plenty of Fish, and Lavalife all share one common characteristic — one can only “seek” one gender at a time! In other words, as a bisexual woman, you have to choose to either look for lesbian/bi women or for straight/bi men, excluding half of the relevant combinations.  There is a website targeted explicitly to bisexual people, called bicupid.com, but this site only allows you to search for other bisexual individuals (again, excluding half of the relevant combinations). I would also like to point out that even just the front page of bicupid.com perpetuates a number of stereotypes of bisexual people, particularly that they are not interested in having a serious relationship with one person.

This website only allows searching for other bisexual partners and seems to perpetuate some popular myths about bisexuality.

The only popular dating website that acknowledges bisexuality is okcupid.com, which lets you specify that the seeker is “bisexual.” This may not be surprising, since okcupid has always been fairly progressive thinking and interested in ideas of orientation, gender, etc. However, selecting “I am bisexual” also highlights the option “I do not want to be seen by straight people.” This option is presumably there to prevent accidentally coming out to anybody who is not queer, but may not be relevant to bisexuals, who may in fact be considering straight partners. From personal experience, it might be more relevant to also provide an option “I do not want to be seen by people who are currently in a couple.” But, I don’t really want to get too far into implications for design here…

Why is this actually important? It’s not really about finding a date. Websites that exclude same-sex couples have gotten negative press, but as far as I know, nobody has raised a cry about the lack of support for bisexuality. This is an example of something called “bisexual erasure,” which is “the tendency to ignore, remove, falsify, or reexplain evidence of bisexuality in history, academia, news media and other primary sources.” This is just another way of marginalizing people and is one that is practiced by both the heterosexual and the LGBT community. Now, it is explicitly encoded in the design of the vast majority of popular dating websites, and that’s not cool.

Mobile Is in the Pocket of the Beholder

Nowadays, we like our devices to be mobile, ubiquitous, and on-the-body. Phones are used as proxies for location, platforms for a plethora of sensors, and information delivery vehicles, in addition to communication devices. Whole research communities are growing around the idea of wearable computing. It is clearly compelling to always have access to certain computing devices on the body.

My roommate used to carry this phone in his pocket in high school. Less than half of the phone fits in my pocket.

The current way that we keep something on the body is called pockets (unlike purses, you can’t set down a pocket — it’s always with you). And this brings me to the question of gendered clothing and a big disparity in term of what it means to be “pocket-sized.”

I’ll give a few examples. For a long time, mobile phones and PDAs were pocket-sized for men, but not women. See the picture to the left of me trying to carry a 1999 phone in my back pocket. Not very nice at all! Yet, my (male) roommate reported no trouble carrying it in the front pocket of his JNCOs.

You’d think that the problem has been somewhat resolved by now. Certainly, I can almost entirely fit my iPhone in my back pocket nowadays. But, the back pocket is not a convenient place to carry a rectangular device (especially, if you have some curves in that region). Thus, see below for what happens when I put the iPhone in my front pocket. Again, not very nice at all!

This is as far as an iPhone will fit into the front pocket of my jeans.

So, I’d like to put a challenge out there. If you design clothes, how about something more technology-friendly for women to wear? If you design technology, how about something that works with the clothes that women wear?

I would like a way of transporting my mobile devices that: [1] I cannot set down and lose, [2] that is easy to access in a public setting (so, no putting things in my bra if I need to look at them at any point during the day), and [3] that is comfortable in both standing and sitting positions.

Ideas?