At Maker Faire Detroit 2019 this weekend we’re celebrating a decade of makers, entrepreneurs, and innovators. While making your way both inside and out of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation enjoying the ultimate celebration of geek culture, make sure to be on the lookout for a collection of artifacts from the collections of The Henry Ford that complement the maker spirit.
Much like the fascinating diversity of makers you will encounter across the faire, the selection of artifacts, many not often seen on display, let alone actually operating, also represent a quite an array of ingenuity. They run the gambit from delicate artistry to powerful brawn. These artifacts will be out of storage for a limited this weekend - get your tickets now to see them for yourself.
Every year staff members from The Henry Ford present Maker Faire Detroit makers whose projects embody the innovative spirit of the event the coveted Editor's Choice blue ribbons. We're excited to share this year's winners. Take a look at the list and get to know more about these outstanding makers.
Strange sounds will soon float through the air at The Henry Ford. Ghostly, warbling, hypnotic sounds. Reverberations that might be described as pure science fiction—as seeming “out-of-this-world.” These provocative sounds will rise out of an instrument called the theremin, developed in 1920 by Russian and Soviet inventor Léon Theremin. Famously, it is one of the only instruments that is played without physically touching it, and is considered to be the world’s first practical, mass-produced, and portable electronic instrument. These instruments offer a deep range of sonic possibility; learning to play one is a stirring experience.
At Maker Faire Detroit, July 30-31, 2016, Dorit Chrysler will provide several theremin workshops with KidCoolThereminSchool, a workshop program “dedicated to inspire and nurture creative learning and expression through innovative music education, art and science.” On Saturday, youth workshops (ages 4-13) will be held on a first come-first served basis at 11am and 1pm, followed by an adult workshop (ages 14 and above) at 4pm. On Sunday, youth workshops will be held at 1pm, followed by an adult workshop at 4pm. Maker Faire attendees are encouraged to arrive early to guarantee a place in the workshop, as each session is limited to ten participants. Additional guests are welcome to observe the workshop and test a theremin afterwards. Workshops typically run 45mins to 1hour, and will be held in the upper mezzanine area in the Heroes of the Sky exhibit.
Dorit Chrysler is rarity in the realm of musical performance: she is one of the few theremin players in the world who is considered to be a virtuoso of the instrument. She has accompanied an impressive list of bands including The Strokes, and Blonde Redhead, Swans, Cluster, ADULT., Dinosaur Jr., and Mercury Rev. Additionally, as part of her visit to Maker Faire, Dorit will give a performance each day at 3:15pm in The Henry Ford’s Drive-In Theatre, followed by a short Q&A session.
Kristen Gallerneaux, our Curator of Communications and Information Technology, had the opportunity to speak with Dorit Chysler about theremins, her music career, and the importance of collaboration.
Can you explain, using a few key words or phrases—as fanciful as you want them to be—how the theremin sounds? The granddaughter of the Lev Termen, the theremin's inventor once told me, you have to play the theremin with your soul - to me the sound at its best translates your slightest physical motions into a haunting & delicate soundscape, like weaving winds, tickled butterflies or howls to the moon, and yes, a theremin can sound exquisitely lyrical, but—at its worst, it can also sound like stepping on a cats tail.
How did your introduction to and love of the theremin as an instrument begin? What was your creative background before committing to the theremin? Having studied musicology in Vienna, I had been an active composer and also played guitar and sang in a rock band - when encountering the theremin at a friend’s house, I was instantly touched by its unusual interface, dynamic potential, the quixotic efforts necessary in controlling its pitch -why had the theremin not been more popular? It clearly deserved more attention.
How can the presence of a theremin influence the structure of a song? A theremin is surprisingly versatile - it can be applied in solo voicing (just like violin or guitar) or looping monophonic voices atop of each other, which creates a very unique weaving effect or dynamically in swoops and other gestural movements generated through its unique interface of motion translating into sound.
Are there any “quirks” to playing this instrument live? Playing a theremin live can be a challenge, as circuitry, wind (outdoors) or Hearing Aid ‘Loop’ T-coil Technology in concert halls, just to name a few, can interfere with the instrument. In addition, if you don't hear yourself well onstage, it is impossible to play in tune—so if playing with other instruments, such as an orchestra or a band with drummers, it is a challenge that can only be mastered with your own mixer and an in ear mic. Needless to say, all of this does not contribute in making the theremin a more popular instrument, the technical challenge playing live is real but can be mastered.
While commercial theremins are available via Moog Music, Inc., the theremin you sometimes play in your live shows doesn’t look like a commercial model. Is there a story behind who built it? Any special skills that creator may have had to work hard to learn in order to make the instrument a reality? I own several different theremin models and sometimes play a Hobbs Theremin, created by Charlie Hobbs. This prototypes has hand-wound coils and a very responsive volume antenna which permits very dynamic playing.
What is the strangest setting in which you have played the theremin? Many diverse settings seem to offer themselves to a thereminist. Some of my favorite ones have been: playing in front of Nikola Tesla's ashes, resting inside a gold ball sitting on a red velvet pillow at the Tesla Museum in Belgrade, or inside an ancient stone castle ruin, atop a mountain in Sweden, or on a wobbly boat off Venice during sunset and with creaming ducks, at the Carnival in Brazil on a busy street filled with dancing people, and finally, a market place in a small town in Serbia, when an orthodox priest held his cross against the theremin to protect his people from "the work of the devil."
Could you talk a little about the importance of collaboration, and perhaps talk about a project that you are especially fond of where collaboration had a key role? I strongly believe in collaboration—its challenges and the new and unforeseen places it may take you. My biggest challenge this year has been playing with the San Francisco Symphony orchestra, to be surrounded by a sea of acoustic instruments sounded incredible and was a great sonic inspiration. We all had to trust each other and some of the traditional classical musicians of the ensemble eyed the electric theremin with great suspicion! Also I enjoyed playing with Cluster, stone cold improvising together onstage, or with a loud rock ensemble, filling the main stage at Roskilde festival with Trentemoeller, looking at a sea of thousands of people. This Fall I am committed to projects in collaboration with a project in Detroit with the band ADULT., a French band called Infecticide (they remind me of a political French version of Devo), a children’s theremin orchestra, and a theremin musical production for Broadway. Stylistically a theremin can fit in nowhere or anywhere, which opens many doors of collaboration
Can you tell us a little bit about how KidCoolTheremin school began? What other sorts of venues have you travelled this program to? KidCoolThereminSchool began very organically, when children and adults were so eager to try the theremin themselves after concerts. I developed a curriculum and started classes at Pioneerworks, a center for art and science in Red Hook, NY. We were supported by Moog Music in Asheville, NC, where I had been teaching students over the course of six months. KidCoolThereminSchool has been going global ever since, we have had sold out classes in Sweden, Switzerland, Detroit's MOCAD, Houston, NYC, Moogfest, Vienna, and Copenhagen. This fall, KidCoolThereminSchool will go to Paris and Berlin as well as free classes in Manhattan as part of the "Dame Electric" festival in NY, Sept. 13-18th.
Why is it important for young people and new adult audiences to have the chance to try a theremin? Ever since its inception, the theremin as a musical instrument has been underestimated—it merely hasn’t found its true sound as of yet. In this age of technology, a theremin's unique interface of motion to sound, seems contemporary and accessible. Amidst a sea of information, the very physical and innovative approach to different playing techniques can allow each player to find their own voice of expression, learning to listen and experiment, to train motorics and musical skills in a playful and creative way.
What can people expect to learn at the KidCool workshops at Maker Faire? Due to time restrictions, we will offer introductory classes on the theremin. We will go through the basics of sound generation—and ensemble playing is sometimes all it takes for someone to get inspired in wanting to dive further into the sonic world of the theremin.
Is there anything you are particularly excited to see at the museum? Yes, the collection apparently holds two RCA theremins. They are currently not on display but we (the NY Theremin Society, which I cofounded) would very much like to help examine and determine what it would take to operate these instruments one day, and to even play them in concert at the museum in the future. For a long time now I wanted to see the permanent collection of The Henry Ford!
At Maker Faire Detroit 2016, Drew Blanke—more formally known as “Dr. Blankenstein”—will arrive, trailing a rolling suitcase full of broken toys and noise-making creations along behind him. Over the weekend of July 30-31, 2016, Blanke will hold workshops to teach people how to “up-cycle electronics into one-of-a-kind 21st century art.” He asks that guests interested in participating in the workshop bring along broken electronics from home—to “open them, inspect them, and learn from them.” He will also have a few of his own creations available for hands-on demonstrations.
This will be Dr. Blankenstein’s first appearance at Maker Faire Detroit, but he is no stranger when it comes to providing engaging circuit-bending workshops. Kristen Gallerneaux, curator at The Henry Ford, first encountered Blanke at Moogfest 2014, where she saw him demonstrate a musical calculator programmed to play a song by the band Kraftwerk. What else could the song have been, but Pocket Calculator? For fans of synthesized music, his homage was a crowd-pleaser. Blanke has also appeared at World Maker Faire in Queens, NY, and returned to Moogfest 2016 to provide a series of all-ages hands-on workshops.
On Sunday, July 31st, at 2:45pm, Dr. Blankenstein will give a talk in the museum’s Drive-In Theatre called “Circuit Bending & the Art of Electronic Discovery: Open It, Inspect It, LEARN IT!”
Our Curator of Communications and Information Technology, Kristen Gallerneaux, caught up with Dr. Blankenstein for an interview.
How did your love of synthesized music begin? Are there any historic innovators that you would say are direct inspirations on what you do, and how you think about sound design?
I am not sure the exact moment when I began to love synthesizers, but I can tell you it most certainly started in the early 1980s. It wasn’t as much a love for the instrument at first as it was the wonderful sounds they were able to make. I think of music from films such as Tron, Close Encounters of the Third Kind & Breakin’, sound effects and theme songs from TV shows such as Nightrider, CHiPs and Star Trek, and 1980s music such as Kraftwerk, New Wave and early Rap all left a huge impact on me. I can’t leave out Michael Jackson and breakdance music either, I was a mini Breakdancer at the time thanks to Mom & Michael Jackson. Older dancers called me Kid Fresh (LOL). All of these elements created a need to know more about how these sounds were created. I knew there was something different about them versus say a guitar, flute or drums etc. Even at the young age of 5, I knew I wanted to know more.
As for inspirational innovators that I have been influenced by in my later years, I would have to point to Bob Moog and Herb Deutsch. The work I do and the work they did (although similar in nature) is much different in style, but I connect deeply with the passion and creativity that was alive between the two of them. It’s almost like the Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak of the synthesizer world, both such amazing and inspiring American dream stories. It’s almost impossible to not be inspired by them.
Dr. Blankenstein is pictured here demonstrating one of his creations to Herbert Deutsch, co-inventor of the Moog synthesizer. You have called yourself a “circuit manipulator / designer, artist, and professional Maker”—how do these things work together and influence one another?
That’s a fantastic question! I am a big preacher of the concept of “if you want to know more about it, then jump right into it and try it out”. In my experience it’s more difficult to learn from a chalkboard than by exploring / reading and practicing a new interest you are excited by. I am excited by technology and the power it gives me to express myself. As time has gone on since the early 80s, it has only gotten easier and easier to get involved with whatever evolving technology excited me at the time. Especially now with the Internet and all the fantastic resources available to learn from (YouTube, Instructables, kits and How-To websites, etc.), plus the constantly dropping prices on great development gear such as 3D printers and Arduino /RaspberryPi, it’s never been easier to learn about something new and get involved. I kind of saw this happening early on in the game, say about 1995 or so. This allowed me to really explore many different aspects of technology and art. More importantly it gave me the time needed to make it all fit together nicely as it does now. I started in graphic arts / web design and electronic music performance / production. I later would sell big name instruments for a couple of major retailers. I owned a marketing company which allowed me to hone in on even more technical skills such as video editing, text writing and promotion. In the end, every single part of that comes into play with my work in Dr. Blankenstein. To me, it’s proof that if you don’t know exactly what road will take you where you are going, any and every road you pick will take you there. You just need to be passionate about what you are doing.
A view of Dr. Blankenstein’s workbench
Can you tell us a bit about your journey to learning the electronics end of things—things you learned that help you make/manipulate/creatively “break” the things that you do? Did you learn this formally at a school, or on your own by way of tinkering?
Well, it really started around 1986 or so when my father started doing HeathKits again. HeathKit was a company that started in the late 1940s and went out of business in the early 90s. Their basic idea was, “Why buy something at top dollar, when you can build it yourself for less?” It was a great way to learn about electronics and save some money on a gadget you wanted, but didn’t want to pay a lot for (some of their more popular / famous kits were the “HERO” robot used by Mr. Wizard and reportedly built by Steve Jobs in the early 1970s, a VHS Video Tape Recorder, or a color TV). My father was building the kits again (he was building a programmable analog musical doorbell kit), and he had built them as a child himself. Of course, I wanted in on the fun as well. My father would let me solder a resistor or two into place and explain the color coding system to me. He later would buy me an A.M. (not F.M, only A.M.) radio kit for me to complete myself, which I did (minus a few errors fixed by my father).
That was when my love for wanting to know what was inside machines grew, almost as much love for what the machine did itself was needing to know how it worked. At this point, I remember opening up many of my childhood toys to “see how they worked”. I was not always able to put them back together, but I ALWAYS managed to learn something in the process. This is a very important point to be made, one that I try to drive home in all of my workshops. It’s important if we as humans want to stay creative to make sure to look inside a machine and learn how it works. It connects you even deeper to all the hard work that went into making that device possible, develops a newfound respect for the world around you, and in the best case scenario (for what I do)… gets you excited to learn more about how things work and how to make something / or modify it yourself!
I’m a grassroots engineer, street taught… some would call me a hacker. It’s possible to be all of the above and more (it’s actually likely in many cases)! I am not saying that Engineering isn’t a wonderful thing to go to school for, and to follow as a career… it is and you should! I’m saying, you can be a Doctor, a Plumber or a Pizza maker and still be a fantastic Engineer. The most important part is the will / need to learn and the wonder to experiment and explore the world around and how it works.
A view of Dr. Blankenstein’s workbench. Can you tell us about how you go about being a Maker in your day-to-day life? Do you have a workshop at home, or do you use any kind of organized Maker spaces?
I do have a shop in my Queens, New York apartment. It’s a tight space, but it’s rather amazing what can be done from it. One half is my computer workstation, and the other half is made up of two Maker workbenches. One bench I use mostly for circuitry which has my main soldering iron / rotary tool setup / oscilloscope / drill press etc. The other bench I use more for assembling my final products. So here you will find a lot of screw drivers, wrenches, extra screws / nuts and bolts etc. I try to keep the two areas separated so that my final pieces don’t accidentally get damaged by production tools (hot soldering irons, spinning drills) or metal scraps etc. I don’t use any organized Maker Spaces at this time, I wish there were more in my area. In New York, a lot of them seem to be in the Brooklyn area. Maybe I should start one for Queens!
Collaboration is a key attribute within the Maker community. Do you have a network of friends who are also involved in circuit bending or making sound-based work? Are there any online resources where someone might find such a community?
I wish I was working with more people than I am at the moment, because I do agree with you 100%. Collaboration is key to the Maker movement / community. That being said, it’s something easier said than done. As you get older, and you get more involved in your own work, it sometimes gets more difficult to find the time between your everyday work / life to make the connections one should be making when working on a lot different kinds of projects. I hate to sound like my parents here, but this is why SCHOOL is amazing and SO important. I can say to the younger Makers out there, as an adult… you will never have a better opportunity to connect and collaborate with great like minds than you will in middle / high school and college. So do what your parents say and take full advantage of it, you will thank us for it later. I do work with some other Makers out there from time to time, one of whom is Tim Sway… the amazing woodworker / instrument maker. We have collaborated on a few projects to date you can find out there if you search the web. There are a few other people I have been talking to lately that I hope to be working with in the near future as well. Lastly, that is why Maker Faire is such an amazing concept. All of us who work on our projects day after day, week after week, month after month, can finally come out in the daylight, meet follow Makers and show off ( and check out other people’s work) our hard work and collaborate.
Dr. Blankenstein’s “GoogaMooga”—his submission to the “Circuit Bending Challenge” at Moogfest 2012. Can you talk about an especially challenging project, where the outcome was totally worth all of the effort you put in to it? Have you had any amazing accidental discoveries or spectacular failures?
It’s hard to talk about challenging projects and massive learning experiences without talking about the GoogaMooga (a 30min video of me building it can be found on my YouTube channel), my submission for the Moogfest 2012 “Circuit Bending Challenge” hacking contest. I had just gotten back into circuitry full time as was determined to be picked as part of the Top 3 to go to Asheville and compete. Did I have the skill level need to do so? Well, that was an entirely different story all together.
The idea was to use three 10 second voice recorders used to say Happy Holidays to Grandma and Grandpa in a custom greeting cards and turn them into an epic (contest winning) sampler / synthesizer. No problem, right!?! ;) Well I knew what I wanted to do, but the hard part was figuring out how to make it all work together. First I tried to etch a custom PCB mixer I planned on running all 3 sample units through. That was a total failure, a waste of sensitive time (the contest deadline was in days) and money. Plus, I had no idea how to run three separate 4.5volt samplers off one 9V power supply. The concept of a voltage divider chip / components hadn’t been revealed to me yet. So, I wound up running each of the mini voice sampler units off their own power supplies. Which pretty much meant loading the piece with NINE AA batteries and a 9V power supply to run the pile of LED lights I added and an FX section. Sounds crazy right? Later I would find out, even though I did just about everything completely wrong... I followed rule #1 in engineering, MAKE IT WORK! First and foremost, it must work… it may not look amazing on the inside, but make it work. In case you are wondering what rule #2 is, it’s always try to learn something new from your mistakes… I most certainly did as well. Guess what? I was picked to be part of the Top 3 of the contest and a relationship that still exists to this day was forged between Moogfest and myself. There isn’t much in life that will be easy or work perfectly when you first start doing it, just remember that everyone goes through it… and keep pushing through to your goals.
What is the benefit of making your own instruments, rather than exclusively playing commercially-purchased instruments? Are there any “quirks” to playing these types of things in front of an audience?
As for benefits, I suppose that depends on the artist who is using the instrument. I would guess the same can be said about “quirks” when performing with them. It really depends on the artist using it, how they are using it and what their final vision for their sound is. Meaning, an instrument can be built perfectly… in a way that it performs perfectly next to a commercially purchased instrument, but some would say, “Where’s the fun in that?” Some people look for pieces that are one-of-a-kind or unpredictable on purpose, it really depends on how the piece was built, and who is using it in what way. Playing a circuit bent piece live on the spot in front of a crowd, versus sampling cool sounds from it and using it in a computer written composition will get MUCH DIFFERENT results from the same exact instrument. I think someone who realizes that, will get the most out of a boutique instrument or something they built themselves.
Dr. Blankenstein is pictured above giving one of his custom guitar pedals to musician Adam “Ad-Rock” Horovitz of the Beastie Boys. Do you think it is important for young people and new adult audiences to know about the “guts” of what powers everyday technology? What can we learn by taking things apart?
I think it’s beyond important. I’m a big believer that modern culture has people in the mode of “get the newest model” without really thinking about if their current model still does the trick for them. It seems to be a harmless habit to be in, but I don’t believe it’s harmless at all. Besides creating an amazing amount of exponentially growing yearly e-waste and wasting money… maybe even worse is that it makes us solely consumers. We need to be makers, innovators and thinkers… like the men and women whose devices / creations fill the halls of the Henry Ford Museum. Each one of them wanted to make it better than the last one, and with good reason… not just because they HAD TO have the newest model.
When we think about how things work, when we look inside and see what we can learn / recycle or reuse from it… or if nothing else take a look inside at all the hard work that goes into creating these devices. We gain respect for the item, we are amazed by it, we learn more from it… we are less impressed by the company who made it and if it’s the newest model and we are more impressed by what it does. We are impressed by what it does, and that we (the human race) have been able to make it happen in the last 80 years or so! We are amazing, we build amazing things!
What can people expect to learn at your Maker Faire workshop?
I love to show people how simple it is to get involved in circuitry! I like explaining to folks that with the knowledge of just a few easy to follow electronic principles, Circuit Bending very low cost battery powered electronics is actually rather easy, educational and rewarding (changing resistance to modify pitch, swapping out speakers for audio outputs, adding colorful LEDS, changing power sources etc.).
Most people have stuff laying around their house that would be thrown / given away that can easily be modified into one-of-a-kind Circuit Bent creations. The best part is, you have no choice but to get better and better at it and learn more about electronics as you go along. So, I hope to show folks some good examples of what that looks like when you are done with it, what it sounds like, and how they can get started to do the same thing at home (on a very small project budget).
Is there anything you are particularly excited to see at the museum?
There are so many things I am excited to see at the museum, in fact the entire concept of a museum like The Henry Ford excites me beyond belief. Talk about a museum that a Maker like me can really enjoy! Not that I don’t love my native fine art, science centers, or natural history museums here in New York, but a museum dedicated to invention, ingenuity and inspiration… that’s a place I can spend an entire week at. I will actually be staying a few days after the Maker Faire to make sure I don’t miss anything great. From what I see online, it’s just not possible to see the entire campus in 2 days (most certainly when the Maker Faire is going on).
What I am MOST EXCITED to see? It’s hard to have to pick, but I would have to say the communications and information technology artifacts in the museum. I just HAVE TO see the original Apple 1 computer and of course my friend Herb Deutsch’s original Moog Synthesizer prototype! I get goose bumps just typing that sentence. I’m excited to come see you Michigan—see you at the Detroit Maker Faire 2016!
The Henry Ford always goes big when it comes to hosting Maker Faire Detroit. 2016 promises to be no different. In fact, it might actually go just a bit bigger than ever before.
The call for makers went out at the beginning of April, and the number and scope of innovators answering The Henry Ford's summon didn't disappoint. Visitors to the event can expect some old favorites to be on the scene, such as Maker Works’ Great Maker Race and Cirque Amongus, as well as lots of opportunities to do some hands-on innovating and buy things DIY. But, the big story for Maker Faire 2016 (and we add extra emphasis on the word "big") is the locked-down appearance of MegaBots, said Shauna Wilson, senior manager of National Events for The Henry Ford.
If you're not familiar with MegaBots, they are 15-foot-tall, internally piloted humanoid robots that fire cannonball-sized paintballs at speeds of more than 120 miles per hour. They made quite the media splash last year when they challenged Japan to a robot duel and they accepted. (The date and locale of the historic duel against Kuratas, Japan's 9,000-pound robot, are still to be determined.)
Matt Oehrlein, one of the co-founders of MegaBots and a longtime fan and participant on the Maker Faire circuit, shared a few secrets about what his team will be bringing to Maker Faire Detroit. "Visitors can expect to see the six-ton, 15-foot tall MegaBots Mk. II that challenged Japan to a giant robot duel,” he said, “We'll be testing the weapon system of Mk. II on a scrap vehicle in The Henry Ford's parking lot."
After weapon tests are completed, Oehrlein promises there will be plenty of meet-and-greet ops with the MegaBots team and the Mk. II. "Autographs and group selfies are welcome, too," he added.
The Henry Ford's Wilson and Oehrlein agree that the match up of The Henry Ford, Maker Faire Detroit and MegaBots is a no-brainer. Noted Oehrlein, "The Henry Ford gives a historical look at innovation over time, and we believe MegaBots represents innovation of today. It will be amazing for people to come to Maker Faire Detroit, walk through The Henry Ford and see innovation over the years, and then come outside and witness a six-ton robotic beast representing today's advancements in technology. We are so excited to be a part of this story."
Did You Know? The MegaBot Mk. II made its debut at Maker Faire San Mateo in 2015.
At Maker Faire Detroit 2015, the “Mothership” will descend into The Henry Ford Museum. Created by the Detroit collaborative group, ONE Mile, the Mothership looks like a lunar lander, acts as a mobile DJ booth—but is also so much more. Kristen Gallerneaux, our Curator of Communications and Information Technology, caught up with the group to ask them a few questions about their project.
Can you explain what the Mothership is?
The Mothership is a Parliament-Funkadelic inspired mobile DJ booth, broadcast module, and urban marker designed to transmit cultural activity from Detroit’s epic North End. Channeling Ancient African material culture and Afrofuturist aesthetics, the deployable pod energizes underused sites, creates a sense of place, and helps signal that Detroit’s creative prowess is powerful and uninterrupted. But most simply it’s an object, one that people can identify with. Stationed without programming, it’s a mini-monument. Ajar and pulsating with music, it reveals a DJ and accompanies a broad spectrum of public events, performances, and community gatherings. Add smoke machines and colored lighting, and the Mothership creates the impression of having “just landed”.
Every year, as we plan for Maker Faire Detroit behind the scenes, The Henry Ford’s curators think about what items from their collections might be brought out for special display during the event. At this year’s Faire, a new acquisition will make its public debut—items retrieved from the infamous “Atari Tomb of 1983” in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
As any good folklorist will tell you, urban legends usually prove to be fabrications of truth that have gone awry and gained their own momentum, spread by word of mouth and media publicity. But sometimes—urban legends turn out to be true. In April 2014, excavations at the Alamogordo, New Mexico landfill unearthed every video game fan’s dream: physical evidence that the legend of the “Atari Video Game Burial” of 1983 was indeed a very real event.
“We’re going to let people try and hack the museum?!”
When I first heard this a few months back, my jaw dropped. Hack the museum?! What?! Are you serious? What museum would even think of doing such a thing? Well, The Henry Ford would. We were indeed opening ourselves up to hacking, but not like you would first think.
As part of Maker Faire Detroit 2013, our partners at Compuware came up with the great idea to host our first-ever hackathon inside Henry Ford Museum with the challenge of “creating an application which combines The Henry Ford’s digital collection with the imagination and power that are an essential part of the mobile culture today.” We were opening ourselves up to hacking, but by way of APIs used with our digital collections.
Nestled above the “Heroes of the Sky” exhibit toward the back of the museum, six teams worked all day Saturday trying to create the most unique app for us possible. Nineteen participants, some local, some from out of town, consumed a lot of caffeinated beverages and wrote a lot of code as the faire happened around them.
Mike Butman, our Chief Information Officer at The Henry Ford, worked with the teams on how best to access the collections’ APIs throughout the day. For Mike, the hackathon was not only a way to see new ideas, but a source of inspiration and personal challenge.
“It was extremely invigorating,” Mike told me. “Not just to see the technical components, but to see the outside perspective and how these individuals could develop something for our guests to interact with.”
With their work done at the end of the day on Saturday, all that was left was a presentation to our team of judges. The six teams presented their ideas and made their cases in front of our judges. The judges that had the tough job of selecting just one winner included:
Matthew David, Chief Digital Strategist at Compuware
Eric Weinhoffer, Product Development Engineer at MAKE
Bruce Elenbogen, Associate Professor of Computer Information Systems at UofM Dearborn
Lauren Ann Davies, Deadline Detroit
Marilyn Zoidis, Director of Historical Resources at The Henry Ford
In the end, we had one winner and two runners-up (I said it was a tough choice). Team 42 and Chi-Ackers took second place with Sam Harrell of Team Sam taking home top honors. What was the app that wowed our judges so much?
The app used image recognition with computer vision, kind of like augmented reality.
Guests take the app and move it across a sign. The app recognizes points on the sign and pulls related information from the digital collections of The Henry Ford.
The app can then also translate the information into dozens of languages. It’s easy to use. Instead of looking for information on multiple web pages within your mobile browser, all related items are pulled together all in one place.
Sam had been thinking of an app like this for a while. The hackathon, with the access to our APIs, was just what he needed to pull it all together.
“I loved the thrill of starting something from scratch and building it out,” he said.
Will you see the app anytime soon? There’s consideration here at the institution of being able to make something out of the results from the hackathons, like the one at Maker Faire Detroit, in the future.
For Compuware’s Matthew David, suggesting a hackathon as part of their Maker Faire Detroit sponsorship was a natural idea. Hackathons all across the globe continue to gain popularity. For small groups of people, a hackathon often gives them the opportunity to not only be developers but also entrepreneurs. Did you know that the Facebook “Like” button was the result of a Facebook hackathon?!
“When you work on emerging technology, you’re so very passionate about it,” Matthew said. “Being up to your eyeballs in code, racing against the clock for a fun prize... people are doing it for the honor of winning. They light up Silicon Valley passions outside of Silicon Valley. Folks really can do something. These solutions emerging and then happening? That’s pretty fantastic.”
Digital Collections Initiative Manager Ellice Engdahl proudly watched the presentations the next day on Sunday. To the leader of the team creating and publishing our digital collections, the idea of allowing outside developers access to our raw data meant a lot.
“The true purpose of digitizing our collections, both on the floor and in storage, is to make them available. If our digital assets aren’t used, there’s no point in creating them,” Ellice said. “It was fabulous to see creative programmers find new ways to share our materials.”
Ellice also really appreciated the thoughtful way each team approached the challenge and brought their own perspective to it.
“Team 42 was interested in engaging diverse audiences, Team Chi-Ackers wanted to encourage learning through collections-related gaming, Team CIA encouraged easy sharing from the museum to visitors and from visitors to visitors, Team Handsome Quartet encouraged users to gain social badges through viewing collections objects, Team Sam thought about how the existing labels on the Museum floor could be improved and enhanced, and Team Wambatech incorporated outside videos and images alongside our own assets,” she said. “It was great to see such a variety of results coming out of the teams’ original goals and perspectives, and exciting to think of the diverse audiences that would appreciate all the teams’ efforts.”
While the hackathon has come and gone for 2013, the enthusiasm is here to stay. You can keep up to date with Maker Faire Detroit updates on our website and through our enthusiast channel, OnMaking.