Hobbyists toy with compact computers and sensors to make life more convenient for everyone.
MAKESPACE is an echoey, basement-type venue on the lower ground floor of Quill City Mall in Kuala Lumpur. Its bare concrete walls are a stark contrast to the feisty atmosphere inside, where bespectacled, modern-day DIY enthusiasts gather together to brainstorm.
Built for the likes of computer programmers, hobbyists fiddling with sensors and credit-card sized computers, as well as enterprising folk showing off the latest 3D printer, it is a venue befitting the maker movement, a technology-based extension of the DIY culture.
Adrian Lai, 36, one of the early adopters and proponents, feels the subculture growing with the reduced costs of prototyping.
“It is just the beginning of the wave that will see more and more people produce tech, and not just consume it,” says Lai.
Makespace isn’t the only place for the enthusiasts to meet – there are events such as Makerfest, Hackerscape and Makeweekend, and last year the George Town festival featured a dedicated Maker Villa in Penang.
Next month, an event called myMaker will be hosted by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) at its KL Converge event at the Kuala Lumpur Convention Centre.
The maker movement began in the United States around 2006 with Maker Faire, a “family-friendly festival of invention, creativity and resourcefulness”.
A smaller version of the event, the Mini Maker Faire, took place in Malaysia last year in Penang, exhibiting everything from self-balancing scooters to sensors for the colour-blind. Organised by the Collaborative Research in Engineering Science and Technology, it will be held again this year at the Subterranean Penang International Conference & Exhibition Centre in Penang in November.
Makerfest organiser Rajesh Nair, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate, feels that college students are at an ideal age to be inspired.
“Students are not challenged at college with traditional education. If they can be exposed to more interesting and creative things, it would make a huge difference,” he says.
Kal Joffres, 35, one of the initiators of the Makeweekend event, feels that it’s a way of pushing society forward. “It’s great to see a variety of people coming together from different fields to create solutions that will benefit society,” he says.
And the tinkering has started. Lee Kiong Tan, 25, has always been frustrated with the public transportation system in Penang. Last year, when he was still a student with Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM), he got together with five other mates to find a solution.
Lee’s team created a prototype with an Arduino (a microcontroller that can only perform a single task), GPS and 9V battery. They placed the device on a USM bus to track its location and transmit the info over the 3G network so that students can monitor it via an app.
The team is still trying to commercialise the prototype.
Meanwhile, a group of students from the Malay College Kuala Kangsar (MCKK) wanted to help the elderly lead better lives after a visit to an old folks home. In particular, they were concerned with how hard it was for the elderly to move from the bed to the chair and vice versa.
Wan Ahmad Haziq and his team decided to create a bed that converted into a wheelchair by using an Arduino controller, motors and sensors. The ultrasonic sensors ensured that the bed would “know” just how close to the floor to lower itself when converted into a wheelchair.
Once it transforms into a wheelchair, the user can control it with a joystick without worrying about running into walls or other obstacles as it has motion sensors for avoiding collisions.
The invention won last year’s inaugural Young Innovate Malaysia, a national secondary school competition organised by the Penang Science Cluster, a non-profit organisation that promotes science and technology.
The maker movement mostly favours the Raspberry Pi 2 or Arduino or both for its projects.
The Raspberry Pi plugs into a computer monitor or TV, uses a standard keyboard and mouse, and is powerful enough to handle Blizzard’s Warcraft game. Its popularity has soared since hitting the market in 2012 and over five million pieces have been sold worldwide as of February this year.
It can be seen in movies like Big Hero 6 and the upcoming Point Break reboot, as well as TV series CSI: Cyber – not bad for a device that was originally developed by the University of Cambridge professor Eben Upton to inspire kids to create.
The Arduino, unlike the Raspberry Pi, is not a computer but a programmable microcontroller that can only perform basic tasks such as controlling lights and motors.
In short, the Raspberry Pi is the brains while the Arduino is the brawn.
The Raspberry Pi 2 costs between RM70 and RM130 while the Arduino ranges from RM30 to RM150. You can easily purchase them online or at computer shops.
Jason Tay, chief technology officer for 3D printing products manufacturer Vagler International Sdn Bhd, says Raspberry Pi has changed the DIY landscape by making embedded development boards much cheaper than they had been before it arrived on the scene.
Chew concurs: “Prior to the Raspberry Pi, there were no standardised boards and one would cost around US$2,000 (RM7,600).” Also, the Raspberry Pi itself is affordable because it uses an 11-year-old processor.
But cost wasn’t the only hurdle as support and help were also harder to find back then.
The maker movement isn’t all about solving big problems, as most hobbyists are happy just to design devices for home and business automation, says Lai.
One of the attendees of Lai’s workshop, for instance, created a gadget with a Raspberry Pi and timer so that it could feed the fishes when he was away.
The founder of Hyve hardware company Jia Shern and Hackerscape organiser Clarence Chew built a Raspberry Pi device that controls window blinds.
“The bright light from the sun activates the motor and lowers the blinds,” said Chew.
Meanwhile, a local department store has created a Raspberry Pi device with motion sensors to track walk-in customers to identify the popular and unpopular parts of the store to help gauge demand.
Robotics is also quite popular with the maker community. Sam Ng, 32, along with his team, cobbled together a self-navigating robot using Arduino for the MakeWeekend Robotics Event in Penang last year.
They used wheels, plastic containers and bamboo satay sticks (for the axles). The robot successfully navigated an obstacle course of bottles and coloured cardboard strips with the help of ultrasonic and infra-red sensors while being cheered on by dozens of participants.
Ng first heard the maker movement calling two years ago. He was so inspired that he founded the Raspberry Pi Penang group in 2014 and when he returned to Kuala Lumpur in January he founded the Raspberry Pi Klang Valley group.
You don’t need to be an engineer or software developer to be part of the maker movement.
“You don’t necessarily have to be a programmer to get started, as most people just cut and paste codes from tutorials,” said Lai.
You also don’t have to worry about the cost much as the components are very affordable.
“The barrier to entry is really low. Even if you do break or fry anything, you can always get it replaced quickly to try out another project,” says Chew.
However, as the Raspberry Pi and Arduino are quite different, it’s best to pick one first to make your journey easier even though both are ideal and affordable for beginners.
Chew feels beginners should go with the Raspberry Pi as it’s more commercialised and easy to source here. Also, there are more online tutorials for it.
Ng also agrees, as there’s a bigger support community for the Pi in Kuala Lumpur and Penang than for the Arduino.
Of course, once you have mastered one, you can learn the other and combine both to make even more complicated devices.
And you may not even have to look far for a tutor, as many who dabble in the art are also willing instructors.
Take for example, Ching Zhi Xiong – the history teacher gives weekly classes on Raspberry Pi after school because he wants to see how young minds respond to tools.
“One of my students is working on creating a smoke detector to catch students who smoke in the toilet.”
Now, that’s an idea that just could catch fire.