Detroit Hacker Space Outlet For Would-Be Inventors

Published on March 9, 2011 - 4:16 pm

by By Catherine Jun / The Detroit News

Detroit - In an abandoned warehouse near Eastern Market, 20-somethings are taking things apart and then reassembling them as something way cooler - like a remote-controlled Power Wheels or a robotic cannon that fires ping pong balls.

Called OmniCorp Detroit, this is a prototypical "hacker space" or "maker space" - a collaborative studio equipped with all the stuff inventors, tinkerers and tech-geeks might want: metal- and wood-working corners, electronic parts, computers prepped with programs for designing and mixing music.

"I was the kind of kid who messed around with stuff in my basement," said Jeff Sturges, who founded OmniCorp last summer. Sturges, now 33, recalled fixing a broken house fan when he was 3 years old, then taking it apart again.

Riding a worldwide do-it-yourself movement, hacker spaces have in recent years sprung up in cities such as New York, Houston and Seattle. Ferndale hosts a hacker space, as does Ann Arbor and now Detroit.

While hacker spaces are meant to foster boundless experimentation, at least one has spawned a million-dollar venture.

"I definitely see more and more springing up," said Nick Britsky, co-founder of i3 Detroit, a hacker space in Ferndale. "They're kind of the community center of the future."

Creatives look at things in new ways

While most people think of hacking as breaking into a computer system, in this creative sphere it means something quite different: At its simplest, it means tinkering, making and hopefully challenging others to look at things differently.

The public is welcome, and invited to weekly "open hack" nights and classes. But those who want 24-hour access pay a monthly membership fee - up to $100 - to help pay rent on the space.

On a recent night, a 29-year-old automotive engineer was found taking apart a Power Wheels and replacing its 12-volt battery with 24-voltage - a tweak that hopefully would make it go about three times faster. A 35-year-old photographer was making flower appliques out of latex balloons - props to use in future photo shoots.

"This environment is very exciting to be in," said Kristine Diven, who has learned to "hack" her cameras to operate on radio signals so she can shoot self-portraits from up to 200 feet away.

By day, Achille Bianchi works as a graphic designer. But each night, the 25-year-old Detroiter spends hours at the OmniCorp studio, manipulating electric circuits and sensors. He wants to invent a zero-energy dance floor, where the music and lights are powered by the kinetic energy of the dancers.

"It's really not that far-fetched," Bianchi said.

Detroit's hacker space was largely inspired by one in New York, where Sturges briefly lived. Called NYC Resistor, members there were building robotic bartenders, knitting machines and percussion instruments from micro-controllers.

"I was developing and gathering information to bring to Detroit," said Sturges, a former architecture student at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills. He moved to Detroit in 2009, found like-minded creatives and set up shop in a 3,200-square-foot warehouse space on Division Street. The operation runs completely on monthly membership dues, and its members - 20 and growing - include recreational metalsmiths, professional electric engineers and computer programmers.

While the purpose of hacker spaces is not to create commercial ventures, New York's maker space has. Three young tech geniuses there built a desktop 3D printer with tools that they've since marketed as the first assemble-yourself 3D printer priced under $1,000. In 2009, the trio founded Makerbot Industries. To keep up with demand, they quit their day jobs. Online sales of the printers have exceeded $2 million.

Young professionals collaborate

"The more we can encourage entrepreneurs in our space, the better," said Britsky, who founded i3 Detroit in 2009 along with nine others, among them an astrophysicist, a robotics teacher and an automation specialist.

Being the first hacker space in Michigan, its two-year trajectory shows where the other fledgling spaces may go.

First running out of a coffee shop in Berkley to a garage in Royal Oak, i3 Detroit moved last year to an old tool-and-dye shop in Ferndale, boasting 8,000 square feet and a membership of about 70.

The space has all the technology a maker could want: a laser-cutter, silk-screen machine, a soldering station and a chemistry table.

Nearly every weekend, volunteer instructors teach how-to workshops, such as how to build a contact microphone using a recycled bottle cap and a magnetic pickup, or how to make your own soda flavors.

"We thought it would be a cool thing to try," said Bill Putt, a 36-year-old telephone technician from Brighton, who has titrated soda concoctions since 2009. He and a few friends have successfully brewed cranberry-marshmallow and bubble-gum-flavored soda. An attempt at cherry cola didn't go as well - wintergreen had to be added to make it palatable.

"It had a very unique flavor," Putt said.

Britsky is convinced that hacker spaces can help keep young professionals rooted in Michigan, by offering creative collaboration often seen in larger cities.

"How cool would it be to say, 'Come to Ferndale. We have a shop to build whatever you want,'" Britsky said.

Last year, he and other i3 members helped to lure to Michigan the Maker Faire, the world's largest do-it-yourself festival that features wacky creations, such as a giant Etch-a-Sketch and a computer-powered skeeball machine. The event, also held in New York and California's Bay Area, is scheduled to return to The Henry Ford from July 30-31.

At All Hands Active, a hacker space founded in Ann Arbor two years ago, a diverse bunch of 15 also meet and swap expertise.

"I've been able to get a lot of information and learn things I wouldn't have," said Matt Mayers, a 25-year-old Web developer in Plymouth who said he has learned 3D computer modeling.

cjun@detnews.com

(313) 222-2019

Additional Facts Hacker events

Thursdays Open Hack Night, 8:30 p.m., OmniCorp Detroit, 1501 E. Division, Detroit.
Saturday Metal casting workshop, 1-3 p.m.; i3 Detroit, 1481 Wordsworth, Ferndale; $15 per person.
Sunday Arduino Time, 10 a.m.-Noon, All Hands Active, 525 E. Liberty, Ann Arbor.


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