Geek Tinkerers Gather in "Hacker Spaces"

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by Jennifer Hsu, The Takeaway

The promise of open source can be found in a dull commercial building in downtown Brooklyn. The fruits of this approach -- where people share ideas for others to build on -- are coming out of the laser cutter buzzing away in the corner. Or in the disassembled parts of the robot that automatically served drinks. Or the 3D printer that can build other 3D printers.

The 5th floor office of NYC Resistor is a hacker space, one of scores popping up around the country and hundreds emerging around the world. In Germany, the government subsidizes them. In the U.S., a few people who like to tinker with electronics pool money for a place that lets them keep the circuit boards and soldering irons out of their small apartments. They're creating devices that let you turn off any TV in range of a remote control. They're building giant antennae for ham radio enthusiasts. And then there's the 3D printer.

A 3D printer is exactly what it sounds like. A plain old 2D printer prints letters. This spits out objects you can hold in your hand. Toys, door knobs, jewelry. A couple of these guys have quit their day jobs so they can sell 3D printer kits to people interested in building their own. These people are building objects that build other objects.

In a way, this hacker space is like the MIT media lab without the academic reputation. It draws the best talent in computer engineering and the innovation that emerges in highly valuable. But NYC Resistor - or any other hacker space - does not have the institutional burdens of academia or the profit demands of a company. The main goal is to tinker. Take in people's old ipods and make new machines out of them. Rip out the resistors of discarded monitors and make a box that plays high or low-pitched music based on the weather of the city you select. Point the powerful antenna in the right direciton and talk to ham radio users on the other side of the planet. Bounce the signals off the International space station and if you're lucky, you may get a response from the astronauts on board.

Most of the members of this hacker space have important day jobs. One works for the New York Times in the department charged with designing a newspaper that will survive the 21st century. Another works for a university that might train the next engineers for Google. But all the members pool their skills to teach classes to anyone that wants them Recently a team of Google employees signed up for a lesson.

The amazing part of all this: nobody gets paid. This is just for fun. The social part is paramount, the founders say. They don't even allow members to nominate exes as other members. So no ex-girlfriends, ex-boyfriends, ex-roommates, ex-colleagues. Everyone's got to get along or it just doesn't work. And in case you're wondering, it's not just a bunch of pimply guys. Almost half the members are women and most of the guys have a fashion sense as keen as their soldering skills.

NYC Resistor, and the other hacker spaces around the country, might point to a new model for innovation. One where the best ideas come from the volunteers that play with them. Where the next inventions come from a group of technology enthusiasts just having fun.