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Science

Hi-tech DIY makes 'making' interactive

"Makers" build gadgets at home using mini-computers. And their growing community is having an impact on the way people think about design and interact with products.

Matthias Rosenthal works at an interactive agency in Cologne, where he develops apps.

But Since 2009, the 28 year old has also been a "maker" - a physical programmer who uses a remote-enabled central processing unit (CPU) to build gadgets.

Being a maker involves plenty of technology and programming, but it's not just for nerds.

"Me and my friends who do this are not the typical nerd types, so we also go out. We do sport, we go snowboarding," Rosenthal told DW.

Makers like to share what they build with their peers in workshops or through online communities.

For one of his projects, Matthias posted a video of a remote-controlled interactive webcam that he had built online.

Using sensors from an Android phone and a CPU, he was able to program the smartphone's camera to follow the movements of any object in front of it. And he was able to control the gadget remotely.

Software developer Matthias Rosenthal's Arduino-based Robot. (Photo: Chipondu Chimbelu)

Rosenthal uses Arduino technology to control his robot

"I like to do it for myself," says Rosenthal, "but it's also cool to get reactions from other people," he says.

Just do it… yourself

As micro-controllers become more widely available, it is becoming easier for people like Rosenthal to build gadgets independently - and in collaboration with like-minded makers - at home.

One of the most popular micro-controllers is the Arduino - a mini-CPU that costs about $16 (12 euros).

Arduino is an open source project that was started by two engineers, Italian Massimo Banzi and David Cuartielles of Spain.

The Arduino community allows people to exchange and share information.

Rosenthal says it is important to be able to turn to other people to find solutions when problems arise.

It is also part of the fun and why the Arduino Project was started.

"It became essentially a platform that other people started to build upon," said co-founder Massimo Banzi at a recent TEDx conference in Berlin.

Banzi cited a remote-controlled helicopter built by a group called DIY Drones, saying the Arduino-powered helicopter, or Arducopter, could one day deliver medicines in villages in Africa.

Chris Anderson founded DIY Drones. He says the maker movement has made it possible makers to develop products that might otherwise never get to the market.

An image of the Rain Room, an installation that simulates rain indoors. Copyright: Felix Clay, Random International

The technology in Matthias' robot is similar to that used to control the Rain Room installation in London

"Innovation [happens] in public with communities, with the kind of consumer and producer being almost the same thing," says Anderson.

Anderson recently stepped down from his position as editor-in-chief of Wired Magazine to run a robotics start-up.

All about the interaction

People working with micro-controllers and mini CPUs are keen for - and inspired by - user interaction.

Hannes Koch is one of designers behind the Barbican's latest art installation - the Rain Room.

Using a CPU to control water pumps, sensors and cameras, the designers created a room in which it rains - but through which visitors can walk without getting wet.

"Our aim is to create these experiences [...] so that we can enjoy people's reactions and to learn from that as well," says Koch.

Koch suggests that the social narrative that develops around an installation like the Rain Room can be more interesting than the installation itself.

This social narrative is essential in bringing the consumer and producer together, and also in drawing support from the public. It can help generate interest for a product before it even reaches the market.

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