High-tech tinkerers on the rise

From building robots to creating software apps, a DIY movement is taking root in Singapore
By Grace Chua
The Straits Times, May 05, 2011

REUSE. Repair. Repurpose.

This is the rallying cry of a growing number of DIY enthusiasts here who put hands and mind together to make robots, phone chargers or 3-D printers from scratch.

Others plug into the challenge of solving problems by writing software applications in 24-hour group hackathons.

Here, hacking refers not to cybercrime but white-hat hacking – tapping into programming smarts to create legal applications.

Engineer Limor Fried, founder of DIY electronics kit company Adafruit, explained to Wired magazine recently that the DIY movement has taken off because of easy access to cheap technology and clear instructions online.

She noted too that society is at a ‘sweet spot’ where people want to make things for themselves and their friends.

And in this pursuit of forming and transforming, throwing things away is out but repairing and reconfiguring them is in.

‘I end up hogging stuff and my wife gets fed up,’ said engineer Benjamin Khoo, 34, whose tiny storeroom in his flat is filled with spare parts.

Tinkering with spare parts may be a spare-time activity but it could also yield new commercially valuable technologies.

‘Yes, it is a hobby, but in the same way that ham radio was a hobby – people were just experimenting with packet radio. But that led to Wi-Fi and cellphones,’ said Ms Fried in an interview with the magazine last month.

Locally, tech consultant Adrianna Tan, 25, believes Singapore has a critical mass of people dabbling in tech projects – at least software ones.

‘Although we’ve had grants and start-ups for some time now, I think South-east Asia has finally started to emerge from the tech backwaters to where it is now – increasingly prominent.’

Singapore benefits from its location too, she added – it is a good base from which to reach South-east and East Asia.

For example, Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin and Mr Derek Sivers, founder of indie-music site CD Baby, are based here and add to the local tech community.

Hardware tinkerers based here have produced a range of items from things as simple as a toothbrush holder to a standing fan made by cobbling together five large computer fans.

In 2008, a team of robotics enthusiasts even got to the final round of a defence robotics competition here, fielding their $8,000 homemade robot against university teams with $300,000 machines.

Elsewhere, the DIY movement is also on a roll.

The US magazine Make, launched in 2005, began organising a DIY event called Maker Faire in 2006, and this has since spread to Britain and several US cities.

Here, hackathons have been held at Nanyang Technological University.

The SuperHappyDevHouse ‘hackfest’ and party, an event that started in Silicon Valley, will be held on May 14 at multipurpose space The Pigeonhole on Duxton Road.

DIY enthusiasts are also flocking to Hackerspace, a clubhouse for tinkerers and hackers in a Bussorah Street shophouse.

Since its inception in late 2009, Hackerspace now has a 300-strong mailing list and has grown from an initial 24 members to more than 60.

They pay between $32 and $512 for using the space, from a casual basis to permanent access seven days a week.

But the path to DIY nirvana in Singapore is not without some potholes.

The country does not have readily available tooling shops to custom-make parts and few homes have a garage space to tinker in.

Shipping in parts from overseas is also prohibitively expensive for some.

Still, the biggest obstacle to the DIY movement’s growth here is the local attitude to consumption.

As Mr Khoo put it: ‘We have a ‘use and throw’ culture. Sometimes because the DIY output is not as ‘swee’ (‘attractive’ in Hokkien) as the commercial thing, people would rather not make their own items.’

Additional reporting by Lester Kok

Hacker hideouts

Hackerspace SG, 70A Bussorah Street
Singapore’s first clubhouse specifically for hackers was set up in late 2009. It hosts meetings, talks and activities.

The Pigeonhole, 52-53 Duxton Road
Primarily a cafe and multipurpose arts space for open mic nights and talks, it will host the SuperHappyDevHouse hackfest and party on May 14. Sign up at http://www.shdh.sg

Tree Wizard workshop, #02-93 Bras Basah Complex
If you need access to a laser cutter ($40 per half hour), or some model-making advice, the workshop, named after the tiny, delicate trees used in architects’ models, is the place to go to.

Connecting hackers with each other:
The Connections.SG portal

Biology is not only for trained scientists

DR DENISA Kera is not trained in biology but that has not stopped her from starting a group of DIY biologists.

For an idea of what they are cooking up, consider their putting together of a ‘genetic dinner’, based on individual genetic profiles.

Someone susceptible to alcoholism might drink less wine, for instance. Others with a different genetic variation might avoid fava beans which give them anaemia.

‘Interest in anything to do with food in Singapore is huge, of course,’ said Dr Kera, a communications and new media assistant professor at the National University of Singapore.

The DIYBio movement has its roots in Boston in the United States. About three years ago, a handful of science enthusiasts formed a network to pursue biology in their free time, with projects such as extracting and replicating DNA, or using green fluorescent protein – the stuff that makes jellyfish glow – in various art pieces.

Since then, small groups have set up shop in places like Brooklyn’s Genspace, typically splitting the rent and peer-reviewing each other’s work to make sure the projects are safe.

In Singapore, DIYBio enthusiasts have no permanent home yet, and are looking for a critical mass of members.

‘I think it’s important for science’ to rope in adult hobbyists interested in biology, said Dr Kera.

She likened the movement to the early days of personal computers – access to low-cost PCs enabled more people to tinker with the machine and democratised information technology.

DIYBio projects have cropped up in other South-east Asian countries as well. In Indonesia, a Yogyakarta art collective called House of Natural Fiber has put together a simple kit to brew and distil alcohol safely from local fruit.

The project was a response to new tax laws that raised the price of alcohol, causing people to experiment – sometimes with lethal results – with distilling and brewing their own drinks.

Pointing the way without taking over

ADULT DIY hobbyists have said nurturing their children’s interest in tinkering is much harder today than before.

Engineer Junior Tan, 39, recalled taking apart clocks 30 years ago and playing with the Gakken EX, a toy electronics kit for children.

‘The kind of electronics we have these days is more complex, so the kind of tinkering we used to do is a lot harder. The bar has risen,’ said Mr Tan, who has a six-year-old son.

Fellow DIY fan Benjamin Khoo, 34, who has two daughters aged six and seven, said he took apart his family’s TV set as a child.

But it is harder and harder to find spare parts to build things with these days, lamented Mr Khoo.

So how do they encourage their children to experiment and tinker? The answer: lead by example.

For instance, he could easily load games on his iPad for the girls. Instead, he helps them draw ‘road maps’ on the tablet computer and they put their toy cars on the ‘roads’.

Tools such as the iPad do not necessarily kill creativity, he said. It is what you do with them that matters.

Mr Tan said his son is now used to the idea of improvising to solve problems.

For instance, the boy wanted to attach a propeller to a wooden stick. He tried to do it with a twist tie, but failed, and finally succeeded with mouldable ‘friendly plastic’ material.

But adults have to be careful they do not take over their children’s projects, both parents said.

Mr Tan, who helped his son to design a toy car, realised after some time that he was ‘trying to make the perfect car’.

‘My wife was very angry with me. She said, ‘He’s six years old. At his age, cars should fly.”

One response to “High-tech tinkerers on the rise

  1. Is this Benji of Kilo studios?

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