OAKLAND -- Whether children were blasting fireballs into the sky or electronics consumers were cracking open broken gadgets and getting them fixed, the message of the East Bay Mini Maker Faire was consistent Sunday: Anybody can do this, and more people should.
More than 2,000 parents, children, crafts people, scientists and artists turned out for the East Bay's first effort at expanding the annual Peninsula event, despite many of the exhibits and activities being held outdoors during the weekend's rains and wind, organizers said. Fire experts built sculptures with gas guns that produced huge flames at the push of a button, to the delight of numerous children, while jugglers offered lessons in their performance art and children rode around on hand-built bicycles.
Exhibitors included circus arts trainers, farmers, machinists, metal forgers, a handful of do-it-yourself incarnations of carnival rides, musicians and instrument builders, inventors, sculptors and bakers.
Oakland artists Sarah Filley and Yvette Molina were on hand to spread word of their proposed installment art project: a 10-foot sphere filled with an enclosed ecosystem of exotic, durable plant life called the Wonderarium, planned to float 150 feet offshore in Lake Merritt.
The Wonderarium would be solar powered to include lighting at night, with cameras installed so residents could see the evolution of plant growth within the man-made environment over time. The plants would be chosen for their heartiness in surviving stormy weather and long droughts.
Michael Winter, who in 1994 took the middleweight champion title in the U.S. Robot Wars, brought a new robot he's been developing to be controlled by a cell phone rather than traditional remote control consoles.
The robot -- named Squirt after its back-mounted, swiveling water gun -- responds to the relatively new capability of smart phones to recognize the angle at which they are being held; tilting the phone forward like the throttle of a plane makes Squirt drive forward, tilting to the side makes it steer, and so on.
It's a technology that Winter said anyone can begin playing with -- a philosophy indicated, perhaps, by his daughter Lisa's projects.
The exhibit was a true family affair, as Steve Winter -- brother and uncle to Mike and Lisa, respectively -- brought out some of his own toys, built from inexpensive Italian computer parts from a company called Arduino, known in the maker community for being inexpensive and highly adaptable to respond to physical stimuli such as distance from other objects and light sources. One project served as an alarm against his cat jumping on the kitchen counter (dubbed "Counter Intelligence"); another allowed a person to play with music using two receptors sensitive to light, tweaking the pitch and volume of music in response to what the user shines on them.
"To me, it's like if you ask, what's the coolest thing you did all year?" Steve Winter, 50, said. "Well, it probably wasn't seeing 'Avatar.' Unless you got married or something, I'd say it's some cool thing you built, even if it's silly and doesn't work perfectly."
In the Fix-It Clinic, run by East Bay gadgeteers Peter Mui and Jeff Williams, attendees brought in broken household items and tried to have them repaired. Mui and Williams have done only a few such clinics, Williams said, but their success rate is about 75 percent and they encourage consumers to become more empowered with the objects they own.
"In the days of the Model-T Ford, they were selling those to farmers, and there were no fix-it shops," Williams said. "People learned how to fix their own belongings. We'd like to encourage manufacturers to go back to building products that last forever, like they used to, but we're just two guys -- we can't make any real impact there. So instead we're trying to help wake people up, as consumers, to how much they can do on their own."
The duo seemed to be finding success Sunday. One woman, while picking apart the frame of a nonfunctioning mobile phone, said, "I'm just enthusiastic about fixing this damn thing."
Faire organizer Sabrina Merlo said that despite the rain, turnout was beyond expectations and the event definitely will return next year. For more information, go to http://ebmakerfaire.wordpress.com.
Contact Sean Maher at 510-208-6430.