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'Hacker' collective dreams of machines - then builds them

By Chen Nan | China Daily | Updated: 2012-04-27 09:37

Related: Innovation station

A robotic painter propels itself across the wall of a hidden underground room of the China Millennium Monument Museum of Digital Arts (CMoDA).

A pink robotic claw machine with no controls sits in a corner. The softly lit room is permeated by an acrid odor emanating from plastics and wires.

A dozen youths chat, type on laptops and tug at tangles of wire over the tables covered with assorted tools and microchips.

"We need lasers!" someone shouts.

The schedule hangs on the wall beneath the words: "Let's play with technology."

'Hacker' collective dreams of machines - then builds them

The self-proclaimed "hacker collective" Beijing Maker Space has been staying in the 200-square-meter space for nearly a month. From 9 am until 4 am the next day, they work in the room, which they call "the lab", preparing for the upcoming event, Maker Carnival - China's first global mass creation and open-source share fair. The event will kick off on Saturday and run until mid-May.

The collective has recruited about 60 people from around the country since its founding in January 2011.

Members are called "chuangke", or, "makers". The term might sound strange to outsiders but makes sense upon viewing their works.

"Some call us nerds or geeks," Beijing Maker Space's cofounder Wang Shenglin says, giggling. "Actually, we're inventors, who have creative ideas and put them into practice. They can be as simple as tie-dyed fabric or as complicated as a 3D camera."

The 24-year-old Renmin University business graduate from Shanghai has joined forces with programmer and hardware enthusiast Xiao Wenpeng. Xiao founded Beijing Maker Space as a cooperative lab for techies to build their dream machines.

"Some people go to the gym. Others go to nightclubs. We build a creative community for nerds," says Xiao, who worked for an IT company before starting the collective.

It's like a frat house for modern-day mad scientists.

Outside the collective's home near Xuanwumen subway station is the bustling Xidan commercial street, where hipsters shop for the latest fashions.

"Some designs were considered too nerdy," Xiao says. "But they fit in here."

One project they have worked on is the 3D printer.

The idea of such collectives, Wang and Xiao explain, is to encourage social innovation and develop the open-source hardware ecosystem by building physical and online communities where people can learn, share and work on projects using interactive design.

They believe such sharing speeds innovation.

"People believe 'hacker' is a synonym for 'criminal'," Wang says. "Here, we share knowledge, and copyrights aren't a problem."

CMoDA exhibition director Yang Lei says the show will focus on visitor interaction. It will be divided into five parts devoted to work, life, communication, entertainment and society.

There are more than 1,000 similar collectives around the world, Yang says. China has five in such cities as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong province's Shenzhen.

Yang viewed works by Beijing Shijingshan Primary School students during the event's preparation.

"Their works are simple but creative," Yang says.

"I believe the fair will bring the concept of realizing creative ideas closer to ordinary people."

Organizers have invited some international "makers", including San Francisco-based hacker and inventor Mitch Altman, who's best known for inventing TV-B-Gone remote controls.

"The plan is to touch enthusiasts and critics alike," says Central Academy of Fine Arts' design lab professor Wang Chunyan, who also leads China's knowledge-sharing project, Creative Commons.

Two of Wang's students will show their works at the event.

"Designers often work in a vacuum but can get ideas from feedback," Wang says.

"The popular TV show Big Bang Theory also entices many Chinese fans. Perhaps we all want to explore the complexities of being a nerd."

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