Recap: January Dinner with Natalie Silvanovich

A new year and a new Dinner! On the 29th, we got together at the Communitech Hub to get our creativity on and maybe get a little inspired, thanks to Natalie Silvanovich. She presented Doing It Yourself: How You Can Make and How Hackerspaces Can Help. Natalie has an Electrical Engineering degree, a hacker by day (though her job title says “Security Researcher”), a founding member of Kitchener’s Kwartzlab, and an experienced maker with projects often involving LEDs and Tamagotchis.

Natalie started off by explaining what making is, which is pretty broad. But basically it boils down to DIY culture on steroids, frequently fueled by technology. Practicality is important in the skills you learn, but creativity is more important in application, and not all maker projects need to be for something. The goals of making are to learn and use new skills, invent and play in an environment that provides tools, materials, and usually expertise in the form of other members. Mentorship and collaboration is always welcome and encouraged. Hackerspace members work on a wide range of projects, including, at Kwartzlab: electronics, programming, computer hacking, wood and metal-working, costuming, cooking, clock-making, metal casting, photography, crafts, sets and props, and art.

Hackerspaces (makerspaces, hacklabs, creative spaces, etc…) are, by extension, the places where the DIY-inclined do their thang. They are a combination of lab and workshop (and sometimes kitchen). Often the big equipment is there (laser cutters, CNC machines, 3D printers, etc.) as well as smaller items. Some hackerspaces are focused much more on computer hacking, and others are focused on things — building and tweaking physical stuff. There’s space to work and store projects, and the aforementioned other members to collaborate with, ask questions of, or to just share your triumphs and tribulations when things don’t go quite as planned. (We got the impression that this happening is not uncommon…)

Natalie shared three of her projects, beginning with an LED-enhanced purse that would flash on the outside in different colours depending on whether or not she had a phone call, email, text, etc. coming in. The basis of this (besides a purse) was a Lilypad Arduino, Bluetooth, and some wiring. Judging by the group’s reaction, she could have sold a bunch of those then and there.

The next was Tamagotchi hacking, with the goal of learning how Tamagotchis worked inside and out, making them do other things, including cheating at the things they were supposed to do, and making them do entirely new things. While Natalie has had considerable success bending Tamagotchis to her will, her quest continues to dump their code and dominate their will completely. Apparently they’ve become considerably more complex than the eating and dying variants of the 90s. Who knew? 🙂

The third project was a really cool set of custom coasters she made as a wedding gift using Plexiglas, paint, and a laser cutter. Using photos of the happy couple to start, and working in layers of painting and etching, she ended up with unique, Warhol-esque images on each coaster (though with a few snags along the way…)

So, why get into projects like these? Obviously the number one reason is fun! Even the disasters can turn out to be pretty interesting or at least lead to funny stories. (And there are always disasters.) Second is the learning — new skills, better problem solving, improving your job prospects, flexing different parts of your brain (especially for us desk jockeys). Next is meeting great people. Everyone you’ll meet at hackerspaces is into something, so you’ll be exposed to endless new and smart ideas and skills. Some of those people will be into things you are. Who knows what you could accomplish together? And, of course, you’ll get to make and do cool stuff. The real world tends to be very boxed up and consistent. Hackerspaces are your chance to make your stuff be and do whatever you want. Or to create awesome things that have never existed before.

Getting started shouldn’t be intimidating at all. No experience or existing skills needed. You don’t even need to know what you want to work on first. Go online, read about projects or types of skills that might interest you. Join online maker forums and read blogs. Buy kits. Visit (and join) a hackerspace. Just do it!

For those in the KW area, Kwartzlab is moving into its new, larger space at 33 Kent Ave. in Kitchener at the corner of Charles and Kent. On February 16th they’re having their grand opening open house starting at 11am. Everyone is welcome to come down and check it out! Additionally, every Tuesday at 7pm they have an open night when all are welcome to come in and have a look around. There are around 36 members, 3000 square feet of space, and lots of equipment and projects to spark your imagination.

For those outside of KW, you can check out DIYode in Guelph, Think|Haus in Hamilton, and Site 3 and HackLab.TO in Toronto.

Many thanks to Natalie for coming out and sharing the world of making and hacking with us. I know more than a few people were definitely intrigued. You can take a look at the slides from the presentation here.

Stay tuned for info on our February KW Girl Geek Dinner, or hey, just join our mailing list to be kept abreast of all of our goings-on.

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