Just a few more days… and it’s Maker Faire Time! I know a lot of geek dads and moms make the trek each year to attend what is called The Greatest Show (And Tell) On Earth, and there’s are solid reasons for it. Two days of open-mouthed staring and double-takes. Two days of access to experts (self-taught and otherwise), makers, inventors, tinkerers, dreamers, builders, hackers, and hobbyists. Two days of sightseeing, hands-on activities, and pure surprises.
The original Maker Faire will take place in San Mateo, California this weekend, and if you have the ability to be there, be there. If you’re on the fence, why? If you’re an experienced Maker Faire attendee, you already know what to expect, but if you’ve never attended, I’d like to offer up some suggestions that can help ensure you have a great and safe time, learn a lot, and don’t miss anything. I’d like to also welcome comments with any additional advice you’d care to offer newcomers, so please contribute your thoughts and suggestions.
Start with a backpack and fill it with at least a handful of items that will help you survive the two-day event — sunscreen, a hat, and a light jacket. On my first visit, I was surprised (coming from Atlanta) to find the mornings very chilly, almost cold. San Francisco weather surprised me, and I was thankful that a friend warned me to take a light jacket. It warms up quick, too, and shade is a valuable commodity — sunscreen and a hat are highly recommended. Fill that backpack with some pens and pencils because you may find yourself needing to write down websites, email addresses, and more. Bring a water bottle — there are places where you can fill it up. Wear comfortable shoes — seriously. You will be walking a lot, and even with comfortable shoes, Sunday morning my ankles and feet were a little sore from the previous day.
Familiarize Yourself With The Program/Map
You can download a short Program Guide and a map here. On site, you’ll also be able to buy a larger, thicker Program (like the 2011 version shown in the photo below) that will provide you with much more detail, including speakers, standout booths, interviews, and more. In past years, the Program was $5, but it might have increased in price this year. The last few guides included a complete listing of all booths along with their location, so consult the map. You’re first instinct when you get there is to just start walking and looking, and that’s fine… but at some point take a 10-15 minute break and look through the Program just so you’ll have a solid overview of just about everything there is to see. (And there are always surprises that pop up unannounced, so don’t expect everything to be included in the Program.)
The County Event Center where the Maker Faire is held is huge… and spread out. Scan the map and identify the key locations where larger collections of events and booths will be held — Expo Hall, Fiesta Hall, Tesla Stage, Maker Shed, Maker Square, Center Stage, and South Lot. If you’re coming with a family or group of friends, identify one location on the map and agree to make that your meet-up spot at certain times of the day.
Kids Safety And Maker Faire
The size of the crowds can be a bit overwhelming, especially to young kids, so make certain they know what to do and who to look for in an emergency — most every official Maker Faire worker will have some sort of easy to spot badge. There are three entrances to Maker Faire — West Gate, South Gate, and East Gate. Instruct your children that under no circumstances should they exit the Faire without you. There will be people manning the gates, but it’s not their job to watch for adults or kids coming and going — don’t chance it. If your kids are old enough to wander on their own, just remind them to be safe, check in occasionally, and never leave the park with anyone. (I also know there’s a Child Tracker station near each of the three gates, but I’ve not every taken kids to the event so I’m not 100% certain what this is about — commenters, please chime in if you know – thanks!)
If you’re looking for one great spot dedicated to kids and hands-on activities, be sure to hunt down the Sequoia building that will be hosting the Young Makers & Activities. I remember this being quite the hot spot in previous years. Also, once again, the Learn to Solder booth will be up and running — parents are welcome, too. Spend a few bucks buying this year’s tiny circuit and sit down and get a lesson in soldering. You’ll walk away with something unique to pin on your badge or bag.
The Maker SHED is one place you must visit at some point. (I tend to find myself in there half a dozen times or more over the two days.) It’s full of books, kits, gizmos, demonstrations, and tons of experts who are usually found around the inside perimeter of the building demonstrating a kit or talking about a book they wrote or just answering questions. I’m not kidding when I say you can go in the Maker SHED and lose a few hours of your day!
If you should find something you like at Maker SHED, grab it there and save some shipping costs. Should you end up with a larger than normal collection of books and kits and other stuff, I do remember seeing a few UPS and FedEX offices in the nearby area where you can slow-boat ship your stuff home if you’re flying out and want to avoid any extra airline fees.
If you’ve had your eye on any kits seen in the Make magazine, this is your chance to usually see the kit opened and on display… and sometimes a Maker SHED worker will be building one at scheduled times — it’s a great way to see a kit up close and get your questions answered.
The Maker Faire Mobile App
I mentioned the Program earlier, but if you’ll have a mobile phone (iPhone or Android) with you, grab the free Maker Faire app. It’s not showing anything right now, but at some point between today and Saturday morning, they’ll flip a switch and all the activities will be uploaded and you can search for events, find booths, and even set reminders for events such as speakers or demonstrations. Link is here.
The early-bird pricing is over, but if you haven’t bought your tickets yet, go ahead and do so and avoid a line. They’ve got a pretty good deal if you’re not already a Make magazine subscriber, so check out the 6-issue subscription (one year) plus one-day ticket for only $40. You can find pricing here.
Food and Drink
There’s no shortage of vendors for food and drinks, and they’re scattered all over the grounds, but in the last few years the majority of them seem to be located near the Midway area with its large, open grassy area and tables and chairs. Lines definitely get long for some of the more popular food vendors, so just keep an eye out and be prepared for a good wait around the lunchtime hour.
And please, drink lots of water — I’ve seen a few individuals over the years being treated (I believe) for heat exhaustion or maybe dehydration. You’re going to be walking and walking, talking and talking, and walking some more. Eat, drink, and be merry. And then drink some more water.
One of my favorite things to do at Maker Faire is take a rest in the cool and shaded Pavilion area and listen to some of the most amazing speakers share about all sorts of things. These are free to attend, but some of them can get quite crowded and seating is often all gone and standing room only. Check out the speakers here (including all the other stages where speakers can be found — Make: Live, Make: Electronics, Make: Education, Maker Pro, and Maker Square — six stages in all!), and make note of the times of their talks. If you’re using the mobile app, you can use it to flag those speakers you want to visit and get a reminder.
Note: Really looking forward to Kevin Kelly’s talk (see my review of his Cool Tools book here) and hoping I can get him to sign my copy of his book. Also hoping to get “Science Bob” to sign my sons’ copy of his Nick and Tesla book — I may take all three books, but that’s a lot to carry. Also, my friend Rick Schertle will be giving a talk on his new air rocket kit — my sons and their friends have enjoyed the original air rocket launcher as well as his update from paper rockets to foam rockets… and now I can’t wait to see this new (and easier to build) design.
Maker Faire is all about the makers, and you need to prepare yourself for information overload. Over 300 makers will be on display just in the Expo Hall! From robots to LEGO to rockets to bikes to hackerspaces to Tesla coils, if this is your first visit… you’re going to have a grin a mile wide when the weekend ends.
I wouldn’t even know which direction to start pointing you, but be absolutely certain to check out ArcAttack on the Tesla Stage for live demonstrations of electricity at its most dangerous and loudest. Live demos of Diet Coke and Mentos seems to be on the schedule again this year and I’m sure those guys have something surprising in store as they have every year. Be sure to check out Innovation Stage inside the Expo Hall for a number of other speakers (not the same ones found at Center Stage) who will be giving live demos and talks about all sorts of topics related to the Maker Movement.
Taking Notes, Sharing Information
One of my favorite things to do on the long plane ride home after Maker Faire is to go through all the brochures, business cards, pamphlets, and other handouts that I collected during the event. If you’re a maker, you’re going to meet a LOT of people, and you’re going to have shared a lot of contact info as well.
One of my favorite things to do is to purchase a hardback version of the Maker’s Notebook (shown below) from the Maker SHED and use it to collect everything in one place (the paperback version will work, but won’t hold up to the abuse I inflict during the Faire). I take notes, write down email addresses, and even get signatures of some maker celebs. I’ve gotten some strange looks when I pull out tape and tape a business card or brochure or postcard into a page… my goal is to have a scrapbook of all the contacts and booths I visited and wish to remember. I leave spaces for photographs I take to eventually be glued in as well. There’s a folder in the back to hold loose items, too. (The Maker’s Notebooks are also usually on sale in the SHED, so I always grab 2-3 that last me through the year.)
Whatever you do, definitely have a notebook or journal to write it all down. And don’t make the mistake I’ve made in the past — if it’s important, take a minute or two and write it down NOW. I know I’ve left a number of booths with questions on my mind, but didn’t write them down so I could follow-up later with that very useful email that was provided to me. I know I’ve also forgotten some products that I didn’t have time to buy or investigate at the time, and then couldn’t recall a name or even a reason I was interested. Argh.
I’ve consulted a number of individuals about their plan of attack when it comes to Maker Faire — head to Expo Hall first? Or head straight to the SHED before the inevitable specials are all sold out? Maybe head to the outdoor events first while it’s cooler outside and then go indoors when the sun is beating down? One suggestion is to do a fast walkthrough of Expo Hall initially and make a note or reminder to come back later to spend more time at booths you really want to investigate deeper. There’s plenty of time in a day to see everything, but you’ll quickly find while lingering at a booth that the time flies by quicker than you imagined.
Another suggestion (and the one I find myself following) is to go booth to booth and take a good look. If the booth is light on traffic and you’re interested, talk now… because later the people manning the booth may be swamped. Because I attend both days (Saturday and Sunday), I often use Saturday to discover it all and Sunday to return to those areas that I really want to spend my time. If you’re only going for a single day, you’ve got your work cut out for you — that’s why I highly suggest scanning the Program and the list of Makers (see above) to find those folks you really want to hunt down and have a chat with. The day is over before you know it!
* If you’re attending both days, just relax… you’ve got PLENTY of time to catch it all. You might consider tackling one area at a time — Expo Hall, first, for example, followed by the South Lot. I highly recommend covering an entire area before leaving, just so you know what’s there.
* If you’re only attending one day, you’re going to have to hustle to see it all. Try to plan your trip ahead of time — this probably means scanning the list of Makers and Speakers and deciding beforehand what you MUST see versus what you would LIKE to see. Remember the hours — Saturday is 10am to 8pm and Sunday is 10am to 6pm. On both days, they’re pretty good at herding everyone out, too.
* Charge your phone! You may luck out and find a spare outlet here or there, and I seem to recall one booth that offered a charging station a few year’s back, but there’s no guarantee. Taking lots of photos with your phone and using the mobile app are going to drain your battery, so try to arrive with a full charge.
* There are ATMs scattered all over the place, but save some fees and grab some cash before you head in. Whatever you estimate you’ll need in cash… double it.
* Get Geek-Prepared! I don’t mess around — I’ve got a map already printed out and various numbers written on it that correspond to my Cheat Sheet that lists all those speakers and booths that are on my MUST VISIT list. I’ll use the app, but I also plan on having a backup schedule that’s taped into the back of my Maker Notebook with a listing of the times and locations of special events and speakers.
If this is your first time attending Maker Faire, have a GREAT time… just enjoy every minute of it. My first Faire flew by and I went unprepared and still had a great time, even though I know I missed so much. Take these suggestions as well as any offered by commenters, and really have fun and enjoy the sights and sounds and tastes. See you in a few days, makers!