White House Maker Faire showcases offbeat innovations


President Obama examines a robotic giraffe with Lindsay Lawlor of San Diego during the White House Maker Faire on Wednesday. The event showcased a series of projects by students, entrepreneurs and others using technology to create offbeat innovations. (Mike Theiler / Pool/EPA)

Before President Obama began extolling the virtues of the high-tech tinkerers who took over much of the White House complex Wednesday, he had just one grievance to air: why the seat of government in the United States would be sponsoring an event featuring Middle English spelling.

“Let me start off by saying, the only thing that I asked my staff about is why is there an ‘E’ at the end of ‘faire,’ ” he told the audience in the East Room, referring to the “Maker Faire” he was in the midst of hosting. “I mean, I wasn’t sure — is there jousting? Do we all have to get dressed up, or what? So I’m just warning you — next year, the ‘E”’may be gone. I don’t know exactly who came up with that. This is America — we don’t have E’s at the end of ‘air.’ ”

The room erupted into a round of patriotic applause, and more laughter. “I’m just saying,” Obama added.

There were no large turkey legs on offer, or goblets brimming with mead wine as spectators toured a series of exhibits featuring offbeat innovations. But anytime you have a marshmallow cannon creator in the house, and a guy in shorts and Keen shoes is teaching people how to make music by tapping bananas hooked up to a laptop, it’s time to trot out some quaint British references.

“This is like a Renaissance Fair,” said Sherry Huss, vice president of Maker Media, whose group helps organize such gatherings and who was on hand Wednesday. “There’s a sense of community.”

On the spelling, Huss added: “We agree to disagree on this one. We think the ‘E’ should stay.” (To bolster her argument, Huss noted that the verb “to make” in French is “faire.”)

Every now and then, the White House puts on an event that manages to combine the height of geekiness with a somewhat hipster feel. It’s what happens when the band Ok Go shoots a video promising to actually make something for the event (though it didn’t), and when the leader of the free world talks to Russell the Electric Giraffe. “Look at this!” Obama said, gazing at the 17-foot-high, 2,200-pound steel creature on wheeled legs, as its mouth opened and closed and its neck swayed side to side. “I like those ears.”

The president checked out other inventions, as well, including a blue, biodiesel-fueled sports car designed by high school students in West Philadelphia, and a briefcase 3-D printer. In the East Room after the tour, Obama stood beside a 3-D-printed sculpture of his State of the Union address, which had turned peaks in sound waves into rippled plastic.

“Clearly, there could have been some edits right there in the middle,” he joked, peering over it. “The sculpture clearly goes on too long.”

Many of the participants were visibly excited: Simon Hauger, whose students designed the biodiesel car, said: “It’s amazing. It’s surreal.”

But one young man — Joey Hudy, a 17-year-old from Anthem, Ariz. — said that on this trip, he had become “numb” to the idea that he was once again at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. After all, he first met Obama 21 / 2 years ago at the White House Science Fair, and had returned to sit in the first lady’s box at this year’s State of the Union. (“Joey, you have grown!” Michelle Obama remarked, according to his mother, Julie.)

This time, Hudy — who landed an internship at Intel after he met the company’s chief executive at a Maker Faire in Rome — brought a 10-by-10-by-10-inch RGB LED cube, which boasted dozens of Intel Quark processors and glowed in a series of alternating colors.

The president gave a shout out to Hudy, noting that “he’s probably the only person who was ever allowed to fire a marshmallow in the White House,” because he got to demonstrate his cannon back in 2012.

“There’s still a stain from where the marshmallow hit. It was scary,” Obama recalled. “The thing just went out a little — you don’t want to be at the receiving end of that marshmallow.”

The cannon contraption wasn’t quite that fierce, Hudy noted. And he said that he considered his new cube even better because it was so alluring.

“I don’t usually make things that look pretty,” he said.

And although Hudy stands out here because of his youth, in other ways he symbolizes how the market is changing. Jay Melican — who holds the title of “maker czar” at Intel and is Hudy’s boss — said that the company not only recruits at the Maker Faires it sponsors, but it also has started hiring from art and design schools.

“We’ve broadened the scope of the types of people we’re looking at,” Melican said. “These guys are as qualified as some of the guys coming out of engineering programs.”

With unconventional recruiting comes creative dressing. Jay Silver, who worked for Intel in the past — and whose “MaKey MaKey” invention allows users to tap into the conductive nature of everyday objects to manipulate computers — wore a T-shirt and shorts to the event.

“This is my business casual,” said Silver, adding that part of the promise of the maker movement is that it means we can live in a world “not designed by the White House, but one designed by seven billion people. That’s a beautiful thing.”

The president hinted at that revolutionary fervor when he described how some of this do-it-yourself experimentation had produced an inexpensive incubator for newborns.

“It gives you a sense that we are at the dawn of something big,” Obama said. “In the same way that we were at that time reorganizing how we could use data and information, we are now at a point where we’re going to be able to reorganize how we think about making things and marrying the information revolution to what’s been an analog manufacturing system.

“And it’s incredibly exciting and we’re at the cutting edge of it, but we’ve got to make sure that we continue to be at the cutting edge of it.”

Still, Obama had one more minor objection to raise.

“I have to ask: What on Earth have you done to my house?”

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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