By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, April 19, 2009
At a recent HacDC get-together, Tim Collins displays his latest toy to a visitor. It's a microcontroller, a $6 mini-computer on a chip smaller than his thumb. "This has more computing capacity than my first computer, which cost thousands of dollars," he observes.
Microcontrollers are the glue that holds the consumer electronics world together, used in everything from kitchen appliances to cars. These days, the parts are cheap enough so that tech enthusiasts like Collins can afford to play with them as a hobby, but they're also still complex enough that you might need help if you want to use one to build, say, your own personal robot. And that's where having access to the collective brains of the HacDC membership comes in handy.
HacDC, based out of a church in Columbia Heights, is a sort of a co-op space for tinkerers, with about 25 members paying monthly dues of $50 to rent out the 600-square-foot space. For the money, members get round-the-clock access to the space and its collection of donated tools. Non-members are also welcome to hang out.
These guys are hackers, perhaps, but not in the bad, steal-your-passwords meaning of the word. Hacking, in the HacDC sense, refers to the act of tearing into the latest technology to build or do something not originally intended by a device's creators. A couple of years ago, I wrote about a guy who'd figured out how to wirelessly control his Roomba vacuum cleaner with a Nintendo DS. That's the sort of activity we're talking about here.
"Hacking is about discovering possibilities," said Nick Farr, the group's founder. "It's what Benjamin Franklin did. It's what Thomas Edison did."
Whenever somebody shows up at the HacDC clubhouse, a microcontroller connected up to a light and a motion detector in the room sends a signal to the group's Twitter feed. That way, if other members were thinking of stopping by, they'll know to expect company. Members say that the social and intellectual benefits of spending time with like-minded tech hobbyists are as much of a draw as the workspace itself. If you're hitting a roadblock on your latest project, the chances are good that somebody else in the group will be able to help.
While the group has a few regular events and meetings centered around technology-related topics, "Microcontroller Monday" has become one of the most popular. On a recent evening, one member showed off how he has sliced open the cord from a Wii's motion-detecting controller and connected it to some electronic circuitry stashed inside an Altoids tin. When he plugs in a battery and waves the controller, the device hums out a changing set of tones. It's an experimental music instrument, sort of like a theremin, says creator Todd Fine, who works as a nuclear policy analyst. Another member shows off his small remote control car, equipped with a video camera and built out of spare parts.
Many HacDC members are techies by trade, but not all. Farr is an accountant in his day job and now spends his spare time traveling around the country helping a growing wave of similar tech clubs, known sometimes as "hacker spaces," fill out the right paperwork in order to establish themselves as nonprofit entities.
Farr got the idea for HacDC a couple of years ago. After attending a hacker camp held on a former Soviet air base near Berlin, he and some of his buddies traveled around Europe visiting a few tech-enthusiast clubs that are popular in Germany. He admired their sense of community, and longed for something similar back home.
"I thought, 'Oh, this is what we're missing in the United States,' " Farr said. As soon as they got back to the United States, Farr and his like-minded compatriots got to work: A Brooklyn-based hacker space called NYC Resistor opened first, followed shortly by HacDC, which turns one year old this month. According to the site Hackerspaces.org, there are about 50 such clubs across the country.
HacDC is growing, too. The group already has added a new 800-square-foot basement space, also at the church, where it plans to stash more heavy duty equipment.
In an effort to connect with the community, HacDC has a few socially minded projects in the works. The group is set to equip the church space for WiFi access this week, and it already offers classes in electronics and programming that are open to the public. The group is also working on a free WiFi network that would cover the neighborhood.
Collins, meanwhile, has turned back to his microcontroller and turned on a soldering gun. As the smell of hot metal blends with the aroma of another member's Chinese takeout food, he offers a thought that sounds as if it could be the group's philosophy.
"It's about taking control of technology, rather than taking what the consumer electronics industry decides to give you," Collins said. "I believe you need to take control of technology -- or it controls you."