Anyone who has immersed themselves in a virtual augmented reality world before is familiar with the underlying principle: It’s really fun to interact with fictitious things in the world on the other side of the glasses. That’s what students in the dual-studies program in electrical engineering and information technology at Siemens thought: so they quickly connected a mixed-reality headset – activated by snapping your fingers – to a Simatic IOT2000 single-board Siemens computer. Data from the connected cloud provides the person wearing the headset with information about their environment.
Hackers and makers: a firm eye on the future
The little girl snaps her fingers and looks in awe. Every direction she turns her head, everywhere in the room she discovers virtual objects and can control them with her gestures. That’s because everything she is looking at is directly connected to the cloud via a mixed-reality headset which allow her to experience for herself how the virtual and real worlds are interconnected.
Trends in the maker scene
Many examples of technical solutions like this can be found in what’s known as the “maker scene.” Annemarie Lötzsch – who is enthralled by both technology and building things – has been familiar with the scene since her student days. “Makers are people who are fascinated by technology and who use things like single-board computers or microcontroller boards to develop solutions for everyday life, education, or smart building technology. It’s part of their way of life to share ideas with each other and tackle projects together.” She adds, “That’s why open-source approaches to software are also very important to them.”
In addition to the Internet of Things, the scene is especially interested in 3D printing. “Many of them use 3D printers to print the parts they need to build their own 3D printer,” says Lötzsch, “and free instructions on how to do that can also be found online.” Makers generally love life-hack applications – in other words, anything that enhances their lives and makes things easier.
The scene is networked all over the world. People go online to hold discussions with other makers and to share, develop, and implement ideas and solutions. According to a survey commissioned by Make and Intel, three-quarters of U.S. makers in the scene are in contact with each other. Almost 60 percent include things other people have built in their projects or put ideas into practice together. Many of them also organize themselves offline in what are known as FabLabs or makerspaces. Open workshops like these allow makers to use expensive modern equipment like 3D printers and laser cutters.
Together at Hack&Make Nuremberg
Rainer Keil, whose in his day job is an engineer at Siemens, spends his time off as an enthusiastic do-it-yourselfer at FabLabs Nürnberg (FabLabs Nuremberg). FabLabs is a non-profit association that for six years has offered makers from different age and professional groups a place where amateur inventors’ dreams can come true. Artists, creatives, teachers, and quite a few engineers gather there to build creative technical solutions according to the motto “If you can draw it, you can build it.”
“A couple of guys recently motorized an armchair, and now they ride it through the corridors,” says Keil. “It’s obviously a fun project. But there’s a lot behind it, and it ultimately also has to work.” The Internet of Things, wireless communication, 3D printing, electromobility: All of the major industrial trends are being discovered and perfected by the group of makers. “An amazing amount of know-how and networking comes from having fun. And that collaboration among the various professions, interest groups, and age groups is very fruitful.”
That’s why Keil was very happy that his employer got to know his FabLab home-away-from-home during the first Hack&Make festival in Nuremberg – which in fact was organized by FabLab Nuremberg. “Everyone in the association thought it was great, and both sides can learn from each other.” The maker scene and private industry should forge a mutually beneficial relationship in the future, says Ralf-Michael Franke, CEO of the Business Unit Factory Automation at Siemens. “I think it’s a great opportunity to encourage people to move from purely creative games to creative design work that adds value. Turning a hobby into work is the best thing that can happen to someone.”
That’s already been a success on a small scale. Some of the students in the dual studies program in electrical engineering and information technology also attended Hack&Make. They were able to look at the Siemens booth through the data glasses they’d developed and snap their fingers to retrieve information on selected displays. It came straight from the bust of Werner von Siemens: The young makers had brought him virtually to life. And so the little boy got a personal explanation of the newest inventions right from the founder of Siemens.