Hackerspace on Treasure Hill

Visiting FabLab Taipei and OpenLab Taipei

Though I griped about Chinese internet censorship, FabLab Taipei was the real reason I hopped on a plane for a detour the last few days of my trip. Their facebook group is always sharing amazing projects and a video I saw at Fab11 of their Maker Faire showed a big, active, and creative community. I messaged the group the day before I arrived but didn’t hear back, so I got in touch the old fashioned way and showed up at their door.

I was greeted by a man named Sega Liu, who was working on his iteration of a fold-up 3D printer. He gave me a tour of the multi-room facility, which was punctuated by a number of surprising projects: incredible corrugated cardboard & resin surfboard (Ah cardboard, always reminds me of home), intricate laser cut wood paneling and an impressive cardboard-folded giant frog mask. The lab was stocked with capable machines, including an assortment of 3D printers, the familiar Roland circuitboard milling machine, and a very heavy duty CNC machine that doesn’t get much use (it runs the unfortunate Roland software, though it accepts plain text serial data not so different from GCode, so perhaps the more modern & open source ChiliPeppr could be modified to control it.) There’s a sizable laser cutter, lots of electronics equipment, and in the basement: a comprehensive wood-shop.

I felt immediately at home in the space, which had a lot in common with CUCFabLab: it is open to the community relatively late at night (every day 6–10PM), has every machine you could possibly need to make awesome stuff, and a lot of the furniture, well, has a hand-me-down feel (which I like better than the try-not-to-scratch-the-table newness of some places. Gives it character 😉

I chatted with Sega about my work back at CUCFabLab. It always surprises people to think FabLabbing could be a full time job. FabLab Taipei, like many hackerspaces, is all volunteer. I told Sega about how CUCFabLab has grown from an all volunteer staff to employing a dozen people at times (though I’ll write another time about the trade-offs in establishing a paid staff among volunteers). At some point in all this he decided that Ted, the main benefactor of the lab, would want to meet me and called him back to the lab (I guess I had just missed him).

Ted told me about the history of the lab, and how they use to have membership fees but eventually switched to free membership after establishing that it was a hard sell and wasn’t helping much with rent anyway. Apparently, Taipei is awash with low-cost designers and prototypers to the point where even university students don’t design things for themselves, they can hire someone to work for them for the price of a typical hackerspace membership. It is an interesting problem in Taiwan as in China, when building things is seen as something of a lower-class occupation: how do you catch people’s interest with the prospect of “Do It Yourself!”

Of course, the premise of a FabLab is to create something new, and in my experience learning to use a machine gives you a lot of ideas about what can be created with it — so if you want to design something (even to have someone else build it), if you want to be innovative, you could start by learning the various styles of fabrication. I think as people’s interest is piqued by the surprising inventions exhibited at Maker Faires and workshops, they will be enticed to try it themselves.

After telling Ted that I was interested in learning about as many maker communities as possible, he said “We better get over to OpenLab then, you can come to FabLab any night but OpenLab is Wednesdays, lets go.”

Exterior of FabLab Taipei, Interior of cab across town.

Ted hailed a cab to take us across town to OpenLab Taipei, past a temple and through narrow corridors. I had just read about this neighborhood earlier that day: an illegal settlement of improvised architecture that the city chose to preserve and transform into a collective of artist studios called Treasure Hill. I was surprised to find out that a hackerspace was nestled among the concrete cubes stacked up here, but it certainly fit in among the artist studios.

The most striking project sitting on the shelf was a 3D printed Immorton Joe mask complete with ribbon cable hairdo. A very DIY shortwave radio built with point-to-point soldering on a copper board was being tuned into Chinese music. Scattered on the table were other projects in progress including a recycled CD drive pen plotter. A pile of vintage diagnostics gear completed the hackerspace aesthetic, and an impressive laser-etched stamp stood ready to print more banners for promoting the space.

We were just here for an hour before people were packing up. Ted and I took the metro one stop to the Shida night market to keep chatting about maker communities. There was some fantastic barbeque chicken (was that cinnamon? Five spice?) and instead of bars in this area there are convenience stores with barstools in a sitting area — kind of neat, you pay convenience store prices for a bar experience. We talked about 3Nod underwriting Fab12 and how Fab Academy would work for a Chinese student body (the material will be translated on a rolling basis and Chinese fab labs will work a few weeks behind English language labs).

The next day I visited the Treasure Hill artist village again, this time in the daylight. It has fantastic art scattered around the open areas and on top of roofs. I peaked into a small cafe called Tadpole Point and saw they had burgers with fried egg on the menu so I put in an order and browsed the art books lining the wall. The room had a great view out the screen door overlooking the interstate and the valley. According to wiki this location was originally fortified for anti-aircraft defense, but it’s a good place to enjoy the scenery, too. With a great burger served on a solid wood butcher block and a breeze through a window of the poured concrete room, I reflected on how cheap materials can be arranged so elegantly, in the case of architecture and for food.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to find out more about the Conductive Ink Experiment nor the More Than Useful Detective Lab.

Simple Sound Triggers with Arduino

This tutorial will allow you to play short samples (less than four seconds) from an Arduino with no extra hardware. It is based off the work of MIT group “high-low tech” and uses all free software. It will futher explain how to trigger the sound using sensors. It is generously translated into Chinese by Chris Zhang at Shanghai hackerspace Xin Che Jian:


The necessary software is available for MacOS, Linux, and Windows. Arduino IDE and Audacity will need to be installed. The original tutorial provides two more pieces of code:

An Arduino library for audio playback.

A Java program for converting the audio file. Windows. Mac. Linux.

You can either open an existing file with Audacity, or record a new one, which is what Chris did to create our ghost sound. Freesound.org is a great website to download other people’s recordings. Try it out! Use the record, stop, and play icons at the top left of the program.

When deciding what sound to use, we have to consider the very small memory of Arduino — 32kB for our program + our audio. Audacity has a “resample” ability so our sound takes up less memory. In the bottom left corner, change the project rate from 44000 to 8000. Then in the Tracks menu, select Resample, and hit OK.

When powering a speaker directly from the Arduino, it won’t be very loud. In Audacity, if your sound waves aren’t very tall (low volume, low amplitude), it’s useful to use the Normalize effect. This boosts your levels as high as possible without clipping (overpowering the speaker resulting in distorted sound). Select Effect →Normalize and set the amplitude to zero before hitting OK.

Next, click and drag a portion of your sound wave (less than 4 seconds in length) and select File →Export Selected.

In the Export menu, you’ll have the option to change the file format. This is typically the difference between mp3, wav, and flac, etc. but we’re using a more uncommon file type, so in that menu choose “Other uncompressed files” and click options. Choose WAV (microsoft) as your header , and Unsigned 8 bit PCM as the Encoding.

This results in a very small .wav file that we can finally convert to store on the Arduino. The conversion program is written in Processing so for now it requires Java. Run “EncodeAudio”, which simply asks you to select that wav file you just exported. The results are stored on your clipboard, waiting to be pasted. We’re ready to open Arduino and save the file to memory.

Open the Arduino IDE and add the PCM library downloaded above. Open File →Examples →PCM →playback. It should look like this:


That long list of integers is the example sound, we can replace it with the list of integers that resulted from Encode Audio. Triple-click on any of the numbers to highlight the entire line (thousands of numbers long) and use ctrl-v or cmd-v to paste our own sound.

Upload this code and the sound will play on a speaker connected to pin 11 and GND. You can either use a tiny speaker like in the doorbell tutorial, or if you have speakers with a headphone jack, wire it up like so:

GND gets attached to the tip, pin 11 can be attached to either (or both!) of the remaining silver bands. Be sure to start with the volume on your speakers turned way down, this will play full blast! Also probably don’t do this to your nice stereo cause I’m not sure if it’s safe, I just know it works.

With the current code, the sound will play once when the Arduino turns on: you can hit the ‘reset’ button on the circuitboard to play it again.

The simplest trigger possible is touching two wires together to connect GND to a sensor pin. In our loop we constantly check if our sensor pin is ‘LOW’ and if it is, we start the sound. So cut the ‘startplayback’ function from inside the setup and paste it inside a conditional statement in the loop, using digitalRead() to check if it’s connected to ground. To make sure it doesn’t go off when no one is at the door, we use the internal pull up resistor using pinMode(). This is our final code for using a simple switch to trigger a single sound.


Notice that I changed the name of the array from ‘sample’ to ‘ghost’ — be sure to change the name in the startPlayback function as well — it’s used twice.

You’re not limited to this, of course! You can have as many different sounds as will fit on memory (so 4 seconds total) but trigger them at different times. Copy-paste that ‘constant unsigned char sample[] PROGMEM’ code and give different names to different lists of numbers. You can also use an external pullup resistor of 1 megaohm (the built-in one is only 10k) to make it touch sensitive instead of having to touch two wires together. Connect the megaohm resistor between the sensor pin (A0) and 5V. Delete the pinMode function from the setup.

The following code uses booleans to play a different sound each time the sensor is touched. This one includes our ghost sounds, so you can upload this and try it yourself. Megaohm resistor between A0 and 5V, speaker on pin 11 and GND.


Have fun!

Xin Che Jian in Shanghai

“New World Shopping Center”

Shanghai has always had a place in my imagination, from some mixture of movies and cartoons. “I think maybe because of Jackie Chan?” “Jackie Chan?! Jackie Chan is from Hong Kong!” “Yeah but some of his movies are in Shanghai probably, right?” So yeah I don’t know why, but I’ve always wanted to come here, and since the hacker-tour-group was moving onto Beijing the day after I arrived, I decided to stick it out with some new friends at Xin Che Jian.

It is an extremely active and welcoming community at Xin Che Jian: within hours of ■■■■■ getting in touch via IRC, we were let into the space and shown around. A couple hours after that, ■■■■■ got a commission to work on the space’s security features (name redacted due to maybe-his-visa-doesn’t-allow-commissions). So the members there are always looking for ways to improve the space and come up with new workshops: I hear they do workshops every weekend bringing in dozens of kids or adults— workshops every week is AMAZING for an ad-hoc organized community group.

They are tucked in a co-working space among design studios and probably tech-consulting firms (Wild guess, maybe I’ll ask next time I’m there). The kind of office where all the walls are made of glass and people seem to do business without a scrap of paper. There’s a nice hydroponics setup with a fat tilapia fish named Henry. There’s water-jugs converted to RGB LED lanterns hanging from the ceiling. Actually now that I look up at the ceiling I see all kinds of things hanging up: an RC helicopter, a model fighter plane, a bag of large sheets of styrofoam, and the wooden frame of an ultimaker 3D printer (lol). It reminds me of Makerspace Urbana, really, just big tables to spread out, and lots of boxes of old projects residing on shelves. Also you have to walk through a backalley to get in and you’re not sure if you’re in the right place until you see gears and LED strips.

Shanghai is an incredible place to have a hackerspace. Head east on Beijing road to the electronics markets: outdoor stalls in addition to a multi-story mall dedicated to selling electronics components. You can point to the one you want, haggle a price, head back to your hackerspace to see if it works, and come back and buy 1,000 of them if you want. My friend and I recalled all the times a project was slowed down to wait 2 weeks for a part (always faced with the dilemma, get it in 2 days, or get it cheap, I had the realization yesterday that all those parts I buy off eBay are available at the Chinese price, but I can get it today. Cause I’m in China. Mind blown.)

Linear rails, articulated arms, and motor couples, oh my!

Being Treated to Shenzhen

Shenzhen has been a pretty wacky experience. As soon as we got out of the subway station, we were literally greeted by a dance troupe. At first it seemed like maybe they were just street performers or just practicing for some cheerleading competition, who knows, big city, right? Except it was a pretty empty part of town and we were the only audience. And after they finished dancing they took a picture with us and walked away. It was super bizarre and disorienting and at the same time effective at welcoming us to the everything-will-happen attitude of Shenzhen.

The luxury tour bus provided by Tsinghua university was a big step up from taking the subway everywhere in Hong Kong, although it was always a little unnerving having little information on what the plan was, where we were going, how long we were going to be on the bus, that was always a mystery.

Basically, a cheerful woman meets us at the subway station and says she has a bus for us outside, and we gladly duck into the air conditioning. She welcomes us to China and introduces us to her co-workers (tho at this point we don’t know anything about her company) and one of her coworkers sings a song a capella over the bus’s PA. OK. We spend an hour driving on the highway through the city and the scale of this place become apparent. Unlike every other city I’ve been in where you drive out of the city center and the building get shorter, it seems that pretty much any residence here is required to be 40 stories high. Just endless high rises, with new ones being constructed right beside them. The only way you know you’re ‘downtown’ is when the high rises are covered in animated LED displays.

So we make it to Harbor School after weaving our way through a construction site with big signs for ‘special economic zone’ and I’ve written a separate blog about it cause it was awesome:


And afterwards we had dinner at a great hot pot place, all paid for by our hosts (again, still unclear at this point on why they were treating us so well and who they were. Like I’m sure it was mentioned but I don’t know the name of any of the companies so it didn’t stick.) The next day it became more clear who are hosts were as we toured their factories that are owned by a company that has a partnership with the university. I’ll blog more about the factories separately, but after a few factory tours we ended up at this place:

It’s the showroom for this company 3Nod, and it took a while to figure out what the company did. The 3D room sized screen intro video communicated that they were all about creating a better future (implication: for wealthy people who live in spaceships). But the showroom was full of bluetooth speakers and headphones. Their vision of a smart home was just projector walls (a la Fahrenheit 451, surrounded by TVs…) I liked the style of the furniture, though one of my compatriots pointed out that they’d be pretty useless in practice, unless you can do all of your work via touchscreen.

Also the lights kinda clicked on and off without warning, the screens seemed to react to your gestures but didn’t do a great job (cause it’s Kinect based and it’s unreliable and everyone moved on from arm-wavey-HCI decades ago) so it seemed like their vision of the future was full of glitches and really needless technology stacks. There’s four projectors for that one wall. That’s like 2kW to have a bamboo forest by your couch. It would literally take less energy to just grow bamboo in your living room.

I really liked the couch tho.

Anyway we briefly met with Richard up in his office full of cigars and brandy. Very hollywood personality and attire. He kind of just pitched his company and his personal story to us without any context of why he’d invited a bunch of hackers/makers for a tour. He wanted to meet with Mitch and suggested the rest of us continue a tour of the building and hang out in his office on the top floor where he entertains. So there we were, a dozen idealists walking around gawking at this guy that makes his millions selling headphones with Wil.i.am. Alex took on entertaining us with piano and Jona performed a Chinese tea ceremony.

I noted that even surrounded by ostentatious wealth, sitting on plush couches, people still turn to their smartphones when they’re bored. Nothing all that exciting about it.

Ah, but no one is checking their phones in this last photo — we caught a ride to ShenzhenDIY. Well, the bus got us to the neighborhood but didn’t want to go onto the skinnier streets, so it was a nice walk. First past bustling markets with flashing LED and neon signage, electric bikes and mopeds weaving through people crossing the street, then through a dark alley with unfinished pavement such that a flashlight was necessary not to trip. Up a few flights of stairs in an old concrete building that I later learned housed a clothing factory and a Japanese sword factory (wait what?) we made it to the first real hackerspace of China, a tight community of people excited to meet visitors and share projects and passions. A DIY car chassis sat behind a comfy couch. Guitars and mixing boards sat against the wall. People passed around the microchips they were excited to write programs for. We went in a circle introducing ourselves and an expat member of the space announced in surprise that he is also from San Antonio, and he has never been in a room with so many Texans in China (two people in our tour group in the same room, pretty easy record to beat!)

A couple of friends and I went back the next day thanks to Yuheng opening the space for us to take advantage of the wifi and air conditioning. Here’s his github. He told us he’s writing a programming language with formal syntax to prove logical theorems (it won’t but the first, but it’s still an awesome project to write your own language). He was also interested in the design of spoken languages and introduce me to Toki Pona, an invented language of 120 words. He told us this was the first time he had a conversation with people speaking English which really surprised us and we asked how he learned, he said just talking along with American TV and movies. He also played a pretty mean Nirvana cover with one of the hackerspace’s guitars. Very inspiring dude.

Oh and this is the hackerspace that opened a second space at Harbor School, so they’re reaching out to the wider community and just being awesome.

BBQ at Dim Sum Labs

Our last night in Hong Kong was spent with great food and tons of people. Conversation varied from the legality of weather balloons to the relationship between the color of LEDs and the color of stars (got my answer: of course it has to do with the electron band gap, even though LEDs produce light in a completely different way than the black box radiation of stars.)

People worked together to create a web server to control the color of the room’s lighting and brainstormed how to track the position of a flexible mesh of LEDs with OpenCV. We ate mango mochi (made in Kowloon!) and politely argued about the glycemic index of sugar vs flour and tried to recall why corn was ever subsidized in the first place. We found things around the space that connected us back home (Super sweet corn invented at UIUC, aerosol manufactured in Somerset xD).

The Dim Sum Labs Fridge. Taping the wifi-controlled MOSFETs to the ceiling.

The BBQ, if there was any doubt, was cooked on the shell of a PowerMac G5. We consulted each other about whether anodized aluminum was okay to burn under our food (we’re pretty sure it is, unless Apple dyed it a slightly shinier gray or something).

We learned about each other’s projects: an activist group collating tweets of UK police kettling into a compass telling protesters how to avoid the police lines. A helium balloon lost at sea. A CNC machine that performs micro-pipetting. Running a web server on the ESP2866 (a surprisingly powerful programmable wifi microchip for under $2).

Lots of hacking, lots of fun.

Day Two in Hong Kong

Today was a lot of walking. We met up with a local event organizer for lunch in the hilly Mid Levels of Hong Kong — but the restaurant was a tight fit for 18 people (and more trickling in…) so a few of us decided to walk back to central station. Half way there we intercepted a couple others from our group and joined up with them. It was a long walk for lunch in a subway station but it was nice to see more of the center of the city, with all of its elevated pedestrian walkways.

On the way back we took the escalators through the city, which seems like a really neat way to commute. Elevated moving sidewalks, pretty futuristic you know? The video might be boring but you can see what it’s like, anyway.

We arrived at a very cool destination called PMQ: a mixed use historic building that’s a lot of fun to explore the balconies and shops to the mixture of pianists practicing or improvising on the public pianos.

There were some nice exhibits about its history: it was originally a government school (British Colonial government, that is) in the 19th century sitting right between a neighborhood full of western foreigners and a neighborhood full of Chinese. The road that runs through both neighborhoods is called “Hollywood Road” (so named before Hollywood, California existed) and this school brought people from both neighborhoods together to study. Chinese students enrolled in English and westerners enrolled in Chinese classics (OK now I’m just reading the wiki article 🙂

A video playing in an exhibit also covered the building’s brief stint as a family dormitory for policemen. A man being interviewed recalled that each of the balconies was a shared dining area for two families, and from one balcony and you could look around to see who was having dinner and what they were cooking, and that it was a festive atmosphere every night with families all eating together. I could picture it standing there, and it seems like a really good design for a family residence. However, it was abandoned in 2000 and since renovated into this big mix of start ups, art studios, and craft shops (I bet a few of these shops have Etsy stores, I’ll put it that way).

Click to zoom and check out the smiley face balloon just chilling out.

Eventually we met up with some guys at Brinc, an “internet of things accelerator” with an office on the top floor of the building. I learned what an accelerator does! I had always lumped them into the same category as shared work spaces and incubators, just as something mysterious where people spend a lot of other people’s money. But it made sense that there’s a lot of people with an idea that they want to bring to market, but without experience working with manufacturers they risk bankrupting themselves without ever getting a finished product out of a factory.

So these guys make their experience getting new technology made at existing factories available to newbies, as well as marketing and business consulting like “Does your product have any desirability to the consumer?”, “How does your product stack up against its competition”, you know, value proposition stuff. [Insert guy’s name when I find his business card again] told us a lot of engineers think they have a good product just because they made something and it works. They hadn’t really gone through the rest of the process of whether it’s marketable, or even manufacturable. So the accelerators work with these startups to make sure they have a good product before spending hundreds of thousands of dollars approaching factories.

Imagining a group of guys building something and thinking they could just kickstart it and then order 1,000 of their widgets made me wonder, do any of these teams even have a friend that went to business school? Did anyone raise these questions before they moved to San Francisco looking for investors? So I asked [guy from Brinc] if the teams that come to him are mixes of business people and tech people, and he confirmed that it’s not too often they find a team that already has a balance of expertise, so that’s why they often serve to connect these startups with whatever talent they’re missing.

This made me realize that CUCFabLab working with the business school at U of I is a really unique, very positive partnership if it can encourage tech folks to mingle with the business minded, just so that if either of them has a good idea, they have a wider perspective of what the process of bringing hardware to market entails.

I thought it was very interesting to learn that this Brinc accelerator would bring start up teams out to live in Hong Kong, with the idea that if you’re going to be paying thousands of dollars for consultants and so on, you better be paying people that work directly with the factories that will make your product. We heard stories of start ups that burn through millions of dollars of funds by hiring teams and lawyers and talent to start a business without even making it across the pacific to start building their thing.

Afterwards, most of the group went on to the MakerBay hackerspace but I was feeling drained of energy, tired of being wet and a little sick, so I made my way back to Kowloon in search of a good Ramen shop. Found “Butao” and got a very spicy pork belly ramen and had myself a good sinus-clearing cry.

Printing New Frames for Old Lenses

I think it is not an uncommon experience for people who are bit by the 3D Printing bug to look at each object in their daily life and wonder “Could I print that?” It’s also fun to look at objects and think of how you would manipulate a cube, a sphere, or a cylinder (common ‘primitive’ shapes in 3D design).

So I had been practicing Blender and noted that the lenses of my eyeglasses just pop in and out of my super-cheap plastic frames — no screws required. And of course I thought “I could print that.” It wasn’t until a newcomer to Makerspace Urbana wandered in with the same idea that I made progress.

The second design iteration

Basically, I knew how to trace the 2D oval shape of the lens (take a picture, draw a bezier curve in Inkscape on top of the photograph, import that bezier curve into Blender, convert it to a mesh, and start building the frame outward from that. But the lenses aren’t flat, and I didn’t have a clue how to measure and mimic that curvature in Blender. I wish I could remember the guy’s name (this was a couple years ago) but an optician walks into Makerspace with he same idea, except he knows about these lookup tables where you can find the curvature of particular prescriptions. It’s a pretty straight forward set of numbers: a sphere of a certain radius a certain distance from the lens. That information made it trivial to take my bezier curve in Blender deform into the actual curvature of my lens using the “ShrinkWrap” modifier. Position the curve at the right distance from the sphere, and ‘shrinkwrap’ the curve to the surface of the sphere.

Modelling the outline and curvature of my prescription lens.

The lens has a bezel top and bottom which I could measure the height of, but the angle of the bezel was just eyeballed. I simply extruded this ring outward to create the first test fit (printed at MakerLab). Plastic is now one of my favorite materials because of how forgiving it can be: it stretches and snaps and even tho I did very rough measurements, the lens snapped right into place.

From there, I printed some pince-nez style frames that I wore around for a while before sitting back down to model the earpieces in Blender. The first iteration was printed in one solid piece, face down, earpieces being build straight into the air with no supports. This worked great for a few inches, but I learned that the plastic being extruded applies a significant amount of pressure on the plastic beneath it, so that as the towering earpieces grew, they began being pushed side to side as the nozzle worked on the next layer such that subsequent layers were not stacking up straight. The night that I was determined to finish a pair (I had by now broken my manufactured frames from popping the lenses in and out so much), I wanted to be able to see on the bike ride home, so I had to finish these. Our of desperation, I braced myself against the frame of the printer and held onto the earpieces to stabilise them by hand for the last 20 minutes of the print. They still turned out looking like a dog had gnawed on the ends of the frame (the misaligned top of the print) but that sits behind my ears and I told myself it gave it a more homemade touch.

To get the lenses to fit into these frames took a few more tries (I used the same file, but the original print was done in PLA on a Makerbot, and these were now in ABS, and between the expansion and contraction of plastic and the slightly differing calibration of printers, well, point is these things aren’t always consistent.)

I got a lot of mileage out of this design, printing a few alternative colors, including glow in the dark. They looked a bit toyish, which is a style of its own. The real trick though is that they were printed with the earpieces straight up and down at a width that’s just a bit skinnier than my head: so when stretched over my face, they actually pinch just enough that they never fell off (but were still suitably comfortable.)

The next iteration (pictured at the top) was designed with hinges, but without a lot of thought into how to prevent the hinge from swinging both ways. After printing the pieces separately, I drilled a 1/32″ hole through the pivot point, stuck 20 gauge copper wire into the hole, snipped off the remainder, and filled the hole top and bottom with superglue, pivoting the hinge as it dried so that it only adhered to the top and bottom.

I liked the look of these (that PETT plastic carries light like fiber optic, so they kind of sparkle), but they did fall off my face time to time owing to the backwards bending hinges, so when I accidentally stepped on them in my morning stupor, I just went out and got contacts.

Hacker Trip To China

Hong Kong

That’s Innovation Tower! Looks like a cruise ship from the year 2070, right? Possibly interplanetary space-worthy? It houses the school of design at Hong Kong Polytechnic University and was the first stop of Noisebridge’s Hacker Trip To China 2015.

We toured three separate spaces just today: the workshops at PolyTech, DimSubLabs, and LAB by Dimension+.

Sewing Studio & Ceramic Studio at PolyTech

We met with William of Dim Sum Labs outside our hotel who took us on a tour of the PolyTechnic University, pointing our the tight grouping of the Business School, Design School, and Textiles School. We interrupted a couple of classes, where students were happy to explain what they were working on. I met one guy doing a papercraft mech (you know, those giant flying fighting robots) which he designed in CAD and broke out all kinds of engineering drawings of how to fold this complex origami. A girl was working on a chair made of bamboo and cord, taking advantage of its tension. Always something being cut in two (I think I saw some chiseling going on) and folded into shape.

So it’s a very well equipped university lab, open only to design students. Reminded me that I wish I had access to ceramics wheels again. The thing that attracted my attention the most was the excellent signage! Maybe a boring thing but it’s a topic of constant discussion at CUCFabLab — how to make the signs better, how to make sigs that express rules and expectations and capabilities. So when I saw the wall-sized page-turning displays of materials, I said to myself “Duh!” and when I saw a big poster listing all the tools available at the lab with a key connecting it to its picture, I said to myself, “duh!” There was even a big poster by the laser cutters describing what line weight and file format to use.

So I got organizationally inspired. After concluding our tour, we had a big lunch (I’ve been impressed so far with Hong Kong restaurant’s capacity to cater to a group of 18 people without warning) and headed to Dim Sum Labs, but not before topping off our ‘Octupus Cards’ — which is the tap to pay card for all the public transit systems as well as convenience stores. I forget who it was, but somebody had an app on their phone that could read any NFC chip and dump all of its information on the screen, so with one tap we found out the model # of the microchip and the software version running on these featureless plastic cards. Neat stuff — we joked about editing the information (chiefly, the current balance), but there’s some pretty tight encryption running on those little plastic cards, too.

“Do you think I can edit the balance of this without putting cash on it?”

“Put money on it without paying money? Yeah I’d like to know, too.”

Workshop at Polytech, Dim Sum Labs, and Architecture Model Lab at Polytech

Dim Sum Labs is a one room affair (I think I heard 400 sq ft), which they pay about $1,500 USD/month for. They’ve got some great self-screen-printed tshirts (William is wearing one in the pics) and a great RGB LED lighting system — kind of looks like christmas lights in the picture. One of the members was working on an upgrade: to make the color of the whole room programmable (switching a few amps on and off is a little tougher than blinking one LED).

I was reminded of my dream-classroom for teaching intro to programming: individually addressable LEDs covering the ceiling such that each student in a classroom could start by controlling just the one LED, getting to know how to blink it and effect its color. Then each student could work their way up to controlling larger arrangements: perhaps a row of 5 LEDs, then a grid of 5 x 5 LEDs, until the students’ combined work is creating undulating colors across the whole ceiling.

The benefit of this is twofold:

  1. basic programming is a lot more interesting if you get to control something not on your computer screen (I learned by manipulating strings in a command line, but I see people blinking LEDs are a lot more enthusiastic about a few lines of code.)
  2. As a teacher / mentor, you don’t have to squint and bend down to someone’s screen to see how they’re doing. You can see the progress of the whole class at once. Better yet, the students can see the results of each others work, too, leading to un-plannable “how did you do that?!” learning moments.

So I was going on about how I wanted to build a room like that, and the guy I was talking to (I’ll learn everyone’s names soon enough…) said “Oh, we got a ceiling you could do that with at our hackerspace in Chico (California)”


Then a guy across the table says “What? You live in Chico? I grew up in Chico!” The bigger the city, the smaller the world.

The rooftop at Dim Sum Labs.

After hanging out a Dim Sum Labs for an hour or two, and we connected to an acquaintance that was told “We’d like to visit Dim Subs Labs and other places of Geek Interest” by Mitch so we ended up at a very cool espresso bar / third wave coffee shop (that’s the kind where they roast the beans behind the counter and let you pick out which farm you want to try the flavor of) that had local art for sale, the majority of which was laser cut upstairs.

Laser Cut Stuff + Quick-and-Dirty Ceramic 3D Printer at “Labs by Dimension+”

Again, I was inspired and surprised by dioramas that communicated the capabilities of the space. Just a general feeling of “why didn’t I think of that?” all day. So they’ve got these products they sell, both as little assemble-it-yourself kits like the bud vase and as assembled products which you can inspect all of the parts. I’d love to build some of these at my home FabLab as well, just to get people’s minds going on what you can do with these tools.

Afterwards we wandered an electronics market, tho it was late enough that most booths were closed. A few people were figuring out SIM cards and international power adapters. Mitch was testing the charge rate of different USB cables which is a shocking discovery that merits further investigation: some USB cables charged his phone at a piddling 80mAH and others charged at 10 times that rate. Like, what? It’s four wires, there’s nothing in there, how can one cable charge so much faster than another? Hmm…

Anyway, I need to buy an umbrella. It’s going to be a rainy week.