Shattering Conventions: Bumping Into Bots at the Maker Faire

July 2, 2018

You have to keep your eyes on the ground while walking through the halls of California’s San Mateo Events Center during the Maker Faire. There are robots down there.

You look up at the towering Godzilla woven entirely from wool and then you’re almost tripped up by a small moving platform trimmed with aqua blue lights. The platform scoots around the floor, weaving in and out of peoples’ footfalls.

And there are a lot of feet to steer clear of with an estimated 100,000 people expected at this three-day Maker Faire celebration of people making things out of materials ranging from silicon chips and circuit boards to yarn and quinoa.

Outside the hall, there’s another robot sweeping the walkway. This robot reminds me of something out of Westworld, but not the new HBO Westworld with the 3D-printed sexbots.

This automaton, with a lighted circuit board where its face should be, reminds me of the murderbot played by Yul Brynner from the ’70s Westworld after Richard Benjamin pours acid all over his face, exposing his inner circuitry. That movie scared the bejeezus out of me when I was six, so I pick up the pace a little as I move past the sweeping bot.

Not all the robots at the Maker Faire appear so homemade, however.

Furrion, the makers of the swank Elysium RV that comes complete with a helipad on its roof, is showing off its mammoth Exo-Bionics mech. Although Furrion’s website claims its movable steel cage is built for off-road racing, the mech at the Maker Faire doesn’t make it all that far during its demonstration.

“Well, it needs a little rest,” the mech’s pilot said after the high-tech machine moves just a few feet.

Furrion Exo-Bionics Mech at Maker Faire

Furrion Exo-Bionics Mech at Maker Faire

After a few hours at the Maker Faire, the panic sets in. I haven’t actually made anything.

In the robot hall I find a booth for Hebocon, the crappy robot competition, offering “robot sumo competitions for the technically ungifted.” This sounds about my speed.

“I’m here to wrestle a robot,” I declared.

The Japanese man at the booth shoots me a confused look.

“It’s a robot sumo competition,” I continued. “I am here to wrestle a robot. I’m in the best shape of my life!”

With him speaking in broken English, and me not speaking a lick of Japanese, the Hebocon rep explains that the robots don’t wrestle people. People build the crappy robots and then the crap bots wrestle amongst themselves. Being technically ungifted as required, I am game for this as well, but the signups are closed for the day. The Hebocon rep tells me to come back tomorrow, but as Carl Weathers echoes in the downer part of a Rocky III training montage, “There is no tomorrow! There is no tomorrow!”

I wander through the foggy fairgrounds longing for the spectacle of pig races that will be here when the San Mateo County Fair starts in a couple of weeks. Little porkers running around a sawdust-covered track as fast as their stubby little legs will carry them is a competition that I can really understand.

Every month in “Shattering Conventions,” author Bob Calhoun crashes a new tradeshow, convention or conference looking for a way to fit ineven when he doesn't always belong. Calhoun is the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor." You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_calhoun.

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Bob Calhoun