Durham’s Splat Space feeds hackers’ muse

CorrespondentJanuary 26, 2013 

— Peter Reintjes is eager to test out his facial recognition technology, cobbled together from a Raspberry Pi, a credit card-sized computer that’s little more than a naked processor, hooked up to a webcam and salvaged spare parts.

Motioning for another Splat Space member to stand about three feet away, Reintjes starts his program: “OK, you’ve got your head tilted just the right way.” A moment later, a rectangle appears on screen. “There it is. We’ve got it.”

It was just another Saturday at Splat Space, a “hackerspace” in the basement of 331 W. East Main St., the Snow Building in downtown, where members pay a monthly fee of $50 and meet to share knowledge on technology, work on personal projects and use equipment like a 3D printer, a metal cutter and other heavy-duty tools.

That recent Saturday, Splat members were gathering to learn about the Raspberry Pi, the tiny, inexpensive computer that was created by British engineers to foster computer education.

Alan Dipert, co-founder and president of the board of directors, said they’re not “hackers” in the usual sense.

“For most people, hackers have a negative connotation,” Dipert said. “We want to show it’s OK to open things up and figure out how things work, and share that information.”

The organization’s mission is to foster the free exchange of ideas and skills in technology. Splat Space now has about 35 members and, according to Dipert, a couple of hundred people who come to its open meetings, held every Tuesday.

Hackerspaces got their start in Germany in the ‘90s, and Dipert helped found the Durham space in 2010 after he moved to the area from Rochester, N.Y., where he was member of another hackerspace.

The vibe at Splat Space is friendly, zany. Reintjes, whose name is pronounced like “wrenches,” is the exhibit engineer of the Museum of Life and Science and has built gadgets like an electric Celtic harp with strings not made of wire, but made of light.

Reintjes jokes that his facial recognition technology will be a gift for the artificial intelligence that will take over the earth, Terminator-style. “We’re demonstrating that we’ll be useful to our digital overlords,” he said cheekily, a glint in his eye.

Another member, Jeffrey Crews, whose day job is an electron microscope operator, was manning the 3D printer, where he was making cases for the Raspberry, with the logo cut out. Crews was quickly surrounded by people curious about the printer, which can be used to make small parts and models of larger projects.

“The technology of design and prototyping has come down to individuals and small groups, so you don’t have to be Apple or IBM,” Crews said. “I really like fabrication. I’ve always been a scavenger, an improviser.”

Crews also has helped out with Robot Camps at the Efland Cheeks Elementary School, where kids learn to design, build and program robots and pit them against each other in sumo competitions.

The tools of Splat Space were purchased with membership dues, and the nonprofit is hoping to expand in the coming year into a bigger space.

Free culture

For some, Splat Space is about the ideals of “free culture,” a concept expounded upon by Lawrence Lessig, a Harvard University law professor who has been an outspoken critic of restrictive copyright laws. Lessig is a proponent of online communities where creative works can be more freely shared.

Splat Space holds Libre Thursdays, a weekly meeting led by member Christopher Covington, to discuss free culture. Covington said that in his reading of hacker history, what interested him was the idea that information should be free.

“Through the years, projects like Wikipedia, Musicbrainz and OpenStreetMap have all captured my attention because of the duplex nature of their utility,” he said. “They’re useful as is, but I can also contribute back and make the resource even more useful for myself and others.”

Covington said that with Libre Thursday, his goal is to create a growing body of work that can be shared. “Locally, the hope is to provide a meeting place for like-minded people, and perhaps increase the general awareness of what’s out there that people can reuse,” he said.

Crews and other members also want to make technology more accessible to the average person.

The growing affordability of some of the heavy-duty equipment also is making the do-it-yourself, free culture more viable. For instance, some 3D printers now cost less than $1,000.

“It reduces the activation energy required to start a project to much less,” Crews said.

Elliott Hauser, an information technology Ph.D. student at UNC and a regular to Splat Space, wants to bring his students back to the bare bones of computer technology.

“They’re very comfortable with consuming content, but not with how things work,” he said. So this semester, Hauser is having his students work with the Raspberry Pi.

“I want to teach them to feel confident, so that when they see a computer, they’ll know exactly how it works,” he said. “With simpler computers in the ‘80s, you had to program the computers. Now, you don’t have to do that, so we’re trying to take a step back to that.”

Chen: monicaxc@gmail.com

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