Akihabara, Tokyo has transformed over the years. In its present form Akihabara emerged from the ruins of a devastated Tokyo after World War 2 when the entire district was burnt to the ground. The area was rebuilt in the shadow of the Akiba Jinja (dedicated to the god of fire prevention), and a new breed of street vendors began to appear. Huddling under the protection of railway bridges, and dealing mostly in Black market radio parts, these vendors set a new tone to what would become Japan’s “Electric Town”. And as Japanese manufacturing prowess grew so too did Akihabara.
Now of course Akihabara is also home to Otaku culture, and is perhaps best known in this regard for its maid cafes. Streets are littered with maids touting their cafes, somewhat incongruously among computer outlets and precision tooling stores.
My interests however lie squarely in Akihabara’s glorious junk bins. Of all places I think I’m happiest digging through this mass of discarded technology from Japan’s manufacturing past.
A tour through the junks bins is like an archaeological dig. And in this article I will present some recent finds, and ponder on their relevance to Japanese manufacturing.
The Hackaday Prize was about to launch but the date wasn’t public yet. I decided to do a pre-launch tour to visit a few places and to drop in on some of the Hackaday Prize Judges. It started in Chicagoland, looped through San Francisco for a hardware meetup and Hardware Con, then finished with visits to [Ben Krasnow’s] workshop, [Elecia White’s] studio, and the Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories.
The Prize is now running and it’s time for you to enter. Look at some of the awesome hacking going on at the places I visited and then submit your own idea to get your entry started. Join me after the break for all the details of the adventure.
“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed,” goes the clichéd [William Gibson] quote. Growing up on all the Cyberpunk literature and spending a more-than-healthy amount of time obsessing over [Fred Gallagher’s] Megatokyo series, I always imagined Japan to be at the very tail of this distribution. The place where the Future lives. Though it has been decades since the Bubble burst, and there’s no way this could still be the case, there was something romantic about believing it just might be. Thus, I opted for keeping the dream alive and never actually visited the place.
Not until a few weeks ago — [Bilke], one of our crazy sysadmin guys that keeps Hackaday.io alive, made me do it. He found these cheap tickets from LA, and the next thing you know – we were flying out for a 48-hours-in-Tokyo weekend. With no time to prepare, we reached out to [Akiba] from Freaklabs and [Emery] from Tokyo Hackerspace for some tips. By the time we landed, emails were waiting for us, with our full schedule completely worked out. It’s great to know that no matter where you are, there’s always a friendly local hacker willing to help.
Past the immigration, we took the JR Narita Express line into to the City that Friday evening. From there we grabbed a taxi because we couldn’t understand a word in katakana but then we hopped the JR Yamanote Metro line once we had figured things out. We checked out all the major places we had ever heard of (Shinjuku, Shibuya, Roppongi, Ginza…) because the jet lag was not letting us sleep anyway.
Sometime way past midnight, it hit me – Future Shock. But this was the kind I never expected…
I’ve been a huge fan of EMSL for quite some time now, and my recent field trip proved that it has earned the name Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories for a good reason. For instance, look at the reflection in the glass near the bottom and you’ll glimpse the hearse that [Lenore] and [Windell] have sitting in front of the shop. But stop at the threshold, inside there are delights that ate up a couple of hours without me even noticing. And they thought they were going to get work done that day.
Don’t judge me by my appearance. This is late afternoon on a summer Saturday in Sunnyvale. Why does that matter? Obviously summer Saturdays in Silicon Valley always start with the Electronics Swap Meet and Engineer’s breakfast! That was a ton of fun but if you’re doing it right it’s also a bit tiring. No worries, a shot of excitement came over me as soon as I walked in that front door.
You may be used to seeing rack mounted equipment with wires going everywhere. But there’s nothing ordinary about what’s going on here. [Elecia White] and [Dick Sillman] are posing with the backbone servers they’ve been designing to take networking into the era that surpasses IPv6. That’s right, this is the stuff of the future, a concept called Content Centric Networking.
Join me after the break for more about CCN, and also a recap of my tour of PARC. This is the legendary Palo Alto Research Company campus where a multitude of inventions (like the computer mouse, Ethernet, you know… small stuff) sprang into being.
We happened to be in Shanghai for Electronica trade fair this year and had a great time exploring heavy industrial gear and fantasizing about all the things we could do with it. However, we simply couldn’t ignore the fact that there was a whole city out there that we’re completely missing out on. So after less than a day of being surrounded by businesspeople and Miss Universe-dressed promoters, we decided to pack our bags and hit the streets.
The question was, where should we go? Finding interesting things in a city that keeps shapeshifting (the whole Shanghai skyline did not exist 20 years ago) can be a challenge. Fortunately, our friend [David Li] gave us a list:
Hackaday happened to be at South by Southwest this year and visited SXSW Create – part of the festival dedicated to hackers, makers and DIY scene. While modest in size, this event serves as a great contrast to the internet-hype machine omnipresent everywhere else in the city during this time. So we thought we should drop by and show them some love.
Trey German showed us a couple of great real-time power control demos using his C2000 Launch Pad as well as his Bluetooth Cooler which, for whatever reason, decided to fail on him just in time for the big show. The demo we have been looking forward to the most was a thermocouple-controlled barbecue using Energia framework but were disappointed to learn that The Man has banned grilling hotdogs in the tent. The universe was telling us we’re not here to party.
ATX Hackerspace had a large booth featuring the full-size replica of Doctor Who’s TARDIS (who wouldn’t like to have a picture taken in one ?) and a fully-functional 1930-es vacuum tube radio with a mandatory iPad dock. We have also learned that a massive collection of working vintage vacuum tubes has been donated to the hackerspace, so if you’re in need you know who to call.
The event has also featured a long list of industry participants. The product launch we were most impressed with was Easel by Inventables, an in-browser app that enables easy control of their Shapeoko CNC milling machine and definitely has the potential of bringing the joys of design and fabrication to much larger masses.
However, the most interesting things we saw were the ones a bit outside of the current tech mainstream. [Dennis] from UT Austin iGEM team showed some of the crazy work the synthetic biologists are doing out there. They have engineered Escherichia coli so that it is addicted to caffeine, used cell growth as a measure of caffeine content in particular drinks, and used that to rank local Austin coffee shops! We have also talked with several guys working on automated gardens and soil sensors who were educating attendees about the huge potential that increased environmental data aggregation can have on the ways we grow food.
To quote the Growerbot guys : “We definitely have enough Internet-connected teddy bears. We need more Internet-connected tomato plants”.
Stick with us after the jump to see a gallery with all our adventures at 2014 SXSW.