Becoming A Maker

Confession: I used to be an architect (possibly still am!), and then I started tinkering with things.

The architecture engineering school I graduated from did not have a workshop space. The first time I met a CNC router in real life was three years after i graduated.

It is hard to discover what you don’t know even exists. Which is somehow, why I had zero imagination of how those awesome Theo Watson installations could possibly work.

Faces by Theo Watson

Faces is an interactive installation by Theo Watson that captures your portrait and sketches it at large scale, projected onto a building across the street

I had no business fiddling with electronics whatsoever. My coding and programming skills were limited to some knowledge of ActionScript, some C, and that was about it.

I read about Openframeworks, installed it, went through examples, tutorials and thought "Nice, I can change parameters that in return would change behavior, fantastic..but ..then..what?!"

By that time, I was an architect working in Morocco, between an office that was based in Fez and a construction site based in a beautiful small southern village close to the Algerian borders, called Mhamid ElGhizlane. It normally took me a little over a day and a half to travel from Fez to the construction site.

I had a radio, which I considered my companion in those interesting border areas. Before Morocco, I was living in Sinai mountains, working on a similar desert development project, where the radio would normally catch signals of Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Jordan. The Moroccan Sahara, on the other hand, got me signals from Algeria, with lots of different dialects. Radio feels like travelling within time within places. It makes you really feel the distance you crossed.

Do It Yourself

During one of those lengthy trips, my radio broke, and the DIY inside me, lead me to googling fixing radios, where I couldn’t fix anything but came across several DIY interesting analog transmitters. Again the tutorials were well detailed with neat pictures, however, it was a bit challenging trying to go through a recipe, where you have no understanding of what these components stand for in the first place.

When you are an architect, your idle internet time revolves around Dezeen and designboom.

This is how I came across those fantastic bricks assembled by the robot at ETH Zurich, then I thought "Yeah, CNC, I have seen that before, but this is too big! I wanted to have my own desktop-sized machine that I can use and be familiar with, travel with, and make others familiar with".

More googling and I came across this example;

it seemed easy, but again, I had no idea where to find these components.

That was in mid-2010.

Every time I took the trip from the desert village to Fez, I would remind myself to go look for where hardware stores and electronic components could be found, to explore options, then a deadline hits me right after I come back and check my e-mail.


Going through the DIY CNC machines was inspiring, the question remained though, how are these machines controlled?


Yeah, OK, so I need to learn about electronics?

OK, let's Google...this seems like a nice PDF to download.

Then the job was over. I returned back home while trying to research and build these things with the help of a mechanical engineer friend...of a friend.

Then BAM! Egypt had a revolution, and every single thing that I had planned stopped.

By mid-2011, I moved to a better working space, where I could sit down and focus. Now let's get back to the long forgotten electronics pdf, more browsing...and then I met Arduino.

This looks easy I thought.

What does that actually do?

Let's buy one to try.

Electronics shop? Not there. Let's put that on hold. But seems interesting, and clear, it is an interface by itself.

Soon after, I discovered there was an Open Hardware Summit in New York that was about to take place, needless to say, I made arrangements to attend it.

Attending the summit made was my first time visiting New York City. The summit was hosted in the science center in Queens.

During the event, when someone asked me “what do you make?”, I used to say, “Nothing: I am a maker in the making”.

The summit was awesome, with lots of fantastic talks. It was great to see Zack Libermann in real life, was also awesome to find out that the person I just chatted with was Usman Haque, am a fan of his work, but I just didn’t know how he looked like, so I didn’t know it was him!

It was 2011, where the rock stars were 3D printers, and more 3D printers, Kinect, and Instructables in its Autodesk look. I bought myself an Arduino kit from MakerShed, and a “Getting started with Arduino” book, while arguing with the seller, how come the content isn’t Creative Commons licensed.

I remember checking my kit at the hotel room. I had no understanding of what these components were. Nothing at all, but everything seemed colourful and interesting.

I knew I had to get back to school and learn. Otherwise, I would end up nowhere. I will never be able to enable others or introduce anyone to new technologies that I can barely navigate myself. I wouldn’t be able to design real solutions. I wouldn’t be able to make programs that make sense because basically I don’t get it all.

ITP seemed to be the most interesting interactive design program I found. I visited an open day, it was fantastic, but a two years program of $65,000 annual fees, wasn’t fantastic. Besides the tuition fees, I was 28 at that time and the idea of getting back to school was a bit scary.

Then I went back home with a kit and a book. Everything was shiny and cute, and I had other freebies from the conference bag as well. . .ehm, where do I start?

Falling In Love

At that time I was working for the Wikimedia Foundation‘s global development department in a program management job that required extensive communications and planning across regional teams, a surreal amount of emails, meetings, travelling..and ..mailing lists.

There was virtually no time to sit down and learn and make something new and beautiful. In April 2012, on a sleepless night I came across a fantastic interaction design program offered by IaaC, I put together my portfolio and papers, applied, and got accepted, and planned to resign in September.

In May 2012, I attended a beginners workshop for Arduino, lead by Bilal, who was visiting Egypt. During the workshop, I controlled an LED via Arduino.

It was magical.

I never used the board before, I barely understood any syntax, yet in 15 min, I did something cool . . that actually works. Arduino: I am in Love, I thought.

It is easy. It is just that starting alone isn’t easy. Going back home, I went through some examples and I felt oh..I can do stuff. I can do all these stuff actually. Oh, wait, there is also: Processing!

Arduino GSM Shield

By September 2012, I moved to Barcelona for my masters, which started by a fabrication course in Fablab. I was Alice in wonderland. Then physical computing course started, and Alice’s wonderland was getting more vast.

Everything was awesome. The exact skill set that I wanted to learn. But I needed more, a lot more, time to absorb this whole new world. I thought of taking a gap year, but then, week after week, it turned out that once the ball gets rolling everything is accelerated.

Thanks actually to my sister for pushing me to trust that the ball will get rolling. She herself was moving from translation to graphics design one year before me. It is a family thing.

Arduino was THE treasure.

At the end of the day, all those fantastic surreal systems that I was fascinated by could be done with some components and an Arduino. The amount of associated open source resources is tremendous. The forum is awesome and people actually respond.

Through Arduino, I learned more about microcontrollers, I could program standalone circuits. Then the ball kept rolling, I learned eagle, I can mill some boards, I can solder (err, that was troublesome!), I can interface stuff, I can build sensors, I can work with data, I can build RF sensors, then I became obsessed with antennas, signal processing, and RFID.

I am still learning and learning, but it is much easier now.

Coming from this background, I always go back with time 4 or 5 years ago and recall how I used to react to a “closed box” new technology?

How life would have changed if machine interaction have been made easier, or basically how my life would have changed if machines had the opportunity to step out of their labs and talk to more people.

Making technology more portable and more accessible, is one reason why I started the mobile operated laser cutter project last year, of course, the project would have never been realized without the team that continued with enthusiasm.

mobile operated laser cutter project

Another wonderful project that I just co-started is, with the hope of giving voice to women of Saint Katherine village in Sinai, by introducing them to smart textiles! Well, lets see how this will evolve..

While working in the desert in Sinai, the project foreman was my mentor, his words of wisdom still echo in my ears

“Everything comes along..with patience. If you could just wait”.

Apparently, he had a point!

E-mails are a distraction.

Meetings are boring.

Regular jobs suck your inner clock.

Take a sabbatical and learn what you want to learn and start anew.

At least try.

Oh, and during your sabbatical, give Arduino a try, it might change your life as well.

Let's just hope that Arduino founders will keep embracing the same energy they started the project with, and that the big whales leave Arduino alone, so that it stays, open and libre just as how it helped liberate many creative energies and minds.