UI grad returns to campus to encourage 'hackerspaces'
URBANA — If you've ever found yourself in a restaurant or clinic waiting room with a TV or three turned on, volume up, political pundits shouting at each other or game show contestants screaming, and wished it would all go away, you just may have found a friend in Mitch Altman.
The University of Illinois graduate's claim to fame is inventing TV-B-Gone, a little universal remote that does what it promises: It turns off that television.
Altman has sold tens of thousands of those devices since launching the product in 2004. Now he essentially lives off the income from those sales (his California company is called Cornfield Electronics) and travels the country helping others create their own microcontrollers and other gadgets.
The thinker, tinkerer and teacher will return to Champaign-Urbana next week to host several workshops and speak about his work in creating communities that support and encourage do-it-yourselfers.
A co-founder of Noisebridge, the San Francisco hackerspace, Altman said his main aim in life right now "is creating supportive communities, mostly in the form of hackerspaces."
Hackers, he said, "are people who take whatever resources are available to them and improve upon whatever they want to improve upon, and then share what they love."
"He's quite inspiring," said Jeff Putney, an engineer at local startup Diagnostic Photonics and member of Makerspace Urbana, which Altman has visited.
Hackerspaces, Altman said, are about "encouraging people to explore their creativity."
When Altman co-founded Noisebridge in 2007, there were a handful of hackerspaces, hacklabs or makerspaces around the world. Now there are around 1,500, he estimated.
"The sharing of knowledge — that's a core value of makerspace," said Stewart Dickson, one of the founders of Makerspace Urbana. Simply put, "I like to teach stuff," said Dickson, who works with data at Wolfram Research in Champaign.
Housed in a colorful room in the basement of the Urbana-Champaign Independent Media Center, 202 S. Broadway, U, Makerspace Urbana dates back to about four years ago.
There, members and visitors have created mini bowls, mini plastic animals, pegs and other objects with a 3-D printer, attended workshops on pewter casting, designed microcontrollers for a variety of devices, built PVC didgeridoos, sewn LEDs into clothing and more. There are costume designers, musicians, engineers, artists and people who move easily through all those arenas. The community runs on membership dues, grants and donations.
Dickson attributes part of the reason for the growth of hackerspaces in recent years to the increasing availability of what used to be prohibitively (at least to community members) expensive equipment, such as 3-D printers. At Makerspace Urbana, people can use the 3-D printer for a donation.
There are also more and more accessible, open source platforms such as Arduino. At the makerspace, people can easily write and build their own electronics boards with Arduino.
"If you can't open it, you don't own it," said Emily Knox, a UI library and information science professor, reciting a common maker's manifesto. A member of the Makerspace Urbana, she learned to solder and build a gadget that she plugs into a receiver to amplify the sound of her record player.
Demystifying technology and opening up whole new worlds for people — that's another aim of hackerspaces, Knox said.
During his time on campus next week, Altman will participate in workshops showing students how to make their own TV-B-Gones, brain machines (a sound and light device), a battery pack and phone charger out of an Altoids tin, and more. He'll also talk about geeks and depression.
Inviting Mitch Altman to the guest-in-residence program at Allen Hall "was a natural fit," said Laura Haber, program director of Unit One Living/Learning Community in Allen Hall.
"Mitch is personable and enthusiastic. He has the attitude that anyone can learn how to do these things and it's fun," Haber said. His workshops have appealed to students from all kinds of majors, not just engineers, she said.
Most of next week's events are open to residents of the residence hall; however, the keynote talk is open to the public. Altman's talk, "Hack your life for fun and profit," will be about his work and why he does what he does. It will be at 7 p.m. Monday in Allen Hall, 1005 W. Gregory Drive, U.
Monday: Mitch Altman will deliver "Hack Your Life for Fun and Profit" at 7 p.m. at Allen Hall at the University of Illinois. Parking is available for free after 5 p.m. in the garage across the street from the residence hall.
Ongoing: Stewart Dickson with Makerspace Urbana talks tech from 8 to 9 a.m. Thursdays on WRFU 104.5 FM. Makerspace Urbana holds open hours from 7 to 9 p.m. Wednesdays.
Upcoming: Makerspace Urbana holds a variety of workshops and activities throughout the year, such as Make-a-tion (summer), the Maker Faire (September), a Women in Tech meetup (March) and more.