How Makerologist Is Re-imagining Developer Marketing (with DIY Robocars)

This article is part of the Arm Innovator Program, a series created to highlight the work of key technical leaders who are pushing the boundaries of how Arm architecture can enable next-generation solutions.

Meet Clarissa San Diego, Founder of Makerologist

Clarissa San Diego is founder and CEO of Makerologist, a maker technology agency that bridges the gap between companies and communities through creative technology experiences. She leads a collective of makers, educators, designers, engineers, artists and writers who have come together under a shared vision of creating a maker ecosystem.

In this blog, Clarissa shares her insights around how Makerologist is re-imagining developer events based on her experience and community philosophy.

Donkey Car at Makerologist Developer EventMeet the DonkeyCar

Why we make

Many makers strive to turn their beloved hobby into a profession, and although makerspaces and fablabs are popping up in every city, having access to tools and resources isn’t enough. To truly become an entity that can run sustainably and purposefully, it takes a team; better yet, a community of people with complementing skill sets, shared values, and a north star.

I used to be perplexed as to why there weren’t many people visiting or taking advantage of the tools and expertise of their local makerspace. The makerspace I co-founded had a few 3D printers, a couple laser cutters, CNC mills, electronics labs, a woodshop, and various tools that people could use to fulfill their projects. So why were these tools largely left untouched and unloved, day in and day out?

When asked the open-ended question, “what do you want to make?”, prospective makers would often respond with a variation of “I don’t know”. That surprised me. Sure, you can show people examples of things made by others, but that still doesn’t invoke that genuine “yes, I want to make that” feeling.

What I soon realized was that most aspiring makers needed to be driven by a purpose, and that it needs resources like tools and know-how that is digestible - essentially, easily taken in, understood, and reapplied. Whether that purpose was a problem aspiring makers wanted to solve, a process they wanted to streamline, or creative energy looking for an output, making with a purpose is what drives people to take the initiative to learn something new and willfully enter unknown territory.

The challenge with hardware

This is especially true with hardware. Unlike software, in order to develop on hardware, you need more than a computer and its peripherals. As a result, the barrier to entry on hardware can be intimidating, especially since traditional educational organizations do not teach it unless it’s a specific offering, and even then, only to a fraction of their students. Typically, hobbyists and enthusiasts need to actively seek it out and sometimes demand it, given that hardware workshops aren’t as commonly available as software workshops and coding camps.

For the hardware workshops and events that are around, they cater to one of two audiences: absolute beginners or industry professionals. It’s not common to see a format that is somewhere in between. The happy medium is an environment that piques interest, provides enough resources and guidance to get you started on your own, and a path to advancement if you so desire.

Developers getting ready to race at DIY Robocars event SeattleDevelopers getting ready to race at DIY Robocars Seattle

Curating the perfect developer event

When the Makerologists decided to take on the first DIY Robocars event in Seattle, I realized this was the perfect opportunity to try something a little different. Take the good elements of the different types developer engagement events (meetups, hackathons, conferences, workshops) and leave out the unnecessary.

What we ended up with was a developer event of over 70 attendees of varying technical abilities and backgrounds. Since we are based in Seattle, we had guests from major technology companies as well as local artificial intelligence, machine learning, and autonomous vehicle companies. Attendees from local institutions ranging from universities to K-12 educational organizations were also present.

Essentially, our attendees weren’t just engineers and software developers
they were educators, tinkerers, machinists, automotive enthusiasts, interested parents, and their children. They were, in essence, a perfect slice of our local community.

Given this eclectic mix of attendees—of varying interests, age range, and even wider range of skill levels—what perhaps remains most impressive is that they built seven self-driving robot cars, and all in less than two and a half hours!

And, they did it all together, as a community.

Group photograph: DIY Robocars Seattle eventThe community: DIY Robocars Seattle

The north star

How did we achieve this? At the highest level, we had to identify the “north star”; the guiding principle that gives us both the flexibility and the accountability we need to get where we want to be as a community. For this event, our north star was a sustainable Seattle. Autonomous vehicles are only one element of a sustainable city. To make this event purposeful, we not only had to demonstrate the capabilities of current technology, we also had to create an environment where people felt they had an impact on future development of the technology.

About nine months ago I randomly walked into an amazing restaurant/garage mashup in the industrial district of Seattle, SoDo and immediately knew that this was the place to host the Robocar Derby. A self-ascribed “country club for gearheads,” The Shop was essentially a makerspace catered to automobile and motorcycle enthusiasts and tinkerers. Similar to how The Shop had mechanics, detailers, and subject matter experts on-site to help people with their cars, we sought to do the same at the robocar level.

The technology

What hardware should we use? Instead of re-inventing the wheel, Senior IoT Ecosystem Manager, Rex St John from Arm, recommended we take a look at the DonkeyCar, an autonomous vehicle driving platform derived from the DIY Robocars community. Developed by Will Roscoe and Adam Conway, the DonkeyCar included a modified remote controlled car, Open camera, and a Raspberry Pi 3 for its brains—all components that were easy to obtain, tinker with, and that had an expansive community supporting it. See a full list of it’s parts.

Inside the DonkeyCar - Raspberry Pi 3Inside the DonkeyCar: The Raspberry Pi 3

The event format

How do we create that happy medium of welcome, technical, inspirational, and educational? We created a developer event that was more substantial than a Meetup, less demanding than a conference, with similar developer engagement to a hackathon, but completed in a fraction of the time. Registered participants should be able show up the day of the event without any previous knowledge and still successfully build a robocar. The final format was the perfect introduction to the technology.

Our agenda was as followed:

17:00 - 17:30 — Doors open and registration

17:30 - 17:45 — Welcome and introduction by Makerologist and Arm

17:45 - 18:05 — Keynote Speaker by Will Roscoe, Co-founder of DonkeyCar

18:05 - 21:00 — Build stations and race track open

The build process

How did we manage to integrate a build session within an aggressive schedule? The Makerologists streamlined the process so that anyone that knows how to use a computer and can read directions, can build an autonomous robocar in less than two and a half hours.

Pre-Event (Hardware)

DonkeyCar hardwareHardware for DonkeyCar

At the highest level, putting the robocar into a kit immensely reduced the build time for participants. The DonkeyCar doesn’t come in a kit but their website links you to all the parts and design files needed. Here’s some things we did to streamline the this portion of the build:

  • 3D printed enclosures ahead of time: Printing one enclosure could take over an hour for most 3D printers on the market and despite their growing mainstream awareness, many people might not have access to a 3D printer
  • Improved battery life: Our modified enclosure was modeled to house a voltage regulator module that would supply a steady 5V down to a source voltage of 5.6V to reduce battery usage enough to last for the duration of the event
  • No soldering on site: We used T-splices on the ESC power leads allowing the cars to tap into power from the main battery without soldering

 Access our 3D printed modifications.

Pre-Event (Software)

Going through software installation could take hours in most scenarios. To save precious time, here is how we streamlined this process:

  • SD card imaging: Setup disk image and copied working setup to individual SD cards to eliminate installation time at the event
  • Created a custom calibration utility: Added a simplified calibration utility so that users didn’t have to do the manual math calculations to find the correct steering extremities. Utility ensured a correct center point and wrote steering values to the config file.
  • Hardwired connection for file transfers instead of WiFi: We learned from the DonkeyCar community on Slack that WiFi congestion and interference will happen at such events and could affect the transfer time of the TUBs off of the robocars.
  • Computer environment pre-staged for event: Desktop computers at the calibration stations were all set up the same way and screens matched screenshots on the instructional guides.
  • Limited dataset size: The DonkeyCar community recommended running a minimum of 20 laps per robocar. Due to our time constraint, we limited it to 12 laps per robocar. After much testing, we determined that the robocar ran well enough for an introduction with the smaller dataset.

Day of Event

Come show time, participants were separated into teams of six crew members, each of which owned a part of the build process like a racecar pit crew. Using a high level step-by-step instructional guide we created specifically for this event, participants took turns as they transitioned from hardware assembly, software installation and AI training, to functional autonomous robocar in steady succession.

This flow was crucial in conveying a number of technical concepts and details, an experience of tactile engagement in the build process, and that satisfying sense of accomplishment makers receive in a fully functioning finished product by the end of the event. This was only possible thanks to our streamlining and made a large and complex subject easily digestible for all.

Instead of explaining our north star to our robocar builders, we found our experiential event built the participants’ interest and investment, which stage presentations typically do not.

Man looking at DonkeyCar at Robocars event

The Audience

Primary

Our primary target audience was engineers in artificial intelligence, machine learning, deep learning, and autonomous vehicles.

Secondary

Since autonomous vehicles are now becoming a reality, our secondary audience was educators. We found it just as important to involve those in professions who will teach the basics of autonomous vehicle technology. They are also key influencers to generations where autonomous vehicles will be the norm.

Tertiary

In many developer events, the audience is mostly engineers. In my experience of producing dozens of tech events and several developer conferences including DevRel Summit and Women Who Code CONNECT, this can lead to preaching to the choir. It’s important to learn with and from our peers and it’s just as important to learn from those who are and will be affected by the technology that we are developing. This was also a reason why we were keen to make this an all-ages event.

As such, our tertiary audience was automotive enthusiasts. When developing a technology, we often think of who can benefit from it. A subsequent thought is who would be opposed to it. In this case, those who may fall into this category might be individuals who love to drive and work on cars and motorcycles.

Given that we we’ll all be living in the autonomous future together, we wanted to ensure the event was open to all. There’s a lot that autonomous vehicle enthusiasts can learn from automotive enthusiasts, and vice versa.

Working together

Putting these audiences together in one room enabled collaboration amongst the community. Car enthusiasts were able to parallel their natural interest by working on human-driven vehicles and autonomous vehicles; educators and tinkerers were in the build pits with industry engineers; and the children were a great reminder of who we’re doing this for – our future developers. This type of peer-to-peer interaction of learning together created a fantastic collaborative environment.

Round-up of Robocar event images

The souvenir

Like any good event, attendees should walk away with a little memento. To do this, we demoed our 3D printer and laser cutter by creating customized license plates for our attendees. We printed the license plate frames and laser etched the participant’s names on the plate themselves, on-site. Like autonomous vehicles, rapid prototyping tools such as laser cutters and 3D printers are going to be essential in building our sustainable cities of the future. If we are under the notion that our north star is such a sustainable city, then these tools can be represented as constellations pointing the way to that north star.

Souvenir from Robocars event - bespoke license plateBespoke license plates

The environment

From classic cars to robocars, we appreciated the irony of hosting an autonomous vehicle event in a garage where people work on human-driven vehicles. The Shop, while also functionally a makerspace for automotive enthusiasts, is also something of a museum—a temple, shrine, and retreat, to a wide array of four and two-wheel combustion engine vehicles from across history and the people that love and work on them.

Why did we choose such a venue? It’s because we’re at the transitional period where we can impact a major revolution in transportation while also preserving and paying homage to the history of automotive innovation that came before. To know how to improve technology, we need to understand and come to terms with its current state. This environment was the perfect ambience to get the audience thinking about how they can be part of the change.

Developers at build stations at Robocars Seattle eventThe developers at their build stations

Future impact on the community

As much as I love making for the sake of making, I find making with a purpose the most rewarding. When working with a north star, such as building a sustainable city, everything you make must drive innovation within that ecosystem.

We aim to replicate what we did in Seattle in other cities, and DIY Robocars already have dozens of communities worldwide. We hope that our streamlined version of the DonkeyCar will encourage engineers from all industries to check out the platform and make further contributions, making it more robust for the future. For those who consider themselves not so technically savvy, we are confident that our streamlined version will empower them to enter unknown territory because they deserve the opportunity to understand what’s just around the corner and to have a hand in that change.

Building sustainable technologies and communities, by their very nature, isn’t a competitive endeavor. Building the future also shouldn’t be from a solipsistic perspective of “tech innovators.” There are countless Arm-based open source hardware applications like the Raspberry Pi that lessens the friction for people of all technical abilities to contribute.

At Makerologist our work is based on four pillars: Discover, Access, Enhance, and Reciprocate.

For this first DIY Robocar event in Seattle we:

  1. Helped our community discover autonomous vehicle technology
  2. Increased accessibility by taking an open source platform and turned it into a kit
  3. Enhanced our community by developing a crash course on how to build their own robocars.
  4. We will reciprocate by hosting quarterly Robocar Derby events, in addition to the other maker experiences that we offer, in order to continue the cycle.

Much like on the racetrack, even though you’ve crossed the finished line, the circuit doesn’t end there. Learn more about Makerologist and the Arm Innovator Program by clicking on the link below.

Learn more about the Arm Innovator Program

Anonymous
  • This is the most amazing and innovative community event I’ve ever heard of. The thought and care that went into the planning and implementation of this event is heart-warming and an inspiration for our future. Such a very original idea and point of view!