December 5, 2023

Novelties: Do It Yourself, or With the Help of Tinkerers Everywhere

But now, even those without a wisp of natural geek in them may have a chance at success. That’s because Web-based instructions — often designed by hobbyists for other hobbyists — are now supplementing the often-confounding printed directions that come with such kits.

Bloggers who tinker are creating interactive tutorials, descriptive videos and step-by-step series of photographs that make it easier for nontechies to go forward confidently. Dozens of do-it-yourself Web sites, like Evil Mad Scientist, AdaFruit and iFixIt, also offer tools, components and kits of their own, many aimed at beginners.

Dale Dougherty, editor and publisher of Make magazine, which sells kits as well as related books and tools at the Maker Shed store on its Web site, says a new era is opening for people who want to create things. “There have always been tinkerers,” he said. “But today it’s a lot easier for others to join in. We’ve moved from the lonely tinkerer to the social tinkerer who can share ideas.”

Those tinkerers might once have worked alone in their garages, Mr. Dougherty said, but now many offer blogs about their projects, documenting them and opening up the details to their readers. Online communities have sprung up in which people help one another, adapting and explaining the instructions so they are clear even to novices. Some people also try to commercialize their gadgets and inventions, he said, “but many, even most, are happy validating their ideas through the community.”

Scott Heimendinger, who blogs about food at, created a popular set of online instructions after he made a sous vide immersion cooker for $75 by using off-the-shelf components, rather than buying one for $1,200, the going price two years ago for the model he wanted. The appliance is used to slowly cook food sealed in plastic and immersed in water at precisely controlled temperatures.

To illustrate the steps in building the cooker, he took photographs with his digital camera, with the help of a tripod. He used his right hand to illustrate a step, while hitting the shutter release on the camera with the left. He could then use as many shots as he needed without worrying about printing costs.

“With every photo, you add information,” he said. “And people following the instructions can be confident they are building in the right way. This takes away a lot of the ambiguity.”

To test his instructions, he put them on the Web, refining them in 15 versions with the help of reader feedback. “In the past, I would have no idea how well the instructions work,” he said. “Now, with the Web component, I have a dialogue.”

The instructions have developed a life of their own on the Internet, prompting related projects. Some readers have adapted his design to control deep fryers, slow cookers and smokers. He refined the instructions yet again when they caught the attention of Make, which published them in a recent issue.

Margaret Honey, president and chief executive of the New York Hall of Science in Queens, which has many programs and events for children, has noticed the broadening choices of kits and projects for adults on the Internet. She says she hopes the trend can also encompass children, to encourage interest in science and engineering.

One example of the type of innovation that could do this, she said, is BigShot, a kit and a companion Web site that teach young people how to build a digital camera. The camera captures three types of images: regular, panoramic and stereoscopic three-dimensional.

“BigShot is novel and important,” Dr. Honey said. “You are building a complex tool, but you are also learning the science, through the thoughtful way the components in the kit are designed and backed up by Internet resources.” And, afterward, the young builders can share their photographs with others on the BigShot Web site.

BigShot was created by Shree K. Nayar, a professor of computer science who directs the Computer Vision Laboratory at Columbia University. The kit, now in prototype and not yet manufactured for sale, divides the building blocks of the camera into fewer than 20 components, including a gearbox, dynamo, flash, electronics and lenses, Dr. Nayar said. The work was aided in part by an $80,000 educational grant from Google. The camera has many unusual features, he said, including a crank that students can turn to generate electricity for each picture.

In assembling the camera, users are guided by instructions on the Web site that break the steps into a detailed series of photographs and text. A separate Learn section, with interactive graphics, explains underlying principles of mechanics, electromagnetism, power generation, imaging sensing, image processing and optics.

The next step will be manufacturing the camera components and bringing the project to market, Dr. Nayar said.

“But not as a toy,” he said. “It’s an educational kit for learning.” 


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