On Tuesday evening I finally made it to the Toronto Hacklab, after meaning to make it over for weeks!
It’s a really interesting space. There are currently five 3D printers, lots of tools for playing with electronics, and a giant computer-driven laser in the bathroom for etching and cutting plastic or acrylic. (Actually, I should try to make an acrylic LakeHub logo to send back to Kenya….) According to Eric, who gave me a tour of the space, about a two thirds of the members come through to work on these sorts of projects, and a third are mainly software people who use it as a common work space.
A couple of my favorite toys that I saw on the tour were a giant LED pixel board and a ‘flip dot board’, both of which had been salvaged from the Toronto Transit Commission, which runs all the buses and subways. Members of the Hacklab built electronic interfaces to both of the devices: the LED board is run by an arduion and can be sent messages to display, and otherwise acts a clock. The flip-dot board looks like it’s run by some custom microcontrollers, and is hooked up to a joystick for playing ‘snake.’
I met a great group of people on my visit. There was a former quantum physicist turned public science advocate, a younger guy working on neural nets and splitting his time between living with parents in Toronto and working in San Francisco, an aerospace engineer who could tell me exactly why a 3D-printed jet engine just wouldn’t work, and an older guy interested in HAM radio and ridding the world of the evils of Leibniz notation. I somehow ended the night giving a crash-course on representation theory to one of the members, and finding myself for the first time trying to defend the value of representation theory as an avenue of study. (Persi Diaconis’ work on card shuffling was the argument that seemed to prove that representations can actually be useful. It’s good to have a few awesome applications in your pocket, it turns out.)
The space is funded entirely by membership: it’s $50 a month to become a member, which gets you round-the-clock access to the space and a bin that you can keep your current project in. For non-members, there’s an open-house every Tuesday with tours for new visitors (like me!) and a nice vegan dinner. Due to the bunch of expensive and easy-to-break toys lying around, becoming a member requires vouching from the current membership.
It’s an interesting model: they’re completely free from obligations to corporate sponsors or a hosting university. The space is also completely volunteer-run: everyone involved has other jobs that pay their bills, and it sounds like there’s no paid staff. When it works, volunteer based models can be quite awesome: so long as there’s sufficient enthusiasm for the space, the project will continue to thrive. On the flip side, this means that there’s no permanent staff doing things like outreach or dreaming up new events or interesting ways to expand. It’s a cool, funky space in the middle of the city, totally independent and likely to stay that way for the forseeable future.
On the whole, it’s like someone took iHub and Bike Pirates (an anarchist bike shop I’ve worked with in Toronto) and shook them up in a blender. It’s an awesome space, and I’m looking forward to going back!