To Ken Delahoussaye, an old computer, cell phone, camera or even a child's toy is much more than a disposable device. Each is something he can take apart and fuse with other parts to create something totally new.
Known as "makers" or "tinkerers," people such as Delahoussaye of Melbourne, Fla., spend their free time in garages and workshops, soldering parts, wiring circuit boards and doing other kinds of hacking.
And although people have been building stuff in their garages for decades, the abundance of Web sites where they can share their projects and the ease of obtaining gadgets to work with have combined to spur a growing interest in technology do-it-yourself projects. The struggling economy also has caused some folks to make their own things instead of buying new ones.
Delahoussaye, 47, is unusual because his hobby of tinkering is also his occupation. A trained electrical engineer, he started his own business called Kadtronix in 2003.
A corner of his living room jammed with computers, monitors, cords and other parts serves as both his work and hobby space. Companies typically hire Delahoussaye for projects that combine "access-control devices" such as card readers and fingerprint scanners.
For instance, he built a system for a tanning salon in Minnesota that allows customers to scan their fingers and then use a touch-screen computer to choose a specific bed and the amount of time they wish to use it for. Once they do that, the bed turns on automatically.
Like other people who work from home, Delahoussaye likes to get his mail soon after it's delivered. But because his mailbox is down the street, he got tired of checking it. So he built a system that will automatically play a sound in his house when the mail carrier opens the box and lets in light.
But though some of his projects arise from a practical need, many have their roots in simple curiosity.
Delahoussaye, for instance, once bought his daughter a $30 toy radar gun and was amazed that it actually worked.
"The wheels were turning," Delahoussaye said. "I thought, 'I have got to do something with this right away.'"
So he immediately bought another one and gathered about $30 worth of parts, including a camera tripod, a controller box and a translucent tube. He took the radar gun apart, placed the radar part into the tube and mounted it on the tripod.
Now he can set the device outside and use its remote control to detect the speeds of passing cars.
Some of his other projects include a motion detector that plays a sound or video on his computer; a remote-control robot with a camera inside; and a tennis-ball launcher made with electric-scooter motors, a battery used for jump-starting a car and other parts.
"The biggest motivation for me is actually the building of the project," Delahoussaye said.
"Once it's built and it works, there is a satisfaction in that, but the awe is gone."
Robert Dutton of Casselberry enjoys tinkering so much that most of his creations last only a few days before he takes them apart. Dutton said the growth of Web sites such as YouTube and Instructables .com, which allows people to post detailed instructions of their projects, have further inspired him to tinker with technology.
He has posted more than 50 projects on Instructables, including a sound-activated camera made from a disposable camera and an old computer speaker, and a method for taking ultraviolet photography using a broken black-light bulb.
"The thing I like about Instructables is that as tinkerers, we are always working alone in our garages, but this gives us a chance to really share," said Dutton, 39, a senior in the mechanical-engineering program at the University of Central Florida. "I am learning something, and by passing it on at Instructables, I get the chance to teach someone else something to."
Shawn Connally, managing editor of Make magazine, a publication that has featured some of Delahoussaye's projects and other tinkerers around the world, says, "Makers, by in large will say, 'What else can I do with that? ... "It's about being more creative in making and reusing and remaking something. It's empowering for people."
One of Delahoussaye's projects could come in handy if he ever worries that his children are staying out too late: a key-card entry system he's installed on his front door that keeps a time stamp.
"I don't have to sit up all night and wait," Delahoussaye said. "I could just let the system do it for me."
(c) 2009, The Orlando Sentinel (Fla.).
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