It’s a Tuesday night in Philadelphia—hacker time. A small group of do-it-yourself engineers and hipster geeks gather in a cluttered space downtown. One holds a Kinect, the motion-sensing controller for Microsoft’s Xbox 360 system. But he’s not playing a video game. He’s about to take the Kinect apart to see if he can get it to work with a shoot-’em-up space game for which it wasn’t intended.
It’s a typical challenge at the Hacktory, a freewheeling engineering clubhouse and just one of the many self-described "hackerspaces" popping up in cities around the world. The group takes its name from Andy Warhol’s famous 1960s hangout, the Factory, hoping to bring that sort of imaginative spirit to the technically inclined—and reclaim the word hacker. "It’s a way to take something apart and put it back together in a new way," says Hacktory director Georgia Guthrie. "It’s a creative act, not a destructive act."
While many people think of hacker communities as existing online, there’s also a desire to collaborate in person. "Physical hackerspaces sprang out of a need to have a sense of community and a place to hang out," says Jonathan Lassoff, president of Noisebridge, in San Francisco, which operates out of a former sewing shop and at almost 500 square meters, is one of the larger hackerspaces around.
Hackerspaces.org, a hub for the collectives, lists dozens of groups, from Toylab in Argentina to Blind Security in Uganda. In addition to being a clearinghouse for information on the scene, the site holds a monthly call-in, which allows groups around the world to share ideas (and are kept as audio files for future reference). Hackerspaces.org also organizes hackathon events every month. A recent example, The Playing Card Box Challenge, required participants to "create a hackerspace gift that will fit inside the box from a set of playing cards and mail it to another hackerspace."
Launched in 2007, the Hacktory was an outgrowth of the burgeoning "maker" scene—the do-it-yourself subculture that spawned its own glossy magazine, Make , and convention series, the Maker Faire. The Philly group sought to distinguish itself by focusing on creativity, letting the engineering sneak in by the side door. For example, a design workshop in which kids created jewelry tacitly introduced them to light-emitting diodes. "We’ve decided to cater more to art and integrate technology with art in any way possible," says Guthrie, an art historian who became interested in electronics after getting disenchanted with her museum work. "I thought museums are old and stuffy," she says. "They don’t let you touch anything."
The Hacktory offers a weekly open house. The club hosts special events, such as Nerf Gun Hacking, and concerts by musicians who perform on Nintendo Game Boy devices. One of the more popular activities was a sex toy hacking workshop, in which participants made their own devices using materials as diverse as plastic eggs and bicycle parts. Newcomers look for a place to build something themselves and end up sharing their knowledge and tools. "The network is the most important thing," says Andrew Davidson, a graphic designer who helps organize Hacktory events. "The people I’ve become friends with at the Hacktory are reliable resources for information."