A Day at EMF Camp 2018

The Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Camp has run biennially since 2012, and this year’s camp kicked off earlier in the month on the grounds of…

Alasdair Allan
a year ago

The Electromagnetic Field (EMF) Camp has run biennially since 2012, and this year’s camp kicked off earlier in the month on the grounds of Eastnor Castle near Ledbury, a small market town near the Welsh border.

A cross between a Maker Faire, DEFCON, and a music festival, EMF Camp is its own thing. Uniquely British, the organisers of EMF Camp don’t really welcome comparisons to the American Burning Man festival. Despite the perhaps too obvious analogies, the culture of EMF Camp comes from a very different place than the better known American desert festival.

This year’s camp came at the tail end of a record breaking heat wave here in the UK so unusually—considering the British weather—the only water in the field was coming out of the taps rather than from the sky. Which, all things considered, would have been slightly more normal at this time of year. It did however lend a laid back feel to things.

I couldn’t make it for the whole festival. Instead I got out of bed at the crack of dawn and drove northward, arriving on site in time for breakfast. My morning coffee was accompanied by the sound of hammers on iron as the team from Urban Crafts taught their blacksmithing workshop. They, at least, had woken up early.

Not far from the blacksmithing was the sound of smaller hammers, ringing on more precious metals, with Daan Uttien from SawuGo giving his “One Ring Workshop.”

Wandering uphill away from the sounds of hammers I walked up towards the lounge which housed something I really wanted to see, a knitted tapestry called “Stargazing.”

The tapestry was knitted by Sarah Spencer specifically for display at EMF Camp, and took over 60 hours of knitting on a hacked domestic knitting machine and weighs in at 15 kg (that’s about 33 lbs). It’s an equatorial star map showing constellations in both the northern and southern hemispheres with the equatorial line — representing the celestial equator — through the middle. The grey cloud shows the extent of our own Milky Way galaxy on the sky.

The positions of the planets, Sun, and Moon are shown as they were at 6pm British time, on the 31st of August which is when it was unveiled at EMF Camp. Coincidentally, this also happens to be 5am Melbourne time on the 1st of September which is the first day of Spring in the southern hemisphere.

Continuing my wander brought me towards the sound of bleeping, and the retro video games. A classic video game arcade, in a tent. Authentic vintage machine, no emulation was to be seen inside the tent, just original machines being played—for the most part—by people that probably weren’t born when they originally had coins pumped into them and beers balanced on top.

Nearby were the Hacky Rackers, running the first ever races of the Power Racing Series league to be held in the United Kingdom. Familiar attendees of Maker Faires on both coasts of the United States, the Power Racing Series is the “…only sub-$500 DIY electric car racing series featuring hackers, makers and families.”

The Hacky Racers weren’t the only Maker Faire cross-over however, because the Mantis made an appearance. A 2.2 litre turbo-diesel powered, 5 meter diameter 2 ton walking machine built by Matt Denton, the hexapod is a Guinness World Record holder and Maker Faire favourite.

However, electric race cars and a two-ton, six-legged robot, weren’t the only vehicles at EMF. Because I’d actually spotted the ageing Sinclair C5 before I spotted the hand-built diesel motorcycle. A precursor, and an unheeded warning, twenty years before, the Segway. Uniquely British, the C5 was a three wheeled electric piece of failed future history come to life in front of me.

I’m unsure whether this particular diesel motorcycle is the next project of Russell Couper who talked about building diesel powered motorcycles at the last EMF Camp two years ago, but either way it’s probably not road legal. It’s a beast.

NOTE: I’m told the bike does belong to Russell, and it is road legal.

Other things you have to presume are legal, the huge aerials towering above the tents. The AMSAT UK folks were there in force, along with many other radio amateurs and hams. In fact the last time I saw that many antennas I was driving by the Doughnut.

Of course, the radio amateurs weren’t the only ones with aerials on site, a lot of the porta-loos came with more networking hardware than average? Despite the grass, and the duck pond, these were fields with not just ubiquitous Wi-Fi, but also a pop-up GSM network. Because this year’s EMF Camp badge was a functional cell phone.

But being EMF Camp, not all the hacks on this year’s hackable badge were to do with the hardware. Being perhaps the only field in England with multiple laser cutters running that weekend, I saw a lot of hacking on badge cases while I was on site.

There were a lot of people hacking on electronics at EMF, too. For instance, Hackster’s Alex Glow was on site along with me talking about her Charmware project—a collection of mini PCB beads that let you build wearable electronic circuits.

Part of that big cultural difference between EMF Camp and Burning Man is that EMF is kid friendly. You won’t find many children, of any age, wandering the playa. At EMF Camp there are kids of all ages, from teenagers, to babes in arms.

There are also a surprisingly large number of activities aimed directly at kids, from workshops to games. With a section of the camping ground set aside to be family friendly.

Even the ‘Null Zone,’ a collection of shipping containers destined to be the after dark party spot of the camp, houses the kid friendly Cardboard Arcade during daylight hours.

After dark however the feel of the camp changes, the Null Zone especially, looks rather different than it did during the day.

With the kids safely in bed, and the LEDs glowing brightly you can see where the comparisons to that other festival might come from?

The night is filled with music, lights, lasers, and of course, fire. There is now a lot of information online on how to build your own fire tornado.

Nonetheless, as they say on the side of McDonald’s coffee, “Caution Hot.”

If you missed this year’s EMF Camp, you’ll have to wait two years for the next one. But the camp will be back in another field in 2020.

Alasdair Allan
Scientist, author, hacker, maker, and journalist. Building, breaking, and writing. For hire. You can reach me at 📫 alasdair@babilim.co.uk.
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