As the first season America’s Greatest Makers comes to a close, we go behind the scenes to see what happens when DIY tech makers bring their inventions to primetime TV to compete for $1 million.
Makers (basically inventors, innovators, and people creating cool stuff) are bringing their inventions from their sketchpads into pop culture thanks to accessible tools, a sharing mentality and the belief that anything is possible.
This spring, they made it onto primetime TV for the first season of America’s Greatest Makers. Built on a partnership between Mark Burnett, TBS, MGM and Intel, it became an unprecedented series – a sort-of modern-day Revenge of the Nerds – and an exciting evolution of digital experience and reality TV.
“In America, we used to make a lot of things, but then we stopped,” said Dean Houser, the show’s executive producer. Instead, he said, we began purchasing items on the internet and spent less time creating products, which meant that the making of things moved to India and China.
“But with new technology, it’s swung back the other way. Now, a maker can really be anybody.”
From thousands of applicants, Houser and his teammates selected 24 teams that submitted ideas in hopes of winning the $1 million prize money. The contestants ranged in age from 15 to 59 and brought a trove of ideas – from technology to help manage cattle to a game-infused toothbrush.
They also showed the world the heart of the maker spirit, which is all about sharing, supporting and celebrating the possible.
“This show is unlike anything I’ve ever done,” said Houser, adding that in most of the competition shows he’s produced, including The Voice and The Apprentice, contestants keep to themselves, not wanting to show vulnerability or give secrets away.
“These teams got to know each other. They shared ideas and helped each other out. They became like a small family. It was really impressive to watch.”
Judge and venture capitalist Kevin Pereira agreed. “TV personalities are often disingenuous these days, but the authentic passion each maker brought to the stage was a welcome reprieve from the usual caricatures,” he said.
The teams could create any invention based on the Intel Curie module, a button-sized platform loaded with sensors, including an accelerometer, a gyroscope and Bluetooth capabilities.
“It was a great platform to develop prototypes really quickly within a short time frame,” said Intel’s Carlos Montesinos, whose team of mentors – industrial designers, mechanical engineers, hardware engineers, software engineers and a group of entrepreneur mentors from Berkeley Haas School of Business – assisted the contestants as they transformed ideas into products over the duration of the show.
Montesinos said the modern invention process is changing. It used to be inventors would hunker down in basements building prototypes and planning for months. But Montesinos’s team follows a more iterative process, which allows makers to change direction based on real-time feedback.
“This agile process allows them to literally go out into the street, go to a library, go to a coffee shop, talk to potential customers and quickly realize that their idea didn’t hit the mark, or that they were on to something just by looking at the customers’ reactions,” he said. That ability allowed teams to pivot quickly, without having to go back to the drawing board.
Montesinos said the evolution of hardware has helped anyone become a maker. “Technology now is enabling anybody, anywhere to build physical products,” he said likening it to the software evolution that let coeds create websites from their dorm rooms. “Now a 13-year-old kid can build a product – an actual physical product – in his or her home.”
The Maker Spirit
In the Maker community exists a sharing mentality, where open-source technology is often free and widely available. People help each other solve problems, lending their proverbial soldering irons.
In a situation like America’s Greatest Makers where teams are competing for $1 million, this supportive spirit seems contrary to the end goal. Montesinos said when they first started shooting the show, the production teams said each team should be on its own, doing its own thing.
“We said that’s totally against the maker community. We share our stuff. We help each other.”
He said the night before the final pitches, one team helped another hone its pitch. When someone pointed out that by helping the other team they could lose the competition, the team said, “Yes, we’re here to win, but in the end it’s all about sharing. We’re a small community, and that’s what makers do – we help each other.”
Inventors are known to keep their ideas close to their chests, concerned someone else will steal their concepts. Montesinos said when the competition on America’s Greatest Makers started, some teams were concerned – how would they protect their product? But, he said, it takes much more than a good idea to make a great product.
“There is nothing new,” he said. “Whatever you’re doing, it’s probably been done before.”
Montesinos said it’s all about execution: A good idea is important, but so is teamwork, communication with customers, and generating interest and excitement about the product.
New to TV
Very few makers are television stars – they are mostly just people with creative ideas and an “I can do this” attitude. According to Houser, the secret to Mark Burnett’s successful reality TV shows is just letting people be themselves.
“We believe that the real drama comes from the struggle of what they’re trying to do,” said Houser. “What’s interesting about this show is that these makers are trying to solve a problem.”
At the same time, they’re going to school, working two jobs, spending late nights thinking, planning, and tinkering.
“That alone is enough drama to cover the entire show, so you don’t need to fake anything,” he said. “You just talk to them, let them be who they are, and from that, these amazing moments come out.”
Houser said the action backstage is often riddled with tension – products break, teams get eliminated – because there’s so much at stake. He said the judges – including Intel CEO Brian Krzanich, Pereira and investor-slash-media personality Carol Roth, along with several guest judges including Shaquille O’Neal and Mayim Bialik – struggled with hard choices, in part because they didn’t want to send anyone home.
Pereira said he learned a lot from the show. “Shaq’s handshake was like a baseball glove wrapped around a teacup,” he joked.
“But one major surprise I witnessed came in the disparity in our educational system. There was no shortage of inspiring kids that came through to pitch. They were there in part thanks to access to special STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) educational programs.”
He said every kid should have access to that kind of education and hopes that the show will empower the younger generation to demand more from their educational systems.
“The fact that my niece wants to suddenly make video games after watching Uncle Kevin on the television speaks volumes to me,” he said. “Now it’s up to all of us to ensure she, and every other kid with a dream, has access to the tools necessary to achieve them.”
One of the reasons America’s Greatest Makers has been so successful is that it’s been more than just a TV show – it’s also had a digital component. The website kicked off the season by providing a vast array of cool maker stories – from the teenager creating a jet-engine go-cart to makers that created rocket skates.
As the TV show aired, the website offered behind-the-scenes moments, how-to videos, interviews with the judges and more background on the teams of makers. This not-seen-on-TV content made the show accessible to a wider audience, and it allows the season to live on long after the final episode.
“No show has been such a big platform that it could go both on the web and on television. Mostly properties focus on one or the other,” said Houser. “This could be a game-changer.”
Season 2, set to begin airing in Spring 2017, will see the integration of more tech. In addition to the Intel Curie module, which enables small form-factor, smart, connected or wearable products, contestants will also have the opportunity to use a next-generation Intel Atom processor, which offers remote monitoring using the cloud and can power a variety of products including robots, drones and smart home devices. They’ll also be able to use the Intel RealSense 3D camera technology, which brings depth vision to a project.
As submissions come rolling in for Season 2 (apply here), Houser encourages makers to bring any good idea, no matter how rough.
He said the show is perfect for people who don’t say, ‘I wish someone would go make this;’ instead, they believe they can do it themselves.