170A Baldwin St.
In the heart of Kensington Market, sandwiched between Graffiti’s and Cobs Bread, is a steel door notable only for the cute, humanoid CN Tower painted on it. Behind this easily overlooked entryway lies Hacklab.to, the oldest hacker space in Canada.
For many people, the term “hacker space” probably brings to mind the contentious exploits of Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks or Anonymous, the hacktivist group currently bent on identifying bullied teen Amanda Todd’s tormentors. Nicholas Dodds, a Hacklab.to member who has been coming to the space since 2010, is quick to shrug off these associations. “A hacker is simply someone who is able find innovative uses for things that already exist,” says Dodds.
“We do get guys coming in, expecting us to hack into their girlfriend’s email,” says Eric Boyd, Hacklab.to’s president, “but we shut them down pretty quickly.”
Sure, this hacker space, which has been in operation for nearly four years, has its fair share of nerdy, tech-related ephemera, such as a functioning, six-legged robot and a smartphone-controlled toy train. At one of the space’s weekly open houses, Geordie Bilkey, a 23-year-old computer programmer, was eager to show off his latest creation: a 1970’s-era TTC bus display that he has transformed into an old-school Atari game.
These sorts of “hacks,” however, are only part of what goes on in this former private residence. For the more artistically inclined hacker, there are “fabric hacks,” a fusion of fashion design and fibre-optic technology. Boyd uses the space to make electronic jewellery. These pieces, which are a bit like high-tech moodrings, have circuit boards designed to interact with the wearer or the environment.
Innovation even occurs in the bathroom, where there is a high-power laser cutter that plays the Super Mario theme and a toilet that used to tweet with every flush. It seems like every object and every inch of this small space is something that can be unlocked, controlled, or hacked.
For Bilkey, this boundless creativity is easily explained. “The types of people drawn to Hacklab.to,” he says, “come up with an idea and, in the same breath, immediately talk about how you can achieve it.”