Open Hardware Branches from Its Roots

Art,Business,Community,Technology October 3, 2012 7:27 pm

“I want to see one of you out there become the first billion-dollar open hardware company.” Wired Editor Chris Anderson opened the 2012 Open Hardware Summit with this challenge—and some fine print. “With  business pressures, as we grow, we’re probably gonna have to see a hybrid model where some things are closed.”

Anderson launched this controversial statement at a packed room of the most “open”-minded geeks in tech. The ethos of the open-source community promotes sharing over protection of intellectual property to spur innovation. Release your circuit files and code, they say, and the crowd will iterate on it faster than any closed corporation. Any piece you close off prevents the system from being replicated and improved.

Perhaps Anderson was setting the stage for a later talk by Makerbot founder Bre Pettis, who just a week earlier released the latest version of their groundbreaking 3D printer—the Replicator 2—which prints three-dimensional objects fed from digital files. The Replicator 2 is bigger, faster, pre-assembled, and (relatively) cheap. But parts of it are closed off, and the reaction from the open-source community has not been kind.

When Pettis took the stage, he cut right to the chase: “We caused a bit of a ruckus last week.”

As the nascent open hardware community grows, it faces tough decisions. When we interviewed Arduino founder Massimo Banzi at TED, he related his escalating problems with Chinese shanzhai knock-offs. But Anderson says “you can’t replicate the community”. The community is the process.

For all the tension that permeated the summit, there was plenty to celebrate. Make Editor Dale Dougherty announced Mayor Bloomberg’s designation of Maker Week in New York September 24–29. The expo showed off a community thriving with creativity (if stuck in science fair mode). And stories from makers revealed the huge impact open hardware has had beyond the community. By the end of the day, clear patterns emerged. Open hardware wasn’t just about posting Eagle files to your website. It provides a platform for community-building and education.

No one demonstrated this better than Public Lab, who uses technology to rally communities around environmental monitoring. They design low-cost, DIY devices and engage communities in the design and adaptation of the technology, as well as collection and analysis of the data. They’re best known for their balloon mapping kit, which rallied citizen scientists during the BP oil spill. Now the lab is crowdsourcing spectral data through its Kickstarted DIY spectrometer. Think Shazam for identifying materials with your iPhone.

Ayah Bdeir told the story of founding littleBits, playful electrical components that allow kids (and adults, thank you) to easily make circuits. Her goal was to rethink STEM education. Frustrated with polarizing models of “field-driven” education (too siloed) and “tools-driven” education (quickly becomes obsolete), she found a middle path: teach fundamental concepts that apply to both, like programming, problem solving, and design thinking. When students build with littleBits, they learn about light instead of LEDs, motion instead of motors.

Akiba, co-founder of the Tokyo Hackerspace, built a DIY Geiger counter (radiation detector) after last year’s earthquake. To prototype his bGeigie, he duct taped an iPhone and radiation monitor to a car and collected GPS data. Once standardized, 25 units were deployed, collecting four million data points across Japan—the most comprehensive non-governmental set of radiation data. Akiba engaged communities in collecting data, spurring corrective action. And he’s made the data available for research.

If the Open Hardware Summit is any indication, open-source is flourishing and extending its reach out into the world. We’re seeing new versions and branches created before our eyes, to borrow terminology from the open-source backbone, Git. The notion of “open” is changing, as are its implications. As Anderson concluded, ”We shouldn’t be dogmatic.”

Photo by John Abella