From Open Source to Open Hardware

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This column mainly talks about open source software, for the simple reason that code dominates the world of openness. But open source hardware does exist, albeit in a very early, rudimentary form. Last Friday, I went along to NESTA for what was billed as an “Open Hardware Camp”. Fortunately, I didn't see any tents, since that's not really my kind of thing; what I did see was a huge amount of enthusiasm, and some interesting hints of things to come.

For example, we heard about the London Hackspace, part of the national Hackspace Foundation:

The Hackspace Foundation is a non-profit, community organisation dedicated to providing hacker spaces in the UK.

Hacker spaces are physical places where people can meet to learn, socialise and collaborate on projects.

That is, these are physical spaces where people meet in person, not just online, and where they can collaborate on projects, be it software or hardware (or both). Potentially, these might involve using three-dimensional printers, also known as fabbers, including open source ones:

[email protected] is a project dedicated to making and using fabbers - machines that can make almost anything, right on your desktop. This website provides everything you need to know in order to build or buy your own simple fabber, and to use it to print three dimensional objects. The hardware designs and software on this website are free and open-source. Once you have your own fabber, you can also download and print various items, try out new materials, or upload and share your own projects. Advanced users can modify and improve the fabber itself.

Fabbers (a.k.a. 3D printers or rapid prototyping machines) are a relatively new form of manufacturing that builds 3D objects by carefully depositing materials drop by drop, layer by layer. With the right set of materials and a geometric blueprint, you can fabricate complex objects that would normally take special resources, tools and skills if produced using conventional manufacturing techniques. A fabber can allow you to explore new designs, email physical objects to other fabber owners, and most importantly - set your ideas free. Just as MP3s, iPods and the Internet have freed musical talent, we hope that blueprints and fabbers will democratize innovation.

Of course, open hardware doesn't necessarily mean hacking at the atomic level. Perhaps the most popular open hardware project is Arduino:

Arduino is an open-source electronics prototyping platform based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software. It's intended for artists, designers, hobbyists, and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments.

Arduino can sense the environment by receiving input from a variety of sensors and can affect its surroundings by controlling lights, motors, and other actuators. The microcontroller on the board is programmed using the Arduino programming language (based on Wiring) and the Arduino development environment (based on Processing). Arduino projects can be stand-alone or they can communicate with software on running on a computer (e.g. Flash, Processing, MaxMSP).

The boards can be built by hand or purchased preassembled; the software can be downloaded for free. The hardware reference designs (CAD files) are available under an open-source license, you are free to adapt them to your needs.

Arduino has the virtue of providing pre-made elements for open hardware hacking, but the price paid is that they are only suitable for certain, admittedly quite broad, classes of applications. This is a typical trade-off for open hardware: the more general the system, the harder to apply; the more applicable, the less general. A good example of an even more specific – and therefore more immediately useful – open hardware project is the open source car. In fact, we heard about two of them.

One was the apparently unpronounceable “c,mm,n”:

C,mm,n (pronounced ‘common’) is an open source community for sustainable personal mobility. You might think c,mm,n is about a new type of vehicle, and it's true that we are developing a new type of electric car. But c,mm,n is more than that: it is a total mobility concept for the future. Our c,mm,nity is open to anyone with a creative, intelligent and enterprising perspective on mobility issues, and who wants to help create a better world. C,mm,n follows the open source model: as with open source software, we focus our services around the product. Anyone can use it to offer mobility services, just as long as any derived work produced is released back to the community under an open source licence.

The other is Riversimple, whose approach has a number of interesting aspects:

A lightweight network electric vehicle, constructed from carbon composites and powered by hydrogen fuel cells.

Open source design and development. Riversimple will invite the community to help develop its vehicles, by licensing its designs to the independent open source foundation 40 Fires.

A service concept - we will lease cars not sell them. This aligns the interests of the manufacturer with the interests of the consumer and of the environment - everyone wants cars that have a long life span with maximum efficiency and minimum materials usage.

Distributed manufacturing - The economies of scale of carbon composites frames are very different from those of steel-bodied vehicles. Riversimple vehicles are likely to be produced in small factories producing 5,000-10,000 vehicles per year. This allows for considerable local variation in the car.

Broader ownership - The corporate structure of Riversimple is designed to ensure that all stakeholders in the enterprise have a fair say and share in the benefits of a successful business.

Riverside's founder, Hugo Spowers, explained to the Open Hardware Camp crowd that it was an article in New Scientist a decade ago that opened his eyes to open source, so to speak, especially the following idea, which solved the problem of how a tiny start-up could compete with the likes of Toyota and General Motors:

This movement--called "open source" to reflect the availability of the underlying programming code--is Microsoft's worst nightmare: a group of programmers it cannot out-compete because its members are not motivated by profit, and which it cannot buy because they do not exist as a formal company. And because the results of their work are so good more and more businesses are turning to them - and not to Microsoft.

Actually, it was not just this idea, but precisely those words that alerted Spowers to the possibilities of open source: I know, since I wrote them for that New Scientist article he read at the end of 1998....

The day concluded with a very lively session discussing the licensing of open hardware. Here, two things became clear. First, that there are a large number of people in this country who are both enthusiastic and extremely knowledgeable about the licensing issues that open hardware raises. Secondly, it was also evident that those issues are anything but simple, and that much more work needs to be done in this area before open hardware passes from the Hackspace and Arduino level to the vastly more ambitious project that Riverside has embarked upon.

So, still extremely early days (think RMS releasing EMACS under the first free software licence), but also intensely exciting ones. Definitely an area to watch.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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