Open Hardware Summit 2011

I attended the first OHS in 2010 and enjoyed it enough that I took another day off to be there once again this year. The event brings together folks from all different backgrounds and truly represents a melting pot of those with interests in the “Open Hardware” (open source designs, firmware, software, process) movement. In fact, I’d argue that the Open Hardware movement is more inclusive than Open Source software is at this point. There are far more women attending and speaking at these events (the conference is organized by women), combined with a lot less of the pretentious prima donnas you see in male dominated Open Source.

Having taken a super early (5am) train from Boston, I didn’t arrive until the keynote at 10am, so I missed the intro from Alicia and Ayah. The keynote was presented by the Arduino Team, who were part of “The Big Picture” track. As such, they addressed issues of scale and running a successful business – software can be entirely free, but hardware has an intrinsic cost and so there must always be a business model associated with it. Apparently, over 300K official Arduino Un* parts have been shipped (I assume the numbers don’t relate to clones – the total must be far higher, as even the statistics for software downloads exceed the total given), and at this point there are over 200 distributors in many countries, etc.

After the keynote, in the same track, Kate Hartman of OCAD University gave a talk on “Edges, Openings, and In-Betweens”. Then, Eric Wilhelm of Instructables (apparently recently acquired by Autodesk) talked about how the site allows “13 year old boys of all ages and genders” to submit an insane number of Open Source K’Nex gun designs as well as many other forms of Open Hardware. Finally, Bunnie Huang discussed how the “Best Days of Open Hardware are Yet to Come”. The talk focussed on how Moore’s Law is dead and in the coming years we’ll all have “heirloom laptops”, etc. A wonderful fiction, sure to get a lot of PR in certain media, but there’s more to life than the x86-centric view of Megahertz. The future will be around hyperscale, low power parts and tight integration thereof. Innovation may have to focus on areas other than raw performance numbers, but that has been true for most of this decade already. But there is some truth in the idea that Open Hardware will benefit from the demise of Moore’s Law. It will possible for some hobbyist hacker with an inexpensive FPGA to build some truly insane stuff in the coming years – but the playing field will never be as even as imagined in the talk. I enjoyed the theatrics and use of a Chumby prototype board to overlay tweets/SMSes on the presentation.

Next up came the legal track (“Open Source Hardware Legal Landscape”). Myriam Ayass talked about CERN’s implementation of an OHS inspired/derived Open Hardware License and how various changes will be made in the wake of the formalization of the Open Hardware Definition. Alison Powell talked about the “4 freedoms” (derived from Open Source) and how they relate to Open Hardware. Michael Weinberg of Public Knowledge discussed how his organization reaches out to those in Congress and educates them around technology such as the 3D printing movement of late. They have put on public demonstrations of the technology on Capitol Hill so that those in the House and Senate can understand the idiocy of imposing DMCA-style restrictions on 3D printing.

I ran into my (awesome) publisher at the event, and so I spent lunch discussing the current Linux book I’m working on. We both enjoy the same kinds of events and people and were able to reconnect with Alicia Gibb amongst others over lunch. I reminded Alicia that I’d connected her with Val from the Ada Initiative a few months back – need to followup on that front, since there’s a lot of cross over from Open Hardware into OSS.

First topic of the afternoon was “Open Hardware & Social Change”. Gabriella Levine of Protei spoke about an Open Design for an autonomous sailboat that can be used to deploy various oil spill cleanup technology (even in storms). Very cool. Next came Shigeru Kobayashi of the Gainer project, which is using Open Hardware technology to track nuclear radition levels across Japan independently of the government (there’s a lack of trust there after the apparent failure of Tokyo to admit to the severity of the incident). Finally, Zach Lieberman received several rounds of applause for The Eyewriter Initiative, which is using Open Hardware eye tracking technology to allow a grafitti artist suffering from ALS who only has use of his eyes to continue his art. Not only do they have an awesome platform for art creation using eye tracking, but they have projected the designs in real time from a hospital bed onto the walls of buildings in LA. Awesome.

Second topic track of the afternoon was “Forging an Open Hardware Community”. Eric Craig Doster of iFixit talked about how they got started and how they build community, and how they leverage teardowns for PR. I asked how many iPads they had to go through (for example) to get it right. He said the most units they have gone through is 3, but they usually get it in 1. Autumn Wiggins discussed “The Upcycle Exchange”, which applies Open Source concepts to Indie Craft. Upcycling is all about re-use of things other people might regard as trash. The Upcycle Exchange is in St. Louis, which was a nice reminder that Open Hardware isn’t limited to the East/West Coasts. It’s only been going a year, but hopefully will continue to grow! Finally, Bre Perris of MakerBot showed some hilarious 3D print designs involving Gangstas and other silliness. There was also a lot of seriousness – including the revelation that Makerbot has brought in over $10 Million.

The third track of the afternoon was on “From Small Scale Fabrication to Large Scale Collaboration”. First up, Haig Norian discussed work being done at Columbia using organic circuits to build Open Hardware ICs, and the challenges of applying Open Hardware to traditional fabrication (which uses a lot of NDAs and closed source processes). Next, Geoffrey Barrows of Centeye discussed their low pixel, low power miniature camera technology that can be used in all manner of applications. Portions of the technology are being Opened now, which is a big change for a company that has been traditionally very secretive (having government contracts, etc.). They will have a low-cost camera available for Open Hardware enthusiasts soon. The demos involved self guiding mini helicopters and autonomous drones. Next up, an Open laser saw from The Lasersaur Project. Addie Wagenknecht discussed getting funding (including dealing with the bank of mom – in this case an economist – thinking the project was insane to begin with). The demos were impressive. After that, Daniel Reetz (whose day job is with Internet Archive) talked about DIY Book Scanning using low cost technology built using digital cameras and fancy software able to dewarp images, etc. Next, Mark Norton of the Open Source Ecology project talked about their Steam Engine project. They’re building an Open steam engine for use by remote communities, and are enjoying the ability to use out of copyright books while also improving on very old designs. Finally Bruce Perens talked about the longstanding co-operation between NASA and Commercial space flight and Ham radio, including the deployment of AMSATs.

The final joint track was entitled “Starting up in Open Hardware”. Amanda Wozniak of Wyss Institute talked about the Engineering Process used in commercial operations and the importance of documentation. James Bowman
discussed how Gameduino went from the Kickstarter concept to a product in 90 days (and how they handled the scale of the initial orders). Justin Downs of Ground Lab talked about “how open development sustains small business and drivers innovation”. Then, Bryan Newbold of Octopart gave an insightful talk on “Economics of Electronic Components for Small Buyers”: scaling up to take advantage of price breaks is important, but it might not be necessary to go from 2,000 units to 10,000 or more. Then, Nathan Seidle gave an outstanding talk (including real numbers) on how Sparkfun got going for him right out of college with no previous experience as a business owner. Nathan is truly inspiring at the best of times and “Where does transparency end” made many good points – including that you don’t need everything to be open. Your customers don’t need to know how your internal logistics process works, as an example. Finally, Mitch Altman of TV-B-Gone (a personal favorite product that I keep on hand for emergency use) talked about making a business from your fun project.

The last track of the day was “Breakouts”, which was divided between a number of rooms. I attended the educational track, which was interesting, although I was suffering from the long day by that point so I didn’t get a lot from the session. The general demos afterward were very cool. I saw several 3D printers that I’d not run across before from Ultimaker as well as the Makerbot, etc.

Overall, I was very impressed with the conference. The format was a little different this year. Most of the day was in one large auditorium that was completely filled (standing room only), and consisted almost of an “Ignite” style lightening talk format. I suspect future events will need more rooms (a nice problem to have), and I hope they’ll handle the growth well. One piece of advice for the organizers would be to require presenters to submit their talks in PDF prior to the event, and then to have one laptop drive all of the presentations. There were enough people with Linux laptops having to adjust settings or reboot, and one person using Microsoft Office on a Mac had three crashes in a row on the same set of slides. A simple rig with one laptop per room, running a PDF slideshow would be ideal. No modeline fiddling, no reboots, none of that typical conference nonsense.

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