Catching the Spirit of Open Hardware

As a Drupal user, developer, and trainer, I have seen and experienced the spirit of a growing and thriving tech community. And while far from a utopian society, the Drupal community has been a personal source of good friends, personal and professional development, career opportunities, and many (many!) teaching and learning opportunities. Part of what brings this community together is the shared appreciation of and opportunities that arise from using Drupal and other Open Source Software.

We have some like-minded neighbors in the Open Hardware community. Last Friday I had the opportunity to attend the Open Hardware Summit 2016, an annual event of the Open Hardware Association, and catch the spirit of Open Source in a fresh way: from the perspective of the Open Hardware community.

What is Open Hardware? As defined by the Open Hardware Association, which just announced a new Open Hardware Certification:

Open source hardware is hardware whose design is made publicly available so that anyone can study, modify, distribute, make, and sell the design or hardware based on that design. The hardware's source, the design from which it is made, is available in the preferred format for making modifications to it. Ideally, open source hardware uses readily-available components and materials, standard processes, open infrastructure, unrestricted content, and open-source design tools to maximize the ability of individuals to make and use hardware. Open source hardware gives people the freedom to control their technology while sharing knowledge and encouraging commerce through the open exchange of designs.

--http://www.oshwa.org/definition/

You probably have heard of some examples of open hardware, such as the Arduino Uno/Genuino. If you go to the project page for Arduino Uno/Genuino, you'll find schematics, reference design, and board size information, and anyone is welcome and invited to download this information and design their own versions and sell them.

Open Hardware Summit 2016

This year's Open Hardware Summit took place in Portland, Oregon at the Crystal Ballroom (the same venue for past Write the Docs events in Portland, OR, another most excellent event). The summit primarily took place in the main ballroom, where speakers were each given 15 minutes for their presentations, broken up by coffee and lunch breaks. Lola's Room on the floor below hosted a dozen or so vendor booths, featuring various electronic learning kits, Internet of Things platforms, live 3D printing displays, and other delightful things.

Presentations varied and largely consisted of inspiring project reports, lessons learned, failures and success, live demos, invitations to collaborate and contribute (for both hardware and software developers), and even a personal invitation to the Shenzhen region in China, a renowned location for electronics manufacturing.

My personal interaction with open hardware is from a hobbyist, learner, and teacher's perspective. I've interacted with a variety of boards from various platforms and am utilizing them for personal projects and also for teaching my 10, 12, and 14-year-old nieces programming and physical computing applications such as robotics, wearable electronics, and other embedded systems.

While all of the presentations were interesting in one way or another, here were some of my favorites.

Steve Hodges: micro:bit Open Source Physical Computing Platform for CS Education

In this presentation, Steve presented and demonstrated the micro:bit, an initiative brought to life in the UK by a partnership with the BBC. The micro:bit is designed for use by kids in the classroom. He demo'd a live Scratch-like block programming interface using Blockly, a Javascript framework developed by Google. Kids use the web interface to connect logic, preview their programs, and program their boards. Both the hardware and software components of this program were impressive. I walked away inspired to look into Blockly, and found several examples of Blockly to program an Arduino Uno (both paid and free) that I want to try out and possibly fork to create a Blockly interface to program a Circuit Playground from Adafruit Industries.

Rianne Trujillo: Open Source Hardware in our National Parks

Rianne presented a couple of projects she's been leading about embedded and interactive displays at national parks. One of the displays she works on is a bird/egg matching game. Inside the fabricated birds' eggs was an RFID tag. When placed in the correct bird's dish, the bird's song was played. (If incorrect, a voice said, "Sorry!") I loved hearing about the challenges and goals of the project, including making sure the display was durable, accessible to all, didn't fail if one egg went bad, and was relatively easy for park staff to maintain and replace components.

Jason Krinder: Open vs. Collaborative: Lessons from Linux and Google

This presentation was really a plea for others to contribute to Linux, but what I took away from it was a better understanding of what open hardware is and isn't. I also learned more about a new platform and board that I had only heard of in name, but didn't really know what it was. Jason Krinder is a co-founder of the BeagleBoard.org Foundation, a "US-based non-profit corporation existing to provide education in and promotion of the design and use of open-source software and hardware in embedded computing." I learned that the Raspberry Pi isn't built on open hardware and that there does exist an open hardware alternative to the Raspberry Pi, the BeagleBoard. Through my subsequent research, I learned that the BeagleBone Black is a low-cost board for developers and hobbyists that runs Linux. There is a whole community and library of resources around the BeagleBoards and you can find out more at https://beagleboard.org/.

Final impressions

There was so much to inspire and learn from at the Open Hardware Summit. From 3D printed prosthetic hands, to touch sensors for surgeons in India performing surgery on the pancreas, to nurturing project communities, to makerspaces and entrepreneurship in refugee communities in Beirut, Lebonon--I walked away with so many ideas--and tabs open on my phone and computer. I think it will take all year to process all the things I learned and want to learn more about!

The event was live-streamed and you can watch all the presentations on this UStream channel.

Getting involved in open hardware communities has renewed my sense of appreciation for tech communities like the Drupal community. It is so wonderful to see the amazing things that people can make when they build things together.

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