Tuesday Nov. 2, Hardware Kits and Tools

Reading discussion led by Ed.

1 Comment so far

  1. ed on November 1st, 2010

    I. Introducing Hardware Toolkits.

    This week we are focusing on hardware kits and tools and are presented with two very different approaches to enabling people to develop physically interactive systems with hardware and software:  Phidgets and Fritzing.  While these systems are fundamentally different in their approaches to enabling hardware development, they have much in common in terms of project history and motivations and each relates deeply and in interesting ways to the theme of our Design For Empowerment class.

    II. Phidgets and Fritzing are both hardware toolkits.  So what’s the difference?

    Both Phidgets and Fritzing were born in Academia:  Phidgets at the University of Calgary and Fritzing at the Potsdam University of Applied Sciences.  But they were created for completely different reasons and at fundamentally different times.  Phidgets was originally developed around the turn of the millennium and was created primarily for software developers who have long had the luxury of software libraries that abstract away many of the complexities involved in tasks such as drawing common Graphical User Interface elements (GUI Widgets).  But when developing with physical hardware, the authors argue that software developers are often forced to develop physical widgets (Phidgets) from scratch.  In building an exemplary Phidgets system, the authors did just that, but aimed to share their creation so that other developers could easily forget about the low level details and simply “concentrate on the overall use, modification and recombination of devices into a physical user interface.” [p210]  

    While Phidgets is aimed at software developers, Fritzing is targeted at designers.  It was developed more recently and has benefited from and became part of a larger set of tools including Processing and Arduino.  While Phidgets builds on existing software development knowledge and workflows, extending it to hardware, Fritzing builds on designers’ ability to prototype circuits with breadboards and extends it  to more robust and repeatable Printed Circuit Boards (PCBs).  Fritzing can also be used to document one’s electronic creations and can serve as a standard way to exchange circuit designs, allowing feedback and extension by educators or colleagues.  Fritzing has a stronger focus on education of its users, where Phidgets seems to lend itself to simply getting stuff done.

    III. How do Fritzing and Phidgets relate to the themes of Technology for Empowerment?

    Clearly, both Fritzing and Phidgets aim to empower their users to create with computation.  With Phidgets, programming with computation is the primary focus of the tool and Fritzing extends the computational affordances of Processing and Arduino with the ability to have direct control over the physical computer and its configuration.  But  the relationship to our class’ themes goes further.  Both tools seem to in fact be “toolkits for user innovation” as described by von Hippel.  We can analyze whether  the five criteria for “effective toolkits” are met with each tool:

    First, they will enable users to carry out complete cycles of trial-and-error learning. Second, they will offer users a “solution space” that encompasses the designs they want to create. Third, users will be able to operate them with their customary design language and skills—in other words, well-designed toolkits are “user friendly” in the sense that users do not need to engage in much additional training to use them com- petently. Fourth, they will contain libraries of com- monly used modules that the user can incorporate into his or her custom design, thus allowing the user to focus his or her design efforts on the truly unique elements of that design. Fifth and finally, properly designed toolkits will ensure that custom products and services designed by users will be producible on manufacturer production equipment without requir- ing revisions by manufacturer-based engineers. [p825 - Management Science/Vol.48, No. 7]

    1) Both tools allow users to learn by trial and error.  Phidgets only requires new code to be written to try out an idea, and Fritzing makes use of the bread board as the first mode of design where changes can be made rapidly.

    2) We will leave this up to individual users, but both teams seem convinced that their tools generate desirable solutions.

    3) Fritzing uses the breadboard as an entry point for those who are comfortable creating circuits in this way and Phidgets makes hardware just like software for software developers.  Both are examples of toolkits that speak users’ own language, creating a bridge to more knowledge and skills.

    4) Fritzing contains a library of commonly used parts and the idea and implementation of Phidgets is centered around core modules such as the servo or power strip controller.

    5) Fritzing is centered around the concept of taking designs and readying them for production.  While Phidgets is a little less ambitious in this space, the user innovation is simply in software, so because there are already design files for the Pidgets hardware, manufacturing a Phidgets creation would not take much additional information.

    So I believe it is clear that both Phidgets and Fritzing represent “effective toolkits for user innovation” that could be used by “lead users” to meet critical needs.  But what is even more interesting is that Phidgets is a user innovation in itself.  Early in the paper, the authors explain how they created Phidgets because of their own “frustrating 1st experiences” developing one-off, in-house hardware for an interactive project.  In this sense, Phidgets designers were themselves lead users who created a tool that can empower other lead users.  This is definitely fertile ground for an interesting discussion.  See you all on Tuesday.

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