Tuesday Nov. 9, Hardware Communities

Reading discussion led by Jie and Jose.

2 Comments so far

  1. Jie on November 9th, 2010

    Hardware Communities:

    This week’s readings introduce the idea of communities arising around open source hardware. The first paper gives us an example of how one hardware community — LilyPad Arduino and e-textiles– came to existence and how it has changed demographic landscape of technology developers. The second source introduces the practical challenges of defining, designing, producing and selling open source hardware. It presents various definitions of open source hardware and gives example projects for each.

    LilyPad in the Wild: How Hardware’s Long Tail is Supporting New Engineering and Design Communities

    The LilyPad Arduino is a kit of conductive threads and sewable, programmable electronic components. As a hardware community it can be traced to its academic project roots and its evolution into a commercial product. The creator leveraged the existing Arduino platform to extend and share her kit, which was met with success by similar users who did not belong to STEM’s traditional clubhouse makers, resulting in a vibrant community. Through a series of studies, this paper looks at the demographics of this community, how it formed, and how it evolves alongside the LilyPad.

    The first study shows that while the customers of Arduino and LilyPad are from the same geographic regions and age groups, there is a significant difference in gender distribution among the two communities. The majority of customers for both LilyPad and Arduino are male. However, the vast majority (86%) of documented Arduino projects are made by males while the majority (65%) of documented LilyPad projects are made by females. This surprising result is the only instance known of a naturally-arising female-dominated computing community.

    Did this unique community exist before the LilyPad, which then provided a useful tool, or did the community come into being directly as a result of the LilyPad? To answer this question, a second study looked at the difference in projects made by Arduino and LilyPad users, and directly interviewed creators from the LilyPad community. A simple visual comparison shows that LilyPad projects are radically unlike traditional electronic devices, with a strong focus toward soft circuitry, arts and design.

    Users’ responses suggest that LilyPad did indeed spark a new community. For example “LilyPad and the related e-textile field made me brave enough to jump into hardware development … Before I started this project, I had absolutely no experience with electronics of any kind” and “I had never really thought of working in e-textiles because it seemed that it involved a huge skillset and also very specialized equipment… The LilyPad Arduino attracted my interest because it gave the promise that … something like this was doable by normal people.”

    The technology to create electronic textiles existed long before the LilyPad. However, through building itself upon the established Arduino tools, support, documentation and community, the LilyPad made it much easier and friendlier for everyone to build electronic textile and computational projects. The LilyPad community shows that instead of trying to convince people to join existing engineering communities, it may be more effective to build new communities that more uniquely cater to the interests of those people. This has resulted in a community with a rich diversity of projects and such as interactive apparel, plush toys, sculptures and even biking accessories.

    LilyPad’s open source design lets users to easily extend LilyPad for their unique needs, so that the user becomes the developer. The collective knowledge and resources of the community grows as individual users contribute in various ways, from LilyPad extensions like the LilyPad XBee radio to entirely new kits like Bling Cricket which uses LOGO programming language instead of Arduino. Again, the diversity of the contributions adds to the richness of the community.

    Some questions to consider:
    What are some key notions of the shape of community that a good designer should keep in mind when designing for diversity and empowerment?
    Does the inclusive nature lead to building new (and better?) clubhouses?
    How do open source aspects accelerate development to the platform?

    Open Source Hardware Overview

    Open source hardware definition began from the open source software definition: “source code under a license (or arrangement such as the public domain) that permits users to study, change, and improve the software, and to redistribute it in modified or unmodified form.” However, source code is only one part of open source software:

    “Six layer burrito”
    1. Mechanical/hardware diagrams – What are the dimensions and physically assembly features of the object?
    2. Circuit schematic – How does the hardware work electrically?
    3. Bill of materials – Which electronic and mechanical components are being used on the physical board?
    4. Board layout – How are the components arranged on the physical circuit board?
    5. Firmware/core – How to these components on the board talk to each other?
    6. Software/API – How does the hardware talk to the computer, and ultimately the user?

    Given this many layers of information, there are just as many degrees (at least) to which hardware can be “open.” Thus far it has been tricky to define exactly what open hardware is. Two definitions are TAPR (Tuscon Amateur Packet Radio) Open Hardware License (link) and more recently the Open Source Hardware License (link). The execution of these standards will have implications on how open these hardware platforms actually are. Will we need a lawyer to make open source hardware?

  2. Jie on November 9th, 2010

    Oops, no links! Here they are links again:

    TAPR Open Hardware License: http://www.tapr.org/ohl.html
    Open Source Hardware Definition: http://freedomdefined.org/OSHW

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