Open Hardware Summit Report

Here is a report from Mark Norton, who presented the OSE Steam Engine Project at the Open Hardware Summit 2011:


I attended the Open Hardware Summit at the New York Hall of Science located on site of the 1964 World Fair site in Queens, New York on Sept. 15, 2011.  A few months back, I learned about a call for proposals to present at this conference and responded with a proposal to present an update on the Open Source Steam Engine project.  The review responses were quite good and they invited me to speak.  I had no idea that I would be in the presence of several major figures in the open hardware movement, but it turned out that way.

The presentation was challenging, in some ways.  I had only 10 minutes to speak, which isn’t really a lot of time to cover a topic as rich and as deep as steam technology.  So I kept the presentation short and sweet laying out the premise, flashing a couple of design pictures and moving right on to lessons learned.  I came in almost exactly on ten minutes.  One of the conference organizers later said that she was impressed that I nailed it in the given amount of time.

I’ve posted the slides to the OSE wiki along with a recollection of what I said.  Naturally, a lot more is available on the OSE wiki, but the slides are a pretty good overview of where we are at this point.  My speech was towards the end of the afternoon and the schedule was slipping a bit from other speakers running over their times, so there wasn’t time for any questions from the stage, but several people approached me after the presentation and later at the cocktail reception.  The most common question was, “Why aren’t you using a Sterling Engine?”  I patiently explained, several times, that unless a Sterling Engine has a very high temperature gradient to work with with, it is generally under powered and not all that useful for the applications we had in mind like driving heavy manufacturing equipment and generating electricity.  A couple wanted to know where the the steam would come from and I told them about the GVCS energy technologies.  Overall, people understood the reasons for doing this and thought it was quite cool.

Interest in OSE is quite high.  Several people mentioned that they’d seen the website or had heard of it and were following it with interest.  I even met one or two people who’d done a dedicated project visit at Factor e Farm.  They had several stories to tell, including events at the recent Maker Faire in Kansas City.

Big Picture Presentations

The keynote speech was given by the Arduino team, who related how they got started and why.  Production of Arduino boards is up well over 200,000 per year and still growning.

Arduino (named for the team’s favorite bar in Italy) is one of the biggest success stories in the open hardware movement.  The reasons for it are simple.  The design of the board and clipset are completely open.  Anyone can make the board or adapt it for use – even commercial use.  They kept the board very, very simple so that even unskilled people could work with it.  Then they simplified the software development side of things with a simple graphical programming language over a C back end.

Kate Hartman of OCAD University showed slides of her experiments with wearable computer technology and the impact it has on people.   Eric Wilheim was the original developer of Instructables, which has gotten very popular to describe simple projects.  It was a fun presentation on why 13-year-olds developing K’Nex guns embody open source development.  Instructables was recently acquired by AutoDesk for an undisclosed sum of money (presumably large).

Bunnie Huang, of Chumby, spoke about the impact of Moore’s Law on open hardware development.  He pointed out that, not long ago, Moore’s Law meant that new designs were becoming obsolete before they could even be brought to market.  Now that the Law is slowing down, developers have a much better chance to bring their designs to completion.  He mentioned the rise of a repair culture and the concept of a legacy laptop (a computer bequeathed to your heirs).

Social Change

The conference presentations were divided into several sections.  The one on social change highlighted a few projects that made a difference socially.  Gabriella Levine, of Protei, showed a project for an autonomous sailboat that would clean up oil spills.  Shingeru Kobayashi told about an open Source Geiger Counter that was used to create a  crowd sourced radiation map of Japanafter the Dai-Ichi nuclear disaster earlier this year.  Finally, Zach Lieberman, of YesYesNo told about creating an OS eye tracker that was used to enable a paralyzed graffiti artist to create art once again.

Interesting Projects

Of some interest to the OSE crowd is the work of John Sarik and Haig Norian of Columbia University who are working on open sourcing the development of integrated circuits.  They talked about printable circuit elements using organic conductors and also about re-usable design elements in FPGA’s.  Geoffrey Barrows, of Centeye, showed some very cool videos of drone airplanes and helicopters with very simple vision systems in them that allowed them to avoid obstacles or track terrain.  Daniel Reetz demonstrated an open source book scanner that he built from plywood and off the shelf cameras.  It’s being considered by theInternet Archive Project.  After my talk, Bruce Perens, the founder of OSI, talked about taking open source hardware into space – largely ham radio transponder satellites.

Cocktail Party and Demonstrations

The event hosted a cocktail party at which some of the presenters and others got a chance to show off their toys.  Bruce Perens was showing his toy helicopter flying about, there were turtle robots following people around, race cars remotely controlled by a data glove, three different kinds of 3D printers, a 3D router/mill, etc.  Things ranged from the bizarre (a theremin fork) to the artistic (a vision system that generated music) to high fashion (wearable computer elements).  It was a great chance to talk with people, answer questions about OSE, ask others about their interest in open hardware, and network for new ideas.

Sadly, I didn’t get to stay for the NYC Maker Faire that followed this weekend.  Next year I’ll carve out the time needed to see both because they each have their focus.  I would recommend the Open Hardware Summit to anyone interested in understanding where this exciting trend is going, to people starting their own projects, and especially to those who are trying to make a living at it.  It was extremely well organized and run.  Thanks go to Alicia Gibb and Ahay Bdeir for their tireless work on making this one the best events I’ve attended this year.  BTW, Nice schwag.

Comments are closed, but trackbacks and pingbacks are open.