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Hardware hacking and the meaning of (Second) Life

Andrew Hendry | Feb. 13, 2008
<i>Computerworld</i> recently spoke to Oxer about how he is knocking down the boundaries between the real and virtual world.

What is the Arduino board and what was the motivation behind its development?

The Arduino board is an initiative that comes out of Italy, I think there are about four guys that have been working on it for a couple of years now. What they wanted to do was build a very small hardware platform that was open source not just in the software but the hardware as well. They had seen the success of the open source software community in allowing multiple people to work together to build something that was greater than anything anyone of them could have done individually. What they did was take the same approach and apply it to hardware. So they came up with this very simple design for a piece of hardware and they published the schematics for the design and released it under the Creative Commons license which allows anyone else to share it. So it's essentially like open source but for hardware. Anyone can go to the Web site, download the schematics, manufacture and sell these boards if you want to - there is nothing stopping you from doing that and a number of companies are doing that. Essentially it has turned the hardware into a commodity as well.

How does open source hardware differ from open source software and can it work as a business model?

Obviously it's not as accessible as a piece of open source software that you can download and 30 seconds later you are running it. Obtaining and setting up hardware is inherently more difficult because of the logistical issues, but it still has that benefit of the synergy of multiple people working on it, and that was the intention of the Arduino board all along.

The interesting thing is that they have now built a viable business on selling hardware boards for a design that they give away to their competitors, which is essentially exactly how the open source software world works. The best service and meeting the needs of your customers are what wins, not necessarily whether you control the market to the exclusion of your competitors. It's a matter of whether you are beating the competition to meeting the needs of your customers. They are selling a vast number of these digital boards to people who, if they wanted to, could manufacture them themselves but for various reasons they don't.

Is the open sourcing of the Arduino board helping to broaden its appeal?

There are lots of hobbyists and a lot of performance artists in particular who are using them for all sorts of unusual things, that's one of the things that has caused a lot of this to take off in recent years -- people that don't necessarily come from the sort of background that you would expect to be into modifying hardware or doing software development are now able to benefit from these kinds of tools. For example, those in the performing arts field or who do art installations. They need tools and building blocks in order to express themselves, and now these boards are quite cheap and easy to obtain and use. You buy an Arduino board for [US]$40 or so, plug it in, copy and paste a few lines of code in and it just works. A couple of years ago that was totally beyond the reach of someone that didn't come from a technical background. So now we're seeing people who don't come from a technical background using this basically as another tool, another part of the media they work with. If they are into sculpting they might learn to use a welder for metal sculpturing, and this Arduino board is just another tool to learn to use.


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