A Newbie's Guide to Open-Source Hardware!

TheMurph

Everyone's heard of Linux, right?  We wouldn't be wrong in suggesting that Linux is the most well-known representation of the open-source platform. Or, at least, we're willing to bet that it's going to be on the tip of your friend's tongue the next time you sit down at bar, order up a drink, and ask, "What's an example of Open Source?"

But we think you'd spit out your drink if your friend answered "Chumby," or "RepRap."  You might even try calling out your buddy because you think he's just feeding you jibber-jabber to sound smart. Well, you'd be wrong to do so. These are indeed open-source creations, but you aren't going to find these projects no matter how much you scour SourceForge.  That's because they're examples of open-source hardware , not software.  That's right.  The concept of throwing back the curtain and revealing all the working pieces of a particular item for you to modify at your leisure isn't an act that's constrained to bits and bytes.

The Skinny: Open Source hardware doesn't mean that said hardware is "free."  From a monetary perspective, yes, you will not need to purchase the schematics of an Open Source hardware project.  But the notion of freedom stems from your ability to take these schematics, released to the community, and build upon them as you desire.  Modify parts.  Change settings.  Add functionality.  You can release your products to the public and even charge a fee for doing so, although you run the risk of someone taking exactly what you've created and doing the exact same thing.  That's because you have to include the same license you received, giving others the ability to modify your parts, change settings, add functionality, et cetera...

And don't forget, someone has to buy the parts to make the product.  That's you.  The specific equipment required for Open Source hardware projects will have you up to your arms in Web site product lists (and solder).  And after that, you actually have to find or develop the programming to interact with the device. In many ways, these hurdles are the chief argument critics make against the idea that the Open Source Hardware field is poised to grow. We'll let you decide who's right on that point.

We could say that Open Source hardware is a bit trickier to interact with by virtue of the knowledge needed to make successful changes to the hardware: circuit boards, displays, et cetera.  But the same could be said of anyone who lacks basic programming knowledge in relation to an Open Source software project.  Both are equally challenging, but both can deliver impressive results.  We've listed a few of our favorite projects below, including jack-of-all-trades gadgets, media centers, and crazy electronic instruments.  A little Internet sleuthing will allow you to find more.  Or you could just click on the two links in that sentence to get started.  Anyway, onto the Open Source hardware!

Bug

What it does: You purchase (or build) a single base module that can be outfitted with a bunch of different add-ons, just like a battlemech--an Open Source battlemech.  Want to incorporate an LCD display into your BugBase?  Build or buy a BugView add-on.  Need a portable GPS device?  Try a BugLocate.  Portable motion detector?  You guessed it--build up a BugMotion.

Neuros

What it does: It's an Open Source media recorder and player.  Plug it into your favorite media transmitter of choice (like a DVD player or cable box) and you can digitize the content that's going to your TV.  When you're done creating your MPEG-4 archive of movies, you can output the video files to a wide range of portable devices.  The full list of technical specifications is impressive given the tiny size of this recorder.

Arduino

What it does: Wired's Chris Anderson uses Arduino microcontrollers as the brains (or autopilot) for unmanned flying devices.  What you choose to use these Open Source hardware boards for is your business, but here are a few ideas of what others have done: a device for locating wines in a wine rack, a device that tells you when it's time to water your plants, and wearable LED designs.

Monome

What it does: Fans of Nine Inch Nails might have noticed a Monome getting some use by synthesizer guru Alessandro Cortini during one of the band's many live shows.  A Monome device is a giant grid of backlight buttons that serves as a hardware controller for computer programs, specifically audio applications.  But you can also go backwards, using a computer program to control the lit-up display of your Monome.

Chumby

What it does: It's a tiny little display that you can put somewhere in your home, like the dining room table, bathroom, closet.  You set the device to display any number of interesting little widgets.  You can get a current weather report using full newscast-style graphics.  Or you can be a little more artistic and set the Chumby to display your Flickr pictures.  Or how about snapshots of all the people that are your latest Web 2.0 friendships?  The Chumby gets all this information wirelessly.  Just plug the device into the wall, set up some widgets, and a wealth of pretty information is at your disposal.

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