‘Bot Trends, or, “How Did We Get Here?” (10/3/2010)

(Originally posted on October 3, 2010)

So, what did a ‘bot geek do for fun hundreds of years ago?

My guess is that they hacked around with clocks, especially if the money was good. The first accurate, portable timekeeping devices were made possible through extreme cleverness and a willingness to consider alternate perspective on the part of their inventors coupled with advances in metallurgy and other technologies.

It’s interesting that those first watches were rather small; Harrison‘s “H5″, which, like its predecessors H1 through H4, took years for him to construct (early 1770s), was designed to fit in one’s pocket, and was accurate to one-third of a second a day… which is likely more accurate than today’s average cheap wristwatch.

Fast forward a couple hundred years, and we’re faced with the spectacle of the “Spot Watch”, which sports a CPU, memory, display, and a radio that receives data over an FM sub-carrier. Via the 1-way data link, it can keep its internal clock synced with that of the larger cosmos, but more interestingly (to the geek), applications can be downloaded to it for local execution. All in a package that fits on your wrist.

You may ask yourself, How did we get here? Well, as you might expect, Moore’s Law, plays the leading role on many fronts; it’s also why the phone in your pocket likely has more compute and memory power than that of several Apollo launch vehicles combined (updated link; counterpoint).

All this is well and good… it’s been fun riding the wave of shrinking-but-more-powerful computing devices.

But what I think is especially interesting now is that additional trends have coupled into Moore’s Law in a sort of Geek Perfect Storm, opening up what feels like a whole new frontier for those who play with ‘bots. Building on the foundation of Moore’s Law, we have:

  • New capabilities in the form of sensors, displays, GPS functions, and sophisticated 2-way wireless systems are entering the hacker mainstream at lower and lower price points, and continuing to drop in price from there. For instance, you can buy a hobbyist-friendly GPS receiver for $20, a multiple-axis accelerometer or RFID receiver for $25, a color display similar what you’d find on a feature phone for $15, a basic wireless transmit/receive set for $10, or a sophisticated wireless mesh network (based on the ZigBee specification) starting at $25 a node. So, for under $100, you could put together an interesting gadget, perhaps controlled by a $20 Ardruino compute module. (Prices pulled from here.)
  • High levels of chip/function integration that has driven costs down for the average consumer ($29 DVD player anyone?)  have also benefited the ‘bot geek. For instance, you can buy a module that looks like an RJ-45 socket for your ethernet cable, but it just so happens to implement a TCP/IP stack and throws in a general-purpose Linux operating system environment for your apps for good measure. Or, there’s the 3.2″ color touchscreen which includes a general-purpose computing environment, a number of I/O pins, a speaker, an SD card slot, and the ability to read FAT files… for $80, and in a package not much bigger than your computer mouse.
  • The Rise of The Maker: “Maker”, a term popularized by O’Reilly’s “Make” magazine (not to mention Danial Lanois), describes a philosophy (and perhaps a cultural belief system) wherein a high value is placed on the practice of taking things apart to learn how they work, how to make them better, how to re-purpose them to serve new ends or just for fun, and keep them out of landfills in the process. There have always been “Makers” – I remember some old guys in the neighborhood where I grew up who would scavenge radios and TVs from the curb on trash day. But while Moore’s Law brought prices down and complexity up, it also meant that when you tear into your PC’s dead DVD burner… there’s practically nothing inside for you to mess with. It’s not very satisfying… unless, of course, you pry off that laser and find a way to burn stuff with it. Makers assert that manufacturers should design their stuff to be more open, to encourage repair and hacking. At some point, this same crowd gets around to building new stuff, perhaps atop the old stuff, and turns to the kind of cheap hardware and easy software integration mentioned above to pull off their exploits.
  • The Role of Open Source and Community: Software developers are familiar with the value of “Open Source” software and the associated communities of developers. If you’re able to build new software by leveraging existing, debugged, and community-supported modules, the overall velocity of your project increases, as well as the value of the community if you donate it back. Well, the concept works with hardware also. Example: in the hacker space, there’s the Arduino, “an open-source electronics prototyping platform”. Multiple vendors offer Ardruino-spec’d compute modules with standard connectors and add-ons (“shields”). This helps sustain a positive feedback loop (sometimes assisted by “Hacker Spaces”, such as “NYC Resistor“, or events such as “Maker Faire“) in the form of a fervent community who are happy to help newcomers bootstrap their own crazy ideas, and vendors who sometimes adopt them into new products of their own, or at least support interoperability (surprising example here). The resulting leverage is amazing; you’d be surprised by what you can throw together in a weekend. The ultimate expression of this is an open source ‘bot that can “print” in three dimensions, and can thus make arbitrary things (potentially even all of the parts necessary to make a copy of itself). Such devices – such as the RepRap or the MakerBot – can be driven by open source designs found in community-driven libraries such as ThingVerse.
  • The Magic of (high-level) Software: No more assembler! For instance, the Ardruino project includes a sophisticated software development environment and run-time libraries. If you’re a beginner gadget Geek, you’re going to move a lot faster if you can write in a high-level language similar to one that you probably already know, and leverage run-time libraries that abstract away the details of interfacing with the hardware.

We might best identify the Ham Radio operators from a generation ago as ancestors to today’s Geeks / Makers (and perhaps these folks, also). Ham Radio operators had a strong sense of community which encouraged the sharing of designs for rigs, antennas, and exploits (extreme distance, lowest power, video, etc). They used their own medium – Ham Radio – as the basis for their community. It was probably a lot of fun to communicate with someone on the other side of the world using a radio you build yourself.

Similarly, today’s connected devices seek to be part of the internet, which is the largest (and most chaotic and distributed) device in its own right. The internet is also the foundation for the very active device community… so, as with Ham Radio, the medium and the community are the same. Perhaps more so, since today a connected device can host its own web site and potentially actively in the community that created it.

The upshot of all this is that it’s a great time to be thinking about connected devices, for fun and profit.

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