Out in the Open: The Free Tools That Let You Hack Your Whole Life

Discussion in 'Members Corner' started by happy, Oct 8, 2013.

  1. happy

    happy Senior Member Senior Member

    Mar 12, 2013
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    Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh

    Imagine a home speaker system that identifies everyone in the room and plays only the music they wanna hear.

    Tapping into tiny RFID chips installed on people’s cell phones, this system would pinpoint each person’s Facebook profile, parse their music tastes by way of the streaming music service Spotify, and create a playlist on the fly. And as new people enter the room and others leave it, the system would adjust this playlist accordingly.

    What you imagine is here today. Tim Ryan and a team of four other engineering students built such a contraption last year, as part of their senior capstone project at Olin College in Massachusetts, and if you like, you can build one too. Ryan and his team didn’t just create a new-age speaker system. They created a collection of hardware and software that let anyone build all sorts of physical devices that interact with the people around them. “We wanted to create a platform for building socially connected machines,” Ryan says.

    The core of their project is a custom-designed circuit board called the Tessel, and they’ve now “open sourced” the board’s designs — made them free for anyone to use — giving people everywhere the power to fashion their own Tessel boards and use it as the basis for whatever new-age contraption they like. Meanwhile, Ryan and his colleagues have formed a company, called Technical Machine, that will steward the open source project and help others build their contraptions.

    Technical Machine sits at the intersection of two major technology trends. One is the “quantified self” movement — where people collect and analyze data describing their themselves and their habits by way of health trackers like the Fitbit, productivity trackers like RescueTime, and music applications like Last.fm. The other is the “internet of things” — where our everyday world is reshaped by all sorts of web-connected devices, such as the Nest Labs thermostat system and the Phillips Hue home lighting control system. Quantified self expert Chris Dancy calls this intersection “existence as a platform” — and Technical Machine wants to be the company that builds that platform.

    Ryan and crew built Tessel because they thought building a personalized, web-connected speaker system should be easier than it was. So many public web services now offer tools called APIs, or application programming interfaces, that make it easier for anyone to build other software and services. APIs make it easier to, say, build an application that combines data from both Facebook and Spotify — and many other applications. Even non-developers can get in on the action through services like IFTTT — short for “If This, Then That” — which makes it easy to connect different services without writing code.

    But physically building hardware that connects to such web services is still challenging. It’s not that open source hardware hasn’t come a long way in recent years. It has. The open source microcontroller called the Arduino and the dirt cheap, credit card-sized computer called the Raspberry Pi have put hardware hacking within the reach of more hobbyists and entrepreneurs than ever. From Linux-powered beer fermentation systems to sensor networks for restaurants and greenhouses, we’re seeing a renaissance in connected devices.

    But Ryan and company found a gap in the hackable hardware market when they started building devices. Connecting the Arduino to a wireless network was a pain. They had to find a wireless module, solder it, and customize the firmware. Once it was working, they found that the Arduino didn’t pack the computational punch required to handle much web traffic. The Raspberry Pi, on the other hand, felt like overkill. They didn’t need or want a full Linux computer.


    The team was able to cobble something together that worked, but the experience left a lot to be desired. “Where it got really tough was trying to write documentation,” says Ryan. It was hard to explain all the hardware stuff in a way that web developers would understand, and it was hard to explain all the web development stuff in a way that hardware engineers would understand. Ultimately, the team decided they didn’t want to teach web developers about hardware. They want to teach hardware people about developers.

    The result is Tessel. It’s a board more powerful than the Arduino, and it’s specifically designed for web connected applications. More importantly, it’s built specially for people who build such web applications.

    To that end, Tessel runs a custom firmware system that can run JavaScript, letting web developers use a language they already know, and take advantage of the wide range of re-usable open source code built for the popular JavaScript platform called Node.js. “Through Node.js you get web servers and libraries right out of the box,” Ryan says. Eventually, they want to support more languages than just JavaScript.

    There’s no need to install and configure Linux or any other operating system. The firmware can just run the code as is. Ryan compares it to internet services like Heroku, which make it possible for web developers to run code in the cloud without needing to worry about configuring and managing computer servers. “Tessel is like Heroku for physical things,” he says.

    It’s also a platform for running additional hardware. Its modular setup lets developers add additional components to the board without soldering. The company has already designed 11 of these modules, including an accelerometer, a GPS tool, and sensors for detecting things like humidity, temperature, and light. But it has also published documentation so that third parties can design and build their own modules.

    Although Technical Machine has published its designs, there are no Tessels “in the wild” — at least not yet. But the company raised over $180,000 in a crowd-funding campaign and hope to start shipping the boards in mid-November. That home speaker system you imagine isn’t as far away as you think.

    Out in the Open: The Free Tools That Let You Hack Your Whole Life | Wired Enterprise | Wired.com

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