On Monday, April 8th, Jason Griffey presented at Computers in Libraries on open source hardware (slides will be available on his website soon). He is perhaps best known for his work on the Library Box, a portable device used for content distribution. I have previously written about the Library Box on Infospace.
So why is open source hardware poised to garner the respect now held by open source software or perhaps even surpass it?
The first reason is that hardware is constantly becoming better, faster and cheaper. The more commonly known concept is Moore’s Law that states that the number of transistors on circuits doubles approximately every two years. Lesser known is Koomey’s Law, stating that the energy required to do a computation halves approximately every year and a half.
These laws have allowed new hardware such as Arduino and Raspberry Pi to sell for approximately thirty dollars each. Arduino is a platform for an Integrated Development Environment (IDE). It uses a number of shields that extend what the device can do. Raspberry Pi is a mini-computer (approximately the size of a credit card) that runs on as a Linux machine. The two can be combined to allow a computer program overlay that allows for complex functionality for $60 worth of hardware and free open source software.
While this may all sound incredibly exciting to those who are skilled programmers, normally they would lack broader appeal. However GitHub has thousands of shields for Arduino ready for download. Burglar alarms, web servers, temperature and humidity controls, or a way for Arduinos to easily communicate with each other, all of them ready to be downloaded with little programming knowledge required. This is not only a novelty, but could be a paradigm shift in our nation (and ultimately world) from a consumer culture to a maker culture. This electronic revolution does not seem to be bound by the general principles of supply and demand, meaning it may have the potential to overcome many barriers both within socio-economic groups internally, and between developing and developed countries internationally.
Griffey showed many examples where Arduino-based hardware cost a third or even a tenth of retail goods. Assuredly some had added features and may have been more aesthetically pleasing, but even this customization is likely not far in the future, and as the software is open source, it can be modified to meet individual needs.
For libraries this serves two purposes.
First, it joins an arsenal consisting of 3D printers, knitting clubs, soldering torches, library farms, recording studios and other maker spaces. Some have asked whether these devices are just expensive toys with little in the way of utilitarian value. By incorporating devices that serve obvious real world concerns, it becomes easier (and more cost effective) to incorporate a maker space into a wide variety of libraries.
Second, as library budgets continue to be reduced in many communities, these devices offer an opportunity for cost-saving measures that unlike some open source software solutions will not see all of their savings lost through highly technical hours of labor.
Open source hardware is fairly new (Arduino and Raspberry Pi first came onto the scene in 2005 and 2006, respectively) and it is possible to overestimate their future impact. However, I believe that they have the possibility to inspire a new form of technical interaction for our culture, built not on consumption, but on participatory creation. Where better to start than your local library?
Have an idea for using open source hardware in your library? Please share in the comments.