Legoification of Open Hardware

For the hardware revolution to really kick-off, we need to eliminate the DOS-Boxes.

A DOS-Box is/was… the Command Line Interface that early PCs used to use. The whole interface was one big DOS box… the Windows turned up… and the DOS box was only called into play rarely… subsequent versions of Windows further marginaliased it. It looks like this:


The trouble with DOS-Boxes is they make people’s minds go blank.

That’s why Microsoft made so much money… they brought computing to the masses by eliminating the thing that scared people off.

Soldering is the DOS-Box of electronics.

If your project requires soldering, you’ve just lost 99% of the human race.

There are actually innumerable DOS-Boxes (to varying degrees) in any type of technology that has the potential to be democratised. If people had to make their own lego blocks (with the incredibly fine tolerances involved), it would never happen. Lego does all the heavy lifting… all the low-level programming… allowing people to operate at a higher level. WordPress (which this blog is written in) has about 8 layers of this sort of thing… PHP is a language written in another (harder to understand) language for example. WordPress is written in PHP.

Anyway – most modern CAD programs are far to complicated for normal human beings to use. Forget it man, it ain’t going to happen. For CAD/CNC/Rapid-Fabbing (and therefore the open-hardware revolution) to take off, then there needs to be a lot of legoification.

There are vague movements towards this starting to emerge. One is punter-tweakablability of pre-designed-designs. This is something that Ponoko are taking a keen interest in… an example of a tweakable lampshade below:


Although… um… I can’t actually get it to go. Might be a chrome-only thing.

There’s a variant of OpenSCAD called OpenJSCAD – which allows javascript programmers to set up simple versions of this sort of thing… I made the gun barrel below… as it’s JS, it would be trivial to have drop-down parameters etc, so people could change the dimensions. The trouble with this though is that it (so far) only works with Chrome… and the resolution is dictated by the fairly low limitations of the browser. Useable… almost… but not really good enough to output directly to a machine.

A more advanced/pretty version of this is Nervous System’s DIY Jewelery App.

So I think we’re going to see a lot more of this sort of thing… all made possible by the rapidly dropping price of digital fabrication. Whether we see a microsoft-style universal set of interefaces remains to be seen… hardware is a lot more complicated than software – and that’s why a lot of this revolution is to do with making hardware problems, software problems.

Another angle into this is legoification of electronics… a really good recent example is Tinkerforge… which is lowering all sorts of bars

Not least of which is the drift from languages like C++ and Java, to Python (and PHP?)… which are languages simple enough for the likes of me to understand. Still a code DOS-Box… but it gets rid of the soldering DOS-Box.

There is also a slightly lower-level version of this – for kids? I think – Littlebits

And even further into ease-of-use land, there was a recent kickstarter thing that is basically a sensor block, that you “program” stimulus/response rules… which are about as complicated as email-filter rules. Twine.


I’m rapidly going off Kickstarter though – it’s turning into an outlet for established design shops to sell shiny jackdaw crap to fanboys. It’s not answering to needs, it’s answering to desires. Of wankers. That thing where those to dancing smoothies made a wallet out of two bits of metal with an elastic band around them, saying that your ability to choose different colours “made it an extension of who you are” made me throw up in my mouth… and they sold about $300,000 of them. Jackdaw fanboy crap of the type that swamped Carnaby St in the 80s. And don’t get me started on

Something that IS on Kickstarter though, and which is quite cool is the Open Beam project

Open Beam

Which not only radically brings down the cost of t-slot stuff, but which specifically makes it interfaceable with laser-cut acrylic, and circuit boards.

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