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What I learned at OHSummit 2015

On Saturday I attended the Open Hardware Summit for a few reasons: 1. It was in Philadelphia and the price was very reasonable. 2. I’ve long had an interest in more electronics work. and 3. It was in Philadelphia. Last year’s summit was in Rome, so this was by far my best chance to check this out. Totally worth it! Here are some of my reflections on the sessions, which were broken up into blocks of talks. You can see the schedule online. I don’t cover every talk, but this will include my ramblings on what I found interesting and want to jabber about in the future.

Much swag from OHS


The keynote was on “optimism.” Especially timely given the news rodeo recently about a teenager who was arrested for showing a clock to his engineering teacher. I really enjoyed it, and it was a nice kick-off to the day.

Science and Education

I feel like the take-away from this block was about the business case for open source, which is always fascinating. In particular, Joshua Pearce’s talk on open source hardware in science makes the case that funding open source hardware makes funders dollars go further, with a side effect (or helpful agenda?) of diversifying projects that are funded.

Another point that came up a few times during the day is that publicly funded work should be available to the public – in open source formats. This is something I’m interested in talking about at the local level as well (ex. the city funds the development of software – does the source code become open?).

Another favorite talk during this block was Nancy Ouyang’s tale of the rise and fall of her hardware startup, which it seems mostly came down to business (that is to say, money). In her closing, I found the joke “I’ll go to grad school to get funded to work on this” fascinating. As a technical person with a strong interest in business, I hate “losing” people to academia when they could have succeeded in industry (and more than likely, gotten to market faster than the pace of academia). Sounds like something I could talk about at length with industry or academia folk.

Workflow: From Chip to Product

In this block, we heard about printing in goo, policy, that hardware people have the same problem as JavaScript developers, and I learned a bit more about OSHWA.

The first talk was on Ember from Autodesk, which I have now asked my dad the goldsmith his thoughts on, I’ll let you know. Following that, Octopart spoke about their common parts library – it seems that in hardware, there’s the tyranny of choice (just like JavaScript developers!) when choosing parts. The common parts library helps people find when things are swappable, or to find the right thing in the right price range for their goals. I probably would’ve been very excited by this talk if I did more hardware.

And there was a policy talk! Yay policy! (well, before that, there was a talk on chips where the speaker seemed not to want to speak in the microphone at all so we’ll glaze over that). Again, the idea about how open source can tie into public funding, and also thinking about open source policy outside the (very tough) constraints of IP and copyright law. The talk was also dedicated to #FreeBassel, and I suggest you read up on Bassel and his plight.

As a non-OSHWA member, I actually really appreciated the OSHWA talk! Since this was in Philly, I have to remind myself that it’s actually an international event (last year’s was in Rome after all). I appreciated learning about the definition of open source hardware especially.

Case Studies

After lunch (where, as the “person who’s from here,” I led some 30+ people to take over Agno Grill), there were talks about case studies. Yay case studies!

I really enjoyed the first talk from Kipp Bradford, which really was about communication, and choosing the means by which you communicate. If you factory favors one software – maybe that’s what you should send your specs in? I also appreciated that his talk included actual stories of “this went wrong, this is how I worked with the factory to fix it.” I’d recommend watching this one when the videos come out.

There were also talks on crowdfunding and describing parts. The talk mentioning “Common Object Description Language,” was very much in the same vein as the Octopart talk, but instead of a library/list of parts, it’s about defining designs in a common language. Also a great tie-in to Kipps talk. The crowdfunding talk basically told me about the Novena laptop, but also tied in some interesting bits about defining open source when it came to the products discussed.

Another talk I’d recommend watching the video for was “Investigating Normal – Hacking Prosthetics” from some students from Olin, because I enjoyed their talk but parts of it really bothered me. Essentially, these students were able to design a socket for an individual (who happens to be an engineer) with one arm. They had lots of photos and video from this (extremely good natured) individual who let them try lots of various techniques to design a better socket, such that he could design and modify the socket and any prosthetics he might attach to it.

What bothered me, is that in the end of their presentation they emphasize “working with disabilities” when the reason this individual wasn’t happy with existing prosthetics (according to them) was because he didn’t want a traditional prosthetic, nor did he care about a purely aesthetic one. That is to say – there’s nothing wrong with him, he merely wants to augment his ability for some activities (such as rock climbing). I presume these are undergrads, maybe a bit ignorant of the world, but still … I could talk at length about how this bothered me and why every single technologist needs to care about accessibility, and I’d love for everyone to never think of it in an abled/disabled binary.

The final presentation of the block was on public art, with a design of a piece of infrastructure to make a standard for public art projects. Loved it! Also very interested in seeing if the Love Park redesign could use this.

The role of open hardware going forward

This was an eclectic section, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. Benedetta’s talk on humanitarian projects was an interesting tour of her own career. A talk on why the Wright Brothers are kind of IP chumps and weren’t even the first people to fly is definitely getting sent to my dad when the video is released. Check out Unfit Bits for how you can get insurance discounts without giving away your data. A very design-y presentation from some design students on designing protest gear for the future – definitely a conversation starter.

Closing thoughts

Summary thoughts: I met a good number of interesting people (although, being a townie, I didn’t hang out after). I gathered much swag that I will feel guilty for not using, so that’s a good outcome (I think I have about 10 boards coming out of this, including a Thing). If I get more into hardware, there’s 100% chance I’ll go to this again, and I’d definitely recommend the event.

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