Conference Report: Open Source Hardware Summit

By Doug Harriman (Chief Technology Officer)

On October 7, 2016, I was lucky enough to attend the 2016 Open Source Hardware Summit in my hometown of Portland, Oregon.  I attended along with Norgan Gorgi from Simplexity, who posted his conference report here. 

The Conference

This was my first community run conference.  In the past, all the conferences which I have attended have been in put on by companies that organize conferences as their business.  Like any conference, this one was not free to attend, but as one might expect, if the open source community makes you pay for something, you get an incredible value.  For a mere $90 I was treated to a day chock full of interesting talks, a solid breakfast and lunch, all the coffee I could drink and a great swag bag (nice write up on that over on Hackaday).  Last but not least, since the conference was all about open source, you can find a lot of the content online.  OSH Park (one of the conference sponsors) has posted video of the talks.

Of course, the flip side of a conference run by people who spend their days making great contributions to the OSHW community (I was checked into the conference by Katherine Scott whose awesome talk on SimpleCV convinced me that computer vision is actually quite approachable) instead of organizing conferences is that there were a few glitches in the organization.  Nothing major mind you, but the day was scheduled so tight that only two presenters could field questions from the audience.  In addition, the conference was run as a single track. With the size of the audience, the number and variety of quality presentations, the conference is ready to be broken out into multiple tracks. 

The Talks

As I mentioned above, there was a single track for the conference, meaning all attendees saw all the talks.  Based on the message I took home from each, I think the talks can be broken in to roughly three different groupings: technical, cultural and business.  The technical talks were what I expected to see.  In fact, I was pleasantly surprised that there were talks about the business and the Open Source culture.  I’ll review the talks in each group that I thought made the most interesting points.

The Technical

Embedis: A dictionary server for NVM
Tom Moxon and David Turnbull presented what I would call a non-volatile memory abstraction layer and command line interface.  They’re trying to simplify access to NVM by providing a key/value store for different memory types.  This is a common problem, and it’s nice that someone is providing a standard, easy-to-use solution.

Open Source Hardware in Medical Instrumentation
Ashwin Whitchurch of Protocentral described multiple open source medical devices that he and his team have developed.  From a custom tool to measure suture force during surgery, to RasperryPi based EEG machines, this team is working to provide access to quality medical data in low income regions of the world.

Space: The Final Frontier of Open Hardware
Aaron Baker and Andrew Greenberg came down the street from Portland State University to deliver one of the most entertaining talks of the day about their open source hardware project aiming to put a 1 kg nanosatellite into orbit.  While the hardware they’re open sourcing includes the PCAs as expected, they also have designs for rocket fuselages, liquid fuel engines and a WiFi antenna system that had been tested to a range of 125 km to date.  Lots of cool work by the crew at PSU. 

Micro:bit and PXT
The talk by Steve Hodges of Microsoft didn’t seem to make the videos from OSH Park.  Mike described a BBC (yes, the British Broadcasting Company) project to develop a low cost board and associated software appropriate for use in elementary schools called the Micro:bit.  It’s a simple board, but provides enough interactivity to make it interesting for kids to program.  It includes a HW simulator, so the code/test cycle can be quick and hardware can be shared.  In addition, they’ve done a nice job with the SW to allow programming in both a block diagramming language and JavaScript.  The tool is smart enough to bi-directionally translate between the two.

The Business

There were several good talks about OSHW from a business perspective.  Two of those talks relate to one of my earlier blog posts about using OSHW in commercial product development.  I’m going to address those talks in an upcoming blog post.  However, there were a couple more that merit comment.

OSHW Certification
Easily the most relevant talk to the OSHW community from a business perspective was the announcement of the Open Source Hardware Certification program by Alicia Gibb and Michael Weinberg.  This is a great step forward for the open source community, as it helps address a problem that doesn’t generally affect open source: how to deal with open source when people must pay to get something.  OSHW is something that people generally purchase.  What keeps companies from claiming their product is open source for a marketing advantage, yet never quite getting around to providing the source files for the design?  The OSHW certification program and the related enforcement program are an attempt to answer the question.  If the OSHW Association can properly control its certification logo (the OSHW gear logo remains uncontrolled), this certification program should go a long way to providing consumers evidence that a product has been delivered in the spirit of open source.

Creating an Open Factory Among Factories
Eric Pan of Seeed Studio gave an interesting talk about increasing the usability of PCA manufacturing infrastructure for designers without deep manufacturing experience.  Many attempts at the commercialization of OSHW projects utilize Kickstarter or similar programs.  The ugly truth of the matter is that many of these projects are run by people without the experience required to take a program from prototype to volume manufacturing.  The challenges inherent in that process often lead to project failures.  Eric is working to simplify that process through his x.factory project.  The initial effort is to bring production equipment into a maker space to help designers ramp towards production processes.  His vision for the future is to provide a more standardized interface into manufacturing companies, to make the transition to volume manufacturing a less daunting and error prone process.

The Cultural

As this was an open source conference, the aspects of culture were more prevalent than in any conference I’d ever attended.  Many of the talks at the conference focused more on the culture than on hardware.  I’m not going to go in depth on any of the culture talks, instead sharing some of the ideas that I found most interesting.

  • In his talk on “Rise of Open Hardware in Education”, Dan Seal described the makers as “the new DIY movement”.  Now that PCA design tools are as accessible as a circular saw, the maker movement provides an outlet for people’s creative drive that at one time seemed to be limited to wood working or home improvement.  I’m hoping this leads to more TV shows about cool embedded projects, and fewer about home improvement.
  • Allison Parish made an interesting point about how data is lost in her talk titled “Programming is Forgetting”.   Her thesis was that programming requires making choices about how to parameterize the data of interest, and what data to leave out.  Any data left out is forgotten, lost forever.   She then pointed out that we all bring in our own biases during the selection of which data to drop.  We should carefully consider those choices to be sensitive to the users and customers of our software.
  • In a similar vein, Caroline Sinders addressed inclusion in her talk “I am a machine learning designer”.  Caroline pointed out that if you design completely alone, you’re only designing for yourself.  Inclusion of the broader community in your design process provides the feedback required to create a design of true value to that broader community.
  • In “Open vs. Collaborative: Lessons from Linux and Google”, Jason Krinder talked of taking Open Source to a new level.  He pushed that instead of just releasing your work as open source, you should also contribute to the community at a broader level, and contribute to any open source tools you use in your design.  Other speakers noted that you should open source not just your designs, but your processes and data.  In this way, open source becomes truly open.

The OSHW Summit was a great experience.  For the cost, it was an incredible value.  If you have the time, I recommend that you review the videos of the speakers (link above).  If you have the means, try to catch the conference next year.

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