At a time when most electronic gadgets come out of huge factories in Asia, Limor Fried ’03 works on a different scale.
Fried, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who lives in New York, builds homemade electronics kits and sells them online. “The idea is that people will learn a little about electronics by assembling the kits and, in the end, have a handmade good that is also useful,” Fried said.
Using open-source software, cheap components, and fabrication tools that were once available only in large machine shops, people like Fried are finding their own niches in the high-tech marketplace. Many are using the Web to share information and sell their wares. And several startup companies are now catering to people with the urge to tinker.
Fried, who runs a hardware design business from her apartment, also laser-etches customized designs into iPods and laptops for about $30 each. From her Web site, www.adafruit.com, she sells plans and kits for electronic devices. They include kits for a universal remote control ($19.50) — to turn off any television in your vicinity — and a set of lights for bicycle spokes that spell out words and draw symbols as you ride ($37.50).
Fried uses the tools of industrial rapid prototyping, including lasers and premade electronic circuitry. But new services are also making such tools available to creative people who could not otherwise afford them.
Computer-based prototyping services give people the chance to design cases and enclosures out of materials like metal and plastic and have them made in a far-off factory for a few dollars. One service that started this summer is Ponoko (www.ponoko.com), and it slightly changes the manufacturing equation.
Ponoko, a company based in New Zealand, allows customers to upload designs for flat shapes that can then be snapped together like Ikea furniture. Making a prototype can be as simple as cutting shapes out of cardboard. Users then create a digital version and send it to Ponoko, which cuts the pattern out in metal or wood with a laser.
Users can sell their plans or finished products through the Ponoko site. The company’s founders, David ten Have and Derek Elley, are planning to open fabrication stations around the world, starting in the United States.
The partners say they are doing something akin to teleportation.
“This means products will be shipped not in solid state, but as design files — meaning manufacture can happen as close to the point of consumption as possible,” Elley said. “The future is one where people will be buying and selling product design files — and consumers will be able to control the manufacturing process direct from their PC.”
The site has various products for sale, including coffee tables and a small iPhone stand. But customers have made things as esoteric as watch cases and a bicycle headlamp. The items start around $30 for plans and materials, although for now, all shipping costs are calculated from New Zealand, making them a bit expensive.
Another start-up aimed at a hands-on crowd is Chumby Industries, makers of the Chumby, a small device that looks like a bulky digital photo frame. It uses open-source software to display news, e-mail messages, photos and video. It connects to the Internet wirelessly and allows you to create “feeds” from various information sources.
In contrast to other media players and similar devices, the Chumby’s internal schematics and source code — the programs that make it work — are completely open and available on www.chumby.com. This means a dedicated programmer or hardware wrangler could make it do almost anything. The device will be available online for about $180 later this year.
Phil Torrone, senior editor of Make Magazine, said he did not remember a time when he was not tearing apart electronics. But he said there had been a rise in the popularity of hardware hacking recently, thanks to cheap PCs and components.
“I used to go to swap meets where people were seeing how far they could transmit with their ham radios,” he said, recalling meetings where arts and crafts melded with technology to produce homemade radios, custom computers and odd robots. He calls the slow advance of do-it-yourself electronics the “democratization of tech,” leading to a world where anyone can run a radio station or build a computer.
Resources like Torrone’s magazine and its Web site, www.makezine.com, give people the initial impetus to build things. Some then make the leap to selling things.
Etsy (www.etsy.com) is a popular e-commerce site for people to sell their wares. Alongside more traditional items, it offers a scattering of tech-oriented accessories, including handmade iPod cases and charms for cell phones like those favored by Japanese schoolgirls.
Karrie Weaver, a geologist by day, knitted an iPod case out of audio tape (she posted the instructions on her Web site, www.girlontherocks.com/knit). All that knitting and sewing is a far cry from the soldering and millwork going on in other corners of the Internet.
Take the “steampunk” movement, for example. This odd subculture envisions a past populated with high-tech products clad in Victorian-era finery — like crossing the Terry Gilliam movie “Brazil” with H.G. Wells. One prominent proponent of the scene, Richard R. Nagy, also known as Datamancer (www.datamancer.net), builds and sells steampunk keyboards online.
Nagy buys computer keyboards and strips them completely. He then replaces the individual keys with keys from old typewriters and computing machinery. Finally, he replaces the sides of the keyboard with milled metal and gears. The product doesn’t come cheap. Most of Nagy’s keyboards cost $900 to $1,500. His latest creation, the Baron of Cyprus — a copper-clad keyboard with hand-etched keys — sold for $4,800 on eBay last week.
None of these projects are likely to make a dent in the profits of Samsung or Sony, but that is not the point. Fried said a more do-it-yourself approach to technology has its own ecological and personal benefits.
“There is a glut of technologies, and most of them do not fit our needs very well,” she said. “They are also very closed and proprietary, which is basically a great recipe for ‘buy it and toss it.”’
“Open hardware brings with it the ability to customize and repair what you have and gives it a higher personal value and usability,” Fried added. “Stuff with higher personal value and usability is less likely to just be thrown out as soon as you’re done with it, and is also profoundly more fun and fulfilling.”