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Make: Projects — Build a Wind Lantern

On the latest Make: Live, we had Dustyn Roberts, our mechanics mentor for the month, give us a tour of her Wind Lantern project, from her book Making Things Move. She’s also has put up the build on Make: Projects. It’s a fun introduction to vertical-axis wind turbines (VAWT), building a diode bridge rectifier circuit, and working with the basic mechanics of a turbine.

Wind Lantern (Make: Projects)

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Dustyn explaining her Wind Lantern on Make: Live

 

The Re-Emergence of DIY vs. Big Organizations by Johnny Lee

Today we have a special guest post The Re-Emergence of DIY vs Big Organizations by Johnny Lee. The post is here on MAKE in its entirety with permission. It’s an excellent read for makers, innovators, and any company looking to harness the smarts of the tinkerers out there. Johnny Lee is best known for his Wiimote hacking, which sparked thousands of projects. And most recently, I worked with him (and Ladyada) on the Kinect hack + bounty. He recently left Microsoft Research and is now at Google.

I have actually put quite a bit of thought toward this topic having recently jumped back and forth between the DIY hobby culture, serious academic research, and massively funded commercial product development. I’ve had the fortune to observe people trying to make new and interesting things at extremely different scales — from $100 budgets to $100,000,000 budgets.

One thing that I find very consistent: good ideas come from anywhere. The biggest factor in predicting where good work will come from is “how much does this person actually care about what they are working on?” In fact, big budgets and a sense of entitlement can actually hinder the emergence of interesting ideas. Having the expectation to do really great work can lead people or organizations to develop tunnel vision on “big” ideas, and miss out on smaller ideas that end up having a lot of impact or dismiss seemingly silly approaches that actually end up working.

There’s a really great TEDx talk by Simon Sinek that touches on this. He actually brings up a number of great points in his talk, but the one I want to highlight here is his anecdote about Samuel Pierpont Langley vs. the Wright Brothers in pursuit of powered flight. Langley represented the exceptionally well-funded professional research organization, and the Wright Brothers were the scrappy passionate pair of DIYers. Today, we now know the Wright brothers as the ones who created the first airplane, and most have never heard of Langley. Big investment is not a very strong predictor of valuable output. But an individual’s willingness to continue working on the same problem with very little to no pay is a good predictor.

The great thing about the hacker community is that, generally, most of them fall into the latter category. Independent developers and hobbyists care enough to spend their own money to work on the projects they believe in. As a result, I’m finding that the delta in the quality of ideas from a well-funded research group and the independent community (in aggregate) is getting smaller and smaller by the month. Increasingly, the best “hobby projects” surpass the quality level of “true research” work in the same area. This startling lack of contrast (or sometimes inversion) becomes laughably evident when I am reviewing academic/scientific work submitted for publication on a project that uses Kinect, and then the newest Kinect hack pops up on Engadget that simply beats it hands down.

Now, I could simply make a curmudgeonly claim that the quality of professional/research/academic work has gone down. But, I actually don’t think that’s true. In my opinion, what is happening is that the quality of independent projects are getting better — fast — which, I think, resonates with this observation of a “DIY Revolution.”

But, why is this re-emergence happening now? Wasn’t is just a few years ago people were lamenting about how “black boxed” consumer products had gotten, and that the good old days where you could open up a product and futz with the innards in a meaningful way were gone? What’s changed to cause this apparent rebirth?

I have a theory.

My Theory About the Re-Emergence of the DIY Community:
In the 90s and early 2000s, Moore’s law was absolute king. The primary deciding factor in purchasing an electronic product was simply how fast it was. This meant an intense focus on tighter and tighter integration of components and all the functionality was disappearing into tiny little black chips that could not be accessed nor modified by mere mortals. But now, people barely talk about raw “megahertz” or “megabytes” anymore. General purpose computers have gotten “fast enough.” We now want specialized kinds of computers: one that fits in our pocket, plays games in 3D, one shaped like a tablet, one that goes in our car, one that can go underwater, or get strapped your snowboard and not break. We have reached a surplus in computing power that makes it affordable to build (and buy) devices for smaller and smaller needs. Our imagination for what to do with computing has simply not kept up with Moore’s Law. So, we find more uses for more modest amounts of computing power. But, what does this have to do with the DIY community?

A byproduct of having such an immense surplus in computing is that the tools you can buy within a hobbyist budget have also gotten exponentially better in just the past 3-4 years, while the improvements in professional tools have been more modest. The difference in capability between the electronics workbench of a professional engineer and a hobby engineer is getting really, really small. Kinect is an overwhelming example of this. The cost of a high quality depth camera dropped nearly two orders of magnitude overnight. As a result, hobbyists are out-pacing many professionals in the same domain simply due to sheer parallelism. Perhaps not as dramatically, but this is happening with nearly all genres of electronic and scientific equipment. One day, maybe we’ll see backyard DIY electron beam drilling for nano-machining.

When it is no longer about who has the most resources, it’s about who has the best ideas. Then, it becomes a pure numbers game:

Take 10,000 professional engineers vs. 1 million hobbyists with roughly equivalent tools. Which group will make progress faster? Now, consider that you have to pay the 10,000 engineers $100K/year to motivate them to work, and the 1 million hobbyists are working for the love of it. Does that change your answer? Even if it doesn’t, you have to concede that there does exist a ratio that will make the output of these two groups equal. It’s merely a matter of time.

If you follow me through this argument, which I won’t claim to be bulletproof but which does explains the trends we are observing quite nicely, then this has an interesting implication on organizations that are currently funding big research groups. When it’s simply a matter of who has the best ideas, it’s tough to try to employ enough people to get good coverage. You could try to spend a lot of energy on trying to find the “best” people, but that’s about as challenging as predicting the stock market. Some inventors simply go “dry” of good ideas and end up not providing a good lifetime return on investment (I fully expect this to happen to me someday — I just hope it happens later rather than sooner).

So to me, this suggest three options for big exploratory organizations:

  1. Start tackling more resource-intensive problems: things that fundamentally cannot be done today for a few thousand dollars, but at some basic level require materials, tools, energy, computation, space, manpower that are impossible to obtain at a hobby level. The LHC and space programs are good examples of this. Even if the end goal may be of debatable near-term economic value, there is a high probability that unexpected derivative technologies/projects will bring commercial/educational benefits elsewhere.
  2. Empower everyone within your organization to do exploratory work. The tools are cheap and “research groups” have no monopoly on good ideas. It’s hard to know where lightning will strike, so make sure you encourage it anywhere and hope you haven’t missed a spot.
  3. Partner with the outside developer community. There is plenty of precedence, where using the resources you have to channel the creative power of the masses through the platforms you control can bring a tremendous amount of value, if done in an organized manner. It’s the rocket fuel that powers companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Groupon to go from non-existence to dominating entities in less than three years. The same can absolutely happen with traditional physical electronics and other consumer goods. It simply requires treating your customers as potential partners, rather than assuming they are all potential predators.
 


Biomimetic Octopus Tentacle Manipulator

From a group of what seem to be mostly Italian scientists with the delightfully ominous name of The Octopus Project. Construction details were published as Design of a Biomimetic Robotic Octopus Arm in Bioinspiration & Biomimetics in 2009. A 2008 conference preprint is available here.

Fig. 1. (a) Arrangement of the hydrostatic muscles in the octopus tentacle: the longitudinal muscles (L) extend along the whole tentacle length; the transversal muscles (T) connect the external tissues and, when contracted, make the tentacle diameter reduce and the length increase. The external oblique muscles (O) around the whole tentacle allow torsion. The central axis of the arm is occupied by the axial nerve cord (N), which includes both nerve cell bodies and axons, and it is wrapped by medial oblique muscles. (b), (c), (d) Design of the muscular elements of the robotic tentacle: longitudinal muscles (b), transverse muscles (c), and integration in an arm (d).

[Thanks, Alan Dove!]

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Ornithopter Drone Actually Looks Like a Bird

By the crazy German mad scientists at Festo.

SmartBird is an ultralight but powerful flight model with excellent aerodynamic qualities and extreme agility. With SmartBird, Festo has succeeded in deciphering the flight of birds – one of the oldest dreams of humankind.

This bionic technology-bearer, which is inspired by the herring gull, can start, fly and land autonomously – with no additional drive mechanism. Its wings not only beat up and down, but also twist at specific angles. This is made possible by an active articulated torsional drive unit, which in combination with a complex control system attains an unprecedented level of efficiency in flight operation. Festo has thus succeeded for the first time in creating an energy-efficient technical adaptation of this model from nature.

[Via Tinkernology]

 

Make: Projects – Bulletproof Binder

OK, so it’s not, actually. Bulletproof, that is. But with 3/32″ aluminum sheet covers, nickel-plated steel piano hinges, and all-riveted construction, it’s a damn sight tougher than just about any other 3-ring binder you’re likely to encounter in the wild. Especially those crappy cardboard-shrinkwrapped-in-vinyl models most of us had/have to make do with in school.

(And no, you don’t have to use an old road sign to make yours, but it does confer serious style points. Just make sure it’s not stolen, please. They need the road signs, you know, on the roads.)

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Creepy shoulder-mounted telepresence robot

TEROOS lets a distant friend accompany you and see/hear through the robot’s camera and mic. A mini directional speaker allows the robot to whisper in your ear, which is even more weird. [Via JWZ]

 

Smarter iPad 2 Smart Cover

Check out this super sleek wooden roll top cover for the iPad 2 from Dutch case manufacturer Miniot. Made from a single piece of cherrywood, the case fits snug to the tablet using internal magnets. The design differs from the stock Apple Smart Cover with its rigid rolling arch, smooth organic lines, and its lack of hinge. Though I have yet to hold one in my hand, from what I’ve seen in the video demonstration it appears to offer superior support when used as a stand to prop up the device. [via TUAW]

 

DIY Scanning Electron Microscope

We’ve covered Ben Krasnow’s awesome work here before. At last year’s Maker Faire, he showed off his liquid nitrogen generator (for which he won at least one Editor’s Blue Ribbon). Now he’s posted to his blog this latest project, a working DIY scanning electron microscope! It’s been months of work to get the scope together and to get a picture out of it, but he’s done it. Now he’s going to work on improving image resolution, and reducing noise. Congrats on this, Ben. Really impressive job. [Thanks, Robert Bruce Thompson!]

DIY scanning electron microscope

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DIY liquid nitrogen generator

 

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