Tag Archives: GPL

Interview With Marco Perry of PENSA About The DIWire

Marco Perry is co-founder of PENSA, a New York consultancy that designs and improves products. It wouldn’t be too far off to say that innovation is his business. A short while ago Pensa designed, demonstrated and then open sourced an automatic wire forming printer. In case you aren’t familiar with it, here’s an overview:

The DIWire has attracted a lot of attention and Pensa is even planning on unveiling an improved version at the 2012 Maker Faire. Openalia sat down with Mr. Perry for a quick discussion of the DIWire specifically, and open source hardware in general.

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The fireCrow Squib Firing System – An Interview With The Creators

Sometimes what you need just doesn’t exist. And when you’ve got stuff to blow up, well…

Whenever someone or something in a movie needs to blow up or get shot, a remote controlled firing system is used. Since the firing system can’t be seen on camera, it needs to be small so it can be easily hidden. Apparently the commercial systems you can buy may or may not be small enough. They might be, like, two or three times bigger than they need to be. That was the position Daniel Arvidsson and David Jensen found themselves in. Thanks to the Arduino, and a lot of experimentation, they produced a small open source squib firing system (but they also made it modular so it can do more than just fire squibs).

Size comparison between the firecrow v1 and the Holatron, a professional squib firing system.

What are your names and backgrounds?

  • Daniel: My name is Daniel Arvidsson and I’m a former glass worker. 2004-2005 I attended a year of film study at a folk high school, after the school I got into pyrotechnics  and SFX. That’s the main reason why the idea of an wireless firing system came up! Now a days I have an ordinary job and do some SFX in my spare time and of course I’m developing fireCrow v2.0 😉
  • David: And mine is David Jensen, I’m a software developer and sort of a nerd. Bearded nerd. Not the big guru beard though. I’ve got two small kids, a wife and a house, no dog.

Did you have any engineering experience before you started?

  • Daniel: Hardly no electronic experience at all to start with.
  • David: About a year before we started I heard about something called the “Arduino”, bought one and started playing with it a bit. Prior to that, no experience at all. I did know  how to program though. But not C/C++.

What made you decide to open source the project?

  • Daniel: It’s a congenial way to make stuff and I like the idea of a contributing to a lifestyle where you build up a community; where everyone can help or be help without  paying for support and updates.
  • David: I’m a big fan of free software and a long time Linux user. I wouldn’t have found my way into electronics if it wasn’t for open hardware, especially the Arduino, making it easily accessible and fun, so I felt it was natural that whatever we did should be open hardware and open source.

Did you choose one particular license over others? Why?

  • Daniel: TAPR – because it’s created by people who mainly makes wireless applications. I thought our system fitted that description well.
  • David: GPL3 for the software since it has copyleft clauses that protects against being engulfed into a proprietary project. Also, copyleft licenses spread more freedom into the world.

Were there any tools/resources that were vital to your success?

  • Daniel: I use Cadsoft Eagle to make the schematics and PCB design, and we’ve used the Arduino as a development platform for the remote control.
  • David: We use a port of the Arduino library in the firmware to ease development, without it it would take a lot more time. GCC, avrdude and gedit for development.

Could you suggest one really important skill people should learn first?

  • Daniel: Only to be patient and accept that it will take time if you don’t know what you’re doing to start with. Of course it helps a lot to have basic knowledge of electronics (and coding)!

Did you ever make a major shift in the direction of the project? Why?

  • Daniel: First the pyrofyro was only a 2 channel firing system, then it became a MCU board (the fireCrow). Our idea was to get it out to a broader range of users and to make it easily accessible for Arduino people. Mainly because there’s already a great community with a lot of coding examples and help to get. Pyrofyro became the name of plugin cards (2, 4, or 6 channels) dedicated to firing pyrotechnics. We also have plans to fork the MCU board into a “firing system” fork with intergrated transceiver and an “Arduino-ish” fork (same as now)
  • David: The change to a modular system also interested me since I don’t have a license to blow things up 🙂

How much of the project was individual effort and how much was social?

  • David: If by individual we count the both of us you could say that most of the effort right now is individual. But it builds upon community efforts like the Arduino library. We wouldn’t be able to build it otherwise.
  • Daniel:  Also, in the beginning I got some help from electronic forums and googling the net about things that I didn’t understand, but otherwise no.

Do you plan on selling anything when you’re finished?

  • Daniel:   Yes, hopefully we’ll be able to sell kits or even a finished product. The most difficult part is to get a reasonable price, because there’s no economy to buy enough components to reduce the cost per piece. Maybe if we get founding somehow 😉

What do you think about open source as a philosophy? As a strategy?

  • David: As stated above I love free software, I think that as a philosophy open hardware and free software gives us creativity and power as a community to change the world. As a business strategy for software I believe it’s the future, everyone should do it. Open hardware as a business strategy is a bit different though, but there are business doing well. It will be interesting to see what the future holds.
  • Daniel:  I agree with previous speaker! 😉

In your wildest dreams, what would be open sourced next?

  • David: Totally open hardware and drivers for the next Nexus Android phone, with easily accessible connectors.

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TinkerForge – An Interview With The Creators

When you don’t want to fight with low-level syntax you use a high-level programming language. What if that concept was applied to hardware?

TinkerForge is, to oversimplify, a group of modular circuit boards that “just work” with your computer. As long as the program you’re working on is connected to a master brick (via USB), all of the sensors and actuators connected to that same brick will “just work” together. You connect the bricks together and write your program, then the bricks take care of executing that program in the real world. No messing around with firmware, no soldering, and if you want to change something you just rearrange the bricks.

This hyper-modular approach to integrating electronics and software earned TinkerForge “product of the year 2012” at the CHIP magazine award. Previous years were Lufthansa and Panasonic.

Please Introduce yourselves and the origin of TinkerForge.

Our names are Bastian Nordmeyer and Olaf Lüke, we both have a Master degree in Computer Science from the University of Paderborn. At the University we worked at a research project that had the goal to teach robots playing soccer. But instead of programming the behaviour of the robots we actually had to fiddle around with the hardware most of the time. That is where the idea of easy-to-use and modular hardware was born!

What made you decide to open source the project?

We both love Open Source Hardware ourselves. We have everything from OpenMoko over Arduino to Beagleboards in use here! Also, in our opinion, it makes sense for hardware that is made to tinker around with to be open source.

What advantages did you realize from an open source strategy?

With our hardware it is possible to get the easiest possible access to control hardware, a few lines of Python are enough for most small projects. But since it is open source it is also possible to go deeper and perhaps write some C code to change the firmware of a Brick or Bricklet and if that isn’t enough you could also go ahead and make your own hardware that works together with ours. None of this would be possible without it being open source!

What license(s) is TinkerForge released under?

We consider the programming language bindings public domain, there
shouldn’t be any restrictions to use them. Everything else is either
LGPL if it is a library and perhaps usable in other projects or GPL or
GPL-like licensed if it belongs to our core stuff. The hardware is
licensed by the OHL (CERN Open Hardware License). 

Were there any tools/resources that were vital to your success?

We use the standard open source compilers and editors and so on for developing, nothing special. We did receive an EXIST-Gründerstipendium [entrepreneurial grant] that helped us a lot financially in the development phase.

Could you suggest one really important skill people should learn first?

In general I think the thing that we needed most is endurance. If you want to learn something just do it and keep doing it! You won’t be able to learn programming or designing hardware in 2 weeks, it will take a lot of work and a lot of time.

Did you ever make a major shift in the direction of the project? Why?

Oh, quite a lot! The first hardware version had a size of 2x2cm (now the Bricks have 4x4cm). They were absolutely tiny! Unfortunately we weren’t able to fit everything on them that we wanted. The first software version used DBUS instead of the generated language bindings. We already had the software ready and working for that, but it was to much of a hassle to get working on different operating systems (i.e. impossible).

How much of the project was individual effort and how much was social?

Getting the grant was quite a social effort i guess. Also we did of course have discussions about every aspect of the concept and what sensors to use for hours on end :-). Other then that it was a lot of developing effort for two people. It took us more than two years to design the hardware, write the firmwares, the tools (brickd, brickv), the language bindings and the documentation.

Where is TinkerForge going next?

More Bricklets, more Bricks, more language bindings, cases, on device programming support, better documentation, direct Raspberry PI support, etc, etc. There is lots to do!

It seems like Arduino is the most obvious comparison to TinkerForge. Do you consider Arduino a competing platform?

We don’t see us as competition to Arduino. Arduino is programmed on the device in a C derivative and our stuff is controlled from a PC with a high level language. Sometimes you want to solder and make your own hardware designs and sometimes you just want to automate something as fast and easy as possible. Those concepts can both coexist quite happily :-).

Any plans to combine bricks that are often used together into one board?

We will do this (and are in the process of doing it) for companies that want to use large amounts of the same Bricks and Bricklets. I don’t think this makes sense for the general purpose hardware. This would just make everything more expensive (we would have to make smaller amounts of more circuit boards etc.)

How did you settle on this particular level of modularity?

We just used the UNIX principle: “Make each Brick/Bricklet do one thing well”.

Is TinkerForge just for learning/prototyping or is it cheap enough to
embed in finished products?

If you make millions of this product: Probably not. If you make one of this product per month: Hell yes! The industrial alternatives you can get are often orders of magnitude more expensive.

Obviously a great deal of attention was paid to making the bricks work together transparently. Was that an important goal from the beginning? Why?

That was goal from the beginning, yes. The transparency is [necessary so that the user does not] need to think about the hardware components at all.

Are there any aspects of the hardware/software that limit hackability?

Regarding the hackability: We use 0402 and almost only SMD parts. This makes it of course virtually impossible if you want to directly solder something on a Brick or Bricklet. At that point there has to be a trade off between size+price and hackability and we decided to go with size+price. Other then that, every part should be hackable. There should be (and will be in the future) more documentation for the low level stuff.

Was TinkerForge intended to be a commercial project or did it evolve into that?

I think it was clear from the beginning that the project was too big to be just a side project or a hobby.

How did you balance the need for commercial success against engineering goals?

Good question. This is probably the hardest of all the problems to solve. We originally wanted to start the online shop in the end of 2010. In reality we were only able to go online in mid December 2011! Most of the additional time invested probably had to do with the trade off between high end parts and costs.

We have dozens of prototypes laying around here with different board-to-board connectors, different wire-to-board connectors and different processors. We first used 8 bit AT91USB processors, but decided to go for the 32bit SAM3S later on (quite a bit more expensive, but a lot more capabilities).

Good board-to-board connectors can be hugely expensive (like the Molex PMC series). For a Master Brick they would cost more then the whole Master Brick now :-). Lots of cheap Chinese ones only worked for 50 or so mating cycles until something broke.

Is it possible to run a TinkerForge stack independent of a computer?

Yes it is, if you write your own firmware (our firmware on the bricks/bricklets is opensource, so you can use it as a starting point).

If you want to control it from the outside you need a full computer currently. We have planned something called “Low Level Programming Interface” which should enable it to control our products via SPI, I2C or serial interface from other microcontrollers. Although it is possible (we have designed the hardware accordingly) I’m not sure if this will maybe be dropped since we don’t have enough manpower to implement it. Since currently nobody has asked for it, it has a low priority for us.

Any final thoughts?

There is no recipe you can go by, I think. You just have to test lots and lots of stuff until you find something that works well and isn’t too expensive.

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