Crowdfunding is a reasonably popular way to launch, or maintain, an open hardware project. The best site for this approach is Kickstarter. Some projects get their funding, some don’t. What’s the difference between them?
That’s a hard question to answer. I haven’t studied the issue, but the most popular (IE: funded) projects seem to combine technology(s) in such a way as to create an “experience.” I’ve yet to see a better example of this phenomenon than the MaKey MaKey.
The creators asked for a mere $25K. What they got was $400K.
Printrbot asked for the same $25K and received over $800K, but that makes a lot of sense. It’s a 3D printer, so it can make things for you, and it’s remarkably small/cheap, so it’s superior to many other designs. However, for some reason, it’s a lot easier to find examples of people throwing money at things that aren’t nearly as practical. Printrbot got over 3,000% of its funding goal. Other projects that broke the 1,000% barrier are Remee (lucid dream mask), Twine (make your “things” send tweets), QuNeo (a colorful MIDI pad controller for musicians), TJ* (a robotic face puppet), Estylo (an eco-friendly iPad stylus), and ClockTHREE Jr (an amusing clock). There’s a lesson in here somewhere. I’m not entirely sure what it is, but at the moment it seems to be that people get excited about hardware projects (open or not) that create an exciting/novel/interesting experience.
So we’re back to the MaKey MaKey. It really doesn’t do much. What it does do is allow you to turn pretty much any arbitrary action and materials into a few simple inputs the computer can understand. You’re not going to get anything done with it, and the novelty will probably wear off in the 30 seconds it takes to lose playing Tetris on bananas, but that doesn’t matter. People want it.
Hardware projects (open or otherwise) depend on funding. You can’t build something physical with just pizza and a long weekend; eventually you’re going to need cash (or an incredibly well stocked junk yard). It helps if you don’t have to supply all the cash yourself. Apparently, if you want people to help out by purchasing/donating to your project, it’s a good idea to show them how the finished project will make them feel. The sort of people who build useful tools in their spare time also tend to be the sort of people who don’t market. That’s fine, but only a few other hard-core geeks are going to spontaneously understand why your project is awesome. Everyone else has to be shown. Some projects are made for the camera. They are pure experience. Other projects have to work at it.