If you aren't a bit of a hardware hacker yourself, you may not know that there's been a "do-it-yourself" (DIY) movement in tech since the 1950s. In recent years, however, it's seen some pretty explosive growth – and recognition. That's thanks to better technology and communications, which has helped turn the world into a garage and basement builder's utopia.
From recipes for homemade devices to hacks for improving existing ones, today's DIY "hackers" have created some pretty cool stuff. What's most interesting is that many of these creations are the basis for other new hacks. Here we'll take a look at some of the coolest DIY tech gadgets around.
The Arduino Board
It's nearly impossible to discuss the DIY movement to any extent without mention of the Arduino board. It's an open-source electronics prototyping platform designed for artists, designers, hobbyists and anyone interested in creating interactive objects or environments. These microcontroller boards, which can be bought pre-assembled or assembled by users by hand, are programmable in the Arduino language, and their software can be downloaded for free.
There is no lack of creativity with what hobbyists do with the Arduino board. There's a pet lamp called Pinokio, an Arduino-powered cocktail machine and, something most techies could use, a slouch-detecting belt. The board itself is open source, which means that while it's something that came out of the DIY movement, it also helps to sustain and promote it.
The 3-D Printer
3-D printers are desktop manufacturing devices that can be operated right from a home computer, printing just about anything you can design with CAD software in 3-D plastic. A decent home 3-D printer is expensive, but hardly out of reach: You can get one for as little as $2,000, and be printing plastic objects or molds in the same day.
This is no small thing for DIY projects. Parts that may have been difficult or impossible to obtain in the past – either because they were rare or didn't exist – can now literally be created from nothing. For inventors of all sorts, that's a major, and very welcome, change. (Learn more about 3-D printing in From Mind to Matter: Is There Anything a 3-D Printer Can't Do?)
Computer numerical control (CNC) is a type of industrial machine controlled from a computer through CAD files, where the mere click of the mouse will launch the machine on its way to drilling, sawing, carving, cutting and essentially creating the design of your choice. It's used pretty widely in manufacturing, but there are also plenty of online instructions for making one yourself. In essence, computer programming controls complex machining that would otherwise be overseen by a human operator.
As I mentioned already, there is a meta-movement aspect to the CNC, much like there is for Arduino. Not only does the device contribute to the maker movement, but it is resultant of it as well. There are countless open source blueprints on the Web for designs on how to make your own CNC, like this one from Instructables.com.
As an open-source library of electronic modules, littleBits makes neat little electronic starter kits for people ages eight and up to get them building and creating with electronics. The kits are composed of modular electronics, which can snap together with magnets for prototyping. Each unit has a basic function, such as a blinking light, but when put together, you can make whatever your little electronic heart desires. Like, say, some light-up sunglasses you can wear at night. Now that's cool.
As someone who personally is very into fostering science and technology education for kids, I think littleBits is doing a great job of getting kids interested in DIY and electronics. It isn't just for kids, but I like the idea that a kid with a littleBits kit could grow up to make … well, a homemade CNC machine!
For hardware hacking geeks, Raspberry Pi is as delicious as it sounds. This credit-card-sized single board computer was designed by a British organization called the Raspberry Pi Foundation with the intent of being able to teach rudimentary computer science in schools. It's essentially a bare bones, Linux-based PC with an ARM-based CPU and graphics processor. It can be plugged into a keyboard and monitor. It can even play high-definition video. Best of all, it costs less than $50. So, I guess the sheer number of creative projects that are possible with Pi shouldn't come as a surprise. It’s a tiny circuit board that practically screams "code me!" Solar-powered FTP server anyone? (For more on Pi, check out Raspberry Pi Revolution: A Return to Computer Basics?)
Minty Boost sounds refreshing and it is. Put out by Adafruit industries, a leader in the DIY/Maker movement since 2005, this kit and/or blueprints can be purchased to turn an old Altoids container into a portable charger for your cellphone or other USB devices. I was so impressed by its upcylced whimsy, I was ready to purchase the kit on the spot until I read that it does require a bit of soldering work, which I don’t (yet) know how to do. Minty Boost is open source, like all of Adafruit's products, and purchasers are invited to improve on it, and even sell it themselves.
The Future of DIY
I spoke with Limor Fried, founder of Adafruit and creator of Minty Boost, about where the Maker Movement's headed.
"The Maker Movement, and Adafruit, to me have the same destination: maximizing the human potential through the sharing of information," Fried said. (Check out a great interview with Fried here.)
That said, some are speculating the movement is going to move beyond the realm of hackers and computer geeks and slip seamlessly into the mainstream. Why not? If DIY has produced anything, it's confidence in people's power to share, educate and collaborate. Oh yeah, and whip up some pretty cool and clever stuff in the process.