Could technology one day be so simple that consumers will build their own gadgets? We went to the Consumer Electronics Show and met the companies inspired by Lego.
MIT researcher Eric von Hippel thinks everyone could be an electronics designer. He sees a future of open innovation, "a commons where everyone is working together" to build products they want, not what manufacturers have foisted on them.
Von Hippel's view is the direct opposite of the prevailing idea in manufacturing today, given credence by the 20th century economist Joseph Schumpeter. "Since Schumpeter, people thought the manufacturers were the innovators because the idea was that there are a lot of users and they all want the same things," von Hippel explains.
But von Hippel argues that design can be cheap as long as people work together. "The thing that is driving innovation is the idea that people can collaborate.
"Intellectual property was built around the idea that in order to encourage people to innovate you had to give them a monopoly. That is true for manufacturers, in a sense. But when users innovate and people have fun innovating, then they get rewarded with the mountain bike or machine they build, but not necessarily with money."
It has happened with software, where access to open-source tools has helped 'democratise' programming. Hardware is a tougher nut to crack. But a small group of manufacturers is trying to do the same with hardware, expecting users to plug different modules together and modify them.
Von Hippel's ideas helped inspire the founder of Bug Labs, Peter Semmelhack, to build a family of products that could kick-start user hardware design.
Semmelhack, who started the company in April 2006, explains: "My training was as a software engineer. In the world of software, you have a lot of open source IP and very cheap Web hosting. You've got a lot of tools and resources that you can avail yourself to basically build software websites very quickly. It's come to the point now that with $1,000 in your pocket, you can launch the next Facebook."
Semmelhack realised that the same could not really be said about hardware. "If you come out of college with an idea for a gadget, it's pretty hard to get where you need to go without investing a lot of money because you have to be good with a soldering iron and solid state electronics. To make it look any good, you have to be a mechanical engineer and an industrial designer - and it becomes complicated very quickly," he explains. "A lot of gadgets that people might want never come to market because the economics don't make any sense."
In a video interview in which von Hippel espoused his philosophy, gadget wrangler Alicia Gibb proudly showed him the BugvonHippel, a breakout board finished in black plastic that is intended for quick experimentation with I/O.
Modules such as the BugvonHippel typically fit onto the Bug Base, a computer that runs Linux on a Freescale iMX31, which is based on the ARM11 processor core. There is nothing particularly unusual in that. Companies have been making computer modules that plug together using defined interfaces since the 1970s. The S-100 bus, for example, found its way into many home computers.
But these were systems aimed squarely at people who were handy with a screwdriver and soldering iron. The difference with the hardware produced by Bug Labs and a few others lies in the styling. The modules are all encapsulated so that the final system, when plugged together, is complete if a little blocky.
Currently, Bug Labs makes a GPS receiver, motion detector, accelerometer, LCD touch screen and an audio module, as well as the BugvonHippel. Additionally, on the connectivity side, it has Bluetooth, WiFi, GSM and Zigbee modules.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, the company announced a Pico projector module that it has developed in collaboration with TI.
"Some of our customers want to do fleet tracking and they are using a GSM and a GPS [module]. Since the platform is open source and modular, it can be extended. Perhaps they want a module that can measure humidity in a truck, so when one is available, they can easily swap it in," explains Angel Roman, an embedded systems engineer for Bug Labs.
The company has made its IP publicly available on its website for download with no licensing fees. "We as consumers are rewarding vendors who give us more control and not less. You look at Tivo - which allows you to watch television where you want and not when the broadcasters tell you to," says Semmelhack
Additionally, the company is actively pursuing verticals and enterprise customers who would have ordinarily found it difficult to custom build a portable device. "To tell them that they can now have a physical device that they can customise resonates with their world view," says Semmelhack.
He claims that the response from the electronics components industry has been positive and pointed to the projector module which it has produced in partnership with TI as an example. Further products with TI and other chip vendors are to be announced in the next few months. Today, Bug Labs interacts frequently with projects such as the Open Handset Alliance and Openmoko. It has a large number of enthusiasts, many of whom are building devices with its various modules to experiment with and use. Like Openmoko, the company claimed it sold out of its first set of modules, although it never revealed how many it made.
Another company believes that it can go one step further and create a modular device that less tech-savvy consumers will be able to customise.
At last February's Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, founder and CEO Dov Moran unveiled Modu, a tiny, lightweight phone featuring a core device which is just 7mm thick, weighs less than 40g and can operate as a mobile phone in its own right. In March, Modu was awarded the Guinness World Record for the world's lightest mobile phone.
Moran conceived the technology when he found it difficult to jog with a large mobile phone which he had to hold in his hand. But, like many of us, he did not want to have several different devices with different telephone numbers.
Therefore, he envisaged an ecosystem of technologies which would have at its core the most basic of mobile phone devices, which would also be capable of being the heart of a much more sophisticated portable device. Unlike an ordinary mobile phone cover, Modu's 'jackets' would be able to add extra functions.
The core can be inserted into a variety of jackets, transforming the mobile phone into a GPS device, an 8.2 megapixel camera and even a digital picture frame - with plans for many more. For example, one of the company's jackets comes with a jogger's wrist band; another will come with a shock-resistant, sturdy casing, for those who want to keep their mobile phones to hand while playing sport for example. To keep the core device small, each jacket can include additional flash memory as required by the intended function.
Unlike Bug Labs, Modu has not taken an open source approach. Instead, it incorporates SkyMobileMedia's Sky Map source code and Mentor Graphics's Nucleus operating system, which are proprietary pieces of software.
The model is more akin to that of Apple with the iPod. The company retains control of the IP and interfaces, but it has still spawned a huge accessories market. Modu plans to target the mobile phone market, where many users are locked into lengthy contracts and allow them to switch jackets as often as they like without penalty.
"We expect to go into production in April this year and we will be announcing deals with several mobile service providers," claims Moran.
Moran's former company, M-Systems, developed the world's first USB storage drives. In 2000, the company was the fastest growing organisation on the Nasdaq and was sold to Sandisk in 2006 for $1.5bn.
Both Modu and Bug Labs are attempting to develop a game changing system to how devices are developed and used by business users and consumers, albeit with different approaches to the business model: an open-source, old-school hacking model for Bug Labs and a more conventional system-plus-accessories model for Modu.
Any company looking at a modular approach to making gadgets may find that there are willing enthusiasts who would laud this approach, but making money from Lego-inspired gadgets will simply not be child's play.