Open Hardware for Open Science – Interview with Charles Fracchia

Open Science has been a long-standing ideal for many researchers and practitioners around the world. It advocates the open sharing of scientific research, data, processes, and tools and encourages open collaboration. While not without challenges, this mode of scientific research has the potential to change the entire course of science, allowing for more rigorous peer-review and large-scale scientific projects, accelerating progress, and enabling otherwise unimaginable discoveries.

As with any great idea, there are a number of obstacles to such a thing going mainstream. The biggest one is certainly the existing incentive system that lies at the foundation of the academic world. A limited number of opportunities, relentless competition, and pressure to “publish or perish” usually end up incentivizing exactly the opposite – keeping results closed and doing everything to gain a competitive edge. Still, against all odds, a number of successful Open Science projects are out there in the wild, making profound impacts on their respective fields. HapMap Project, OpenWorm, Sloan Digital Sky Survey and Polymath Project are just a few to name. And the whole movement is just getting started.

While some of these challenges are universal, when it comes to Biology and Biomedical Engineering, the road to Open Science is paved with problems that will go beyond crafting proper incentives for researchers and academic institutions.

It will require building hardware.

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Mediated Matter at the MIT Media Lab

Few things have managed to capture the imagination of hackers and engineers around the world the way Synthetic Biology did over the last couple of years. The promise of “applying engineering principles to designing new biological devices and systems” just seemed way too sci-fi to missed out on, and everyone jumped on the bandwagon. All of a sudden, the field which used to be restricted to traditional research organizations and startups found itself crowded with all sorts of enthusiasts, biohackers, and weirdos alike. Competitions such as the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) paved the way, and the emergence of community spaces like GenSpace and BioCurious finally made DNA experimentation accessible to anyone who dares to try. As it often happens, the Sci-Fi itself did not go untouched, and a whole new genre called “Biopunk” emerged, further fueling people’s imagination and extrapolating worlds to come.

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SXSW Create: Sparkfun Gives Kids Awesome Badges to Hack

By far the most desirable booth for the crowds at SXSW Create was the Sparkfun quadrant. We call it a quadrant because they had a huge footprint approaching 1/4 the tented area, but it was well used. They brought a number of staff down to Austin in order to give away a legit electronic badge project they call BadgerHack.

sxsw-sparkfun-badgerhack-kit-thumbWe love badge hacking. LOVE IT! But South-by isn’t purely a hardware conference so the badges aren’t made of PCBs (for shame). Add to that, free entry to Create scores you a wristband but no badge.

This is the answer to that, a badge giveaway and build-off aimed at kids but cool enough to make me feel only slightly awful for accepting one when I pretty much knew they were going to run out before the final day was done.

The USB stick PCB is, as you guessed it, an Arduino compatible loaded up with an FTDI chip and an ATmega328p which they call the BadgerStick. Accompanying this is a multiplexed 8×7 LED matrix board. Solder the three pin headers and the battery holder leads, connect to the plastic badge using the supplied double-stick tape, and you have a badge that scrolls a message in LEDs.

DSC_0508What an awesome giveaway. I really like it that they didn’t cut corners here. First off, the kids will value the badge much more because they had to actually assemble it rather than just being handed a finished widget. Secondly, there is the USB to serial chip and USB footprint that means they can reprogram it without any extra equipment. And an LED matrix… come on that’s just a gateway drug to learning Wiring. Bravo Sparkfun and Atmel for going this route with your marketing bucks.

The badge activity rounded out with some hardware interfacing. There’s a 3-pin socket that attendees could plug into 4 different stations around the booth. Once done they received a coupon code for Sparkfun that scrolls whenever the badge is booted up. For some at-home fun, the writeup (linked at the top) for the BadgerHack firmware is quite good. It offers advice on changing what is displayed on the badge and outlines how to build a game of Breakout with just a bit of added hardware.

SXSW Create: ATX Hackerspace Area

We had a wonderful time over the weekend at the 2015 SXSW Create. I was really excited to see that there was a very large area set aside for the Hackerspaces of the Austin area and they took full advantage of that. Most notably, ATX Hackerspace who had multiple tables and was drawing a huge crowd.

sxsw-atx-thereminThis table is a good example of the demonstrations on hand. Primarily It’s a collection of ultrasonic theremin. The classic theremin uses oscillator-based sound production (we’ve been running a series on that concept) with a set of antennas that uses your body’s proximity to tweak that signal. This version mimics the user interface but greatly simplifies the skillset needed to produce the instrument by swapping the antenna for an ultrasonic rangefinder and generating the audio digitally. The more astute viewer will have noticed the instrument being held. I neglected to ask about this but it sure looks like a Holophonor which is another great seed idea for your next project. Update: it’s a Hulusi.

sxsw-atx-solderingI do think it’s worth noting that ATX also set aside a lot of table-space for their members to actually work on building projects at the event. We’re big advocates of this rather than simply exhibiting finished projects. It doesn’t really matter what you’re working on; seeing a table covered with interesting parts and tools, being worked on by fun people obviously enjoy each other’s company is the core message of a Hackerspace… right?

I talk with [Gardner] about ATX in the video after the break, and make a quick loop around the display tables.

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Hackaday Prize Worldwide: SXSW

Having announced the start of the 2015 Hackaday Prize a few days ago, it’s time to take the message to the people. We’ll be evangelizing the message of grass-roots hardware development all over the world this year. The next event starts tomorrow in Austin, Texas and is free for all to attend.

Friday Mid-Day Meetup

Join the Hackaday Crew at the Hackaday South by Southwest Meetup on Friday from 11am-12pm. We’ll be discussing the bright future of small shop and grass roots hardware development. This concept ties into the 2015 Hackaday Prize which calls on you do develop solutions to some of the problems found in your community. Want to organize your own #HackadayPrize event to help get the word out? Great! Email prize -at- and we’ll help with the planning.

Friday Night at Hardware House

Find us on Friday Night at Hardware House. They are presenting several talks; notably from [Huge Fiennes] (Co-founder of Electric Imp), [Sam de Brouwer] (Co-founder of Scanadu), [Nick Yulman] (from Kickstarter), and [Jason Johnson] (Co-Founder of August). In between there will be some lightning talks and [Sophi] will be giving one on the 2015 Hackaday Prize. and we’ll be sticking around for the socializing as well. It runs from 6-9pm… don’t forget to RSVP.

Stuffing 150 sq. ft. with Hardware

The finalists from last year’s Hackaday Prize were gracious enough to lend us their prototypes to exhibit at our SXSW Create Booth which is open Friday through Sunday. These are SatNOGS, ChipWhisperer, PortableSDR, Open Science Tricorder, and RamanPi. Thank you to them all, we’ll make sure to bring some of those along to the meetup. We’re also happy to have one of [Radu Motisan’s] uRADMonitor modules on hand, one of the Mooltipass beta units which were the topic of the Developed on Hackaday series, and one of [Macetech’s] new LED glasses (which we might just be giving away to someone who stops by).

Tacos or Drinks or Hangouts, oh my

The midway is open 11-6 everyday but you can bet after that (and perhaps before) we’ll be looking to do some socializing. Hit us up on Twitter if you have any suggestions or wonder what we’re up to. Assuming the Internet is working we’ll be checking and Tweeting regularly. On site we’ll be using the following accounts: @Hackaday,, @HackadayPrize.

Hackaday Meetup at SXSW

Each year the giant South by Southwest (SXSW) festival descends on Austin, Texas. It attracts droves of music lovers, among them an ocean of our kind of tech geeks. This year the crowd will trend evermore in that direction since Hackaday has decided to be there too!

In addition to scouring the crowd for awesome tech, we have a booth and are hosting an organized Hackaday meetup on Friday 3/13 at 11:00am. It’s free to all so put it on your calendar now! Several of our Hackaday crew will be there, we’re bringing cool hardware, and of course we’ll have some swag in tow the most hardcore of hackers.

This is one chance to talk about our passion: hardware development. We’ll be discussing the concept of focused and sustained efforts at building hardware as individuals, small teams, and a growing community. We know this is possible… we saw a lot of it with The Hackaday Prize and had a great look at one type of distributed development process through Developed on Hackaday which followed the Mooltipass project. Of course it’s not a lecture so bring your own ideas while we all chew the fat of what the future needs to look like.

As we mentioned, we have a booth at SXSW Create. Entry is again free to all and runs 11am-6pm for three days — find us in one of the four corner stalls. There we will be exhibiting the hardware from SatNOGS, ChipWhisperer, PortableSDR, Open Science Tricorder, and RamanPi. Don’t know what’s notable about these projects? They all won big for sharing the details of their future tech designs.

So, find us there! Give a shout on Twitter if you wonder what’s going on (we’re always looking for a good impromptu beer meetup or taco crawl). @hackaday@hackadayio@hackadayprize

The Future Doesn’t Need Another Internet-Connected Teddybear – Hackaday at SXSW Create

Hackaday happened to be at South by Southwest this year and visited SXSW Create – part of the festival dedicated to hackers, makers and DIY scene. While modest in size, this event serves as a great contrast to the internet-hype machine omnipresent everywhere else in the city during this time. So we thought we should drop by and show them some love.

sxsw-launchpad-croppedTrey German showed us a couple of great real-time power control demos using his C2000 Launch Pad as well as his Bluetooth Cooler which, for whatever reason, decided to fail on him just in time for the big show. The demo we have been looking forward to the most was a thermocouple-controlled barbecue using Energia framework but were disappointed to learn that The Man has banned grilling hotdogs in the tent. The universe was telling us we’re not here to party.

atx_hackerspace_TARDISATX Hackerspace had a large booth featuring the full-size replica of Doctor Who’s TARDIS (who wouldn’t like to have a picture taken in one ?) and a fully-functional 1930-es vacuum tube radio with a mandatory iPad dock. We have also learned that a massive collection of working vintage vacuum tubes has been donated to the hackerspace, so if you’re in need you know who to call.

The event has also featured a long list of industry participants. The product launch we were most impressed with was Easel by Inventables, an in-browser app that enables easy control of their Shapeoko CNC milling machine and definitely has the potential of bringing the joys of design and fabrication to much larger masses.

e_coli_ut_austin_experiment1However, the most interesting things we saw were the ones a bit outside of the current tech mainstream. [Dennis] from UT Austin iGEM team showed some of the crazy work the synthetic biologists are doing out there. They have engineered Escherichia coli so that it is addicted to caffeine, used cell growth as a measure of caffeine content in particular drinks, and used that to rank local Austin coffee shops! We have also talked with several guys working on automated gardens and soil sensors who were educating attendees about the huge potential that increased environmental data aggregation can have on the ways we grow food.

To quote the Growerbot guys : “We definitely have enough Internet-connected teddy bears. We need more Internet-connected tomato plants”.

Stick with us after the jump to see a gallery with all our adventures at 2014 SXSW.

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