SXSW sets stage for open-source DIY hacking

Creative and kooky do-it-yourself hardware hacks get a serious open-source twist at this year's South by Southwest Interactive Festival.

AUSTIN, Texas--If you went to the keynote speech at the South by Southwest Interactive Festival here Sunday and found your cell phone not working, it wasn't your carrier's fault.

You can blame the SXSWi keynote speakers, Senior Editor Phil Torrone and do-it-yourself electronics pioneer Limor Fried. During their on-stage conversation, the pranksters took the opportunity to show how to jam cell phone signals.

To demonstrate, they showed a spectrum analyzer measuring cellular activity in the immediate area. Torrone asked someone in the audience to call him and then turned on a homemade jammer. The analyzer's graph went haywire, and the call made to Torrone was dropped.

Cell phone jamming was but a small sample of the types of hacking the pair described at SXSWi this weekend. Torrone and Fried hope to usher in a new Golden Age of hardware hacking by inventing new techniques, documenting them and publishing the full details.

"We're working on open-source hardware," Fried explained to the packed room, "and how we can take the paradigm of open-source software and make things out of it."

"Why would I make a shirt out of computer fans if it didn't work?"
--Make magazine editor Phil Torrone

In addition to the jamming technology, Torrone and Fried discussed and illustrated several of their favorite DIY hardware hacks, including a monocycle, which is a motorcycle with one wheel; a bacon alarm clock, which wakes its owner to the smell of bacon; and a shirt made from computer fans to help its wearer stay cool at .

"People ask (Torrone) if it works," Fried explained, "and he said, 'Why would I make a shirt out of computer fans if it didn't work?'"

Torrone also talked about an innovative team from who took a plant and embedded it with open-source technology and a telephony system, so it could send a voice mail when it needed to be watered.

Another lauded project was Trolltech's , a mobile phone that runs Linux and has an available software development platform.

"What these projects have in common is that people are sharing the recipes," Torrone said, "and it's starting to fall under (a) category, which is open-source hardware."

Fried said the concept involved several levels of technology, the foundation being basic mechanics. She said that kind of information can be publicly released under a Creative Commons license, and she hoped more people would begin using open-source computer-aided design to create such projects.

The next level up, Fried explained, is circuit board design, and the one above that is firmware. These levels can be released under general public licenses or BSD licenses.

"On the side, as well as releasing all the schematics," Fried said, "you also want to release all the data sheets and parts lists so (people) can figure out where to get the parts."

The top levels are software and open APIs (application programming interfaces), which led Torrone to discuss the DIY hacking being done on Roombas. He pointed out that the vacuum's manufacturer, iRobot, hasn't publicly released the firmware but has opened up the API.

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