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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.

"They open up this API so people can turn this vacuum into a robotics platform," Torrone said, adding that iRobot has released a new product, called Create, which doesn't have the vacuuming functionality but offers an educational robotics platform.

"They opened up the locomotion part, so you can move it around. So someone mounted a hamster ball on top of it," he said. "And I've heard something about traffic," he added, alluding to last year's Roomba Frogger antics. Torrone and Fried had dressed up a robot in a frog costume and gathered a crowd to watch as it attempted to cross a road without getting crushed by a car.

Torrone expressed surprise that iRobot had opened up its robotics platform for public use.

"It would be a nightmare (for them)," he said, "if one pushed a grandmother down the stairs, because robots want to do that."

In the spirit of the open-source hardware concept, the two said they also plan to give away the details of their new laser-etching business, in which they plan to create etched art on many kinds of consumer electronics. This way, anyone else can also create such a business.

At one point, Fried answered a question she said was often asked about why she attends SXSWi. She is, after all, a hardware hacker at a conference about Web technologies. The two areas, she explained, are not entirely disconnected.

"The great thing about Web technologies is that you can use them to document and advertise and distribute information," Fried said. "That's one of the killer apps about open-source hardware. Without Web technologies, it's difficult to distribute this information."

Later, the duo got into the specifics about cell phone-jamming technology. Fried said the federal government allows people to show others how to make and use such devices but that it is illegal to actually use the technology.

In general, cell phone jamming is illegal, according to the Federal Communications Commission. The FCC says it violates the 1934 Communications Act and has issued citations to companies that sell jammers. Still, pocket jammers starting at about $250 can be readily found on the Internet from overseas companies, and some U.S. firms, such as CellAntenna, sell jammers to federal agencies.

When they illustrated their small DIY jammer, Fried had pulled it out of what looked like a red pack of cigarettes.

"People say, 'Cigarettes are offensive; I can't believe you smoke,'" Fried said. "I say, 'Yeah.'"

"Meanwhile," added Torrone, "the cell phones aren't working."

He joked that using such technology was one way to get a table at a crowded Internet cafe.

"I've heard you can do this in a cafe," he said. "People will get up and leave."