“Technology is anything that wasn’t around when you were born. If it was around, it’s an appliance.” - Alan Kay
I keep thinking that nothing can amaze me any more when it comes to technology. Then I come face to face with what normal people can do with the magic of technology.
While waiting for another meeting to start, I was chatting with a long time colleague, Kelly Franznick of BlinkUX. He shared with me how excited he was with his HCI class (Theory of Interactivity) at Lake Washington Institute of Technology. [For Kelly's version of this conversation see his post on "Find. Cut. Paste. Tweak."] It is a class on interaction and he had them focus on an Arduino microprocessor hardware project. This hardware is a darling of the Maker community.
None of the students had any kind of hardware or software programming background. Yet, here he was showing me their product – a dog activity tracking system. The three components of the system are pictured below:
The processor (on the left) powered by a 9 volt battery is small enough to attach to a dog collar. It consists of the Arduino processor with an additional board (on the right) for an RFID tag reader and a wireless communication device. The wireless receiver is shown in the middle with the USB connecting cable to a computer to log the events from the dog tracker.
The dog owner then puts RFID tags on things like the dog’s water bowl, food bowl, door to the outside and particular areas where the dog might go in the yard. Every time a dog goes near one of the RFID tags a message is sent (could be to Twitter) to a database or the owner letting them know that the dog has drunk, eaten, gone outside or is currently in some specific room in the house. For less than $50 of hardware and open source software, a complete solution was generated by novices in a couple of weeks.
All of the hardware was certainly believable, but I had to ask how humanities majors and architectual technicians and interior designers could program the Arduino. Had I missed the development of an easy programming tool for the Arduino?
Kelly laughed and said “Nope. There are no tools other than the C compiler (a very low level programming lanugage). However, there are thousands of programs (see RFID code) to do different things on the Arduino. I had the class search for software that was close to what they wanted to do, copy the software from the website, and paste it into the compiler. Then they start “tweaking” the code (a technical term for blindly making changes to the code to see what happens). Within minutes the “discovery” was done and the processor was doing something useful and then the students could modify until they got what they wanted. Certainly none of them really know how to program, yet look at the fully functional hardware/software system they just built.”
Find, copy, paste, tweak.
Very simply that may be the wisdom of crowds authoring tool of the future.
This student project and the pedagogy reminds me of the student projects that Neil Gershenfeld described in FAB: The Coming Revolution on Your Desktop – from Personal Computers to Personal Fabrication. The ScreamBody is one of my favorite projects from Gershenfeld’s first Fab class. Clocky is another product to evolve from the class.
As I shared Kelly’s experience with my colleagues, David Robinson marvelled:
“This amazes me. First, I have the impression that there is a magic language (and mindset) for programmers – and this challenges that paradigm. Second, the process you describe is one step shy of a game: what can you do if…. Simple coding seems insurmountable to me and most of my clan – in things as simple as website construction (a step shy of what you are describing but think of the implications if this programming-boundary was breachable!).
“Also, you’ve cracked opened for me yet another facet of the word ‘authoring.’
Thanks for the thought fodder!”
Another colleague, Ross Bohner, suggested that the concept of – find, copy, paste, tweak – was similar to “Code Scavenging” described by Scott Klemmer at Stanford. One of Klemmer’s articles gives the example of Web Bricolage:
“The Web provides a corpus of design examples unparalleled in human history. However, leveraging existing designs to produce new pages is often difficult. This paper introduces the Bricolage algorithm for transferring design and content between Web pages. Bricolage employs a novel, structured prediction technique that learns to create coherent mappings between pages by training on human-generated exemplars. The produced mappings are then used to automatically transfer the content from one page into the style and layout of another. We show that Bricolage can learn to accurately reproduce human page mappings, and that it provides a general, efficient, and automatic technique for retargeting content between a variety of real Web pages.”
In his book Demand: Creating What People Love Before They Know They Want It, Adrian Slywotzky describes this phenomena in creating a whole product as knowing when to imitate and when to innovate:
“Rather than wasting precious economic fuel and creative energy in designing a great retail website from scratch, Hastings (Netflix) studied Amazon’s and did a 90-percent-plus emulation. Netflix’s site mirrored Amazon’s navigation system, product and button placement, search tools, inclusion of reviews by customers and professional critics, and even the use of small, low-resolution cover images to allow fast Web page loading.
“You might call this strategy ‘Imitate to be unique.’ Of course, it must be used appropriately. The core of a new business design can’t be based on imitation. (In Netflix’s case, the core was “Reliable, convenient, affordable movie rental by Internet and mail.” A unique website design wasn’t part of that definition.) Like great artists and writers, great demand creators shamelessly imitate minor things so they can focus their originality on major things.”
So join the world of Hackademia and start creating technical and innovative marvels:
Find. Copy. Paste. Tweak.
The New Language of Innovation.