Massimo Banzi presents Arduino at Kicker

On Monday May 21, about 40 people cozied up in our studio to hear Massimo Banzi, co-creator of Arduino talk about how Arduino came to be and how it continues to impact the relationship between design and technology. Fresh from a weekend at Makers Faire, Banzi with his affable style talked for about 45 minutes, his points punctuated by visuals projected on the wall. Afterward, he facilitated an engaging Q&A session.

In his career as an interaction designer and professor, Banzi noticed that designers needed to learn about technology; they needed to interact directly with technology, because, as Banzi so succinctly stated, “A wooden model of a mobile phone does not work.”

Banzi, a self-proclaimed geek, said Arduino was inspired by an early German electronics kit from the 1960s built by a Dieter Rams for Brauns to help kids understand electronics. That kit was built to get kids interested in an electronics career whereas Arduino gives makers and designers an accessible way to use electronics (technology) as a tool.

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The open source maker movement, according to Banzi, focuses on recycling and repurposing. As Banzi explained, every electronic device contains a small unit of computation, tiny computers that the Arduino co-creators thought if extracted could be used as a quick tool to “scratch your own itch.” Arduino is a tool that facilitates a “simple and streamlined user experience”. Its power is in its simplicity. For about $20 makers and designers can buy the core, manufactured in Italy, and download the software and tutorials. The core is a simple and clean interface that offers an accessible development environment.

Banzi and the Arduino co-founders discovered that when they subtracted from dense circuitry and complicated software and made Arduino simple people suddenly became less afraid of technology. With Arduino, makers just plug things in. It is inexpensive so if someone makes a mistake with it and say, blows it up, it is easy to replace. This allows people to feel free to experiment with it. In fact, everything about Arduino is approachable: the 100,000-member online forum engages in peer-to-peer dialogues, no engineer-speak had there.

And then there is the speed of the build. Things happen quickly with Arduino. Users can make by Banzi’s estimate “6 prototypes in 4 weeks”, and most importantly, the prototype can function, which allows designers and users to try (and retry) the prototype. With Arduino, technology truly becomes a medium. Fantasies become actual products.

After talking about Arduino, Banzi discussed the open source movement, which represents a real culture shift in the design world. Banzi sees it playing out in traditional Italian society that famously resists change. Arduino and the open source movement support new ways to design.  These new ways are a departure from traditional the traditional design process. Design traditionalists, according to Banzi, view the open source DIY movement as a “jigsaw aesthetic”, basically, lowbrow patchwork. Today, with open source resources, makers and designers can use the tools of design to build prototypes. These small products create a direct connection between designer and user, ultimately allows designers to test products in the real world, and use immediate feedback to reiterate or start over.

The open source movement also supports a vibrant, collaborative community, including maker spaces. Banzi is part of Officine Arduino Torino: an old factory that is now a maker space, an open, airy co-working space with machines like laser cutters and 3D printers available for anyone to use. There are many of these in the Bay Area including Ace Monster Toys, Mothership HackerMoms, Sudoroom, Noisebridge and Hacker Dojo.

Banzi provided the audience with a list of resources spurned by the open source movement such as Make, with its “beautiful tutorials” and the Own Your Own manifesto; Instructables; and Thingiverse. He also showed the many products built based on Arduino, including the Pebble watch.

The Q&A session led to a lively conversation about the tension between the hacker community and the design community, and about how many makers get stuck when it comes to design. They have great ideas and open source support with coding and building, but not design. How do makers package their great ideas? A great question yet to be answered (open source design, anyone?).

The crowd also talked about the tension between open source and capitalism. Banzi pointed out that Arduino and other open source tools are the same as blog templates, and now it has become common practice to use such templates, rather than build a platform from scratch. This led to another conversation about layers of openness in the open source community and how to define “open” in open source.

The official talk ended with a discussion about the changing company culture around open source. Companies are starting to adapt. Arduino co-founder Tom Igoe pointed out that pioneers in technology, like IBM, once so protective of their technology, are now the biggest supporters of open source. Easy prototypes, like the kind that can be built with Arduino, allow small companies to do what large companies, with all their layers of bureaucracy and security, cannot–speed up progress and build that direct connection between designers and users.

The excitement of the workshop spilled over into side conversations for an hour after Banzi turned off the projector and moved into the crowd.