Oculus VR, makers of the very cool Oculus Rift VR display, are making their first steps towards open hardware. Their first project is a latency tester, meant to precisely measure the latency of a VR setup or application. This is true open hardware with everything – the firmware, schematics, and mechanical parts all available on GitHub
Inside this neat bit of hardware is a STM32F102 microcontroller and a TCS3414 color sensor. The firmware is designed to measure changes in color and send that data back to a computer with a timestamp.
Not only are the schematics and board files available, there are also a few links to buy the PCBs at OSH Park: for about $24, you can get three copies of the main PCB and sensor board delivered to your door. If you have a 3D printer, Oculus has provided the .STL files to print out the enclosure for this device.
While this is a fairly niche product, we’re amazed at how well the Oculus folk have put together this open source hardware project. Everything you need to replicate this product, from board files, mechanical design, firmware, and instructions on how to build everything is just right there, sitting it a GitHub. Wonderful work.
Jon Brodkin of Ars Technica conducts a Q&A with Massimo Banzi as Arduino’s rise continues.
Most of the technology world is familiar with open source software and the reasons why, in some eyes, it’s more appealing than proprietary software. When software’s source code is available for anyone to inspect, it can be examined for security flaws, altered to suit user wishes, or used as the basis for a new product.
Less well-known is the concept behind open source hardware, such as Arduino. Massimo Banzi, co-creator of Arduino, spoke with Ars this month about the importance of open hardware and a variety of other topics related to Arduino. As an “open source electronic prototyping platform,” Arduino releases all of its hardware design files under a Creative Commons license, and the software needed to run Arduino systems is released under an open source software license. That includes an Arduino development environment that helps users create robots or any other sort of electronics project they can dream up.
So just like with open source software, people can and do make derivatives of Arduino boards or entirely new products powered by Arduino technology.
Why is openness important in hardware? “Because open hardware platforms become the platform where people start to develop their own products,” Banzi told Ars. “For us, it’s important that people can prototype on the BeagleBone [a similar product] or the Arduino, and if they decide to make a product out of it, they can go and buy the processors and use our design as a starting point and make their own product out of it.”
While Arduino has been around since 2005, the Raspberry Pi has been the hot platform for hobbyists over the past 18 months. But the Pi’s hardware isn’t open.
“With the Raspberry Pi you cannot even buy the processor,” Banzi said. “With the processor on the BeagleBone, you can go buy even one of them if you need to.” Raspberry Pi is “a PC designed for people to learn how to program. But we are a completely different philosophy. We believe in a full platform, so when we produce a piece of hardware, we also produce documentation and a development environment that fits all together with hardware.”
BeagleBone and Arduino, partners in open hardware
You may have noticed that Banzi spoke positively about the BeagleBone even though it’s ostensibly an Arduino competitor, made by the BeagleBoard.org foundation and CircuitCo. The platforms share the same open hardware philosophy, and they recently collaborated to build the Arduino Tre, scheduled to be released in spring 2014.
The Arduino Tre and BeagleBone Black both use a 1GHz Sitara AM335x ARM Cortex-A8 processor from Texas Instruments. BeagleBoard.org co-founders Gerald Coley and Jason Kridner helped the Arduino team design the hardware and software for the Tre, according to Senior Embedded Systems Engineer David Anders of CircuitCo. Like the BeagleBone, the Tre is manufactured by CircuitCo.
The collaboration “began as a discussion about how to introduce users (not just students, but also artists, designers, sociologists, and anyone who doesn’t come from a CS/EE background) to what embedded Linux offers without assuming that they know Linux,” Anders told Ars.
Software will also be portable between the two platforms. “The Arduino Tre does contain the essential core of a BeagleBone Black, and we are working to standardize the default distribution between the two platforms, which would provide easy transition between working on either platform,” Anders said.
In another development important for open source hardware, the creators of BeagleBoard andArduino have each developed platforms containing Intel processors for the first time.
At the LinuxCon conference, Intel CTO Dirk Hohndel told the crowd that CircuitCo’s Minnowboard is “specifically designed as the first open hardware board based on x86, and that allows you to build derivatives without an NDA. All the pieces are open and available, all the blueprints you need, all the source files you need. You can create your own embedded platforms without Intel, without any of the vendors involved.”
After the Minnowboard’s release, Intel teamed with Arduino to create the Intel Galileo, due out next month for $60 or less.
Intel’s embrace of open hardware came in response to customer demand. Banzi heard one story about Intel unsuccessfully trying to sell a customer a new processor. “The customer told them, ‘I’m not moving even if you give me the processor for free because I don’t want to lose the community,’” Banzi said. “For this person, it was very important to have a platform based on Arduino and the Arduino community behind it.”
An Arduino for every project
Banzi co-developed Arduino while teaching at a design school in northwest Italy, simply because there weren’t any good hardware options for his students. “We had to figure out something that would be simple, cheaper, USB plug and play, and you could program on Windows, Mac, and Linux,” he said.
“Arduino allows you to move your code across platforms so you can always choose the platform that fits with your project.”
Arduino was expected to be useful “in that particular tiny context,” but it morphed into something much bigger. “It sort of escaped the lab—let’s put it this way, you know like a virus—and started to touch all sorts of different other markets,” Banzi said. “Now if you go to the Maker Faire, you see that 80 percent of the projects are running on Arduino in one way or another.”
There are about a million official Arduino boards “out in the wild” and perhaps several million more of the unofficial variety, he said. Arduino is trademarked—even though it’s open hardware, makers of new products should “explicitly say that you’re not connected to Arduino and your product is a derivative,” the company says.
While some Arduino clones are made well and are compatible with Arduino software, there are many cheap knockoffs, Banzi said. “There is a problem that a number of people have started to use the ‘Arduino compatible’ words too much,” he said. “There’s no guarantee it’s going to be compatible or that you can use the official Arduino IDE [integrated development environment] to program it.”
A company called Seeed Studio has done a good job making products that are compatible and respectful of trademarks. But there are many bad apples, which Banzi has catalogued on his website.
Beyond that problem, pretty much everything is going great for Arduino. The new Intel- and ARM-based Arduinos take their place alongside existing boards like the Arduino Uno, based on the ATmega328 8-bit microcontroller.
“The Arduino Uno is the cornerstone of Arduino, that’s where everybody starts,” Banzi said. “You learn how to fly with the Arduino Uno and then you graduate to different boards.”
The Arduino partnership with Intel is going to yield more fruit, as the Intel Quark processor is designed in such a way that new versions with slightly different capabilities can be rolled out quickly, Banzi said. “We have a collaboration agreement where this is just the start.”
The Intel Galileo runs a stripped-down, custom version of Linux and is ideal for building 3D printers or applications that are part of the “Internet of things.” That includes home automation applications and wireless sensor networks.
It’s not clear whether the Intel Galileo or the Arduino Tre is more powerful, as Banzi said no benchmarks have been run to compare them. They have different capabilities and tradeoffs, though. The Tre can run a desktop and is thus suitable for applications where you need time-sensitive I/O operations and a graphical interface, such as Kinect-like sensors.
The Galileo opens Arduino up to the world of x86 applications, but it lacks a video card and is imagined as a platform for applications that don’t need a desktop interface, Banzi said.
Previous-generation Arduinos are not obsolete, either. Last year’s Arduino Due, for example, uses a 32-bit processor which is “good for those applications where timing is important,” like a 3D printer or stepper motor, Banzi said. “8-bit processors are starting to struggle on the more interesting printers.”
What’s significant is that Arduino has a piece of hardware for almost every use case.
“We are moving to a situation where you would be able to scale your code from an 8-bit microcontroller to a 32-bit microcontroller, to a 400MHz Intel chip, all the way up to a 1GHz ARMv7 computer with HDMI,” Banzi said. “Arduino allows you to move your code across platforms so you can always choose the platform that fits with your project.”
Minnowboard is a new Open Source microcontroller board that is going after the Raspberry Pi market not by emulating the popular RasPi, but by blowing it out of the water with a four-inch $200 mini PC running Ångström Linux on an Intel Atom CPU.
At Hackaday we don’t often feature kickstarter campaigns, but this one is worth noticing in our opinion. It is called Pixy, a small camera board about half the size of a business card that can detect objects that you “train” it to detect.
Training is accomplished by holding the object in front of Pixy’s lens and pressing a button. Pixy then finds objects with similar color signatures using a dedicated dual-core processor that can process images at 50 frames per second. Pixy can report its findings, which include the sizes and locations of all detected objects, through one of several interfaces: UART serial, SPI, I2C, digital or analog I/O.
The platform is open hardware, its firmware is open source and GPL licensed, making the project very interesting. It is based on a 204MHz dual core ARM cortex M4 & M0, uses a 1280×800 image sensor and can stream the processed camera output to your computer. You can get one Pixy in the kickstarter campaign for $59, which is not that expensive for what it is.
When we came up with Arduino, one of the things we decided very early on was that we wanted to release the hardware design files so that people could make their own versions or just make an exact copy if they couldn’t find boards where they lived.
I think we contributed to popularize the concept of open source hardware and we can see it from the huge amount of variations of Arduino-compatible devices being released every day.
After the platform started to become popular we had the issue of figuring out a business model to sustain our work and keep innovating the project. But we also realized we needed a way for people to be guaranteed that
they were buying a quality product that would replace any defective item, should problems arise
they were contributing to a community that would bring forward open-source values and knowledge sharing
A few years later the situation is clearly complex with so many companies identifying something as an Arduino even if the only thing they have in common with us is the board pinout. It’s time we clarify what in our mind is an Arduino, what are the different variations of Arduino around and how they relate to our project.
We classified them as Clones, Derivatives, Compatibles and Counterfeits. But let’s start with explaining what is an official board.
- Official Boards
An Arduino is a board which
it’s directly supported by the official Arduino IDE
it follows the Arduino layout we have standardised
it’s properly documented on our website
it’s properly licensed to bear the Arduino name and logo
it’s made by authorized manufacturers
The authorized manufacturers pay a small royalty to Arduino to keep the project going (pay for the servers, the people who develop the software, design the hardware, write documentation and provide support, etc.). We sign contracts with them and all the authorised distributors that make sure they will replace any defective board should the customer receive a product they feel is not working properly.
Although the percentage is incredibly small (less than 1%) it’s still important to know that somebody will take care of any issue. Through this system we have enabled people to have access to cheap hardware that is properly supported and the community can build upon. These are the only boards that can legitimately use the Arduino name.
Current official manufacturers are SmartProjects in Italy, Sparkfun in the USA and DogHunter in Taiwan/China. These are the only manufacturers that are allowed to use the Arduino logo on their boards.
A market developed for products we call Clones which are exact (or almost exact) replicas of Arduino boards with a different branding , i.e. they are usually named with some variation of Ardu-something or something-duino. These products are released according to trademark laws (unless they copy almost exactly our graphics which is not open-source) and have a place in the market.
Customers who want to support the Arduino project should be aware that these products do not give back anything financially and very rarely in term of help on software or documentation.
A more interesting segment for us is what we call Derivatives. These are products that are derived from the Arduino hardware design but they innovate either by providing a different layout and features often to better serve a specific market. These are the products that have also helped Arduino become so ubiquitous.
There are many examples but I will mention only a couple:
Teensy by PJRC – Paul has contributed a lot of code, bug reports, pull requests and to the discourse in general.
Flora by Adafruit – Limor has contributed over 100 libraries and countless tutorials about Arduino becoming one of the most important members of the Arduino ecosystem.
There is also a hazy cloud of products that call themselves “Arduino-compatible” but their actual compatibility is sometimes really marginal.
We go from products that have a semi-compatible port of the Arduino API but use very different processors, to boards that call themselves an “Arduino” just because they have a couple of connectors mechanically compatible with Arduino.
This, for example, is very common on Kickstarter where a number of projects try to get traction by using (sometimes obsessively) the Arduino keyword throughout the project description. Normally we’re pretty relaxed about these unless they are really shameless, then we email them and sometimes they realize they have gone too far.
Finally there is a category of products that are really detrimental to the whole open-source hardware movement, we call these “counterfeits”.
These are boards that clone the official board including the Arduino branding (logo and board graphics). Since the Arduino graphics is trademarked and we don’t release any of the files, whoever uses our graphics and logo makes a deliberate act of Trademark infringement. These products not only trick people into thinking they are buying an official Arduino (therefore supporting the Arduino project) but they also provide no support. We’ve had many reports of people buying these products and finding out they are damaged but unfortunately for them the manufacturer is nowhere to be found to provide a replacement.
The most common place where counterfeits can be found is usually on auction sites. Special mention is needed for Amazon.com because of the way the website works: they pool together all the suppliers of a certain product. When the customer buys an Arduino they might get a counterfeit depending from which stock they used. From our side it’s hard to stop them because if we report a counterfeit Arduino on their platform, they will “kick out” all the suppliers including the legitimate ones. We’re still trying to find ways to communicate with Amazon but it’s not easy.
- We love open-source
We believe firmly in open source hardware and we have always systematically released any hardware design and the software needed to reproduce our products. We think this advances the whole community and provides a platform for shared innovation where the advantages are more than the drawbacks, but we also think that Trademark violations are like identity theft: the same way each one of us wants to have the right to own their name we believe we have the right to decide whoever gets to be called Arduino, everything else is right there on Github for anybody to build upon.
Like most people out there, I sometimes have more ideas than time to implement them. So instead of keeping those ideas locked in a notebook somewhere unaccessible and not serving a purpose, I’m going to release them into the world as public domain in the hope that they might inspire, or at a very minimum keep an idea from being patented. You can do whatever you like with these, except for attempting to patent them yourself. It is my sincere hope that by releasing these ideas, more awesomeness and excellence will be brought into being.
Secret Labs has been busy. They updated their flagship Netduino Plus (now the Netduino Plus 2) back in November and they just updated to the Netduino to the Netduino 2! The Netduino 2 features the same Arduino shield pin compatibility, footprint, and .NET Micro Framework programability as the original but adds more speed, code space, and features.
We reviewed Aleph Object's Lulzbot AO-100 in our Ultimate 3D Printing Guide where it scored highly in several categories. The freshly upgraded AO-101 promises to make this capable machine even better! Check out the latest unboxing video for a comprehensive list of the updates and how it compares to the previous model.
Why not add learning a new skill to your repertoire in the New Year? I know you've seen loads of projects that use the Arduino, and with special deals on our Getting Started with Arduino Kit, there's no better time to learn how to use this versatile microcontroller.
Kevin and Peter Gould from Olympia Circuits started selling their own Arduino-compatible LeOlympia development boards at the various Maker Faires. In the course of demoing and talking to people they recognized the need for something even simpler to get people into the world of programming microcontrollers. The result is the [...]
Entrepreneur magazine has named Adafruit‘s founder and lead engineer, Limor “Ladyada” Fried, as the Entrepreneur of 2012. A tireless proponent of the open source movement, Limor started Adafruit in her dorm room at MIT in 2005. Today, Adafruit is housed in a 12,000-square-foot industrial space in the SoHo neighborhood of New [...]
The Series 1 from Type A Machines is now available in the Maker Shed! This 3D printer won Best in Class in our Ultimate Guide to 3D Printing for good reason. It features a huge 9" x 9" x 9" build area, a competitive price, and now dual extruders for dual color or mixed media printing.