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The BUGS Are Worked Out

January 1, 2009 By:
Justin Jouvenal, JE Feature
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Legos for computer nerds? Could be the next wave.

 While most tech gadget companies carefully guard their products from hackers, start-up Bug Labs is courting them.

The company has just released a series of modules, known as the BUG, that snap together like electronic Legos to form an array of different gadgets, from GPS locators to motion detection cameras.

It's DIY electronics.

The company freely gives away the hardware design and software code for the product, and hosts an online forum where hackers can post programs they've developed for the BUG. It's the equivalent of Apple giving away the blueprints for the iPhone and letting anyone build one and tweak it.

So, why?

The company is part of the heretical "open source hardware" movement. Instead of top-down innovation, these companies seek to harness the collective creativity of hundreds or thousands of consumers to create cutting-edge gadgets. The more consumers create with their BUG, the more valuable the product becomes for users.

Peter Semmelhack, the CEO of Bug Labs, envisions a future when nearly everyone is a hacker.

"The idea of power moving to people is a big deal. In open source, it's all about that," Semmelhack said. "You're starting to see these doors open, where manufacturers are letting their customers innovate. This is just going to continue.

"Ten years from now, we are going to look back and say: 'What do you mean you had to buy a product in a particular configuration?' "

The company began taking orders at the end of January 2008 for a $299 pocket-sized computer base, with four slots for the modules. So far, the modules include a $79 GPS locator, a $69 digital camera, a $99 LED screen, and a $49 motion sensor. Bug Labs plans to release dozens more modules -- a heart monitor and a video game controller are among ideas -- as the company grows.

With a Beastie Boys' album playing in the background at Bug Labs headquarters, Semmelhack recently demonstrated how to build a digital camera/GPS combo with the BUG. The customized camera would tag photos, so that when they are uploaded to Flickr, the photo-sharing site, they could be displayed on a map showing where they were taken.

Not Ready for Prime Time

He snapped a white GPS locator into a base computer, then inserted a digital camera module in a slot on the other side. He explained how to plug the base into a computer and download the proper software. The whole process takes no longer than watching the average YouTube video.

But the BUG isn't quite ready for nontechies. Programming skills are a must, since users have only written a small amount of software for the BUG so far. Semmelhack believes that in about a year, nonprogrammers will be able to use the BUG easily.

Open source has its roots in software. The code of programs is made freely available, so volunteers can use and improve it. These modifications are often shared with the entire group, so everyone benefits from everyone else's work. Today, major companies like Google and Amazon run open-source software.

Since the phenomenon gained popular acceptance in the late 1990s, open-source culture has spread far and wide. Other open-source hardware companies include Neuros OSD, which has built a hackable DVD player; Chumby, which has made a customizable player for Internet content; and OS Car, an unusual project to create an open source car.

Some tech analysts believe that open-source hardware has the same potential.

"We're seeing a number of early signs that people are taking open source hardware seriously," said Jimmy Guterman, an editor with the influential tech publisher O'Reilly Media. "It's reasonable to assume these methods of manufacture will follow the same path that open source software has into the mainstream."

Ben Martinek, a software engineer and a motorcycle enthusiast from San Francisco, has ordered a BUG to produce a prototype system to help motorcycle racers improve their form.

"This is like playing with the DNA of electronics," Martinek said of the BUG. "It's Legos for adults." 

 

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