What if one can download a hardware design, plug it into a magical device, and a customized piece of silicon is born, which can be used for mowing the lawn, vacuum the floor, cooking dishes, or ordering milk ?
The idea is not new. There have been multiple releases of open-source hardware designs, be it micro-processors by SUN, PCB board designs, embedded systems. There is a detailed description on Wikipedia.
I think there are three important ingredients that enabled open source software, but are not yet available for hardware.
- Universal infrastructure, i.e. personal computer and the operating system with open standards, to enable software plug and play.
- Widely available tools, i.e. compilers, debuggers, simulators, and assemblers, for software development.
- Zero cost production and instant satisfaction.
However, these are coming together gradually for silicon design and production as well. As the competition in the Electronic Design Automation market intensifies, prices of design tools come down, and more and more open source design tools are becoming available, example here from EE times.
Open hardware platforms emerge as well, from semiconductor vendors such as nVidia and Xilinx. The Xilinx FPGA evaluation board, starter kit, can be bought for as cheap as $100, and be programmed to many interesting tasks.
We already have innovative 3D printing company MakerBot, and open source repository of "things" that people design in the Thingiverse, which anyone can download and create their own physical copies.
I look forward to see one day that I can down load my own robot with customized "brain".
Update: The Arduino platform is a very interesting low cost configurable hardware prototyping system. People are using it to design wearable electronic fabric, i.e. the Softwear Project, which may become the fashion of the next decade. Cool.
image credit Daily Galaxy