Product or Project?

This column is from The MagPi issue 57. You can download a PDF of the full issue for free, or subscribe to receive the print edition in your mailbox or the digital edition on your tablet. All proceeds from the print and digital editions help the Raspberry Pi Foundation achieve its charitable goals.

Image of MagPi magazine and AIY Project Kit

Taking inspiration from a widely known inspirational phrase, I like to tell people, “make the thing you wish to see in the world.” In other words, you don’t have to wait for a company to create the exact product you want. You can be a maker as well as a consumer! Prototyping with hardware has become easier and more affordable, empowering people to make products that suit their needs perfectly. And the people making these things aren’t necessarily electrical engineers, computer scientists, or product designers. They’re not even necessarily adults. They’re often self-taught hobbyists who are empowered by maker-friendly technology.

It’s a subject I’ve been very interested in, and I have written about it before. Here’s what I’ve noticed: the flow between maker project and consumer product moves in both directions. In other words, consumer products can start off as maker projects. Just take a look at the story behind many of the crowdfunded products on sites such as Kickstarter. Conversely, consumer products can evolve into maker products as well. The cover story for the latest issue of The MagPi is a perfect example of that. Google has given you the resources you need to build your own dedicated Google Assistant device. How cool is that?

David Pride on Twitter

@Raspberry_Pi @TheMagP1 Oh this is going to be a ridiculous amount of fun. 😊 #AIYProjects #woodchuck https://t.co/2sWYmpi6T1

But consumer products becoming hackable hardware isn’t always an intentional move by the product’s maker. In the 2000s, TiVo set-top DVRs were a hot product and their most enthusiastic fans figured out how to hack the product to customise it to meet their needs without any kind of support from TiVo.

Embracing change

But since then, things have changed. For example, when Microsoft’s Kinect for the Xbox 360 was released in 2010, makers were immediately enticed by its capabilities. It not only acted as a camera, but it could also sense depth, a feature that would be useful for identifying the position of objects in a space. At first, there was no hacker support from Microsoft, so Adafruit Industries announced a $3,000 bounty to create open-source drivers so that anyone could access the features of Kinect for their own projects. Since then, Microsoft has embraced the use of Kinect for these purposes.

The Create 2 from iRobot

iRobot’s Create 2, a hackable version of the Roomba

Consumer product companies even make versions of their products that are specifically meant for hacking, making, and learning. Belkin’s WeMo home automation product line includes the WeMo Maker, a device that can act as a remote relay or sensor and hook into your home automation system. And iRobot offers Create 2, a hackable version of its Roomba floor-cleaning robot. While iRobot aimed the robot at STEM educators, you could use it for personal projects too. Electronic instrument maker Korg takes its maker-friendly approach to the next level by releasing the schematics for some of its analogue synthesiser products.

Why would a company want to do this? There are a few possible reasons. For one, it’s a way of encouraging consumers to create a community around a product. It could be a way for innovation with the product to continue, unchecked by the firm’s own limits on resources. For certain, it’s an awesome feel-good way for a company to empower their own users. Whatever the reason these products exist, it’s the digital maker who comes out ahead. They have more affordable tools, materials, and resources to create their own customised products and possibly learn a thing or two along the way.

With maker-friendly, hackable products, being a creator and a consumer aren’t mutually exclusive. In fact, you’re probably getting the best of both worlds: great products and great opportunities to make the thing you wish to see in the world.