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Small, Inexpensive Computers Are Changing the Maker Movement

Cheaper and smaller computers have sparked a “maker movement” of DIY software designers and entrepreneurs who are building new techs that will transform our day-to-day lives.
May 4, 2016, 1:10pm
Hack-a-thon in Amsterdam, 2013. Flickr: Sebastiaan ter Burg,

The cost and size of microprocessors and hardware prototyping boards have fallen dramatically in recent years making it possible to buy fully functioning computers with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth connectivity for under $10. This trend has supported a surging global "Maker Movement" consisting of DIY software designers, artists, musicians, designers tinkerers, and entrepreneurs who are using these devices as a means to wildly imaginative ends. The resulting innovation has enormous implications for the emerging Internet of Things, which promises to make everything from shoes to traffic grids "intelligent" and connected.

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Motherboard talked to Rex St. John—a software engineer, community organizer and Intel® Software Evangelist who travels to hack-a-thons and conferences around the US, teaching aspiring developers how to code—about how developments within the Maker Movement are contributing to the emergence of the Internet of Things

Motherboard: Tell me what the Internet of Things looks like to an Intel® Software Evangelist.

Rex St. John: For me personally, there are creative and technical "geniuses" coming to me from around the world wanting to build projects that solve many different problems in many different domains using Intel technologies.

I spend a lot of time routing these people through Intel or giving them direct technical help on the projects they have in mind. A few of the really advanced ones I send over toIntel Capital for a closer look as a target for potential investment. There are folks working on open-source 3d-printed bionics. There are folks making rolling ball cameras that roll around and double as security cameras. There are people building multiple types of drones. There are people building "brains" for robots that they plan on making standardized and modular so they can be installed into form factors including drones, hexapods or rovers. I'm also helping to support major players such as Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, and Google as they build new types of cloud services and operating systems to help connect and orchestrate all of these new devices.

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In terms of how "Internet of Things" type projects will eventually effect the average person, there are starting to be things like Amazon Air (a solution for delivering packages aerially from Amazon.com) as well as self-driving cars which are strong indicators of where this all can go. It hasn't fully happened yet. From the perspective I have within Intel I can see how it is happening, and over the next few years, everybody is going to see it.

Amazon Air, Drone Delivery System

MB: What's the most likely application of IoT tech we're going to see next in our day-to-day life?

RSJ: There are forms of what you're going to see in the future already emerging. I can look at my phone and see where the bus is going to be at any given time of day. That's an early instance of being able to track where all the cars and buses in the city are at the same time and how that will add value to people's lives. In the future it will be much more granular and automatic. We will see smaller and more individual things tracked throughout cities, and indoors as well. Eventually all of those packages, vehicles, delivery drones, streetlights–everything–will be intelligently and centrally managed through the cloud which has the potential to save everyone a lot of time, energy and money.

I come at the topic of smart cities by way of hack-a-thons such as Code for Seattle. One example was a team that was able to cheaply build a project to gather data about bike traffic and then use that data to make recommendations to the city as to where to put the next bike lanes. All that tech is more accessible and easy to use than ever before, so I fully anticipate to see a lot more of that.

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Hack-a-thon in Amsterdam, 2013. Flickr: Sebastiaan ter Burg

MB: Tell me about what you've been working on lately?

RSJ: Right now I'm part of the Intel Maker and Innovation Group (MIG) working on next-generation hardware platforms for Inventors. We produce the Intel® Edison (a postage-stamp sized Linux computer with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth), the Intel® Curie™ (a button-sized prototyping platform for wearables) and the Intel® Arduino 101* (a maker board based on Intel Curie). What we're excited about here is the Maker Movement as a whole. Makers are usually students, designers, artists, musicians, and other creative types who are now able to build new types of projects without needing an engineering degree. Someone such as a student or musician can take a basic idea and build it with a device such as an Arduino 101 or Intel Edison in a way that was never before possible, and this is driving a tremendous amount of creative activity.

As a result of massive industry competition to sell more phones, embedded systems companies have learned to pack computers together with other complimentary components such as connectivity, sensors and memory (a trend called "heterogeneous computing") into smaller spaces than ever. As mobile pushed down the cost, size and density of these "Systems On a Chip (SOC)", and "Systems on a Module (SOM)," the cost of making a very capable computer with lots of different sensors has dropped precipitously, laying the groundwork for what will become the future Internet of Things: tiny computers, everywhere, talking to each other and the cloud. That's what we focus on.

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It used to be that startups and developers had to be the ones putting all of these pieces together along with the software. Now we can build this tiny computer and many aspects of the software and that can be plugged into a carrier board that is relatively trivial to develop. That saves a lot of time, energy. and cost for building a new type of product for a startup and makers in general. For a startup to create a system that provides the capabilities of the Intel Edison (which has certification for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth in over 100 countries), it used to cost half a year's time and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now they can sort of just plug it in and go.

Intel Edison Board

MB: How cheap have computers become?

RSJ: To get a single-board computer with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, CPU, GPU capable of driving a monitor–that went from costing something like $65 to $9, and even lower than that.

MB: In one year?!

RSJ: You can get a full, effective computer now for under $10. That happened last year. That's a huge deal. No one knows what that means yet. I'm already seeing tons of people building new types of projects with these cheaper computers. Some of these devices can be the size of a postage stamp. Some can be the size of a fingernail.

MB: What's the biggest problem that needs solving?

RSJ: Usability. We have a lot of very complex tech and new kinds of processors, but we haven't figured out how to make these devices accessible to developers to program them and build projects readily. Devices like FPGAs have extreme potential but are still relatively difficult to work with.

MB: Where do you see this going in, say, three years?

RSJ: The biggest growth category I am excited about right now is opportunities for driving enhancements in perceptual computing (computer vision). The ability to make faster computers smaller is resulting in things like modular robotic brains with integrated vision capabilities. There are a few companies now that have built brain units with cameras that you can put into a hexapod robot or drone. All of the advancements of mobile technology, combined with things like Intel® RealSense™ (which offers the ability to see and recognize objects modeled by "point-clouds") and probably at some point soon 5G (super fast cellular data radios) will make the world of robotics much more interesting. That will all require us to continue getting faster and smaller.

The most immediate application might be something like drone racing. You can wear a visor and see what the drone is seeing. They have built new drones which are capable of going extremely fast and banking extremely sharply, so you can effectively re-create pod racing from Star Wars. This is becoming a boom sport.

To learn more information about the Intel® Evangelists Program, go to evangelists.intel.com.