Hackers are not the Bad Guys: Confessions of an Inventaholic.

Posted by MacGyvrBot on Sun 21 April 2013

*Transcription of the talk given at BarCamp Rochester on April 20th, 2013, by Skip Meetze.*

Hello.  My name is Skip.  I’m an inventaholic.  I am compelled to invent things for reasons that I can not control.  I would like to welcome you to Inventaholics Anonymous.

Over the past 40 years, I have followed a path familiar to many people with my affliction by accumulating as many patents as I could.  But with the help of my new friends at INTERLOCK, I have overcome those tendencies, and I am proud to say that I have moved on to the sober world of hackers and makers.  A world  known as the `Open-Source Hardware Movement <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_source_hardware>`__.

[caption id="attachment_1418" align="alignright" width="281"]stepcounter 1 First Patent: The Stepcounter[/caption]

In many ways, being an inventor has scarred my life.   In the early 1970s I squandered all the funds I could beg or borrow (at least I didn’t steal), and I blew it all on my first patent.  The Stepcounter was a research device to measure the activity levels of laboratory animals.  My wife wanted to make the down payment on a house.  Thanks to my addiction, we rented for 25 years before we bought our first house.

Kenneth Brown, the author of a book called Inventors at Work asked my old friend, the late Bob Gundlach an important question during an interview: “Is it better to be an inventor working for a large corporation, or would you rather be working on your own?”  I can relate to Bob’s answer: “Being an inventor on your own is a good way to go broke! Being an inventor in a corporation is a very fortunate happenstance.”

But even within a corporation you run into the Not Invented Here Syndrome.  If you offer a solution to improve a product that is outside of your assigned responsibilities, you will probably be rebuked with something like “No thanks. I’ve got my own ideas and I know what I’m doing.  Go work on your own assignment.”

[caption id="attachment_1419" align="alignright" width="288"]vue iPad in comfort vue-stand[/caption]

I graduated from Xerox a few years ago and in 2010, my friend Ken and I invented a stand for iPads that we called the vue-stand.  It would hold your iPad at a comfortable eye-level.  As a human factors engineer I have spent decades designing easy-to-use products, and I thought that we were onto something.  After we spent thousands of dollars to do a pilot run at manufacturing and did a little test market, I couldn’t help remembering Bob’s words of wisdom.  People didn’t buy the vue for reasons we now understand.  We decided not to keep throwing money at trying to market a dead horse, so I bought out Ken’s interest in our company, and I continue selling off my inventory online without promotion.  That inventory will cut my losses, but it will not cover my investment.

Last summer something happened that changed my life:  A couple of guys from this `Hackerspace <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hackerspace>`__ called INTERLOCK Rochester gave a talk at `AppleCIDER <http://www.applecider.org/>`__, a local Apple Computer Users Group.  They demonstrated a little desktop 3D printer that they had built themselves.  I was blown away.

I knew about `Stereolithography <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stereo_lithography>`__ and CAD (`Computer-aided design <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/CAD>`__).  Xerox engineers had made rapid prototypes using that technology for decades.  But specialist operated those machines, and they had talent and training that I didn’t have.  Furthermore, the machines cost more money than an individual could afford.

Now, people are building these little machines that can even build parts to replicate themselves.  And people are sharing their designs and discoveries for other people to build upon.  The source code for anything built on these little industrial robots can be shared online at a site called Thingiverse.com.

They call the shared technology `RepRap <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reprap>`__ for replicating rapid prototyping.  The designs are evolving unbelievably fast because people are sharing with each other!  What a sobering thought!

I don’t plan to get any more patents.  Now I have a reprap machine, and I have joined the people who share ideas in a Hackerspace.

I used to think of hackers as being the bad guys who stole identities and maliciously created computer viruses and things like that.  Now it has come to mean people who take an existing good idea and hack on it to make it better.

[caption id="attachment_1420" align="alignright" width="277"]HandleStand iPad on a HandleStand[/caption]

For instance, I have hacked-up an iPad accessory that I call the HandleStand.  I took a protective iPad case that I bought on Amazon for $8 and hacked it.  I drilled two holes and attached a pair of hinged handles to it with screws.  The case I chose also allows me to attach a Keyboard that protects the front of my iPad.

The handles open up to make a stand that allows the iPad to tilt at any angle.  Great for making videos or calling people on FaceTime with the iPad camera that can be pointed in any direction.  By the way, it also holds the iPad at a comfortable eye level just like the vue-stand.  But it is better for all these reasons.

Where can you buy this HandleStand and how much does it cost? Sorry, but you can’t buy one.  You can get the source code from `Thingiverse <http://www.thingiverse.com/thing:64811>`__ however, and if you can get access to a 3D printer you can make your own!  You can even hack it to make a better one!

You don’t have a 3D printer?  Well come on over to INTERLOCK on any Tuesday or Thursday night and we will help you hack one up.

I must admit that getting these little printers to run is a bit tricky sometimes.  They are complex electronic devices that run on an open source micro-controller called `Arduino <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arduino>`__.  The hardware and software are made from the contributions of many-many people, and instructions don’t necessarily keep up with the latest developments. A lot of things can go wrong, and Murphy’s law does apply.

But hackerspaces are springing up all around the world where people help each other with things like that.  So you should join the world of hardware hackers.  Free CAD software has gotten so easy to use now that even I could learn it.

Pretty soon most people will know how to design using CAD just like now most people can make Powerpoint presentations.  Perhaps it won’t be long before most people will have access to a 3D printer.  I built one from a kit for a little over $500.  Or you can get a MakerBot already assembled for $2000.

I no longer spend a lot of money trying to sell inventions, I give them away and save a lot of money.  My designs can no longer be stolen from me.  I’m publishing the source codes on Thingiverse and I am happy that people are downloading them for free.

People tell me that I’m missing an opportunity to make money on my inventions… I don’t care.  I’m an inventaholic.