Aug 18

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Revenge by Gadget

It was interesting to see the Wall Street Journal picking up on a trend we've been watching at Make: magazine, namely the emergence of devices that let people interfere with other people's devices. In an article entitled Revenge by Gadget, the Journal noted:

Thanks to the falling cost of microcontroller chips and the lure of easy online sales, inventors are turning out record numbers of gadgets. One growing subset of these inventions: products that help people neutralize antisocial behavior at the push of a button.

Devices featured in the article include the "Bark Control Birdhouse", which responds to barking dogs by emitting an ultrasound pulse that will silence the dogs, the "no contact jacket", which can be used to shock an attacker, and the TV-B-Gone, which is a keychain universal remote that allows you to turn off televisions in public places. (Make has featured a number of projects involving the TV-B-Gone.) They left out the even more insidious cell phone jammers.

While I'm not sure I approve of the trend of interfering with other people's tech (christened "annoyancetech" by Foo Chris Csikszentmihalyi), we only call the plays. We don't make them. The pattern of attack-response, spy-counterspy, seems basic to human behavior. And as devices become an integral part of our daily experience and shared space, we can expect to see devices supporting all kinds of human behavior. As the y-combinator t-shirt says, inventors learn to "Make something people want."

But in addition, what this story shows is something I've called "the hacker progression." That is, new technology often first shows up as a series of hacks done by people who play with technology for the fun of it. Then you get to small inventors. Once some of those succeed, the technology gets established, and mainstream companies get into the act. In short, "watching the alpha geeks" is often a good way to predict future economic activity.

In this particular case, the alpha geek trend on which we based the idea of Make: Magazine is the convergence of cheap electronics (both for sale and as materials scavenged and repurposed from obsolescent gear), a weariness with consumer culture leading to a DIY resurgence, and the increasing ease of embedding computer intelligence into ordinary objects.

Make: primarily celebrates the homebrew hacker, but we're seeing more and more economic activity, indicating that this trend is entering its second phase. The early signs of commercialization noted by the WSJ article, will soon turn into a flood. Among the trends that will pour more fuel on the fire:

  • The on-demand manufacturing revolution. There used to be a gulf between the hardware hackers we celebrate in the pages of Make and the kind of stuff we buy in stores. That barrier is breaking down, as new on-demand manufacturing networks put not just the workshop but factories in China at the hacker's disposal. (We covered this topic in the O'Reilly Radar Executive Briefing at Etech earlier this year.)

  • Open Source Hardware. Realizing that any successful consumer device will be cloned in a matter of weeks or months, entrepreneurs are increasingly taking lessons from open source software, building business models that don't depend on proprietary IP, but instead releasing their designs in hope of building revenue in new ways. (We're planning a special report on this trend in a future issue of Release 2.0. If you're working on an open source hardware project, let us know.)

  • The sensor revolution. More and more sensors of various types are becoming available, making it possible to build devices that respond intelligently to more kinds of external stimuli. We're closely watching this trend. We're especially interested in new types of user interface that will be enabled by sensors (think Nintendo Wii), and the spread of networked sensors, which will bring together the world of embedded intelligence with the world of collective intelligence that we call Web 2.0. (Send in any tips or links you have on these topics!)

tags: emerging tech  | comments: 8   | Sphere It

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Comments: 8

  Ajeet Khurana [08.18.07 01:46 PM]

Whoa! This is straight out of science fiction. I am not an advocate of technology-censorship (a term I am coining up right now meaning: controlling / regulating who can have access to what technology.) But, devices such as these seem too much of a vandal-delight.

For the tech-enthusiast, what might seem like getting the keys to the chocolate factory might actually be a nightmare of a cleaning up job eventually.

  Search Engines Web [08.18.07 09:31 PM]


It is perfectly understandable why a victim would be very grateful for that life saving 'shocking' coat - however, as gadgets become more hi tech and intrusive, there will be an flood of new laws designed to protect society against malicious use, as well as ubiquitous 'one-up' detection and monitoring technology designed to predict and preempt illicit use.

It is almost inconceivable to think of what will be considered mainstream consumer technology in a few decades - and the ensuing dramatic culture shift that will alter society's behaviors and impulses so dramatically.

  Glenn Alvarez [08.19.07 02:02 AM]

@SEW: Even with fairly easy to understand technologies such as "browsers" etc, regulators are having a field day going nuts. The likelihood of an insane over-reaction is quite real. And when that reaction comes from the government, it will encompass everything not just these cute devices.

  Chris Jay [08.20.07 05:52 AM]

Making sensors properly part of the web will be a key advance - currently javascript only really handles mice and keyboards (hence recent problems coding with the iPhone touch screen).

Imagine handling GPS, temperature, pressure sensor, accelerometer and gyroscope in your web application!

I have a proposal for handling this, including security, at

  Nat [08.22.07 09:31 AM]

In more than a way the Palm Pilot prefigured this approach (user-made extensions, inter-devices comms...) and there may be some lessons to learn from its career.

  Anonymous [09.26.07 04:36 AM]

Just because someone can afford to buy the latest technogadget doesn't give them the right to force me to listen to them using it. I want a Phone Jammer and I want it NOW!!!

  s. underwood [03.13.08 03:51 PM]

Where can one buy the Radio Systems Outdoor Bark Control Birdhouse?

Denver, Colorado

  Tim O'Reilly [03.13.08 04:37 PM]

s. underwood --

There's a link in the article above that takes you to an online site where you can buy the birdhouse. You can google for others. I don't know of any locations in Denver, but they may exist.

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