Jon Bruner

Jon Bruner is a data journalist who approaches questions that interest him by writing and coding. Before coming to O'Reilly, where he is editor-at-large, he was data editor at Forbes Magazine. He lives in New York, where he can occasionally be found at the console of a pipe organ.

Tying software and hardware together through art

The O'Reilly Solid Podcast: Andy Cavatorta and Jamie Zigelbaum on art that combines physical and digital.

One of the theses behind our Solid Conference is that the stacks — the ranges of knowledge that technologists need to understand — are expanding so that the formerly separate disciplines of hardware and software are merging. Specific expertise is still critical, but the future lies in systems that integrate physical and virtual, and developing those effectively requires the ability to understand both sides at some basic level.

Installation art is a great place to look for those seamless integrations, and we’re excited to feature a couple of interesting installations at Solid. Our latest episode of the Solid Podcast takes us to Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, home to a collective of designers and engineers called Dark Matter Manufacturing, where David Cranor and I spoke with Andy Cavatorta and Jamie Zigelbaum. Cavatorta and Zigelbaum both create installations; Cavatorta works with sound and robotics, and Zigelbaum’s projects explore communication and interaction.

Cavatorta’s Dervishes installation will appear at O’Reilly Solid, June 23-25. He will also speak on “Music, machines, and meaning: What art teaches us about robotics and networks.” Read more…

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Building a hardware business

A free compilation of chapter excerpts from our IoT library highlights the approachable complexity of hardware.

Download a free copy of “Building a Hardware Business,” a curated compilation of chapter excerpts from our IoT library.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen an astonishing change in what it takes to build a hardware business. Hardware remains hard — executing it well requires technical and marketing expertise in several fields — but the barriers that startups must cross have been lowered considerably.

That change has come about as a result of several changes in the way the market approaches hardware.

  • Customers, whether consumers or businesses, have become aware of what hardware and connected devices can do for them. The Internet of Things means more than connected refrigerators now. For consumers, it represents desirable products like the NEST thermostat and Apple Watch. For managers, it represents the highest standards of informed decision-making and operational efficiency in everything from delivery fleets to heavy machines to simple design-driven data.
  • Connecting with those customers has become easier. Startups can sell directly to niche consumers through online channels with the help of Etsy, Tindie, and ShopLocket, which are vastly easier to deal with than big-box retailers. These platforms also return rapid market feedback and offer ways for companies to connect with their consumers and build communities without intermediaries.
  • Funding has become available through new mechanisms at every stage. Crowdfunding helps entrepreneurs test their ideas in the marketplace and raise enough money for early development. Venture capitalists, impressed by recent exits and aware of the vast green fields awaiting the Internet of Things, are willing to invest. Supply-chain managers like PCH are willing to take equity stakes in return for invoice financing, addressing a critical cash-flow challenge that can be a big barrier to startups looking to have products manufactured in large quantities.
  • Read more…

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Cottage industry 2.0

The O'Reilly Solid Podcast: Amanda Peyton of Etsy on the rise of craft.

Our new episode of the Solid Podcast brings us to Etsy, where David and I spoke with Amanda Peyton, a serial entrepreneur and product manager at Etsy, about the company’s role as a macro-community of micro-communities.

The connection between Etsy and Solid might not be obvious at first. Etsy’s specialty is the ultra-analog: handmade crafts that represent a return to an earlier era of artisan design and manufacturing.

But Etsy is emblematic of how Web platforms have transformed the relationship between product creators and product consumers. It offers rapid feedback from the market, quick discovery of new trends, and access to a large and diverse enough customer base that even extraordinarily niche products can be viable.

The result is a community of distributed manufacturers that’s responsive and efficient. For goods that can be made without a large, well-capitalized factory (even some electronics now fall into this category), Etsy may be the future of manufacturing. Read more…

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The challenge of connecting anything to the Internet

The O'Reilly Solid Podcast: Zach Supalla and Will Hart on building a supply chain, making radios work, and taking on big telecom.

Chain_of_Command_Pardesi_Flickr

Subscribe to the O’Reilly Solid podcast to stay on top of topics related to the Internet of Things, hardware, software, manufacturing, and the blurring of the physical and virtual worlds.

A few weeks ago, hours after launching a blow-out Kickstarter campaign, Zach Supalla and Will Hart of Spark Labs dropped by our podcasting studio to have a wide-ranging conversation about how they’d built a successful hardware startup, how they manage their overseas supply chain, and how they’re taking on established machine-to-machine and telecom companies by turning themselves into a mobile virtual network operator (MVNO).

Zach and Will are leading a workshop at our Solid Conference called “How to manage China” on how to build and maintain a supply chain.

Spark’s latest product, the Electron, is a tiny development kit that can connect just about any kind of device to Spark’s back-end platform over a 3G cellular signal for as little as $3 per month. Read more…

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Rebooting a 1970s satellite with modern software and hardware

The O'Reilly Solid Podcast: Dennis Wingo on reestablishing contact with a satellite that had been silent for 17 years.

Subscribe to the O’Reilly Solid podcast to stay on top of topics related to the Internet of Things, hardware, software, manufacturing, and the blurring of the physical and virtual worlds.

Arecibo_Observatory_Aerial_View

The Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, where Dennis Wingo and his team established contact with the ISEE-3 satellite. Public domain image: Wikipedia.

In the first episode of the Solid Podcast, we talked with Dennis Wingo, founder of Skycorp, in the former NASA McDonald’s where he’s been restoring the first images of the moon taken from space.

After an hour of recounting his techno-archaeology exploits — reverse-engineering the arcane analog image-transmission systems that NASA’s engineers developed in the 1960s — Dennis paused and said, “and that’s just one of our history projects.”

That teaser is where we begin today’s episode. Ready to apply modern computing to another analog challenge, Dennis turned his attention to the reboot of the International Sun/Earth Explorer-3, a research satellite launched in 1978 and commended to the heavens in 1997.

NASA decommissioned the equipment for communicating with the satellite in 1999, so Dennis set about reverse-engineering the ISEE-3’s control system and devising a way to communicate with it. In the 1970s, he would have needed custom analog hardware, but now, general-purpose hardware is powerful enough that he could do it all with software. Read more…

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Solid Podcast: Trip to McMoon’s

Dennis Wingo on the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, the project's Indiegogo campaign, and Skycorp.

The first "Earthrise" image, taken by the Lunar Orbiter 1 satellite and recovered by Dennis Wingo's Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project. Credit: NASA/Skycorp Incorporated

Before and after: The first “Earthrise” image, taken by the Lunar Orbiter 1 satellite and recovered by Dennis Wingo’s Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project. Credit: NASA/Skycorp Incorporated.

We’re kicking off our newest series, the O’Reilly Solid Podcast, with an episode recorded in the manager’s office of a McDonald’s at NASA’s Ames Research Center. David Cranor and I visited McMoon’s, as it’s known, to talk with Dennis Wingo, founder of two audacious “techno archaeology” efforts.

In the first episode, we discuss the Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project, which has rescued NASA’s first high-resolution images from satellites orbiting the moon. Dennis’ team reverse-engineered the extraordinary analog image transmission system that the satellites used in 1966 and 1967, digitized 14 tons of magnetic tape, and interpreted them to compose imagery at vastly higher resolution than NASA was originally able to recover from the satellites. Read more…

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The Internet of Things is really about software

Our new report, "What is the Internet of Things," traces the IoT's transformations and impact.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is everywhere right now. It appeared on the cover of the Harvard Business Review in November, and observers saw it in practically every demo at CES.

One of the reasons that it’s ubiquitous is that it bears on practically everything. A few years ago, many companies might plausibly have argued that they weren’t affected by developments in software. If you dealt in physical goods, it was hard to see how software that existed strictly in the virtual realm might touch your business.

The Internet of Things changes that; the kinds of software intelligence that have already revolutionized industries like finance and advertising are about to revolutionize all the other industries.

Mike Loukides and I have traced out our idea of the Internet of Things and its impacts in a report, “What is the Internet of Things,” that’s available for free here.

As much as we all love the romance and gratification of hardware, the Internet of Things is really about software; the hardware just links the Internet to the rest of the world. If you think of the IoT as a newly developing area in software, it’s easy to draw out some characteristics of it that are analogous to things we’ve seen in web software over the last decade or so. Read more…

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Biology as the next hardware

Why DNA is on the horizon of the design world.

DNA by John Goode, on Flickr

I’ve spent the last couple of years arguing that the barriers between software and the physical world are falling. The barriers between software and the living world are next.

At our Solid Conference last May, Carl Bass, Autodesk’s CEO, described the coming of generative design. Massive computing power, along with frictionless translation between digital and physical through devices like 3D scanners and CNC machines, will radically change the way we design the world around us. Instead of prototyping five versions of a chair through trial and error, you can use a computer to prototype and test a billion versions in a few hours, then fabricate it immediately. That scenario isn’t far off, Bass suggested, and it arises from a fluid relationship between real and virtual.

Biology is headed down the same path: with tools on both the input and output sides getting easier to use, materials getting easier to make, and plenty of computation in the middle, it’ll become the next way to translate between physical and digital. (Excitement has built to the degree that Solid co-chair Joi Ito suggested we change the name of our conference to “Solid and Squishy.”)

I spoke with Andrew Hessel, a distinguished research scientist in Autodesk’s Bio/Nano/Programmable Matter Group, about the promise of synthetic biology (and why Autodesk is interested in it). Hessel says the next generation of synthetic biology will be brought about by a blend of physical and virtual systems that make experimental iteration faster and processes more reliable. Read more…

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What you need to know for the hardware-software convergence

Core competencies and essential reading from hardware, software, manufacturing, and the IoT.

As I noted in “Physical and virtual are blurring together,” we now have hardware that acts like software, and software that’s capable of dealing with the complex subtleties of the physical world. So, what must the innovator, the creator, the executive, the researcher, and the artist do to embrace this convergence of hardware and software?

At its core, this is about a shift from discipline toward intent. Individuals and institutions — whether they’re huge enterprises, small start-ups, or nonprofits — must be competent in several disciplines that increasingly overlap, and should be prepared to solve problems by working fluidly across disciplines.

To use Joi Ito’s example, someone who wants to develop a synthetic eye might begin to approach the problem with biology, or electronics, or software, or (most likely) all three together. Many problems can be solved somewhere in a large multidimensional envelope that trades off design, mechanics, electronics, software, biology, and business models. Experts might still do the best work in each discipline, but everyone needs to know enough about all of them to know where to position a project between them.

Below you’ll find the core competencies in the intersection between software and the physical world, and our favorite books and resources for each one.

Electronics for physical-digital applications

  • Practical Electronics, by John M. Hughes: To know what’s possible and where to start, it’s essential to understand both the analog and digital sides of electronics. This is O’Reilly’s authoritative introduction to both analog and digital electronics, with information on circuit design, common parts and techniques, and microcontrollers.
  • Raspberry Pi Cookbook, by Simon Monk: The Raspberry Pi is rapidly becoming the standard embedded computing platform for prototyping and experimentation, with enough computing power to run familiar interpreted programming languages and widely supported operating systems.
  • Arduino Cookbook, by Michael Margolis: The Arduino microcontroller offers a fluid interface between digital and physical; it’s highly extensible and accessible to people with no prior experience in either electronics or code.

Read more…

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Physical and virtual are blurring together

Key signals from hardware, software, manufacturing, and the Internet of Things.

Hardware, software, manufacturing, and the Internet of Things

This essay updates a November 2013 article. We’ve expanded it in light of the success of our first Solid conference in May 2014, where we tested many of these ideas, and the announcement of our next Solid conference in June 2015. In addition to this update, you can stay in the loop on the latest developments in the space through our weekly newsletter.

Real and virtual are crashing together. On one side is hardware that acts like software: IP-addressable, programmable with high-level procedural languages and APIs, able to be stitched into loosely coupled systems — the mashups of a new era. On the other is software that’s newly capable of dealing with the complex subtleties of the physical world — ingesting huge amounts of data, learning from it, and making decisions in real time.

The result is an entirely new medium that’s just beginning to emerge. We can see it in Ars Electronica Futurelab’s Spaxels, which are LED-equipped quadcopters that make up a drone swarm to render a three-dimensional pixel field; in Baxter, which layers emotive software onto an industrial robot so that anyone can operate it safely and efficiently; in OpenXC, which gives even hobbyist-level programmers access to the software in their cars; and in SmartThings, which ties web services to light switches.

The new medium is something broader than terms like “Internet of Things,” “Industrial Internet,” or “connected devices” suggest. It’s an entirely new discipline that’s being built by software developers, roboticists, manufacturers, hardware engineers, artists, and designers. Read more…

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