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The rise of open hardware

07 Apr 2014  | Jessica MacNeil

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 Homemade laptop

Huang shows his homemade laptop

Homemade laptop explores heirloom hardware

Not interested in just making predictions, Huang's latest project is an open computing platform based on the Freescale iMX6 CPU called Novena. It's a quad core device running at 1.2GHz, with two Ethernet ports, HDMI, USB OTG audio, USB ports and an on-board FPGA coupled to the CPU. It has a high-speed expansion port that brings out differential pairs, and a 2Gb memory hanging off the FPGA. The schematics, PCB files, 3D models for the board and firmware are available online.

Starting in June 2012 as a hobby project, Novena's first generation was designed to work with RC motors based on an idea to make a computer quadcopter that would follow you around. That idea was scrapped and a header was added to be compatible with Raspberry Pi expansion cards in the second generation.

After receiving the revised board in May 2013, the team set out to create a homemade laptop-style implementation for it.

"It was a total handmade prototype job, literally made of leather, aluminium and paper, and it has a retina display on it that's 2560x1700," said Huang.

Novena

Novena's handmade prototype case allowed users to get inside.

Novena also incorporates 3D-printed speaker boxes and panels, a replaceable port farm panel on the side to allow for upgrades and a "peek array," which is an array of metric mounting bosses for users to add to the laptop. There is also a separate board to manage the battery so that users can choose their own battery to meet their needs.

After getting a great response introducing it at a show in Germany, the team went back to make a sturdier case which they just completed and debuted at EE Live! 2014.

"The paint was not yet dry when I took it to get on the plane to come to this conference," said Huang.

The laptop is designed explicitly for people to modify, hack or even make their own. The case is aluminium so it's easy to reproduce and make changes to the screen, and it's easy to get inside.

"It's not only an open laptop, it's a self-opening laptop," said Huang. "It has an air-piston on the inside so when you slide a button the screen pops up on its own power and the internals are revealed entirely for you to go in and work on."

The industry focus on marketing has created a system where products should die after the warranty so you'll buy a new one, but as new versions are less readily available, Huang thinks designing "heirloom hardware" that consumers want to keep is an interesting new opportunity.

 The new Novena case has an air-piston on the inside.

The new Novena case has an air-piston on the inside so when you slide a button the screen pops up so you can go in and hack.

The Novena team collaborated with craftsman Kurt Mottweiler to build an heirloom-grade case made of oak and aluminium that is light and rigid and was handcrafted in his workshop.

"This is something that is not going to be cheap, but you're going to keep it for a long time, keep it in the family, and hand down for generations to come," said Huang. "It has a different intent behind the design reason than a lot of existing hardware."

Crowdfunding might be the final piece of the puzzle for open hardware, because it allows small teams to launch a campaign to fund the distribution process. It also creates communities for projects, which is what the DIY movement is all about.

"Open hardware is about building communities around platforms," Huang said. "It starts with please take our IP and if you use it contribute back to the community."

Huang used the Novena to give the presentation and announced a crowd funding campaign for the project at crowdsupply.com. The project has already raised over $100,000 with 44 days to go in the campaign. You can also follow the project on Twitter at @NovenaKosagi.


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