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Time To 'Open-Source' Your Smarts

An "open-source" product is completely free, transparent, and untangled by copyright law -- the antithesis to the giant software companies that dominate our experiences.

By Joel Hans, Associate Editor, IMPO

Since we launched the IMPO Insider back in August 2009, I’ve searched the Internet to the end and back for the best videos to feature in our Thursday newsletters. After all of that, I’ve seen some great content across the whole spectrum -- funny, sad, uplifting, amusing, frightening. Recently, however, I found one of my favorite videos yet: Mark Ebeling explaining his invention, the EyeWriter.

The EyeWriter is the end result of a friendship between Ebeling and a renowned graffiti artist TEMPT, who suffers from ALS, and can no longer move any of his limbs. As TEMPT’s family tried to negotiate with insurance companies for the type of device that Stephen Hawking uses to communicate with the world, Ebeling enlisted a group of engineers and software programmers to create their own device using salvaged parts. The EyeWriter tracks the eye movements of the wearer, and allowed TEMPT to practice his art for the first time in years.

Why do I find this story so compelling? Admittedly, the product, and its associated technology, is pretty remarkable, considering its quaint beginnings. But I see a lot of cool technology all the time, and it’s jaded me somewhat. In Ebeling’s case, I’m intrigued by the sense of selflessness that he and his associates have displayed through the whole development process. You see, the EyeWriter isn’t a commercial product. Ebeling isn’t filing a patent, and he’s not begging for venture capital to start up a business. Instead, they released all of the specifications, both hardware and software, to the open-source world. If you’re interested, you can see the code here. You can even contribute.

In a nutshell, an “open-source” product is completely free, transparent, and untangled by copyright law. It’s the antithesis to the giant software companies that dominate or technological experiences, such as Apple or Microsoft. Instead of locking down their work in patents, these engineers, programmers, and designers put their code online, for anyone to see, or even adapt into something else entirely. It survives on the passion of its participants, and a sort of mutual “theft.” The community benefits, because any projects developed using open-source assets must also be released with the same “have-at-it” licenses.

Even if you’re not aware of it, you’re likely using some sort of open-source software right now. The Firefox and Chrome internet browsers are both open-source efforts, and, for all intents and purposes, are superior to their closed-source counterparts (Microsoft’s Internet Explorer). A vast majority of the backbone that powers the Internet uses Linux, an open-source operating system that began two decades ago as one man’s personal project. If you have an Android-based phone, you’re playing around with a highly-customized version of Linux.

Obviously, I’m a fan of open-source software. I’m a nerd like that. For now, back to the EyeWriter.

Ebeling could have easily patented his invention, but he chose what I believe is a more honorable route. He could have priced it a $50,000 and made a killing when those paralyzed by ALS finally got their insurance company to shell out the money for one.
Instead, an ALS patient could now solicit the existing EyeWriter community for one, and have it built for a fraction of the legitimate product’s cost. At the end of the day, it saves everyone money while still providing a sensational product. Really, the only person who “suffers” in this equation is Ebeling himself.

Funny thing, though, is that he doesn’t seem to mind one bit.

I know that the goal of a business is to make money, and I know that it’s hard for many people to grasp the idea of giving away a technology when they could be cashing checks.

The manufacturing industry is probably the most closed-minded in this regard, but don’t take that the wrong way. We’re just strongly attached to the idea of striking it big with any new idea or technology. My hope, however, is that more of these people will come to see the merits in doing something specifically not to make money. America is filled with enormously intelligent people, all of whom are capable of making small but meaningful contributions to projects like the EyeWriter.

The open-source philosophy is taking hold on and off the computer. Even if people aren’t aware of it, they’re using its descendants on their phones or to browse the web, and that’s a start. Now I’ve just informed a group of manufacturing professionals about the possibilities, too, which means that I can sit back and relax, knowing that I’ve done my part. I’ll leave all that technical mumbo-jumbo to you guys.

Any of you working on open source projects? Or do you think it's a waste of time? Send me your thoughts at [email protected].