EB: I got introduced to Arduino through a colleague of mine a few months back. I managed to get my hands on the board 3 weeks back and I have been loving it. It was easy for me to start with it even without any knowledge in electronics. The Arduino is an open source project, and after reading a bit about open source hardware, I wanted to talk to the person behind the Arduino. Massimo’s views on open source and programming really resonated with me. I hope you enjoy the interview just like I did.
Massimo Banzi is the co-founder of the Arduino project (www.arduino.cc). He is an Interaction Designer, Educator and Open Source Hardware advocate. He has worked as a consultant for clients such as: Prada, Artemide, Persol, Whirlpool, V&A Museum and Adidas.
Massimo started the first FabLab in Italy which led to the creation of Officine Arduino, a FabLab/Makerspace based in Torino. He spent 4 years at the Interaction Design Institue Ivrea as Associate Professor. Massimo has taught workshops and has been a guest speaker at institutions allover the world.
Massimo is also the author of “Getting Started with Arduino” published by O’Reilly. He is a regular contributor to the Italian edition of Wired Magazine and Che Futuro, an online magazine about innovation. He currently teaches Interaction Design at SUPSI Lugano in the south of Switzerland and is a visiting professor at CIID in Copenhagen.
EB: Can you give us a quick idea of what Arduino is? What is the idea behind Arduino?
Massimo: In the simplest form, Arduino is a small computer the size of a credit card. It’s essentially not as powerful as the computers that we use – like the laptop I’m using to make this video call. It’s the same type of computer you’ll find in a microwave oven, in a TV, or in everyday objects. The idea is that these kind of electronics used to be complicated to program, so you needed to be an engineer in order to use it. What we have tried to do in the past couple of years is make this kind of technology easy to use for normal people.
The big idea is that today’s world is pervaded with technology. Everything we touch contains electronics. Even the food processor you buy at the supermarket contains a piece of electronic that drives it. We want people to be able to use this complex technology, and we want common people to access this technology, even kids. If you can use this kind of technology, then you can really re-design the world around you. If you don’t know how to use the technology, then it’s hard to influence and impact the world that surrounds you. I think the big idea is to make the technology simple so that more and more people can participate in the creation of today’s world.
EB: I have to tell you that Arduino was really useful to get me started on electronics because I have no background. It is really simple!
Massimo: I’m glad! That is what we are trying to do. Then obviously you get artists who make art pieces with Arduino. You get scientists who use Arduino to measure data in a cheaper way than using complex and expensive equipment. We have people in developing countries, developing machines – the ones they don’t find easily and the ones that would cost a lot of money. They re-design them. I also think another big idea behind Arduino is that it’s open source, so the design of the board and the software are all freely available. Some people who can modify can build up on our work; they can create businesses that feed from Arduino. I think that’s also important as a way to spread the idea more than just the technology itself.
EB: How did this idea come about? Were you interested in electronics from when you were young? Or did you suddenly decide to make this project work?
Massimo: I started to play with electronics when I was a kid, so I was taking apart everything that people brought to my house to look for the way that it works. I wanted to learn, and I used a number of educational kits that kids use to learn about technology. But then for many years, it hasn’t been my job. I was doing mostly software. At one point, I started teaching students in a design school. They have an artistic background, they don’t do math, they don’t do programming, and they don’t do electronics. And we needed to teach them in a short time. As for the tools that were on the market, they were designed for teaching engineers or going on a different path.
My students were the type of people who lose attention if you don’t engage them very quickly. We needed to capture them and make them be able to build stuff very quickly. That’s how me and my friends, a team of five people, came together to build this thing. It was me and David Cuartielles ,who was a professor in Sweden. We then got a couple of students involved. One of them was David Mellis. We added another teacher to the group. We put together a team of five people that were able to look at a different aspect of the project and move it forward. It started off as a tool for our students and then suddenly other schools were picking it up. In the end we got some amazing response!
EB: There are a lot very interesting projects around the internet. What is one project that really surprised you or something that touched you personally?
Massimo: It’s hard to pick just one project. There are many projects. For example, most of the open source 3D products that you find on the market either have an Arduino board, or something which is derived from an Arduino board inside. Clearly, the whole 3D thing is very interesting for us and goes very far.
People have made machines that you can use to analyze DNA, or quad copters – small helicopters with four propellers that fly almost by themselves. Also there are more silly projects that people build as a joke. For example, some people built a machine that mixes cocktails called an Inebriator. You put a glass and it moves around and fills the glass with different liquors and it builds a cocktail. Obviously, you get a big range of different projects. It’s hard to say that there’s one project I like more than the others.
EB: Why was it important that you made sure the project was open source?
Massimo: The others and I had different levels of experience with Linux, so we saw the benefit of being in an open source community. We based our work on a lot of open source software, so clearly we wanted to keep that cycle running. On the other hand, we also wanted to experiment by making the hardware open and see what happens, see what people do when they have a design that they can build upon.
It was important to create an ecosystem around Arduino that wasn’t just based on the people who are out there because they make the money and sign contracts. It’s a live ecosystem of people who give back by helping people on the forum. There are a number of amazing people that help other users on the forum and they give back because it’s an open source project. If we lose that open source nature, we become a regular company which loses that spirit of cooperation, freedom, and helping each other – all that we like.
EB: I saw a video from Code Academy a few days back saying that everybody should learn to program because it lets you think in very creative ways. Would you go one step ahead and say that everyone should learn to program Arduino electronics?
Massimo: I would say that you can learn to program with Arduino because it’s a computer anyway. I think in general, being a part of the world that surrounds you in every stage of the human evolution depended on knowing a certain language. If you used New English you could move around the world and do things. Now were having a chat in English, but English is not my first language. Now I think programming is becoming the language that you need to be part of the 21st century.
There are several different programming languages that serve different purposes. One step forward is what we’re doing with Arduino. We’re programming physical objects, so we’re programming devices that sit in your house and do things; devices that solve problems for people. I think that’s important. Programing Arduino is important for that step. You can start to access a new type of device which is not your laptop, not your desktop, not your mobile phone. It goes beyond.
Also we notice that from an educational point of view, the moment you do programming, and you make something happen in real life – you get a deeper satisfaction out of that process because they made it happen. For example, a light goes on or a motor moves. They didn’t make some pixel on the screen change color; they find that less important. But when they see something happening in real life, they’re really captured by that.
EB: I could feel a difference between programming in a laptop and making some light blink. Even though it was a really simple thing, it got me interested. We can say to a certain extent that we have successfully put computers of some shape or form in every household. When I look around most of them are closed or proprietary for some practical reasons, and for some good business reasons. Open source hardware is still something that is special. So what would you recommend to move in the direction of going towards open source hardware?
Massimo: Open source hardware is going to have the same problems that open source software has had in order to be accepted. Clearly there are a number of companies who make a lot of money by selling proprietary software. Obviously they have the resources to tell people that open source software is bad, it’s not good, or it doesn’t work. On the other hand we have to admit that open source software for a long time was kind of hard to use if you weren’t an expert. Only recently are there versions of Linux that my mother could use.
Some people do say that this Arduino stuff is not reliable, that it’s not professional – so we have to fight against that attitude. On the other hand people prefer to sell proprietary devices because they get more money. Also, open source hardware is not truly open source hardware because a lot of the components themselves are proprietary. For example the processor on the board is still made by some company which has patents and protects the design. There’s no such thing as a purely open source hardware. We have that particular issue which is going to be hard to solve.
We need to go through a phase that’s happening right now – a number of interesting start-ups are using technologies like Arduino to build novelty products. Instead of hiding the fact that they’re using Arduino, they’re starting to say, “Hey, I’m using Arduino here. This is open source hardware. You can look inside; you can see how it works. You can hack it; you can modify it.”
That attitude is going to introduce the concept to a wider audience – that devices you buy can actually be looked at, can be observed, can be understood, and maybe it can be re-designed/re-used in different ways. It’s a question of creating a positive cycle of awareness in more and more people and the fact that open source hardware makes it easier for people to learn how to do hardware design. They look at an existing design, they modify it, and they learn by looking at those circuits.
When I was a kid, I learned a lot by looking at an electronics magazine. I looked at how people design circuits. Then I understood how you solve problems by doing certain things with components. I think open source hardware is good for that. It introduces people into this world of electronics which is considered to be complicated. Nowadays it’s less complicated than it was in the past.
EB: What are your favorite books? What do you do in your free time?
Massimo: At the moment I don’t have a lot of free time because I’m working a lot on Arduino. One of the things I like to do is to travel and go to different places and meet people. In a way, Arduino has given me a way to do that as a job. I travel, I go see different places, I meet people, and during that time I get to hang out with people who use Arduino to do interesting things.
Each country and culture is absorbing Arduino in a different way, and it’s producing different results. It’s really interesting to go, look at what people do and say, “Look, these people in India are doing interesting things that you people in the U.S. should know about.”
It’s about creating connections between different cultures, and I really like that. When I have personal time, I like Cinemax, so I watch a lot of movies when I have.
EB: You clearly do a lot of things every day. You give talks around the world, consult for a lot of companies, and lead the Arduino project. What are some of the productivity hacks that you follow?
Massimo: One thing that is happening is that Arduino is a distributive company, so we have an office of people that collaborate with us in Italy, Sweden, India, and we are looking at setting up in the U.S. We have people working with us in different parts of the world, so in a way we organize ourselves as a completely digital organization. We use a lot of Google docs instead of regular docs. We use chat a lot. We use Google Hangout a lot to talk to each other and to have conferences and meetings.
We use UberConference which is audio conferencing for making conference calls, but it’s the 21st century version of it. It’s got a web interface so you can share. This is useful when you want to have a meeting with people and they’re all moving around across the world. We use a lot of these digital products to make our lives simple. Everything that we do is happening online somewhere. Otherwise it would be impossible to have people working on a project when the people who are writing to the competition are in the U.S., some people are doing the software in Italy, some others in Sweden, and the Indians are testing the product and helping people figure out how to make it work. It needs to be a digital company.
EB: What is one idea that you would like to share that you would like us to think about?
Massimo: The main thing I would like people to keep in mind is that the world that surrounds us is made of digital technology. If we don’t know how to use the technology and how to create with the technology, we cannot participate in the creation of the world. We become people that just buy products, plug them in, and use them. You buy an iPad and it says you can get music. You have to buy it from the store. Or you can get movies, but you have to buy it. Everything you do is driven and created by somebody else.
It’s important that we teach kids that technology is not only something that you buy, plug in and play with, but that it’s something that you can build and modify. If you don’t like it, you can create your own version of the things that surround you. If you don’t create this awareness, then you will end up with generations of people who are dependent on the people who create technology to tell them that this is how the world works. Buy the device, buy the subscription, and forget about the rest. It’s important that we teach kids, that technology is something that is not complicated. It was made by another human being like you, and you can modify, create, and do whatever you want with it.
Thank you so much for talking to us, Massimo! We’re excited about open source hardware and the revolution it is going to create.
The Real Leaders Team