Archive for the ‘Social’ Category

Sex, Circuits & Deep House

Monday, September 28th, 2015

Cari with the Institute Blinky Badge at Burning Man 2015. Photo credit: Nagutron.

This year for Burning Man, I built a networked light badge for my theme camp, “The Institute”. Walking in the desert at night with no light is a dangerous proposition – you can get run over by cars, bikes, or twist an ankle tripping over an errant bit of rebar sticking out of the ground. Thus, the outrageous, bordering grotesque, lighting spectacle that Burning Man becomes at night grows out of a central need for safety in the dark. While a pair of dimly flashing red LEDs should be sufficient to ensure one’s safety, anything more subtle than a Las Vegas strip billboard tends to go unnoticed by fast-moving bikers thanks to the LED arms race that has become Burning Man at night.

I wanted to make a bit of lighting that my campmates could use to stay safe – and optionally stay classy by offering a range of more subtle lighting effects. I also wanted the light patterns to be individually unique, allowing easy identification in dark, dusty nights. However, diddling with knobs and code isn’t a very social experience, and few people bring laptops to Burning Man. I wanted to come up with a way for people to craft an identity that was inherently social and interactive. In an act of shameless biomimicry, I copied nature’s most popular protocol for creating individuals – sex.

By adding a peer-to-peer radio in each badge, I was able to implement a protocol for the breeding of lighting patterns via sex.

Some examples of the unique light patterns possible through sex.


When most people think of sex, what they are actually thinking about is sexual intercourse. This is understandable, as technology allows us to have lots of sexual intercourse without actually accomplishing sexual reproduction. Still, the double-entendre of saying “Nice lights! Care to have sex?” is a playful ice breaker for new interactions between camp mates.

Sex, in this case, is used to breed the characteristics of the badge’s light pattern as defined through a virtual genome. Things like the color range, blinking rate, and saturation of the light pattern are mapped into a set of diploid (two copies of each gene) chromosomes (code) (spec). Just as in biological sex, a badge randomly picks one copy of each gene and packages them into a sperm and an egg (every badge is a hermaphrodite, much like plants). A badge’s sperm is transmitted wirelessly to another host badge, where it’s mixed with the host’s egg and a new individual blending traits of both parents is born. The new LED pattern replaces the current pattern on the egg donor’s badge.

Biological genetic traits are often analog, not digital – height or weight are not coded as discrete values in a genome. Instead, observed traits are the result of a complex blending process grounded in the minutiae of metabolic pathways and the efficacy of enzymes resulting from the DNA blueprint and environment. The manifestation of binary situations like recessive vs. dominant is often the result of a lot of gain being applied to an analog signal, thus causing the expressed trait to saturate quickly if it’s expressed at all.

In order to capture the wonderful diversity offered by sex, I implement quantitative traits in the light genome. Instead of having a single bit for each trait, it’s a byte, and there’s an expression function that combines the values from each gene (alleles) to derive a final observed trait (phenotype).

By carefully picking expression functions, I can control how the average population looks. Let’s consider saturation (I used an HSV colorspace, instead of RGB, which makes it much easier to create aesthetically pleasing color combinations). A highly saturated color is vivid and bright. A less saturated color appears pastel, until finally it’s washed out and looks just white or gray (a condition analogous to albinism).

If I want albinism to be rare, and bright colors to be common, the expression function could be a saturating add. Thus, even if one allele (copy of the gene) has a low value, the other copy just needs to be a modest value to result in a bright, vivid coloration. Albinism only occurs when both copies have a fairly low value.

Population makeup when using saturating addition to combine the maternal and paternal saturation values. Albinism – a badge light pattern looking white or gray – happens only when both maternal and paternal values are small. ‘S’ means large saturation, and ‘s’ means little saturation. ‘SS’ and ‘Ss’ pairings of genes leads to saturated colors, while only the ‘ss’ combination leads to a net low saturation (albinism).

On the other hand, if I wanted the average population to look pastel, I can simply take the average of each allele, and take that to be the saturation value. In this case, a bright color can only be achieved in both alleles have a high value. Likewise, an albino can only be achieved if both alleles have a low value.

Population makeup when using averaging to combine the maternal and paternal saturation values. The most common case is a pastel palette, with vivid colors and albinism both suppressed in the population.

For Burning Man, I chose saturating addition as the expression function, to have the population lean toward vivid colors. I implemented other features such as cyclic dimming, hue rotation, and color range using similar techniques.

It’s important when thinking about biological genes to remember that they aren’t like lines of computer code. Rather, they are like the knobs on an analog synth, and the resulting sound depends not just on the position of the knob, but where it is in the signal chain how it interacts with other effects.

Gender and Consent

Beyond genetics, there is a minefield of thorny decisions to be made when implementing the social policies and protocols around sex. What are the gender roles? And what about consent? This is where technology and society collide, making for a fascinating social experiment.

I wanted everyone to have an opportunity to play both gender roles, so I made the badges hermaphroditic, in the sense that everyone can give or receive genetic material. The “maternal” role receives sperm, combines it with an egg derived from the currently displayed light pattern, and replaces its light pattern with a new hybrid of both. The “paternal” role can transmit a sperm derived from the currently displayed pattern. Each badge has the requisite ports to play both roles, and thus everyone can play the role of male or female simply by being either the originator of or responder to a sex request.

This leads us to the question of consent. One fundamental flaw in the biological implementation of sex is the possibility of rape: operating the hardware doesn’t require mutual consent. I find the idea of rape disgusting, even if it’s virtual, so rape is disallowed in my implementation. In other words, it’s impossible for a paternal badge to force a sperm into a maternal badge: male roles are not allowed to have sex without first being asked by a female role. Instead, the person playing the female role must first initiate sex with a target mate. Conversely, female roles can’t steal sperm from male roles; sperm is only generated after explicit consent from the male. Assuming consent is given, a sperm is transmitted to the maternal badge and the protocol is complete. This two-way handshake assures mutual consent.

This non-intuitive and partially role-reversed implementation of sex lead to users asking support questions akin to “I’m trying to have sex, but why am I constantly being denied?” and my response was – well, did you ask your potential mate if it was okay to have sex first? Ah! Consent. The very important but often overlooked step before sex. It’s a socially awkward question, but with some practice it really does become more natural and easy to ask.

Some users were enthusiastic early adopters of explicit consent, while others were less comfortable with the question. It was interesting to see the ways straight men would ask other straight men for sex – they would ask for “ahem, blinky sex” – and anecdotally women seemed more comfortable and natural asking to have sex (regardless of the gender of the target user).

As an additional social experiment, I introduced a “rare” trait (pegged at ~3% of a randomly generated population) consisting of a single bright white pixel that cycles around the LED ring. I wanted to see if campmates would take note and breed for the rare trait simply because it’s rare. At the end of the week, more people were expressing the rare phenotype than at the beginning, so presumably some selective breeding for the trait did happen.

In the end, I felt that having sex to breed interesting light patterns was a lot more fun for everyone than tweaking knobs and sliders in a UI. Also, because traits are inherited through sexual reproduction, by the end of the event one started to see families of badges gaining similar traits, but thanks to the randomness inherent in sex you could still tell individuals apart in the dark by their light patterns.

Finding Friends

Implementing sex requires a peer-to-peer radio. So why not also use the radio to help people locate nearby friends? Seems like a good idea on the outside, but the design of this system is a careful balance between creating a general awareness of friends in the area vs. creating a messaging client.

Personally, one of the big draws of going to Burning Man is the ability to unplug from the Internet and live in an environment of intimate immediacy – if you’re physically present, you get 100% of my attention; otherwise, all bets are off. Email, SMS, IRC, and other media for interaction (at least, I hear there are others, but I don’t use them…) are great for networking and facilitating business, but they detract from focusing on the here and now. For me there’s something ironic about seeing a couple in a fancy restaurant, both hopelessly lost staring deeply into their smartphones instead of each other’s eyes. Being able to set an auto-responder for two weeks which states that your email will never be read is pretty liberating, and allows me to open my mind up to trains of thought that can take days to complete. Thus, I really wanted to avoid turning the badge into a chat client, or any sort of communication medium that sets any expectation of reading messages and responding in a timely fashion.

On the other hand, meeting up with friends at Burning Man is terribly hard. It’s life before the cell phone – if you’re old enough to remember that. Without a cell phone, you have a choice between enjoying the music, stalking around the venue to find friends, or dancing in one spot all night long so you’re findable. Simply knowing if my friends have finally showed up is a big help; if they haven’t arrived yet, I can get lost in the music and check out the sound in various parts of the venue until they arrive.

Thus, I designed a very simple protocol which will only reveal if your friends are nearby, and nothing else. Every badge emits a broadcast ping every couple of seconds. Ideally, I’d use an RSSI (receive signal strength indicator) to figure out how far the ping is, but due to a quirk of the radio hardware I was unable to get a reliable RSSI reading. Instead, every badge would listen for the pings, and decrement the ping count at a slightly slower average rate than the ping broadcast. Thus, badges solidly within radio range would run up a ping count, and as people got farther and farther away, the ping count would decrease as pings gradually get lost in the noise.

Friend finding UI in action. In this case, three other badges are nearby, SpacyRedPhage, hap, and happybunnie:-). SpacyRedPhage is well within range of the radio, and the other two are farther away.

The system worked surprisingly well. The reliable range of the radio worked out to be about 200m in practice, which is about the sound field of a major venue at Burning Man. It was very handy for figuring out if my friends had left already for the night, or if they were still prepping at camp; and there was one memorable reunion at sunrise where a group of my camp mates drove our beloved art car, Dr. Brainlove, to Robot Heart and I was able to quickly find them thanks to my badge registering a massive amount of pings as they drove into range.

Hardware Details

I’m not so lucky that I get to design such a complex piece of hardware exclusively for a pursuit as whimsical as Burning Man. Rather, this badge is a proof-of concept of a larger effort to develop a new open-source platform for networked embedded computers (please don’t call it IoT) backed by a rapid deployment supply chain. Our codename for the platform is Orchard.

The Burning Man badge was our first end-to-end test of Orchard’s “supply chain as a service” concept. The core reference platform is fairly well-documented here, and as you can see looks nothing like the final badge.

Bottom: orchard reference design; top: orchard variant as customized for Burning Man.

However, the only difference at a schematic level between the reference platform and the badge is the addition of 14 extra RGB LEDs, the removal of the BLE radio, and redesign of the captouch electrode pattern. Because the BOM of the badge is a strict subset of the reference design, we were able to go from a couple prototypes in advance of a private Crowd Supply campaign to 85 units delivered at the door of camp mates in about 2.5 months – and the latency of shipping units from China to front doors in the US accounts for one full month of that time.

The badge sports an interactive captouch surface, an OLED display, 900MHz ISM band peer-to-peer radio, microphone, accelerometer, and more!

If you’re curious, you can view documentation about the Orchard platform here, and discuss it at the Kosagi forum.


As an engineer, my “default” existence is confined on four sides by cost, schedule, quality, and specs, with a sprinkling of legal, tax, and regulatory constraints on top. It’s pretty easy to lose your creative spark when every day is spent threading the needle of profit and loss.

Even though the implementation of Burning Man’s principles of decommodification and gifting is far from perfect, it’s sufficient to enable me to loosen the shackles of my daily existence and play with technology as a medium for enhancing human interactions, and not simply as a means for profit. In other words, thanks to the values of the community, I’m empowered and supported to build stuff that wouldn’t make sense for corporate shareholders, but might improve the experiences of my closest friends. I think this ability to leave daily existence behind for a couple weeks is important for staying balanced and maintaining perspective, because at least for me maximizing profit is rarely the same as maximizing happiness. After all, a warm smile and a heartfelt hug is priceless.

Maker Pro: Soylent Supply Chain

Thursday, December 18th, 2014

A few editors have approached me about writing a book on manufacturing, but that’s a bit like asking an architect to take a photo of a building that’s still on the drawing board. The story is still unfolding; I feel as if I’m still fumbling in the dark trying to find my glasses. So, when Maker Media approached me to write a chapter for their upcoming “Maker Pro” book, I thought perhaps this was a good opportunity to make a small and manageable contribution.

The Maker Pro book is a compendium of vignettes written by 17 Makers, and you can pre-order the Maker Pro book at Amazon now.

Maker Media was kind enough to accommodate my request to license my contribution using CC BY-SA-3.0. As a result, I can share my chapter with you here. I titled it the “Soylent Supply Chain” and it’s about the importance of people and relationships when making physical goods.

Soylent Supply Chain

The convenience of modern retail and ecommerce belies the complexity of supply chains. With a few swipes on a tablet, consumers can purchase almost any household item and have it delivered the next day, without facing another human. Slick marketing videos of robots picking and packing components and CNCs milling components with robotic precision create the impression that everything behind the retail front is also just as easy as a few search queries, or a few well-worded emails. This notion is reinforced for engineers who primarily work in the domain of code; system engineers can download and build their universe from source–the FreeBSD system even implements a command known as ‘make buildworld’, which does exactly that.

The fiction of a highly automated world moving and manipulating atoms into products is pervasive. When introducing hardware startups to supply chains in practice, almost all of them remark on how much manual labor goes into supply chains. Only the very highest volume products and select portions of the supply chain are well-automated, a reality which causes many to ask me, “Can’t we do something to relieve all these laborers from such menial duty?” As menial as these duties may seem, in reality, the simplest tasks for humans are incredibly challenging for a robot. Any child can dig into a mixed box of toys and pick out a red 2×1 Lego brick, but to date, no robot exists that can perform this task as quickly or as flexibly as a human. For example, the KIVA Systems mobile-robotic fulfillment system for warehouse automation still requires humans to pick items out of self-moving shelves, and FANUC pick/pack/pal robots can deal with arbitrarily oriented goods, but only when they are homogeneous and laid out flat. The challenge of reaching into a box of random parts and producing the correct one, while being programmed via a simple voice command, is a topic of cutting-edge research.

bunnie working with a factory team. Photo credit: Andrew Huang.

The inverse of the situation is also true. A new hardware product that can be readily produced through fully automated mechanisms is, by definition, less novel than something which relies on processes not already in the canon of fully automated production processes. A laser-printed sheet will always seem more pedestrian than a piece of offset-printed, debossed, and metal-film transferred card stock. The mechanical engineering details of hardware are particularly refractory when it comes to automation; even tasks as simple as specifying colors still rely on the use of printed Pantone registries, not to mention specifying subtleties such as textures, surface finishes, and the hand-feel of buttons and knobs. Of course, any product’s production can be highly automated, but it requires a huge investment and thus must ship in volumes of millions per month to amortize the R&D cost of creating the automated assembly line.

Thus, supply chains are often made less of machines, and more of people. Because humans are an essential part of a supply chain, hardware makers looking to do something new and interesting oftentimes find that the biggest roadblock to their success isn’t money, machines, or material: it’s finding the right partners and people to implement their vision. Despite the advent of the Internet and robots, the supply chain experience is much farther away from or Target than most people would assume; it’s much closer to an open-air bazaar with thousands of vendors and no fixed prices, and in such situations getting the best price or quality for an item means building strong personal relationships with a network of vendors. When I first started out in hardware, I was ill-equipped to operate in the open-market paradigm. I grew up in a sheltered part of Midwest America, and I had always shopped at stores that had labeled prices. I was unfamiliar with bargaining. So, going to the electronics markets in Shenzhen was not only a learning experience for me technically, it also taught me a lot about negotiation and dealing with culturally different vendors. While it’s true that a lot of the goods in the market are rubbish, it’s much better to fail and learn on negotiations over a bag of LEDs for a hobby project, rather than to fail and learn on negotiations on contracts for manufacturing a core product.

One of bunnie’s projects is Novena, an open source laptop. Photo credit: Crowd Supply.

This point is often lost upon hardware startups. Very often I’m asked if it’s really necessary to go to Asia–why not just operate out of the US? Aren’t emails and conference calls good enough, or worst case, “can we hire an agent” who manages everything for us? I guess this is possible, but would you hire an agent to shop for dinner or buy clothes for you? The acquisition of material goods from markets is more than a matter of picking items from the shelf and putting them in a basket, even in developed countries with orderly markets and consumer protection laws. Judgment is required at all stages — when buying milk, perhaps you would sort through the bottles to pick the one with greatest shelf life, whereas an agent would simply grab the first bottle in sight. When buying clothes, you’ll check for fit, loose strings, and also observe other styles, trends, and discounted merchandise available on the shelf to optimize the value of your purchase. An agent operating on specific instructions will at best get you exactly what you want, but you’ll miss out better deals simply because you don’t know about them. At the end of the day, the freshness of milk or the fashion and fit of your clothes are minor details, but when producing at scale even the smallest detail is multiplied thousands, if not millions of times over.

More significant than the loss of operational intelligence, is the loss of a personal relationship with your supply chain when you surrender management to an agent or manage via emails and conference calls alone. To some extent, working with a factory is like being a houseguest. If you clean up after yourself, offer to help with the dishes, and fix things that are broken, you’ll always be welcome and receive better service the next time you stay. If you can get beyond the superficial rituals of politeness and create a deep and mutually beneficial relationship with your factory, the value to your business goes beyond money–intangibles such as punctuality, quality, and service are priceless.

I like to tell hardware startups that if the only value you can bring to a factory is money, you’re basically worthless to them–and even if you’re flush with cash from a round of financing, the factory knows as well as you do that your cash pool is finite. I’ve had folks in startups complain to me that in their previous experience at say, Apple, they would get a certain level of service, so how come we can’t get the same? The difference is that Apple has a hundred billion dollars in cash, and can pay for five-star service; their bank balance and solid sales revenue is all the top-tier contract manufacturers need to see in order to engage.

Circuit Stickers, adhesive-backed electronic components, is another of bunnie’s projects. Photo credit: Andrew “bunnie” Huang.

On the other hand, hardware startups have to hitchhike and couch-surf their way to success. As a result, it’s strongly recommended to find ways other than money to bring value to your partners, even if it’s as simple as a pleasant demeanor and an earnest smile. The same is true in any service industry, such as dining. If you can afford to eat at a three-star Michelin restaurant, you’ll always have fairy godmother service, but you’ll also have a $1,000 tab at the end of the meal. The local greasy spoon may only set you back ten bucks, but in order to get good service it helps to treat the wait staff respectfully, perhaps come at off-peak hours, and leave a good tip. Over time, the wait staff will come to recognize you and give you priority service.

At the end of the day, a supply chain is made out of people, and people aren’t always rational and sometimes make mistakes. However, people can also be inspired and taught, and will work tirelessly to achieve the goals and dreams they earnestly believe in: happiness is more than money, and happiness is something that everyone wants. For management, it’s important to sell your product to the factory, to get them to believe in your vision. For engineers, it’s important to value their effort and respect their skills; I’ve solved more difficult problems through camaraderie over beers than through PowerPoint in conference rooms. For rank-and-file workers, we try our best to design the product to minimize tedious steps, and we spend a substantial amount of effort making the tools we provide them for production and testing to be fun and engaging. Where we can’t do this, we add visual and audio cues that allow the worker to safely zone out while long and boring processes run. The secret to running an efficient hardware supply chain on a budget isn’t just knowing the cost of everything and issuing punctual and precise commands, but also understanding the people behind it and effectively reading their personalities, rewarding them with the incentives they actually desire, and guiding them to improve when they make mistakes. Your supply chain isn’t just a vendor; they are an extension of your own company.

Overall, I’ve found that 99% of the people I encounter in my supply chain are fundamentally good at heart, and have an earnest desire to do the right thing; most problems are not a result of malice, but rather incompetence, miscommunication, or cultural misalignment. Very significantly, people often live up to the expectations you place on them. If you expect them to be bad actors, even if they don’t start out that way, they have no incentive to be good if they are already paying the price of being bad — might as well commit the crime if you know you’ve been automatically judged as guilty with no recourse for innocence. Likewise, if you expect people to be good, oftentimes they will rise up and perform better simply because they don’t want to disappoint you, or more importantly, themselves. There is the 1% who are truly bad actors, and by nature they try to position themselves at the most inconvenient road blocks to your progress, but it’s important to remember that not everyone is out to get you. If you can gather a syndicate of friends large enough, even the bad actors can only do so much to harm you, because bad actors still rely upon the help of others to achieve their ends. When things go wrong your first instinct should not be “they’re screwing me, how do I screw them more,” but should be “how can we work together to improve the situation?”

In the end, building hardware is a fundamentally social exercise. Generally, most interesting and unique processes aren’t automated, and as such, you have to work with other people to develop bespoke processes and products. Furthermore, physical things are inevitably owned or operated upon by other people, and understanding how to motivate and compel them will make a difference in not only your bottom line, but also in your schedule, quality, and service level. Until we can all have Tony Stark’s JARVIS robot to intelligently and automatically handle hardware fabrication, any person contemplating manufacturing hardware at scale needs to understand not only circuits and mechanics, but also how to inspire and effectively command a network of suppliers and laborers.

After all, “it’s people — supply chains are made out of people!”

See you at Maker Faire Bay Area!

Saturday, May 17th, 2014

Looking forward to seeing everyone at Maker Faire Bay Area, happening May 17 & 18 at the San Mateo Event Center. xobs and I will be giving a short half-hour talk starting at 10:30AM in the Expo hall on Saturday about Novena, on the Electronics stage. Afterwards, xobs will be hanging out with his Novena at the Freescale booth, also in the Expo hall, about halfway down on the left hand side across from the Atmel/Arduino booth. If you’re curious to see it or just want to stop by and say hi, we welcome you!

Also, the whole chibitronics crew will be in the Expo hall as well, in the second row between Sony, PCH, and Qualcomm (‽‽‽). We’ll be teaching people how to craft circuits onto paper; attendees who can score a first-come, first-serve spot will receive free circuit stickers and also get a chance to be instructed by the wonderful and dynamic creative genius behind chibitronics, Jie Qi.

haxlr8r Map of Shenzhen Electronics Market

Thursday, November 28th, 2013

I’m fond of trawling the electronic markets of Shenzhen. It’s a huge area, several city blocks; it is overwhelming in scale. My friends at haxlr8r have published a guide to the markets, targeted at helping intrepid hacker-engineers use the market more efficiently, without having to spend a couple of weeks just figuring out the basics.

This is the first guide I’ve seen that gives a floor-by-floor breakdown of the wares contained in each building. This is particularly handy as some buildings contain several specialties that are not reflected by the items you find on the ground floor. It’s also bi-lingual, which helps if you can’t speak the language and you need to point at something the locals can read. While the map is missing a couple of my favorite spots, overall it’s well done and took a lot of effort to compile.

If you’re into making electronics, this electronics market is a must-see destination. If you have an idea you’re itching to build, you might want to consider looking into haxlr8r. haxlr8r’s offices are right in the heart of the electronics district, and I’m a mentor for the program; so, it’s a great opportunity to learn the markets, build stuff, and hang out and have a few beers.

From Spark: Why Kickstarters are Always Delayed

Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Zach Supalla, Founder and CEO at Spark, wrote a frank introspective on why Kickstarters are always delayed. His thoughts are particularly germane, as he and his team are currently working hard to deliver on the Spark Core’s Kickstart campaign promise. They have taken an ultra-transparent approach to updating supporters on their progress, and their challenges — an approach that takes a lot of courage and thick skin.

You can read his thoughts here.