Danny Kleinman does not fit the stereotypical persona of a hacker. He appears to shower often. He does not live in his basement. He has a girlfriend. Governments are not, to his knowledge, looking for him.
Yet here he is, standing in his Glover Park living room, which he has totally hacked. Aiming his smartphone at a lamp, he controls the light with the volume controls. Up, on. Down, off. He tells his TV “Discovery Channel,” and there’s the Discovery Channel. He even programmed the lights in his bedroom to wake him up.
“Isn’t this cool?” he says, clearly giddy.
Kleinman is a maker, a word derived from Make Magazine, the glossy bible of everyday hackers using social networks, do-it-yourself-then-show-it-off Web sites, cheap parts from China, and blissfully simple microprocessors to modify or invent new electronic products for their houses, cars, offices and back yards.
Recent studies show consumers now spend more money tweaking and inventing stuff than consumer product firms spend on research and development. It’s more than $3.75 billion a year in Britain, and U.S. studies under way now show similiar patterns. Makers are even morphing into entrepreneurs, with some of the best projects, including Kleinman’s, raising money for commercial development of self-funding Web sites such as Kickstarter, where anyone with a credit card can chip in to back cool ideas.
Major companies such as Ford are, after years of resisting inventor gadflies, inviting makers to submit product tweaks. “This is the democratization of technology,” said K. Venkatesh Prasad, a senior engineering executive at Ford.
“Policymakers and economists always assumed that consumers just consumed and that they don’t innovate,” said Eric von Hippel, who studies technological innovation and makers at MIT’s business school. “What’s clearly happening now is that all of a sudden it’s easier for us to make exactly what we want.”
Makers convert 1930s rotary phones to Skype phones, repurpose crockpots into yogurt fermenters, wire remote controls for solar power, turn laptop monitors into desktop monitors, morph Lego blocks into USB memory sticks and even build homemade lie detectors with Velcro sensors that wrap around fingers. The most advanced makers gather in pop-up hacking spaces, including HacDC, located above a Columbia Heights church, to hear experts lecture and tinker together over Schlitz beers.
Accountants are makers. Bored IT guys are makers. Government workers are makers. Todd Evans, an Arlington architect, became a maker this winter when he wanted gloves that would allow him to type accurately on his iPhone in cold weather. He bought some conductive fabric online, cut holes in the fingertips of gloves, sewed the fabric in, and then posted pictures of the project to Instructables.com, a Web site where makers swap ideas and know-how.
“When it’s good and done,” he wrote, “turn the glove back to right side out and you’ll be texting in no time!” The project was a hit — hundreds of people clicked on it in the first few days. “I can’t even post something on YouTube that gets 10 hits,” Evans said.
Handy, creative people have always tinkered around the garage and come up with something useful. Car seats were developed by a Denver man in 1963. Jogging strollers were a user innovation. Skateboards were not developed by a company. Someone, somewhere thought it would be neat to attach wheels from roller skates to a wood plank, and an entire industry was born. What’s different now, experts say, are three things: easy collaboration with like-minded people, the simplicity of scoring parts online and never running into a brick wall. Someone is always available to help, even if he’s around the world.
“You think of the lone tinkerer in the shed in the ’50s and ’60s and you were pretty lucky to find anyone else interested in what you were doing,” said Dale Dougherty, the founder of Make Magazine. “Today you begin by putting your work online, and then people can seek you out and help. If you have an idea for a project, there are very few barriers to getting it done.”
A few years ago, Kleinman, then 26, wanted a house he could manipulate with his phone. He had some technological know-how, having studied computers at Tufts and then landing an IT job at a D.C. company, but he had never invented anything. His initial need was to solve a somewhat universal problem: “I hated getting up for work,” he said, “so I wanted my lights to wake me up.”
Kleinman started Googling around and reading up on programming. He discovered a cheap, easy-to-use microprocessor called Arduino, developed by Italian designers to control interactive design installations. Arduino has become the technological platform for scores of maker products. Kleinman ordered one from a Colorado company called Sparkfun, the Amazon.com of the maker world, selling all sorts of electronic components with step-by-step instructions and access to tip chat rooms.
“Whether it’s a robot that can cook your breakfast or a GPS cat tracking device, our products and resources are designed to make the world of electronics more accessible to the average person,” Sparkfun says on its Web site. “We sell to crafters and designers, artists and DJs, elementary teachers and college professors, and yes, electrical engineers.”
Kleinman played around with the Arduino, connected it to remote control light dimmers, wrote some simple computer code based on ideas he found online, and soon his phone was doing what he wanted it to do — controlling not just his calls, but his house, too. Everything happens wirelessly via components connected to a microprocessor hiding in a sleek blue box.
Liberating his home proved intoxicating. “We are in a world now where people can change products,” he said. “You are no longer stuck with the interface people give you. We can do whatever we want.”
Von Hippel, the MIT professor, said: “People are doing these projects for the fun of it, but also because they really feel that they need the things they are making.”
Last year, to the surprise of his parents, roommates and friends, Kleinman quit his job. There wasn’t a cheap, easy-to-use device on the market for controlling electronics in a home with a phone or tablet. He set out to turn his side project into a product. Mike Cherner, one of his roommates, immediately noticed a spike in Kleinman’s Diet Coke consumption.
“He has pushed himself very hard,” Cherner said. “I need to get him a pair of overalls for all the stuff he’s doing.”
Last month, Kleinman posted his product, CustomCTRL, to Kickstarter.com, seeking to raise $33,000 to enter commercial production. He’s up to $14,641 —from more than 100 backers — but almost as important as the cash is the advice he has received from around the world, including from David Mittelmann, a freelance engineer in Northeast Florida, with whom Kleinman has traded hundreds of e-mails.
“I really just wanted to help him out, and so I started sending him ideas,” said Mittelmann, who has poured in several hundred dollars to the project. “I think he’s got a great market opportunity here.”
Mittelmann feels so involved with Kleinman’s project that he refers to them as “we,” as in “we should do” this or that.
“He really has been a big help,” Kleinman said. And to think: A few months ago, neither Mittelmann nor Kleinman knew the other existed. Now, they are inventing together. “I have no idea how anything got made before this,” Kleinman said.
Kleinman spends nearly every waking moment working on the project and honing features. One allows users to make an electronic map of their home so their phone knows where it’s pointing.
Asked what it was like to live in a product lab, Cherner, Kleinman’s roommate, said: “It’s definitely interesting. I haven’t found a camera in my room, so I think we’re okay.” Cherner has even contributed an idea: “I told him I wanted a party mode, so that we could hit a button and turn our living room into a dance scene.”
Kleinman took the idea under consideration.