Constraints can liberate creativity: “Make anything you like” might sound nice, but “Make anything you like using this box of crayons” is even better. Cheap, simple, maker-friendly hardware kits like Arduino and Raspberry Pi are the technology equivalents of a little carton of Crayolas–they may not have a lot of processing power (in the case of an Arduino microcontroller) or much in the way of I/O (like Raspberry Pi), but their simplicity makes them great for doodling in electronic interaction design. But what if you’re a little more advanced–or simply too indecisive to choose between Arduino’s barebones connectivity and Raspberry Pi’s full-fledged Linux CPU? The new BeagleBone Black is the best of both worlds: for $45, you get a little credit-card-sized board with enough pin headers, network interfaces, and peripheral ports to choke a cat, plus a 1GHz ARM Cortex-A8 processor that can run Linux and Android. It’s like that huge Crayola box of 96 colors with the sharpener built into the side: it’s all about options.
This all may sound like Greek if you’re not the kind of person who builds DIY robots in your spare time. But what’s interesting about BeagleBone Black is what it portends about these weird little maker kits: they’re not just for art students and garage hackers noodling around. They’re prosumer product-development platforms. The OpenROV project, which began on Kickstarter as a DIY hail-mary to create open-source underwater exploration robots (of all things), is powered by BeagleBone boards. And that was before the Black offered much more computing power at less than half the price of previous BeagleBones.
What’s more, these hardware-prototyping kits are evolving to be savvier about user experience as they get cheaper and more powerful. The BeagleBone Black includes a “browser-based interactive teaching environment”–in other words, you jack the thing into the internet, connect a monitor through its HDMI port and a keyboard and mouse via USB, and poof, you can access a GUI through BeagleBone.org that lets you control the board and access programming lessons without having to write your own code. Granted, it’s not exactly iOS-esque in its simplicity. But for someone who wants to start doodling, it provides a starting point–something to do with the board, right out of the box. And for more experienced prototypers and hackers, it abstracts some of the low-level technical details away so that they can focus on getting creative instead of reinventing the wheel.
As these competing kits and boards (and their catalogs of “shields”, “capes”, and other cutesily-named snap-on accessories) drive each other’s prices down and feature lists up, the aspiring maker (or entrepreneur) will have more options to sift through before getting started making stuff. It won’t be as simple anymore as grabbing a carton of eight thick crayons, dumping them out on a table, and making do. But I do know that when I was a kid, I wanted that 96-color Crayola box as soon as I saw it–even if I never ended up using half of those colors. The point is, I could have–and what else are kits like BeagleBoard for, if not for offering that same kind of creative possibility?