Computer science students visit maker conference in Berlin: a travel report

After winning the Computer Science Maker Competition (see the Spring 2014 edition of the College of Science Newsletter) in December 2013, undergraduate students Callum Dicker, Lewis Edwards and Cameron Steer were invited to attend the first annual Things conference, held 1-4 May 2014 in Berlin.

‌ThingsCon is a conference about the design and development of hardware within the maker and startup communities, with talks ranging from Internet of Things, wearables and connected devices to 3D printing and new manufacturing techniques. The two-day conference was held at two separate locations: The first day was held at BetaHaus, a makerspace and co-working space for technology startups, with the second day at Kalkscheune, an events building located in downtown Berlin. During talks, workshops and intimate sessions, an international line-up of top notch speakers covered everything it takes to grow a hardware product from prototype to scaling business - and help participants build the companies of tomorrow.

On the first day of ThingsCon the main organisers of the event, Knowable, gave a warm welcome and a quick introduction of the workshops available over the morning. Brady Forrest, vice president of Highway1, a hardware startup incubator, gave a keynote where he discussed the scaling up of product manufacturing for startups and the difficulties they may come across. An interesting insight was that "there is no China button", meaning that we can't simply get a factory in China to produce our products -- it takes far more than that.

ThingsCon OSMHWAfter the keynote the workshop organisers, including Swansea University's own Dr Gerrit Niezen, shortly explained what their workshops were about before everyone separated into the various venues in the BetaHaus building. Dr Niezen, a postdoctoral researcher from Swansea University's Computer Science department presented a workshop on Open Source Hardware (OSHW) and medical devices. This workshop explored the emerging business models, benefits and challenges in bringing open source hardware to the healthcare sector, as well as studying the human-computer interaction design aspects.

During the workshop there was excellent discussion raised within the group on existing hardware and key ideas about designing hardware in the medical sector. During a team activity to evaluate an existing medical device, one team wrote down problems and challenges with the device design on little cards, while the other team tried to predict the problems and create solutions on their cards. The challenge team then played each of the problem cards and the solution team tried to match a solution card.

This activity encouraged out-of-the-box thinking and looking at hardware from a human perspective. It was also every inspiring to see how this type of hardware is moving to open source: More people can get involved making safer and more user-friendly medical hardware, improving the future of healthcare.

ThingsCon sparkThe next workshop the students attended was organised by Spark, the company behind the Spark Core, a Wi-Fi development board to create Internet-connected hardware. Zach Supalla, the CEO and co-founder of Spark, gave an introduction on the free Spark Core received as part of the conference welcome pack. Assisted by Stephanie Rich, Spark's community manager and publicity lead, participants were able to perform some basic tasks such as making a light blink on the device and set up a wireless connection. Spark were also kind enough to provide some free accessories for the Spark Core during the workshop.

After a quick lunch the students attended a workshop by Cylon.js, arranged by Ron Evans and his team. The Cylon.js framework is used for developing robotics, physical computing, and the Internet of Things. During the workshop participants got the opportunity to remotely control a Sphero robotic ball using the framework.

ThingsCon hackingIn the evening, during a get-together organised by the conference, the students got a chance to network and share the work that they are doing at Swansea University, like their dissertation projects as well as research being done in the department.

After making the short journey to Kalkscheune on Day 2, the day began with a talk from Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, who discussed the development of her business idea, the Good Night Lamp, and the difficulties she experienced during this journey.

After a short break, the students attended a set of three talks on founder's stories, from the founders of Phonebloks, Enero and Product Club. Gawin from Phonebloks discussed the development of their startup, from getting the breakthrough idea to where they are now, working alongside Google to develop their product.

The next talk came from Olivier of Enero, who took the attendees through his range of Internet-connected products, including the now defunct Nabaztag, and discussed the cycles that startups go through: The weird stage, the golden stage, and then the lonely stage.

Before lunch there was a talk from Matt Biddulph, co-founder of Product Club, a design agency in San Francisco. He discussed developing a product using stages:

  • Explore: Find an area where there is a problem to be solved.
  • Dig: Research that area, find out what will make a successful product.
  • Model: Develop the product, and look into how it will be in the long run.

After lunch the students attended a session on open source hardware, all of them quite passionate about the field and wanting to learn more about this increasingly growing area. During a talk from Simon Höher, co-founder of Knowable, he shared Knowable's attempt at building a "global makerspace". This helps the open source hardware area in allowing for global online collaboration.

ThingsCon 3D printerThe next talk was by Siert Wijnia from Ultimaker, one of the leading companies in 3D printing. In this talk, he discussed how the Ultimaker has been kept open source and how Ultimaker kept its community close. Reto Wettach, who is behind the open source circuit schematic tool Fritzing discussed some of the risks of making open source products. This included Autodesk copying a design feature of their software without giving any credit to them. The final talk of the early afternoon was given by Peter Troxler, discussing the state of open source hardware from multiple perspectives. This included the current legal issues to do with open source hardware and the challenges that open source hardware makers are dealing with.

In the afternoon there were inspiring talks from startups that brought their product from idea to market, including the Blaze bike light, one of the first UK Kickstarter projects and Little Printer from BERG. Both shared their experiences, their triumphs and their challenges. It was really inspiring to so see the how you can take an from idea to prototype, then to manufacturing and to market and also the different approaches companies used to come up with the idea and turn it into a product.

For the closing keynote, Usman Haque gave a talk on the meaning of data in the Internet of Things called "Canaries and coal mines", considering that when miners used canaries in coal mines the data it provided was binary: The canary was either dead or alive. He explained how we should be aiming to make sense of the data we are collecting in the Internet of Things, and how we can do this through looking how people make meaning.

The conference was an amazing experience for the students, with one main takeaway being how easy is it to get started in building hardware prototypes. There are lots of tools out there that make it easy to get started with hardware development, like Arduino, Spark Core and Raspberry Pi. They also learned the power of making projects open source, and how prominent 3D printing will be in the future thanks to open source projects like the Ultimaker. The biggest takeaway was that of sharing ideas and knowledge. At the event everyone was just as excited to learn about your projects as you theirs, and this positive attitude is something the students intend to bring into their future projects and work.