Ron Evans thinks it’s about time that everyone should be able to make robots. Or at least tell them what to do.
The world of robotics right now is still dominated by grad students, he says. “But the next exciting wave will come from average people who will imagine things that us so-called professionals would never think of.”
To help usher in this future, he and his colleagues at a company called The Hybrid Group created a set of free frameworks—basically skeletons of code—that free up non-specialists to write up the fun stuff for a wide variety of hardware, from Arduino circuit boards to Parrot ARDrones to Sphero robots.
Geek is cool again. Wait, geek was never cool before. Geek is cool for the first time in history. Ron Evans
Ultimately, Evans says, the company may release tools that will help people create their own robotics or Internet of Things software without having to write a single line of code at all.
Democratizing App Creation
In the 1980s Evans worked at Apple on a program called Hypercard, which helped people build their own apps without needing to do complex programming. Hypercard was originally included for free with all Macs and was used to create everything from enterprise software to the popular role-playing game Myst. By showing that anyone, not just people with computer science degrees, could create interactive computer programs, Hypercard helped inspire a generation of programmers. And that was very much by design. Evans says the Hypercard team, lead by Bill Atkinson and Dan Winkler, was always interested in democratizing computing.
That spirit has carried over to his more recent projects, such as Kids Ruby, a piece of educational software that helps teach kids to code using the popular Ruby programming language.
It was Evans’ involvement in the Ruby community that led him to start the first of the Hybrid Group’s three frameworks, Artoo, which enables people to write code for robots and other devices using the language.
Drawing on other Ruby frameworks for the web such as Ruby on Rails and Sinatra, Evans set out to create a platform that would work across devices. One of the big advantages of Artoo and the company’s other frameworks is that if you started building a gadget using, say, an Arduino circuit board but then decided to upgrade to a more powerful platform such as Spark or Tessel, you’d still be able to reuse much of the same code.
All of these frameworks are open source and free of charge, which raises the question of how Hybrid Group will make money from them. The company already makes money from consulting, and the team is also building a cloud service for hosting apps built with their frameworks. But he want to keep the underlying technology free so that as many people as possible can take advantage of them.
“We want people to be able to control their own devices the same way they already publish their own webpages and blogs,” Evans says. “We want to see people taking over their environments through technology.”
Geek Is Cool
That may sound farfetched, given how few people write their own apps today. But in the early days of the web, it was rather unusual for people have a personal homepage. Now, thanks to sites like Facebook, we all have a webpage that many of us update multiple times a day.
Of course, there’s still a big difference between writing a status update on Facebook and writing code to program a robot, even it’s getting easier and easier to write that code. To make it even more accessible, Evans and the team are working on a version Cylon that uses Google’s Blockly, a tool designed to help kids learn to program without writing code.
“It’s entirely drag and drop, but it’s still Cylon underneath so you get all the advantages of real code,” he explains.
Meanwhile, more people are learning to program than ever. Future generations will likely be more code literate, and they might not be as content as we are today to just buy a product and use it the way its inventors intended.
“Geek is cool again,” Evans says. “Wait, geek was never cool before. Geek is cool for the first time in history.”