Introducing open source to kids TV – yes really!

I really enjoyed the chance to explain something really important on this weeks Cool Stuff Collective. The core of the piece this week was the principle of Open Source collaboration. I had started to lead up to this concept with the wikipedia piece a few weeks ago, showing the views that anyone can get involved can contribute and not just consume on the web.
The way to approach open source though had to be something other than the “traditional” software applications such as the Linux operating system. Whilst it is one of the most advanced and technically rich exemplars of the this self organisation and support eco system its really not compelling enough for kids.
The open source libraries for the Xbox Kinect however are spot on. It is a triumphant story of the explorers out there seeing what they could do with what is already an amazing piece of consumer technology. It being the big xmas hit only a few weeks ago most people can relate to it and what it does in the context of the Xbox. Many of the viewers will have played with one too.
The speed with which the open source community gathered and hacked the kinect, released the code and then people started gathering and building more and more things was so fast it highlights the speed disruptive innovation can side swipe large corporate entities. In the first few days of the hacking Microsoft took a “not with my box of bunnies” approach. Legal proceedings were threatened etc. Somewhere, somehow there was someone with enough sense to stand back and say… “wait a minute, at the very least this is selling even more kinects, people are buying kinects who don’t have xbox’s”. After all no harm was being done really, the kinect was not being stolen, it was not a DRM issue. The thing has a USB plug on it! Now it may have been all calculated to frown and them embrace the hacks but however it has worked out Microsoft come out pretty well having decided to join the party rather than stop it. Whilst not specifically part of the open source movement(s) they are releasing a home hacking kit.
The choice of how to work with your kinect on a computer is a varied one but just for the record (as we did not give any names/URLs out on the show)
I used (and hence was helping to support) the Libfreenect piece of software on my Mac. All the info you budding hackers need is at Openkinect.org
This let me show Sy the depth of field display running on a Mac. The left hand colour picture reflects distance, one of the key points of the Kinect in sensing movement over an above a regular webcam. I was not altering any code just showing what was available at its very basic level.
OpenKinect
I also demoed the audio hack of a Theremin the Therenect by Martin Kaltenbrunner of the Interface Culture Lab. I bumped into this demo via a serendipitous conversation about what a theremin actually is and how it works just before putting this piece together. Martin is also one of the inventors of the ARTag and TUIO integrations that I used in the AR show in Unity3d and the brilliant Reactable that I hope will be in the final Big gadget adventure film towards the end of series 2. (So a friend of the show as his stuff just works whenever I try it!)
There are of course lots more things going on and so many good examples of people working on the kinext and hooking up other free and accessible pieces of code, and more importantly sharing them. @ceejay sent me this link on twitter after the show aired.

Hopefully next (and final record for the series) I will get to do the Opensim piece, more open source wonderfulness to build upon this and the previous conversations.
Many people are not aware just how complicated Open Source is as a concept and the implications it has as part of any eco system. It is a threat and an opportunity, a training ground for new skills, a hobby and a political minefield of ego’s, sub cultures, competing interests. What come out of the early days of Open Source is usually very rough, but it works. If it does not work quite right you change it and contribute back. We have yet to see the ultimate long term effects of open source in a networked world. We have though seen it make massive changes to the software industry, but the principles of gathering and sharing and building applies to way more that our geeky business. It is about governments, banks, manufacturing and even the legal system. It is, not to put too much pathos on this, the will of the people. (just not always the same people who consider themselves in charge or market leaders.)
Open source projects also tend to spring up in response to a popular commercial event, challenging windows with linux as an example. Without something big and unwieldy, or not done quite how people really want it done, an open source movement will not form with enough passion and gravitas. That is not to say that people do not realise lots of things as open source. You write code and share it, build and show etc, but that is open sourcing and not the complexity of an open source movement I think.
So, a heavy subject once you drill down but it is the future and its already here.
Open source is messy, it about people, it tends to not fit all the preconceptions of a product. However people tend to expect a product to work and be supported the same as if they paid for it. Which is why there actually is a financial and business opportunity in wrapping open source up, and providing labelled versions and services with appropriate licensing. The people that build still need to eat and be recognised for their work too. So it is by no means just a load of free stuff on the internet, but you are free to join in and I hope some kids will be inspired to at least take a look or ask their parents and teachers about the social implications of all this too.

3 thoughts on “Introducing open source to kids TV – yes really!

  1. Hey Ian, great to hear that you have been using the Therenect and my other tools on your show, especially in the context of explaining open source to kids! I’d love to see that show and use the footage for my own teaching, so I’d be glad if you could send me the video. It seems that I can’t access the ITV content from abroad.
    cheers, Martin.K

  2. Martin, I know I already replied on twitter 🙂 but I will try and see if the production team can get you a copy of the show(s). Your ARTag is briefly in my little series 1 youtube showreel http://www.feedingedge.co.uk/blog/tv-showreel/
    Also the live stream of CITV http://www.citv.co.uk seems to work globally and the show is on again today (monday) at 5pm uk and on friday 4:30pm the show currently airing is the open source kinect hacking.
    The reactable is abut 6 weeks away I think.

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