Open source is about more than code: it's about unlocking all possibilities. Here are four unusual projects made possible by open source.


Years ago I hung out with a friend who had a prosthetic hand. It was a stiff plastic hand, like a store mannequin hand, that could open and close in a simple grip. It didn't have much functionality, but it had a bit of fun factor. My friend liked to remove it to scratch his back. In public, of course, with a freaked-out audience. Americans seem to have a hard time looking at these sorts of things.

Prosthetics have advanced since those days, especially in cost. It's amazing how labelling an item as medical equipment makes it cost 10 to 100 times more, even ordinary parts like nuts, bolts, batteries and power supplies. A prosthetic limb starts at five figures, and in these here kindly times good luck getting insurance to pay because it's become a one-way flow, we're supposed to pay our premiums without desiring to collect any benefits.

And so, once again, open source has made it possible for one person to step up and try to change an unsatisfactory state of affairs, and that person is Jon Kuniholm. Mr. Kuniholm is a war veteran who lost part of his right arm in Iraq. He was given an assortment of prosthetic arms to use, from an old-fashioned hook to a shiny new myoelectric arm.

None of them were completely satisfactory. The fancy myoelectric arm was fragile and heavy, and had to be protected from moisture and dirt. The most popular upper body prosthesis is the oldest, the body-powered hook. This is fastened to your torso with a harness that transfers movements, such as a shrug, to control the elbow, hook or hand. Hook-type prostheses have been around for decades, and are rugged and relatively inexpensive, which is not to say they're cheap, just less costly than newer technologies.

Mr. Kuniholm is a biomedical engineer, and after leaving the Marines he returned to his job at Tackle Design, an industrial design and research company. He and his co-workers took the arms apart and studied them, and looked for ways to improve them. Then they founded The Open Prosthetics Project (OPP). The Open Prosthetics Project focuses on helping people with missing limbs. If you have an interest in bringing open source to ears and eyes, the field is wide open. OPP collects information and data, does design research, and freely shares plans, specifications and information.

Building a good prosthetic foot or leg is moderately difficult. Building a hand that works anything like a human hand is incredibly difficult. But remember playing with Lego as a little kid? Lego is not just a toy, it can also be an articulated hand prototype. Motors and batteries keep getting smaller and better, so someday this will be a reality.

You can learn more about Mr. Kuniholm in this interview and book excerpt on National Public Radio.

Affordable, practical small scale manufacturing

Way back in the last millennium, in the 1970s, there was a brief "back to the land" movement. Idealistic city folk threw off their corporate shackles, bought land, and had this idea they could be self sufficient. Of course there is a whole lot more to living off the land than bib overalls and good intentions. It's a lot of work, requires a lot of tools and machines and a lot of skills and knowledge.

Practical manual skills are in short supply in these modern times and tools are expensive, so the learning curve, costs and hard physical labour defeated a lot of wannabe hardy pioneers. The concept was sound: to take control of the production of life's essentials such as food, energy and shelter, to live more harmoniously and leave a less destructive footprint on the planet, to live in a healthier way and to control technology for the benefit of the people using it. It all sounds good, but making it work was the beastly part.

Fast forward to now, and open source and the Internet have changed everything. Marcin Jakubowski is a physicist who tried farming, and quickly learned that he had no practical skills or knowledge. So he began his education anew, and came up with the concept of affordable, practical small scale manufacturing to build and maintain a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts. He figured that it would take a set of 50 different industrial machines to do this, and this is the Global Village Construction Set (GVCS).