Sketching in Hardware 2018

Last weekend, I attended Sketching in Hardware 2018 in Detroit, Michigan. Sketching is a small conference that brings together:

  • builders of tools that assist consumer electronics developers and Makers,
  • high-profile users of those tools (or educators of future users),
  • well-known academics who run research programs on development tools, digital fabrication, or IoT ecosystems.

I have attended every Sketching in Hardware since 2014, but I will never cease to be amazed at the quality of presenters and presentations. This post describes some of the themes that emerged in this year's presentations, my presentation on Moddable, and how Moddable's work fits into changing attitudes towards IoT.

Changing Attitudes Towards IoT and the Maker Movement

It is difficult to pin down overarching themes that cover all of the disparate presentations at Sketching in Hardware. Between the talks and the conversations over coffee and dinner, some trends do emerge.

If I had to select a single leitmotif of this year's event, it would be a pronounced nervousness about the future of the IoT industry and the present state of the Maker Movement. Many of the presenters expressed concerns that the industry they had helped create was getting out of hand, intruding in people's lives and disrupting the workforce in unintended and unacceptable ways. There is clearly a growing sense of awareness of the privacy, policy, social, and economic anxieties raised by recent events in IoT.

The most fiery talk along these lines was given by industrial/mechanical designer Matthew Borgatti and was entitled "How the IOT is Paving the Road to Technohell." In this dramatic presentation, Borgatti enumerated many of the same failings of the IoT industry that we've noted in this space before, with a particular focus on the serious privacy concerns raised by the interaction of massive social networking sites and ubiquitous technology, implications of start-up culture on employee health and well being, and the environmental implications of device proliferation.

While Borgatti stood largely alone in presenting the future of the IoT industry as irredeemable, he was joined by numerous other presenters who shared similar concerns. Noah Feehan presented a project he has been working on that is intended to warn visitors to private homes about the various ways in which their actions and conversations may be being recorded (starting with signs on the front door that simply say "Alexa is listening...") Professor Silvia Lindtner gave a talk titled "Responsible IoT After Techno-Solutionism" that roundly criticized the first wave of IoT products for being technological solutions to non-existent or unimportant problems. Professor Lindtner's talk also drew a direct line between the unfettered optimism of the early Maker Movement and the resulting deluge of minimally-considered products, companies, and services that grew from it.

That said, not all visions of the future were so bleak. My favorite presentation of the weekend was given by Professor Sophia Brueckner of the University of Michigan. Entitled "Prototyping Alternative Futures," Professor Brueckner's talk focused on "science fiction and futures research to promote an ethical and extrapolative design process to build a preferred future." In short, her thesis was that it is too convenient (and too unhelpful) to disengage from the design of future technologies on grounds of cynicism and that doing so just leaves other, potentially malicious, individuals and corporations to make decisions about how technology will proceed. She, instead, implores designers and technologists to cultivate an attitude of critical optimism in their work, finding routes (per her advice, guided by speculative fiction) to futures in which technology operates to the benefit of mankind.

Overall, I think that the sum of presentations given at Sketching in Hardware 2018 reflected an industry that is losing its innocence and is, necessarily, pausing to reflect on what has gone well, what has gone poorly, and what must change to arrive at a future that is more "critical optimism" and less "technohell." Of note, there were no talks this year that presented new toolkits or products aimed at novices or the Maker market — a stark contrast to 2014. Instead, many talks focused on presenting solutions for professional developers that can lead to more responsible future products and services.

Moddable Presentation and Demos

Moddable is uniquely situated to deliver on the promise of connected consumer devices in a socially responsible way through our mission to promote consumer moddability of products. I presented on this topic and something slightly more light-hearted in my 20 minute talk and 2+ hour demo session.

I began my talk with a reminder to the audience of the core contributions of Moddable to the design tools community: a JavaScript SDK that enables development of a single implementation across diverse microcontroller hardware in a widely-accessible programming language; XS, the most compact and most complete JavaScript engine available today; and the Piu UI framework for embedded products, enabled by the Commodetto graphics engine for delivering high-quality, fast, anti-aliased, and flicker-free graphics.

Second, I discussed the pros and cons of compiling JavaScript directly on embedded hardware and gave a live coding demo using the Moddable REPL example on the ESP8266. I opted to organize my demo around blinking the on-board LED of ESP8266 module. This shows a very tangible relationship between interactively interpreted JavaScript and a physical property of the embedded device — a powerful connection for anyone getting started with the Moddable SDK.

Finally, I presented an overview of the Moddable mission to enable Mods: Apps for Things. Our support for modification of consumer electronics after purchase leverages the power of scripting to make products more customizable for users and more socially responsible in general through transparency and life for products beyond the cloud services bundled with them.

[caption id="attachment_749" align="aligncenter" width="1024"]Image of Moddable demos from the Sketching in Hardware 2018 Science Fair Moddable Demos at the Sketching in Hardware 2018 Science Fair[/caption]

I reinforced these messages by taking part in the Sketching in Hardware Science Fair, an extended demo session where all the participants can show off their latest work. Talking about amazing technology is one thing — seeing it actually work is quite another. I presented Moddable's demos from this year's Maker Faire Bay Area, which you can see a video of below:


Sketching in Hardware is the industry event that I most look forward to each year. It is an unparalleled gathering of amazing individuals in the IoT industry. Each year I leave the conference recharged and with new focus.

Moddable is proud to have a place in this event. And our role will only continue to grow, as I sincerely believe that we are uniquely positioned to solve some of the most vexing problems that confront our industry.