Arduino from Dadone or Arduino from Pombia, known as Arduino from Ivrea, was the King of Italy from 1002 to 1014. The Romantic culture made his figure popular, because they saw in him a precocious representative of the struggle for Italy to get out from under foreign domination.
Digital culture gave him a sort of added international popularity, that is since when Massimo Banzi, former lecturer at the former Design Institute in Ivrea, current lecturer at NABA in Milan, as well as co-founder of the consultancy Tinker.it!, decided to use Arduino (in those days, it was no more than the name of the snack bar at the Institute) to name his new hardware product, destined (at least for now) to revolutionise the world of design, art and digital creativity in general. And somehow to represent one of the extremely rare examples in which Italian creativity and the scientific understanding behind it succeeded in getting out from under the domination of international hardware and software production.
Well, I have had this opening ready for a long time, some months to be precise, since when I tried for the first time to contact Massimo Banzi for an interview. I wanted to talk about his professional activity and his creature Arduino, an open-source electronic platform based on a hardware board and a software that can interface a computer with an object/sensor. But after a brave chase in the fog of digital seas, during which I didn’t listen to whom warned me against the famous elusiveness of the character and while I was looking through my database of knowledge to try and stimulate his intellect with innovative questions, well, right when I wasn’t expecting it anymore, I received an answer to my questions and reading about Banzi’s engagements around the world, I cannot do without thanking him for his availability.
But before you read the interview, here is a final remark: very few hardware and software applications in the last few years had the ability to impose themselves as real standards, used in schools, by creatives and artists. Especially if we take into consideration what is outside the world of the great IT companies. If I had to think about it, and remaining within the “do it yourself” sphere, I could only mention Processing by Casey Reas and Ben Fry, Mark Coniglio’s Isadora, Open Frameworks by Theodore Watson and Zach Lieberman as long as software is concerned and Massimo Banzi’s magic board for hardware.
Arduino is the hardware/software object used by all those who, in the ambit of interaction design or design in general, need to connect the machine (and the audiovisual fluxes inside it) to the physical object, handling signals coming from different kinds of sensors, from lights, sound generators, various networks, telephone companies and interface themselves easily with almost all existing audiovisual managing programmes. Around Arduino quickly grew a community of users, which rely on similar communities, such as the same Processing, and makes the most of the dissemination potentiality of the net. Arduino’s creator was brought around the world to visit the main media centres interested in proposing workshops and presentations. A real earthquake in the world of design, whose effects aren’t completely perceptible yet. Even because of the fact that the Arduino project is constantly evolving, and we still don’t know what else it could do in the future .
Marco Mancuso: Since some time now, Arduino became one of the internationally most used hardware and software tools for the interaction between computers, software, multimedia materials and physical objects. I haven’t wanted to interview you before, at the time Arduino was released and, as all innovations, was considered a real innovation in the world of creativity and digital art, but I would like you to give a picture of the present situation. How is Arduino experience proceeding; what is the feedback at national and international level; how has Arduino entered, according to you, the world of digital art; how is it perceived by the specialists?
Massimo Banzi: Arduino is spreading quite quickly thanks also to magazines like Make and to the fact that it is used by now in design schools all over the world. We are still exploring the world of open-source hardware, which is quite a virgin field. The examples of open-source hardware are quite rare and definitely not widespread among the mass.
Arduino was conceived as a tool for designers and, in the end, it became a more general tool for all those interested in “do it yourself” technology, I think, because of low costs and (relative) easiness of use. The field was dominated by engineers who often created complex user interfaces and difficult to understand devices, in the name of the concept of technology as an elitist field, where you can enter just if you are a “wizard” of this religion. If you look at computer evolution, as a matter of fact even my mum is now able to go on the internet and use the computer, while 60 years ago you needed half a palace and a team of engineers in white coats just to switch it on. The same happens with modern technologies, when you realise that, in order to modify the products you use, you don’t need 5 years of university.
The national feedback is quite negative, that is a kind way of saying that virtually no one knows us. But for how Italy works, it is possibly better this way.
Marco Mancuso: Even if your professional experience included being consultant at Labour Party BT, MCI WorldCom, SmithKlineBeecham, Storagetek, BSkyB, Matrix Incubator and boo.com, Arduino was born, also humanly, from your experience at the Interaction Design Institute in Ivrea. What did that experience leave in you; how does it actually materialise within your activity with Arduino and Tinker and, more in general, what is left at national and international level of that research and development centre?
Massimo Banzi: Ivrea generated many seeds that went around the world and created many little businesses, studies, ideas. Many students are now established designers in important companies such as IDEO, Panasonic, Canon, Microsoft and many more. If on one side, I have to thank some Telecom Italia for believing in this idea, on the other I’m sad that another Telecom Italia didn’t understand that there was in Italy an institute that could compete with MIT media lab and other international institutes. In the end, it was less expensive than other attempts to emulate the MIT, which never produces visible outcomes.
Being in Ivrea was very important for my work, because I could understand the needs of this new way of designing and the call for new tools to help designers in their work. Tinker.it is born with the aim to capitalise my personal experience, in Ivrea and with Arduino, but it has the broader target to look at the world of design interweaved with technology. We have created a company that uses the methodologies developed through Arduino and applies them to broader contexts, where there is the space to create even easier tools or to help companies apply methodology to favour innovation.
Marco Mancuso: What is for you the concept of “thinkering” and how much are you bound to the idea of “Do It Yourself”? I’m more and more convinced that it is necessary to provide the tools hardware, software or codes that enable to work for those who approach technology and computing for the first time and want a creative outcome; at least at institutes, schools and universities. Without them, all theory is connected to nothing. As programmer, software artist, entrepreneur, how much do you share this idea?
Massimo Banzi: There exist different methodologies to design or making innovation, some very theoretical and others much more practical. We believe in the ability to explore new concepts by means of the quick prototypisation of technological objects; we often start exploring without a definite target. The unconventional use of materials and technology and the fact that we let us be overtook by the events, allow spaces for innovation. Even though Italy is not exactly an innovation engine like USA or even UK , we still have produced numberless patents and ideas based on the use of new materials and pre-existing mechanisms. I believe that the methodologies that we use can help innovation in the technological field as well.
Marco Mancuso: You were often invited to held workshops and meetings at Mediamatic and other institutes that work with both technology (electronic and digital) and creativity, with an approach including hacking and design at the same time. What have received from this international experience and which possible developments for your activity originate from it?
Massimo Banzi: Since the 1 st of January up to today, I got on 36 airplanes. This means that, in order to do what I like, I have to travel a lot. In Europe , there are very experimenting places and I usually try and spend as much time as possible in those places.
Apart from Mediamatic in Amsterdam, there are Waag society and Steim doing an interesting work. In particular, I like to talk about a project I’m bound to by great affection: in Budapest , there is a centre called Kitchen Budapest, where young artists/designers are at work together with young engineers to create and prototype the most varied ideas. The centre was founded by the Hungarian Telekom with little money but with much love by Adam Somlai-Fisher, who is a very skilled architect (interviewed by you on the issue n°32 of Digimag in March 2008 http://www.digicult.it/digimag/article.asp?id=1098 ). In little more than a year, they have already “gemmated” a start-up and some of their projects have gained global visibility. I really believe in the light model of Kibu and their ability to explore with little money but much commitment.
It would be awesome if we could do something like this in Italy. There is much innovation based on ideas that don’t require very expensive technologies, which Italians are very good at making; it will be enough to have someone investing a little money and we could create. If some reader has got the money and wants to do it, please get in touch.
Marco Mancuso: In accordance with your international experience, and with your experience both in Ivrea and now at Naba, how can you judge the situation in Italy at production, project and education level? Which are the conditions allowing a better work and which are the potentials which our country is based on? Which are the criticisms that you have or the gaps that you think need to be bridged?
Massimo Banzi: Italy is a gerontocracy where, being 40, I am young. You understand how difficult it is to succeed in working openly on innovative things. The former Minister Siniscalco once said: “In Italy , he would have never become Bill Gates, since he wouldn’t have had the capital and he would have been arrested, since he started in a garage and he didn’t comply with the Law 626” . It is better to work out of Italy , waiting for Italian reporters to find you out while doing “cut and paste” from English websites, as they usually do
ut we are proud to say that Arduino is “made in Italy “. If you look at one of the most recent boards, you will see that we put in it a giant map of Italy and the fact that it is a made-in-Italy technological object is an important point. Our Chinese distributor told us that, although many clones exist, the fact that ours is the one “made in Italy ” makes it sell more.
Marco Mancuso: Without going into the details of the technical potentialities of Arduino, which is more an issue for interested developers, I would like to know which are the main potentials of the tool at the moment. I mean, Arduino was born to interact with sensors, physical objects and software such as Flash or Processing and it found many applications in the field of the so-called interaction design. More recently, he developed potentialities also with Bluetooth tools and consequently also with mobile technologies, not to mention the uses connected to location tools. Can you tell me about the latest developments and further ones, if there are?
Massimo Banzi: Arduino is after all a little computer with little power and high potentialities. It gives the possibility to build objects that can interact with the environment and create “intelligent” objects. It is already used by different companies to prototypise both design products and much more conventional ones. From the point of view of technology, it is quite elementary; its value consists in creating a mashup of pre-existing technologies and open-source, which are very difficult to learn if taken individually but when are put together make an easy and fascinating product. We’re creating different versions of Arduino, some on request of the users and others as the result of consultancy projects we do.
Arduino products are often the open-source version of boards or software that we made for clients of Tinker.it. For example, we are now working on the project of a museum of science in the United States and we are constructing a new family of products which further simplify Arduino. .
Marco Mancuso: How is Arduino connected with some similar development communities such as, and above all, Processing, from which Arduino’s software language comes? And with regard to this, following which needs Arduino’s open-source software was born, compared with the original hardware board?
Massimo Banzi: Arduino is extremely connected with Processing because it is somehow an extension of it. When we were in Ivrea, we discussed for long with Casey Reas, who was teaching there, on how to expand Processing into hardware applications. These questions resulted in a Master thesis that we supervised together (The Wiring project) and then in Arduino, which was born as a completely open version of the concepts developed with Wiring.
Processing was perfect for us: a software development environment with just 6 buttons, while a monster such as Eclipse had at least 60. Moreover, its programming language is known by a very widespread community, but made of quality people, and that is why we are very lucky to be in the right place at the right time. We have links with PureData abd as well and I have many contacts with the creators of VVV, with whom we will organise a workshop in London in October.
Marco Mancuso: How are you linked, practically and intellectually, to the world of open-source? Is it a philosophy that you share? From the top of your experience and frequenting in the commercial and hacking field, how do you see it possible to conjugate the activist philosophy of open-source, free software and creative hacking with the need to gain through your work, the selling of a product such as Arduino or of software such as Processing or others?
Massimo Banzi: I’ve always liked open-source as the extension of the mechanism of science, according to which everybody extends the work of others since it is shared with everybody. I’ve been using linux since 1993 and I’ve somehow always tried to support it, for example with donations or buying distributions. There is a lot to do in the world of open-source hardware, in order to understand which are the business models that work.
Besides this, there is a big problem of fundamentalism in open-source: there is a percentage of users with the reasonableness of a Taliban who believe that everything I do should always be open and usable by everybody with no restrictions. But someone should also pay me for what I do .
Marco Mancuso: Last question. Which are the artistic projects that you have noticed as the most effective, the most interesting to be developed, the most aesthetically beautiful, created by means of Arduino? Anything you would like to indicate?
Massimo Banzi: This is a difficult question. There are millions of Arduino’s boards circulating and it is very difficult to understand what is really made with Arduino, because very few people come and tell you. I would say, many projects of the ITP in New York , where there are 120 students constantly using Arduino: they are beautiful and interesting.