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FlowIO Platform

Miniature pneumatics toolkit for control & sensing of Soft Robots and Programmable Materials.

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Our mission is to make soft robotics prototyping and innovation easily accessible to everyone.

 

About

FlowIO, along with this website, is an ongoing research project at MIT Media Lab led by Ali Shtarbanov, who is a PhD student and researcher in the Responsive Environments group. Learn more by visiting the About page.

 

Motivation

I believe that access to creative opportunities should be a human right and not a privilege reserved for only those who have the means to afford the tools, resources, and education needed for technological innovation. Some of the most transformative inventions and breakthroughs the world needs may never materialize because the people who may one day make those breakthroughs,  may never get the opportunity to explore a path that would lead them towards transformative ideas. The world today needs more than ever ideas and innovation to solve some of the greatest challenges we've ever faced on a global scale. And while talent is everywhere, opportunity is not.  

My overarching mission is to make technological creativity, innovation, and exploration easier and more accessible to people from all backgrounds through the development of novel enabling platform technologies that focus on emerging fields. I developed FlowIO to enable rapid prototyping opportunities in soft robotics and programmable materials, and to make these fields more accessible to researchers, engineers, makers, artists, and students. Learn more about FlowIO by watching the video above and by visiting the About page. 

To start closing the opportunity gap for access to creative tools, FlowIO is being released under a novel hardware distribution model that takes the philosophy of open-source hardware and goes even one step further. Not only are all the design files and tutorials for making FlowIO provided completely free, but I am also testing a new distribution model that would allow me to provide the actual physical hardware free of charge as well. I call this model Creative Commons Hardware - Hardware for creative applications that belongs to the public commons and abides by terms similar to those of the creative commons license.

Creative Commons Hardware

Under this model, the hardware is supported by donations and other contributions, and it is freely loaned to approved users in exchange for contributing something that would help the project grow and evolve. The contribution can be of any form including hardware & software development, tutorial writing, documentation preparation, YouTube video creation, helping with fundraising, design, assembly, or offering any other kind of help. Once a user finishes using the platform or their loan period expires, that hardware unit now becomes available for lending again. If they still need the device, the user can request an extension - which will be granted only if they have already made some contribution. Otherwise, they are expected to return the device or to directly pass it on freely to another approved user from the waitlist. 

In essence, the CCH model extends the definition of a transaction to allow not just for monetary contribution but any kind of contribution that would be helpful for the project's future and the community as depicted in the figure below.

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With this approach, the project becomes community-driven. And every time a device is borrowed this will result in a new contribution that makes the project and this website better. In this way the entire community benefits. Even the person making the contribution directly benefits from their own contribution, because now they too are a member of the user community. This model can also be completely decentralized, because existing users can choose for themselves whom to loan their device to; and every community member has an incentive to loan a device only to those users who would help in making the project better.

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The advantages and motivations of this approach, especially for more expensive hardware platforms like FlowIO, are many. First, the hardware is equally accessible for everyone, and not just to those who can afford it. Second, resources will not be wasted because new devices would be made only if the ones in existence are all being used by people and if there aren't enough to go around. Third, it ensures maximum utilization of the device, because users are expected to share the hardware with others once they are done using it. And finally, because everyone can be involved in the development of the hardware and software, adding new features and making improvements to existing ones does not have to rely on the availability and skills of just a few individuals. 

The funding for any additional devices will come from donations of either parts or money. And if no donations are received, the number of devices in existence will not be increasing, but existing ones will still remain in circulation in the public sphere until they depreciate.

Building a Community

I want FlowIO to evolve as a community-driven effort, where volunteer contributors and users can choose how the hardware, software, and this website should evolve in order to best serve your needs.

Additionally, this website will serve as the online community platform for FlowIO, and people will also be able to post their own soft robotics projects, ideas, suggestions, designs for new modules, and new tools for soft programmable materials. This website will thus allow people to gain visibility and exposure for their work, which will then inspire more makers, artists, and students to unleash their creativity in soft robotics and programmable materials.

If you have any feedback, questions, or suggestions,  you are encouraged to post them on the forums. To help advance this mission you can contribute to this the project in numerous ways by helping with development, content creation, application scenarios, community engagement, providing feedback, and in a variety of other ways! Click the buttons below to learn more about how you can be part of this cause.

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Ali Shtarbanov. 2021. FlowIO Development Platform – the Pneumatic “Raspberry Pi” for Soft Robotics. In CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (CHI ’21 Extended Abstracts), May 08–13, 2021, Yokohama, Japan. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 6 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3411763.3451513

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