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We’re Designing Embedded Systems All Wrong

One of my primary projects this summer is to research embedded hardware design processes, toy design processes, and to develop a framework for creating embedded, interconnected toys that addresses both practical design and ethical considerations. This comes out of a need I’ve identified through co-designing and developing several projects in the field (Thotcon 0xA, Thotcon 0x9, Thotcon 0x8, Big Data Outbreak, for instance). Namely, we have processes for creating software and processes for creating hardware, but when you’re looking to do both, combined and at scale, there’s not a lot of literature out there on how to proceed.

That’s not to say the literature doesn’t exist. The body of knowledge on the topic of embedded systems design can be found, for instance, but is fairly sparse and mostly uses an adapted version of agile (typically XP). Additionally, most of the research looks at the design of objects from a human-centered perspective, which has its own limitations when we’re talking about designed objects (not necessarily humans) interacting with other objects.

Suffice to say, I find most of these approaches to be lacking. My experience developing for embedded systems has led me to the following conclusions:

1) Applying software development processes to hardware and firmware development is insufficient. The feedback loop with software is much tighter and easier to control than with embedded systems. With embedded systems, debugging contains both a physical and digital element. Additionally, the loop between writing code and testing code is dramatically different when, ultimately, that code must move to a separate platform for testing. I suspect there may be some connection points here between six sigma and agile processes.

2) Thinking about the design of ubiquitous systems from a human-centered perspective is totally flawed, and yet, most of the literature out there makes this mistake. It seems to me that in order to design objects at scale that work together, we need to move beyond the human, which is just one component. How do those objects work with each other? How do they work with the rest of the world? This line of thinking quickly veers into the realm of object-oriented ontology (OOO).

3) There are important ethical considerations to be addressed when we begin to put embedded, interconnected systems into the wild at scale. By their nature, these systems add a layer of hidden qualities to the physical world by embedding computer algorithms and data stores into the world. Of course, objects already have many hidden qualities, but embedded systems allow those qualities to (theoretically) be controlled by others invisibly. As my advisor at DePaul says, an embedded system represents a snapshot of a particular ontology at a particular point in time, with the value judgements of that snapshot being encoded into the world. This line of thinking connects to what David Rose calls enchanted objects.

As part of this summer project, I’ll be re-designing the Thotcon 0xA badge to make it more of a consumable product — this will be my case study. I’ve also been assembling current literature on embedded design, OOO as applied to design, and ethical considerations of developing toys and hardware systems. And so, to close this post out, here are a few whitepapers and books that I’ve found useful (The Limits of HCD, by the way, is a “shots fired” kind of piece and I love it):

  • Enchanted Objects: Innovation, Design, and the Future Of Technology
    David Rose – Scribner – 2015
  • Object-oriented Ontology: a New Theory Of Everything
    Graham Harman – Pelican, an Imprint Of Penguin Books – 2018
  • Educating the New Makers: Cross-disciplinary Creativity
    Mark Gross and Ellen Yi-Luen Do – Leonardo – 2009
  • Piloting Lean-agile Hardware Development
    Maarit Laanti – Proceedings Of the Scientific Workshop Proceedings Of Xp2016 on – Xp ’16 Workshops – 2016
  • The Limits Of HCD
    Vanessa Thomas-Christian Remy-Oliver Bates – Proceedings Of the 2017 Workshop on Computing Within Limits – Limits ’17 – 2017

Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

The Educational Makerspaces Interview Series

I recently completed a series of four podcast interviews with folks from higher ed, K-12, and libraries who all run makerspaces and are involved in the educational advancement of making. You can check out all four episodes on This Should Work*, but here they are in sequence:

Aaron Hoover, Olin College

Terry Steinbach and Betty Shanahan, DePaul University

Jeff Solin, Lane Tech

Sasha Neri, Harold Washington Library


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

SPIME (I’m now assembling PCBs)

Astute Thotcon badge observers may have noticed a “Made with SPIME” imprint on the back of this year’s badge. This wasn’t just a hint to a puzzle, but to a new project that my creative partner Rudy Ristich and I have been working on. The name SPIME is inspired by Bruce Sterling’s moniker for objects that contain more than their material qualities through attachments to information in “the cloud.”

For Rudy and I, SPIME is an endeavor that leads us into some exciting territory. While we’ve been developing conference badges for a while now, we’ve never actually gotten as close to the production of them as we’d like. After the board is initially designed and we’ve worked with the fabrication and assembly folks to get them built, the work is handed off and presto, a few weeks later, our objects are complete.

So last year, in the never-ending quest to get closer to the point of creation, we decided to buy an SMT (surface-mount technology) line so that we could begin assembling small batch runs of boards for our work and the work of our friends. Thus, SPIME was born.

Our goal is to help folks relatively new to the PCB development process get their boards into production as painlessly as possible. This ranges from people who also create their own conference badges to companies and individuals prototyping or putting together small runs of product.

At the very least, this will be an interesting experiment that allows us to help a few friends out and to scratch an itch that we both have. But who knows? If you’ve got a project that could use some help and fits the bill, check out our website and send us an assembly request.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

New Episode of TSW* with Jeff Solin of Lane Tech!

Jeff Solin is an educator, makerspace administrator, and all around good-guy at Lane Tech College Prep High School in Chicago. This is the third part in This Should Work’s* series on educational makerspaces, and I’m really grateful that Jeff joined the podcast to talk about the way he thinks about educating students in makerspaces and fostering a supportive educational makerspace environment.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Against Smart Cities and Toasters

“That is, the enterprises enumerated here are to a surprisingly great degree responsible for producing both the technical systems on which the smart city is founded and the rhetoric that binds them together in a conceptual whole.”

Adam Greenfield, Against the Smart City

Greenfield makes an important point here. Who’s driving smart city applications and, more broadly speaking, IOT ones? Are things being built based on customer demand, or based on trying to create demand where none exists.

This reminds me of the story of the toaster’s creation, as told in Thwaites’ The Toaster Project, where he outlines its development as a problem driven by power companies who could not, at the turn of the 20th century, fluctuate their power output based on demand. As told by Thwaites:

“… to meet morning and evening demand, suppliers had to continue generating at peak level output throughout the day [..] thus a way to increase demand outside of peak hours was needed.” He goes on to say, “If you can’t, or don’t wish to, cut back on production, then try to manufacture demand — the story of the twentieth century?”

And, thus, the humble toaster was born. Not to fill a consumer need, but to generate demand where none existed. Next up: smart cities.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Thoton 0xA Badge Workshop Pictures

Big thanks to Jeff Carrion, DePaul University photographer pro, for coming out to Thotcon 0xA and taking these great pictures of our workshop. Keep your eyes out for an upcoming article on our collaboration with Thotcon!


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

DePaul Student? Apply to work at the IRL and IIRL

We’re hiring for all positions at the IRL and IRL2 on (respectively) the Loop and Lincoln Park campuses. If you’re a DePaul University student who has interest in exploring making and tinkering, and sharing that joy with others, check out our hiring page here.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

This Should Work Episode 18 – Aaron Hoover

Episode 18 kicks off a series of interviews I’ve conducted/am conducting around educational makerspaces. The series includes conversations with people from higher ed, K-12, libraries, and other institutions, and is geared toward providing a snapshot into how leaders in the field view their work, challenges, and opportunities that makerspaces bring to education.

Aaron Hoover is an Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Olin College and one of the founders of the Higher Education Makerspaces Initiative and the International Symposium on Academic Makerspaces. In this episode, Aaron and I discuss the state of maker education in higher education including the challenges and opportunities that educators face in this context. This interview is the first part in a series of interviews about makerspaces in education.


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Southland Makerfest Timelapse

Thanks to Ron Angle, from Angle Drone Solutions, for taking this video from our event last weekend!


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus

Southland Makerfest in the news

Great write-up about our event was in the Chicago Tribune a little bit ago. Check it out!


Jay Margalus is on Twitter at @jaymargalus