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One Dollar Board: interview with the creator of the US$1 Arduino Compatible

This ATtiny85-based board has an ambitious goal: help bringing electronics and programming to all classrooms.

The One Dollar Board is a credit card sized prototyping board, currently offered via crowdfunding, and that has an ambitious goal for an open hardware project: to be part of the paradigm shift which will allow, in the next 15 years, every school in the developing world to have classes of electronics and programming in their curriculum, using similar devices, which can be supplied by any company interested.

The short-term goals are no less daring, and include being able to get – via crowdfunding -, in the next 2 months, the $50,000 needed for the initial steps of the project, including the necessary infrastructure, content, servers, etc., an official ID USB (to enable automatic configuration on current operating systems) and, of course, to deliver the first 50,000 boards to the first early adopters.

This proposed product is the first of a series of boards already planned, and is presented with an interesting description: “the cheapest ATtiny85-based development board in the world”.

Its crowdfunding campaign clarifies some practical aspects (the price is $1, shipping starts in October), and also the goal: a revolution in education, promoting Programming to be a topic on par with Math and Geography in schools.

Claudio Olmedo, the initial proponent of the project, granted me an interview yesterday. He's brazilian, so I published the full interview, in portuguese, on BR-Arduino.org, and what follows is a condensed (Reader's Digest-style) translation of our conversation, which touched on topics like the One Dollar Board itself, other models that are already in planning and design, technical aspects such as the bootloader and what it means to have a USB official ID, and the relationship between entrepreneurship and his Open Hardware attitude.

For Claudio, the final goal is to bring millions of new integrants to the maker and DIY electronics community, and in the following interview he makes that very clear.

Who are the members of the One Dollar Board initiative? Is there any corporate partner?

We are a company of 3: me (Claudio Olmedo), CEO, an activist of the Open Source Hardware and Maker movements; Marcus Vinicius Salarini, managing partner; and Paul Houang, Chinese/HK investor.

In addition, there are over 72 volunteers, distributed in several teams, among them: video, Front End, Back End, PCB, Bootloader, Audio, Marketing, public relations ... The teams are organized as follows: they cannot exceed 4 people. There is 1 coordinator per team. They're all volunteers working for the cause, without financial retribution.

We are partners with a Chinese company for manufacturing, we have equity participation.

A volunteer project born with clear governance definitions, that's a rare thing, congratulations!

Yes. Someone has to get out of the group to another person get in. And it has to be formally expressed, via email. The entire project is open source, so the repository remains available to the next member to enter and be able to continue. There is a General Coordinator in charge of managing all this.

Since the beginning of the project we had volunteers, but we didn't have this system at first. We have been testing many alternatives, because there are a lot of people who register to volunteer, but tend to disappear when the execution time arrives.

I'm well aware of this phenomenon. What needs to happen for you to consider that the result was worth the effort? What is the timeframe that you consider for this?

We have a goal for 2030: that in all schools in developing countries, there will be a board similar to the ones we're doing, so that there is a class of programming and electronics. For example, a teacher will explain how to light and blink the LED, then will show how to control an H-Bridge, etc. As you and I both know, that changes the lives of children.

The project is completely open source, so our goal is to enable large volume purchasing, in which an national organ responsible for school curricula publishes a notice of specifications, and any interested company might be able to manufacture and deliver. Everything we do has a reason.

Strategists!

What really matters is the educational platform and the ecosystem. Continuing with the project, we will recruit volunteers around the world to teach. Right now our goal is to reach people like you and me, who already understand the paradigm shift caused when a child starts blinking an LED, and makes a little robot soon after. We need to reach the maker community and then continue the revolution.

How did the idea of the One Dollar Board came to be?

In my experience as a lecturer and promoter of Open Source Hardware, our main problem is that, unlike what happens in software activism, where the developers share the link to the repository or some download offer, in hardware we can't do that.

It all started when in 2015 I was giving a lecture on Campus Party São Paulo (CPBR8). I have a store that sells Arduino, and asked the sales manager to give me some of them to draw on the lecture. She said: "Claudio, the thing is, you've already dropped $3000 on this kind of gifts, we're not going to be able to go on like this, otherwise you'll be out of business".

So I went to the event with her words on my mind. So at Campus Party, where everyone get their brains in high speed mode, you know, the idea came up. I asked a guy do the initial design, I asked him: "man how much will you charge?" And he said: "charge, don't be a fool, this is very simple, it's going to be voluntary."

There we got the first volunteer. And the guy who was next him, who won the event's award for Internet of Things (from Intel) that year, said: "man, that changes the world."

The only thing I wanted was to replace the $ 3000 (mentioned by my sales manager) for 3000 boards, which would reach 3000 people. But hearing what the guy said, I agreed, that really changes the world.

Especially when he told me that he gives electronics lectures for schoolchildren and that, in classes of 50, nobody gets to take a board home to practice. He brings some 5 boards, but after school he has to take them back. With the One Dollar Board, he will have 50 boards to donate to the classes, because US$ 50 dollars is a sponsorship level he can get in any local business.

I've donated some Arduino boards to a lab in a brazilian public school, it really feels rewarding.

So, you understand.

In the last 2 days there was much positive news about your project in the international online media. What was the best surprise?

That we appeared on them. We expected to be visible only in the crowfounding site, maybe at best get donations to sponsor posts on Facebook, and ask people to share. We weren't thinking about media coverage. As the board is very simple, we thought these sites wouldn't pay attention at all – despite it being the cheapest ATtiny85 development board of the world. Like something you would buy for a little project of a tiny robot, or connect an ESP8266 and use it, since the board is inexpensive, and already comes with terminals and expansions.

But there's also some negative reactions, people that seems to be against it...

I don't think they understand the project. We are looking for a way to explain it better, that it's not meant to people like us (I include myself), it's for the initiation of people who have never known what it means to make a LED blink.

We want to bring that experience to millions of people worldwide. Of course, after you make the LED blink, put an H-bridge in it, there will come a time when you'll want to buy an Uno, Mega, an Edison board. But then you will already be in this world, and that is the purpose of the project. So we hope that the sale of the Arduino Uno, and others, will grow too.

Do you believe that it can replicate the Raspberry Pi effect, in which a device was created for use in the classroom but became popular because it also aroused the interest of the geek community at large?

Yes. So at this stage of the revolution we are the ones who are going to buy it, and try to convince others that this is a nice thing.

As an experiment I tell you: talk to your friend: "dude, this Arduino is the future, program it", and he'll tell you this is for engineers only. You show him the link to buy one, but at $21 he'll tell you it's too expensive, then you'll show him an Aliexpress link, but he still won't be moved. But if the board costs a dollar, you'll buy several yourself.

What advantages you would point, considering the intended use, for the One Dollar Board when compared to products such as ESP-01, Digispark, Trinket or STM*?

We've already got people working in the next versions, using the STM and the ESP8266. The thing is that we will need a budget of $ 85,000 to create the basic platform, so we decided to launch the version 1.

You mean, the crowdfunded $50,000 are not to pay the cost of the first batch of boards, but to put the project infrastructure in place?

What we show in the campaign video is the Beta3 board, and what the volunteers are preparing is the Beta4. We wanted to see the reaction of the community, launching an MVP (Minimal Viable Product), as Dropbox did.

What will be available on those 2 web addresses on host achestnut.org ("/1" and "/2") mentioned in the text printed on the board?

That URL will not be used, we chose another, easier to remember and to type. We ran tests, and found that achestnut had some problems, especially for children, so from now on there will be another.

The "/1" step, as printed on the Beta3 board, was the downloading of the driver. At the time we started, you had to install a driver, but now it's no longer necessary, because we will have a USB ID, which will be recognized without driver installation.

Now we replaced the "/1" step with a basic manual, like those that come with appliances: an easy-to-use guide. Imagine that you have no electronics experience, and someone gives you an One Dollar Board, we want you to have a unique experience, and it includes not needing to search how to make the LED blink. After that, when you get to step 8, you'll find out resources for studying.

To be able to connect the board to your computer's USB port, it is necessary to break out the spaces in which steps 1 and 2 are written, so the user will have to check them out before making the first connection.

The "/2" step is downloading the IDE.

Is it the stock Arduino IDE without modifications, or other?

Without modification.

Do you need to download one of those board configuration files, or one of the default IDE settings works with the One Dollar Board?

You don't have to. The uploading system is done as if it were writing a bootloader. We didn't invent this, an Adafruit Board does that. But it costs $ 9.90, and it focuses on wearable applications.

So the firmware to be transferred to the board will be sent as if it was a bootloader, and so it is not necessary to have a bootloader running on board to receive it?

That's right.

The important thing is the USB ID, which costs $ 5000, which we need to raise in the campaign to pay. Having a USB ID, Windows, Linux and Mac operating systems will recognize the usb.org handle. When you plug something, and your PC says that the CDROM is not recognized, it lacks the driver, but the PC already knows it's the CDROM X, because the USB ID is signed – if it wasn't, it would appear as unrecognized hardware. In Windows, you would have to restart the computer in an unprotected mode to use the unsigned board. So, for each model we're going to have to buy a USB id.

The same explanation applies also to Linux and Mac?

Yes. On Linux, as always, we have more freedom.

Earlier we talked a little bit about entrepreneurship, and you described yourself as an entrepreneur. Can you talk a little more about this aspect of your profile?

My dream is that Brazil ceases to be a commodity-producing country. In the region where I live, west of the state of Paraná, there's an enormous potential. So the first place where I started the evangelization of Open Source Hardware worked very well: the UTFPR university in Medianeira. You should see what comes out of there, it's all good.

But they do not turn their research into products, everything is an university assignment or project that stays only there. So I always tell the guys: show it to the world, do it in English, go find investors. But nothing comes out of it.

So I decided to launch the One Dollar Board in this way as well, to show these students what is possible, and inspire them to do the same.

This seems very interesting. Have you been getting support for this initiative?

Yes, it's been fantastic. For example, I received an email from Amazon, saying they will help with the cloud server ... This will cut $ 9600 on expenses, on average, in addition to giving more credibility to the project.

And every time the project shows up, more people talks about it, we receive their feedback, and the awareness increases. The more people talk, the more people come there to see what it's about. The world is full of information, any action generates a reaction, maybe when some feedback seems negative it may end up being positive.

Thanks for the interview and good luck with the One Dollar Board!