AUSTIN, Texas The reality of a unmanned air vehicle based on a Lego kit was used by the editor-in-chief of Wired magazine to illustrate the democratization of technology, a phenomenon described in his book "The Long Tail".
Chris Anderson spoke at last week's NI Week conference, admitting that his UAV project paled by comparison to 10-year-old Samuel Majors, who used the LabView graphical programming language to develop a train control system.
Undeterred, Anderson explained the fundamental principle of the long tail and the impact it is having on software and hardware design. The long tail principle states that the falling cost of production, distribution and storage of products is allowing producers and retailers to cater to narrower market niches. This in turn increases the aggregate value of those niches and that that value will soon equal the aggregate value of mainstream products.
"Instead of a small number of products for millions, it's a case of millions of products for a small number" of people, he said. "The monolithic software model hasn't addressed this. That's what small companies and individuals are for: We're in the era of 'do-it-yourself'." Anderson also predicted that era of open-source hardware is fast approaching.
The implications were demonstrated through a UAV project Anderson developed along with his 8-year-old son. Using a Lego Mindstorms kit as the processing and control foundation, he added a gyroscope, infrared vision for stability, GPS capability, a cellphone-based coordinates input scheme to guide the model and a basic imaging system to conduct "reconnaisance" at the destination. The data was then sent back over the same 3G network the cellphone communications system used.
To prove feasibility, he took aerial shots of Google Inc. headquarters in Mountain View, Calif., to a resolution of 2 cm, disproving the claim that "Google" was painted at the bottom of one of the company's outdoor swimming pools.
The long tail demonstration required $1,000 worth of equipment compared with the multimillion-dollar price tag for military UAVs, which can climb to over $129 million depending on functionality. "We can now democratize UAVs. The [Federal Aviation Authority] just wasn't prepared for this. They have rules governing military and commercial use," he said, but have no rules for regulating private citizens. "You just can't predict what people are going to want."
That's one of the beauties of the long tail: The masses get to innovatecheaply.