November 07, 2011, 8:00 AM — Open source is about more than code: it's about unlocking all possibilities. Here are four unusual projects made possible by open source.
Years ago I hung out with a friend who had a prosthetic hand. It was a stiff plastic hand, like a store mannequin hand, that could open and close in a simple grip. It didn't have much functionality, but it had a bit of fun factor -- my friend liked to remove it to scratch his back. In public, of course, with a freaked-out audience. Americans seem to have a hard time looking at these sorts of things.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Prosthetics have advanced since those days, especially in cost. It's amazing how labeling an item as medical equipment makes it cost 10 to 100 times more, even ordinary parts like nuts, bolts, batteries, and power supplies. A prosthetic limb starts at five figures, and in these here kindly times good luck getting insurance to pay, because it's become a one-way flow -- we're supposed to pay our premiums without desiring to collect any benefits.
And so, once again, open source has made it possible for one person to step up and try to change an unsatisfactory state of affairs, and that person is Jon Kuniholm. Mr. Kuniholm is a war veteran who lost part of his right arm in Iraq. He was given an assortment of prosthetic arms to use, from an old-fashioned hook to a shiny new myoelectric arm. None of them were completely satisfactory. The fancy myoelectric arm was fragile and heavy, and had to be protected from moisture and dirt. The most popular upper-body prosthesis is the oldest, the body-powered hook. This is fastened to your torso with a harness that transfers movements, such as a shrug, to control the elbow, hook, or hand. Hook-type prostheses have been around for decades, and are rugged and relatively inexpensive, which is not to say they're cheap, just less costly than newer technologies.
Mr. Kuniholm is a biomedical engineer, and after leaving the Marines he returned to his job at Tackle Design, Inc., an industrial design and research company. He and his co-workers took the arms apart and studied them, and looked for ways to improve them. Then they founded The Open Prosthetics Project (OPP). The Open Prosthetics Project focuses on helping people with missing limbs. (If you have an interest in bringing open source to ears and eyes, the field is wide open.) OPP collects information and data, does design research, and freely shares plans, specifications, and information.
Building a good prosthetic foot or leg is moderately difficult. Building a hand that works anything like a human hand is incredibly difficult. But remember playing with Legos as a little kid? Legos are not just kid toys -- they are also articulated hand prototypes. (It looks like a Terminator hand.) Motors and batteries keep getting smaller and better, so someday this will be a reality.
You can learn more about Mr. Kuniholm in this interview and book excerpt on National Public Radio.