Fast Company

We Build the Parts, You Build the Product

The creator of Zoybar, an open-source hardware platform that lets anyone invent their own instrument, talks about "decentralized innovation."

Ziv Bar IlanThese days, open-source hardware is the rage among venture capitalists, technologists and hackers: The idea is that you provide a kit of modular parts, which anyone can then adapt to whatever need they like. One such project is Zoybar, which sells kits online that can be made into instruments. The inventor of the kit, and the founder of the community, is Israeli designer Ziv Bar Ilan. He calls the model "decentralized innovation," and he estimates that within a few years Zoybar's community will have invented hundreds of new, utterly unique instruments. It's not as pie-in-the-sky as it sounds: There are already dozens of inventions, from a t-shirt that's also a toy piano, to a guitar with a touchscreen interface and a built-in effects pedal. We sent Bar Ilan a half-dozen questions about his vision for product innovation, and here are his answers:

1. Why do you think there's so much interest in creating new musical instruments? What needs are being met, which aren't served by what's out there now?
Identity and self image once consisted of the brands you owned. We've now evolved. Self expression and recognition are the most common need on almost every social web platform. Creative people like musicians need creative tools to make their fantasy instruments. It's not just about image and performance, it's about creating their own unique sound and voice. Until now it was only possible on the virtual world.

The results of our modular hardware kits are interchangeable mashup instruments. We respect convention instruments, but experimenting with them is expensive and frustrating. The conversation over Zoybar should not be on how close it is to the original, but rather on how far it could go and evolve from it.

zoybar parts

2. Product design often works best when it's guided by a single vision. What advantages do you think open-source hardware design has, over that model of design?
I tend to avoid the use of the term open-source hardware since it hasn't been settled yet. I focus on the innovation model and its benefits. Open-hardware architecture is just one aspect of the concept. Decentralized innovation combines a collective vision with independent initiative. Anyone can join and contribute. Centralized R&D labs however will always be limited by their selective group of people and their restricted environments.

Every independent developer can modify, hack and attach third party components according to his unique vision. Zoybar's open hardware does most of the heavy lifting and shortens the development process. Independent developers can now focus entirely on the development of new features that would be relevant to the whole Zoybar community. Users can then interact and learn from the collective intelligence by sharing their ideas and models on the Zoybar community Web site. This open process lowers the uncertainties of demand and usability of every new feature with real-time feedback. It provides support and incentives for actual needs rather than dictating unwanted products.

3. What kind of people frequent the Zoybar community?
We're popular among radical groups of creative people. Entrepreneurs, musicians, designers, programmers, hardware hackers, engineers and bloggers are just a few. They come from all continents, ages and backgrounds. The Web site functions as a global think tank. Zoybar's community can already be considered as one of the largest and diverse R&D labs in the field of music instruments.

4. Is Zoybar a viable business, or is it simply a hang-out for dedicated hobbyists?
Open source softwares introduced new business models that are based on services of programmers and customizations. Think of Zoybar as a hardware version that might be similar to the Firefox browser concept or the Wikipedia concept with hardware add-ons and user-made applications. We distribute our kits globally without over production and minimum waste in a low cost "just in time" production model. In the near future we plan to expand the collaborative spirit with these kinds of manufacturers and ventures. Overall we believe that this release of creativity has the potential to create new ventures that aren't foreseen right now by conventional models.

5. What can Zoybar do that a regular product design company can't?
When thinking of R&D labs we tend to imagine a selective group of creative people in restricted unique environments. Ironically most of these labs are actually limited by their own subsidized environment. The lab's obligation to their sponsors and the profit expectations they have to fulfill makes it almost impossible to invest time and resources in more than one or two ventures at a time. The uncertainty leads to conservative approaches. Their creative process is mostly a linear evolution of improving the existing products. But there will always be more smart people outside any company than within them.

6. Conversely, what can a regular product design company do that Zoybar can't?
Straight comparisons set an atmosphere for a conflict. I don't think this is the case. The decentralized approach is best for leisure activities or where there is a high public interest and involvement. Conventional centralized design is still highly productive when the products don't have a collaborative potential. Most of our daily appliances need to do their specific function in a direct and simple manner.

*Responses edited for length and clarity

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