The future is open-source?

This image was created by a Sixth Form student at OGC - October 2012

Interactive Whiteboard Application that creates music whilst drawing to engage students through shape, colour and music – built-in “Processing”

I guess I’ve always been a subscriber to Micro$, perhaps it’s because in the corporate roles I’ve enjoyed, the application suite used everyday in the office always bore the logo of the worlds largest software maker from Redmond, Washington.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m no hater but recently I’ve had cause to re-evaluate my feelings in favour of open source software.

On a perfect warm day this summer, the unthinkable, for me at least,  happened when the GPU in my laptop suddenly gave up the ghost and in the process I lost some of the code I had been working on.  Irritated by the loss, the expense of replacement and how not having computer access would kill off my plans for the summer, I switched on an unloved and obsolete machine that hadn’t been powered up for four years.  It’s perhaps a bloke thing, or the possibility that I exhibit some traits of geek but in desperation for computer access it was all I had, so I dabbled with a Linux live CD and after a test drive took a leap of faith. Sure it doesn’t run Microsoft’s latest operating systems but it turned a machine I had considered junking into something useful at no cost.

Equipped with no working knowledge of Linux, I picked up a magazine and flicking through the first few pages I scanned an article outlining why the UK government is pushing the idea that in the current economic climate, there is no argument for not considering open-source IT solutions, an area where the UK lags badly behind our european neighbours.

The messages continued to be subliminal, on a damp day in the New Forest, I read an article in “computer arts” 205, which profiled Hellicar & Lewis, a London-based creative duo developing an interactive application for individuals with autism called “Somantics“, my interest stems from “Somantics” being one of the software applications we have considered for use with our students.  The article emphasised how they embrace open-source coding and their opinion that open sourcing some of their projects had extended them beyond the original project scope.

Reading this article, caused a shift in thought, a lot of designers and coders generously give away their source code, encouraging creativity and the sharing of ideas.  My experience in a previous role, involved teams delivering projects to clients, which almost without exception tried to discourage opening projects up beyond the original scope.  It wasn’t always possible, it certainly isn’t desirable, especially in areas of software development which benefits from a more modular, collaborative approach, and I don’t see how it can be applied to open-source software, where the user base drives development.  I would even argue that an open approach encourages creative solutions and effectiveness.

I finally installed one of the coding languages I had been using, on my new “make do and mend machine”.  I actually had the message by then, Processing, openFrameworks, Code::Blocks and Eclipse software are all open-source, in fact the entire system was running only open-source software, shaped by the community that uses it and which ultimately feeds back into the design and redistribution.

There exists a wealth of open-source solutions rivalling the best efforts from the big software suppliers, from Linux allowing my repurposing an old PC, to Processing and openFrameworks for coding, as well as free software for manipulating photographs or creating artwork.  If you have stayed with this post until this point, you might have realised that even the platform this is published on, is open-source.  A lot of what I do working creatively with IT couldn’t be achieved without open-source software or the sharing of ideas in order to engage students with learning disabilities in creative applications.

Welcome to this first blog post, don’t be shy, say hi, leave a comment, introduce yourself and please share some of your experiences with your use of interactive software, whether it is open-source or not, because in future posts I hope some of the ideas we have trialled will be of interest, encouraging you to try them and share your results with us.  It isn’t difficult to engage students and begin exploring interactivity using natural interfaces such as the Kinect, or to begin coding in Processing to make some simple interactive applications, capable of producing the type of image shown in this post and the good news is, it needn’t cost you anything but the desire to try it out and a little time.

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