A student who had trouble getting up in the morning made her own fiendish alarm clock. Silencing it required touching a series of sensors in exactly the right order, a task certain to rouse her awake. A visitor to the lab, the actor Alan Alda, fabricated an accessory for his digital camera: a flash periscope that raises the bulb high enough that his subjects don't come out looking like red-eyed children of the damned.
Even when a fab lab can be shrunk to the size of a suitcase, most people will probably content themselves with what is offered at Wal-Mart, just as they do with what's on TV. Where the revolution seems likelier to find traction is in the developing world. The best parts of Gershenfeld's book describe his adventures setting up experimental fab labs in places like Ghana and India, encouraging locals to try making tools that are unavailable or unaffordable: portable solar collectors that can turn shafts and wheels, inexpensive electronic gauges farmers can use to measure the quality of their crops, giving them an edge when they haggle with the brokers.
All this may sound utopian, but it is hard not to be taken with Gershenfeld's enthusiasm. Today we have open-source software--all these free Unix and Linux programs streaming through the Net. Imagine a world with open-source hardware. Come up with a really great product, and you can share it with the world--to be hacked and modified by the people who actually use it, warrantied against obsolescence by the irrepressible nature of human ingenuity.
This article was originally published with the title A Customer Base of One.